The fact that the New York Times assigned its investigation of October 7 sexual assault claims to Anat Schwartz, a non-journalist with anti-Palestinian beliefs and ties to the Israeli military, is an extreme reflection of the paper’s unflagging pro-Israel bias.

Pro-Palestinian protesters gather outside of the New York Times building to protest the newspaper’s coverage of Israel’s war on Gaza on December 11, 2023, in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

The New York Times may be the most prestigious daily newspaper in the English-speaking world. Its reporting has garnered 132 Pulitzer Prizes, starting with one the paper got in 1918 for its coverage of World War I. It racked up three more just last year.

At a time when it’s become increasingly common for news consumers to pride themselves not on reading or watching unbiased reporting but rather on frequenting sources on “both sides,” the Times can feel like a relic of a lost era, when the ideal of neutrality was still sacrosanct. The paper was historically nicknamed “The Gray Lady” for both its tradition of only printing in black-and-white — it didn’t start incorporating color images until the 1990s — and for a certain ethos of journalistic caution and stodginess.

As one of the reporters who collected a Pulitzer for the paper last year, Mona Chalabi, has pointed out, though, one of the areas where that reputation is hardest to square with reality is the Times’s coverage of Israel/Palestine. Just before Chalabi went to the Pulitzer ceremony in November, she posted a chart to her Instagram page that makes a devastating point.

Even as Palestinian deaths dwarf Israeli deaths — current estimates of the number of Israeli civilians killed on October 7 are in the hundreds, while tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians have been killed during Israel’s many months of brutal retaliation — the Times has consistently devoted more coverage to Israeli deaths. In fact, the chart shows, the disconnect actually increased at the very time that Palestinian deaths were skyrocketing.

More recently, the controversy over Times freelancer Anat Schwartz has revealed the ugly depths of that bias. Despite having no real journalistic experience, she was one of a tiny team of reporters assigned to cover one of the most sensitive and important stories the Times has taken on since Israel’s war on Gaza began: the allegations that Hamas systematically used sexual assault as a weapon of war during the October 7 attack. Key details of that story have been shown to be questionable since, and Schwartz has been shown to be about the furthest thing imaginable from a neutral journalist.

Before becoming a filmmaker — and, very suddenly last year, a freelance journalist for the New York Times — Schwartz served in the intelligence division of the Israeli Air Force. And her own views on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which are a matter of public record, veer into the genocidally racist.

Anat Schwartz and the New York Times

Schwartz’s byline appeared, along with those of her nephew Adam Sella and lead reporter Jeffrey Gettleman, on a story called ”Screams Without Words: How Hamas Weaponized Sexual Violence on October 7.” The article was singled out for special praise by the Times’s executive editor, Joe Kahn, who conveyed in an email to the newsroom that “the team” of Gettleman, Schwartz, and Sella handled a “highly politicized and delicate” story in a “sensitive and detailed way.”

Since then, the story has come under fire for apparent inaccuracies. In particular, about a third of the story was devoted to one central incident: the alleged rape of Gal Abdush, who was killed on October 7, and who became known as “the woman in the black dress” for her appearance in a video that showed her lying on the ground deceased, her body partially exposed. The video doesn’t show a sexual assault, although some observers have interpreted it as a sign that one may have occurred in the past.

A subsequent report in the progressive Jewish publication Mondoweiss cast doubt on almost every element of this story:

There is currently no trace of the video on the internet despite the Times’ claim that it “went viral.” Moreover, the Israeli press, despite reporting on hundreds of stories about the October 7 victims, never mentioned “the woman in the black dress” even once previous to the December 28 story. It does not appear that the video had, in fact, become the widely circulated symbol the Times claimed it had. But regardless, within a day of the report being published, facts that undermined the Times story began to emerge.

In particular, Abdush’s parents and siblings have strenuously pushed back against the idea that there’s any evidence that Gal was raped — and expressed disgust with the behavior of the Times reporters. They did not interpret the video the same way and say they wouldn’t have cooperated with the story if they knew that it was going to focus on that claim.

None of this, to be clear, is to say that no Israeli women or girls were raped on October 7. Even if Adbush wasn’t one of them, it would be surprising if the October 7 attack was the first time in human history that thousands of angry, amped-up soldiers were sent into enemy territory on a mission that included killing and capturing random civilians without any of the soldiers committing any sexual assaults.

But the specific allegation made by Schwartz and her coauthors in “Screams Without Words” is that “the attacks against women were not isolated events but part of a broader pattern.” That’s an extremely serious allegation, and the stakes are very high. An ethical journalistic organization would approach it with caution and rigorously fact-check every detail.

The stakes are high because the Israeli state’s narrative about the events of October 7, which has included a heavy emphasis on sexual assault, has been used to justify atrocities on a massive scale. At the time of writing, 1.9 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants have been displaced from their homes and hunger is rampant. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been so systematic in their quest to destroy the territory’s civilian infrastructure that the last university standing in Gaza was destroyed in a controlled demolition. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, including over twelve thousand children. And, in a depressing but unsurprising twist, there’s credible evidence that the Israeli atrocities have included sexual violence, which wouldn’t be the first time.

Precisely because of the gravity of sexual crimes, and the moral justification that they often confer on enemies of the perpetrators, it’s extremely important to have clear and consistent standards of evidence. What would it take — what should it take — for a newspaper like the New York Times to declare that sexual assaults by members of the IDF are “not isolated incidents but part of a broader pattern”?

Is it possible to imagine the Times assigning a story making such an allegation to a team of three reporters, one of whom was a journalistically inexperienced former Hamas member who had never renounced their past and another of whom was the former Hamas member’s nephew? If that somehow happened, can you imagine the story then being run without verifying basic claims, even as the parents and siblings of the main alleged victim adamantly denied that the rape had occurred?

If you can stretch your imagination that far, add one more detail. Imagine the former Hamas member having recently “liked” social media posts that called for the mass murder of Israelis — and that he’d done this well before his byline first appeared at the Times.

Indeed, the most recent twist in the Schwartz saga is that she was discovered to have “liked” a grotesque post calling Palestinians “human animals” and calling for Gaza to be “turned into a slaughterhouse” before her work appeared in the Times. The post also called on Israel to abandon the idea of “proportionality” in favor of a “disproportionate response,” and encouraged the IDF to “violate any norm” necessary to secure victory.

Why Chomsky Grinds His Teeth

Schwartz is, pretty clearly, a symptom of a much bigger problem with the Israel/Palestine coverage coming out of the New York Times. A clue as to how it could have happened comes from a closer look at the executive editor who was mentioned above.

As Ryan Grim and Daniel Boguslaw have reported at the Intercept, Kahn’s father Leo Kahn was a longtime board member at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA), which has sought to enforce adherence to a pro-Israel line in media coverage by “smear[ing] journalists whose work it disagrees with and launch[ing] boycott campaigns against news organizations it believes are not responding with enough deference to its requests.” And, according to the Times’s own profile of Joe Kahn published when he became the paper’s executive editor in 2022, father and son frequently “often ‘dissected newspaper coverage’ together.” While the Times denies that CAMERA has any particular influence on its reporting, Grim and Boguslaw note that the paper’s “record of acquiescing to CAMERA’s relentless requests” is “striking in contrast to its historic resistance to correcting its stories.”

Nor, they observe, is this the only family connection that raises serious questions about the paper’s ability to cover Israel/Palestine in a way that comports to its aura of stodgy journalistic integrity. “Over the past 20 years, the children of three Times reporters enlisted in the IDF while the parents covered issues related to the Israel–Palestine conflict,” note the authors at the Intercept.

Beneath these surface layers of anti-Palestinian bias, though, there may be a deeper and simpler issue. As Noam Chomsky and his late coauthor Edward Herman argued in Manufacturing Consent, one of the defining biases of mainstream media in general — of which the New York Times was emblematic long before the beginning of these dramatic recent conflicts of interest — has been a deep deference to and ideological affinity with the US national security state.

That was true of how they covered the Vietnam War when Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon were carpet-bombing that country to crush a peasant revolution. That was true of the Iraq War when the Times uncritically published the George W. Bush administration’s lies about “weapons of mass destruction.” We should not be surprised to discover that it’s true about Gaza, where the mass slaughter and displacement of civilians is being carried out with American funds and American weapons.

This dynamic inspired a classic story about Chomsky visiting the dentist. As recounted by Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens, the dentist told Chomsky, “Your teeth are alright but you’ve got to stop grinding them.” Chomsky protested that he didn’t grind his teeth, and the dentist assured him that he did, as evidenced by the fact that his enamel was worn off. Chomsky’s wife was present, and assured the dentist that Noam didn’t grind his teeth at night while he slept. Later, the couple figured it out. Noam was grinding his teeth when Mrs Chomsky was out of the room — while he was drinking his morning coffee “and reading the New York Times.”

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