Culture / March 1, 2024

The Nixonian New York Times Stonewalls on a Discredited Article About Hamas and Rape

The Nixonian “New York Times” Stonewalls on a Discredited Article About Hamas and Rape

The newspaper of record botches an important story about sexual violence on October 7.

Jeet Heer
New York Times headquarters in New York City on Sunday, February 4, 2024. (Shelby Knowles / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Richard Nixon’s anger at The New York Times destroyed his presidency. In June 1971, the newspaper started publishing the Pentagon Papers—a leaked report on the origins of the Vietnam War that documented a pattern of government lying from the earliest days of the conflict. Nixon was enraged by what he saw as a treasonous attack on government secrets designed to discredit his administration (even though the Pentagon Papers were in fact far more damaging to his predecessors John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson). Within a week of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the White House launched the covert “Special Investigations Unit” made up of so-called “plumbers” who were supposed to plug the leaks in the government. The plumbers would of course break the law to harass whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and break into the Democratic National Committee’s offices. Nixon was well on the path to the Watergate scandal and resignation in disgrace.

More than 50 years later, The New York Times is caught up in its own scandal, which it is fending off with the Nixonian tactics of leak-hunting and stonewalling. On December 28, 2023, the Times published a major investigative report headlined “’Screams Without Words’: How Hamas Weaponized Sexual Violence on Oct. 7.” Written by veteran foreign correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman along with two younger freelancers, Anat Schwartz and Adam Sella, the article dealt with one of the most painful stories to emerge from the Hamas massacre of October 7, the allegations of widespread rape. Based on more than 150 interviews, the article contended that the Hamas systematically used rape as a weapon of war.

The question of rapes on October 7 had been simmering since the Hamas attack, gaining increasing urgency by November, when the Israeli government made it a centerpiece (along with unverified reports about beheaded babies) in its case for war. While leading pro-Israel advocates emphasized accounts of rape that they insisted amounted to a systematic campaign deliberately organized by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, some pro-Palestinian commentators took a more skeptical stance, noting the lack of forensic evidence to cast doubt on the narrative of a systematic campaign of sexual violence. The danger of the skeptical stance, sometimes played out in polemics, is that it sometimes seemed to shift over to the suggestion that all the testimonies of rape were mere “stories” without evidentiary basis.

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“Screams Without Words” initially seemed like a searing and irreproachable indictment that settled this debate. But doubts soon emerged about the article, both on account of the unacknowledged biases of the reporters (in particular Anat Schwartz) and also the shaky nature of the evidence presented. Key sources for the article had a history of false claims. The family of one allegedly raped murder victim spoke out against the article, claiming it presented an impossible story. A fierce internal debate emerged inside the Times itself as reporters not part of the original team found it difficult to verify many of the claims of the article. The reporting behind the Times article has been questioned both by the Times podcast The Daily and The Intercept.

Faced with a rising chorus of criticism, both internal and external, the management of the Times went into bunker mode. On Thursday, Vanity Fair reported:

The New York Times is conducting a leak investigation following a report in The Intercept about a yet-to-be-aired episode of The Daily addressing explosive claims of sexual violence committed by Hamas on October 7. Management in recent weeks has pulled at least two dozen staffers, including Daily producers, into meetings in an attempt to understand how internal details about the podcast’s editorial process got out, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter.

One Times staffer described the leak investigation as a “witch hunt.”

Surely somewhere in the fiery caverns of Hell, Richard Nixon is enjoying a brief respite from his eternal torment as he learns how The New York Times is mimicking him.

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Investigation into the Times scandal has also been conducted by a host of independent sites and nonaffiliated journalists, notably Aaron Maté, October 7 Fact Check, Electronic Intifada and Max Blumenthal. These were all voices that had been skeptical of the allegation of systematic rape even before the Times story, so the article, with its many flaws, provided an ample target. But The Intercept (featuring the reporting of Daniel Boguslaw, Ryan Grim, and Jeremy Scahill) has offered the most comprehensive criticism, one that builds on the work of other reporters to make a particularly damning indictment of the Times.

On January 28, The Intercept revealed that “The New York Times pulled a high-profile episode of its podcast ‘The Daily’ about sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas on October 7 amid a furious internal debate about the strength of the paper’s original reporting on the subject.” This was the story that sent Times editors into their bunkers.

A lengthy follow-up report on Wednesday was even more devastating. The new report painted Anat Schwartz as an incompetent propagandist. Schwartz had liked a tweet calling on Israel to turn Gaza “into a slaughterhouse.” The tweet described Palestinians as “human animals.” The Intercept also quoted from a radio interview Schwartz gave in Israel where she admitted that when it came to evaluating evidence of sexual violence, “I have no qualifications.”

Schwartz relied heavily on Zaka, described by The Intercept as “a private ultra-Orthodox rescue organization that has been documented to have mishandled evidence and spread multiple false stories about the events of October 7, including debunked allegations of Hamas operatives beheading babies and cutting the fetus from a pregnant woman’s body. Its workers are not trained forensic scientists or crime scene experts.” Another major source, Shari Mendes, has repeatedly made demonstrably false claims.

The first major narrative in the Times article details the alleged rape of Gal Abdush, who was murdered by Hamas. But The Intercept notes:

The Times report mentions WhatsApp messages from Abdush and her husband to their family, but doesn’t mention that some family members believe that the crucial messages make the Israeli officials’ claims implausible. As Mondoweiss later reported, Abdush texted the family at 6:51 a.m., saying they were in trouble at the border. At 7:00, her husband messaged to say she’d been killed. Her family said the charring came from a grenade.

According to Abdush’s sister, the short timespan makes the claim of rape impossible: “It doesn’t make any sense…. they raped her, slaughtered her, and burned her?” Abdush’s brother-in-law claims that “the media invented [the rape].”

The Times article is illustrated with a photograph of Abdush in a black dress. According to the photographer, Schwartz and Sella “called me again and again [to get the photo] and explained how important it is to Israeli hasbara.” Hasbara is a term meaning public diplomacy designed to make Israel’s case to the world.

The issue of rape as a weapon of war is a serious one. If sexual violence was used by Hamas as a weapon of war, the world deserves a careful documentation of this fact. Alas, the New York Times article does nothing but muddy the water.

The Intercept correctly emphasizes that this is a story where necessary nuance and adherence to careful rules of evidence has been lost, noting:

The question has never been whether individual acts of sexual assault may have occurred on October 7. Rape is not uncommon in war, and there were also several hundred civilians who poured into Israel from Gaza that day in a “second wave,” contributing to and participating in the mayhem and violence. The central issue is whether The New York Times presented solid evidence to support its claim that there were newly reported details “establishing that the attacks against women were not isolated events but part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence on Oct. 7”—a claim stated in the headline that Hamas deliberately deployed sexual violence as a weapon of war.

If the Times wanted to serve its readers and the world, it would launch a transparent investigation into this botched article, the biggest failure of journalism at the newspaper since Judith Miller’s infamous and discredited articles on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2002 and 2003. Just as Miller regurgitated war propaganda on behalf of the George W. Bush administration, the Times is now serving as a mouthpiece for Benjamin Netanyahu’s war cabinet. But there’s little chance that the Times will come clean about this latest fiasco. As with Watergate, the ultimate question is how far does the scandal go up the chain of command?

The reporting in The Intercept suggests that the main instigator of the “Screams Without Words” investigation was Executive Editor Joe Kahn, who has long-standing pro-Israel sentiment, and whose father, Leo Kahn, was a longtime member of the board of CAMERA, a pro-Israel media watchdog. But could Kahn have acted without the approval and perhaps direction of the Sulzberger family, which owns the newspaper? The Nixonian strategy of stonewalling suggests that someone very high up is implicated in this debacle. Watergate proved that a scandal could topple a presidency. But what scandal is large enough to bring down the executive editor—or perhaps even the owners—of The New York Times?

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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