As Journalists Are Murdered in Gaza Their Counterparts Lose Jobs in America ‹ Literary Hub

Literature

Last week, it felt like 90 percent of my social media timelines were filled with accounts of Palestinian journalists losing their lives in Gaza or of American journalists losing their jobs in the United States.

Abroad, the situation looked especially bleak in the north of Gaza, where few reporters remain and where there is no food. The week before last, journalist Mutaz Al-Ghafari had been killed in a targeted airstrike with his wife and baby girl. Meanwhile, Al Jazeera’s Anas Jamal posted a desperate video of himself  (“For days, I’ve been searching for one meal, and I couldn’t find any”) and Hossem Shabbat posted a haunting cartoon of himself reporting while starving. And just over the weekend, photographer Abdallah Al-Hajj was killed while covering the Al-Shati refugee camp in the north.

Back in America, journalists were facing another kind of disaster. It is much less dire to be facing layoffs than to be facing genocide, of course. But the net effect of both for the public is similar: the production of a lot less news.

The last round of cuts struck me as more dire than the 500 general publication and aggregation journalists laid off in January, because they included 15 reporters at the Intercept, and hundreds of people at VICE News. In general, these two outlets have been covering American war-making from a critical perspective for years, and they’ve been doing important work during the Gaza genocide specifically.

And given the silence of the American mainstream press about the death of journalists in Palestine, it felt like most of the reporters  who even notice the death of our colleagues in Gaza lost their jobs last week.

But seeing the wholesale closure of sites like VICE made me think of all the places where I have published, or read, dissident reporting on American empire over the years that are now closed (or exist in name only for cynical branding opportunities), like the Village Voice, Gawker, Splinter, and BuzzFeed News.

Palestinians are being deprived of not just what journalists immediately share with them, but of the possibility of building new knowledge and political realities which might flow from journalism.

The act of epistemicide is part of genocide: it includes not only the destruction of existing knowledge as part of an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part,” but the ability of a population to produce new knowledge. Thus, South Africa’s petition against Israel in the International Court of Justice alleged not just that “Israel has left Gaza City’s main public library in ruins,” had “damaged or destroyed countless bookshops, publishing houses and libraries and hundreds of educational facilities” and bombed “every one of Gaza’s  four universities.” It also noted how “Israel has killed leading Palestinian academics” and that “Palestinian journalists are being killed at a rate significantly higher than has occurred in any conflict in the past 100 years.”

Palestinians are being deprived of not just what journalists immediately share with them, but of the possibility of building new knowledge and political realities which might flow from journalism. It may be happening through different and far less lethal means in the United States, but the closure of our libraries and the demise of alt-weekly newspapers and indie publications are also foreclosing the ability for many Americans to produce new knowledge and political realities in the metropole.

So as the layoffs pile up, what kind of media is flourishing financially? Well, the New York Times is rapidly becoming one of the only outlets for solid journalism employment in a nation of 330 million people. The “paper of record” is humming along, hiring people, expanding into a streaming empire, and—not coincidentally—it is doing so while assisting the military goals of American empire.

Much as its early, misguided and incorrect coverage of the War on Terror justified the invasion of Iraq in 2003,  the Times’ coverage of Israel continues to facilitate the ongoing genocide on Gaza. You can see it regularly in its misleading framing. For instance, reacting to a Times story titled “Biden Caught in a Political Bind Over Israel Policy” with the sub headline that his “steadfast support of the Gaza war effort is angering young people and Arab Americans in an election year” but any change “risks alienating Jewish voters,” scholar Benjamin Balthaser noted how the framing attempted “to pit Jewish and Arab American voters against each other is disingenuous, even dangerous.” It is also untrue, he continued, considering “all Democratic leaning voting blocs, including American Jews, support a ceasefire.”

You wouldn’t know that from the framing of the Times story. But that’s just an example of its everyday support for the war.  The most serious harm it has done has been done by one story and its fallout specifically.

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On December 28, the Times published ‘Screams Without Words’: How Hamas Weaponized Sexual Violence on Oct. 7” by Jeffrey Gettleman, Anat Schwartz and Adam Sella.

Three months after October 7, I found little of news substance in the story, and I read it as an attempt to use charges of racialized sexual violence to justify the genocide of tens of thousands of Palestinians. In its depiction of rapacious Arab men, it struck me as an equivalent tactic politicians and journalists have long used, in antebellum America, throughout Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and indeed use to this day: to portray African American men as rapacious as a justification for racialized state violence. Under scrutiny by writers at Electronic Intifada, the Grayzone and elsewhere, the Times’ article’s findings, sources and dubious methods were widely discredited and largely collapsed.

What will we do when the Times is the only major news outlet left standing covering matters of war?

But it was deep reporting by Daniel Boguslaw and Ryan Grim at the Intercept which revealed that the credibility of the Times’ reporting on mass rape on October 7 was not just questioned by outsiders, but within the Times itself. Originally, “Screams Without Words” was to be adapted for the Times flagship podcast, The Daily. But as the Intercept reported, as doubts about the story grew, Daily producers “shelved the original script and paused the episode” and a “new script was drafted, one that offered major caveats, allowed for uncertainty, and asked open-ended questions that were absent from the original article.” But, this left “producers and the paper of record” in an uncomfortable “jam: run a version that hews closely to the previously published story and risk republishing serious mistakes, or publish a heavily toned-down version, raising questions about whether the paper still stands by the original report.”

Meanwhile, Gettleman, Schwarz, and Sella were assigned to write a follow up story, which relied on some of the same discredited sources, offered little new information and was also quickly condemned. Gettelman also undercut his own credibility onstage, when he said what he relies on in his reporting should not be considered “evidence.”

But were the reporters or the Times reprimanded for any of this?

No. On February 19, the Polk Awards announced their 2024 Foreign Reporting honor would go to the staff of the New York Times for its “unsurpassed coverage of the war between Israel and Hamas.”

But “unsurpassed” in which regard? In terms of carrying water for the Israeli military?

Unsurpassed, as we would later learn, in that Gettelman’s co-authors were actually two freelancer journalism rookies without any previous bylines? A filmmaker and reported Israeli military veteran named Anat Schwartz, who had publicly liked social media posts that called for turning Gaza into a “slaughterhouse,” and her 24-year-old nephew, who also didn’t have any journalism experience? Yet who found their way onto the front page of the New York Times on the biggest news topic of the year?

Unsurpassed in violating its own rules? In November, National Magazine Award-winning writer Jazmine Hughes spoke to Democracy Now! about leaving the New York Times magazine. A Black lesbian who often wrote openly about her identity, she was forced to resign because she had signed a letter protesting the genocide in Gaza. (Disclosure: I signed the same letter, which was featured here at Lit Hub). Hughes told Amy Goodman that “the biggest note that I want to make” was “that I signed that letter as a magazine journalist, right? I wasn’t working in the newsroom.”

So, compare Hughes being pushed out as a voicey, first-person magazine writer whose work “didn’t try to purport” to be held to “the standards of the newsroom” for signing a letter against genocide to Schwartz being an Israeli military veteran who publicly liked calls for violence against Palestinians while getting to report news for A1.

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What will we do when the Times is the only major news outlet left standing covering matters of war? What if journalists at the Intercept and their quantitative analysis have to keep dialing back their work or, worse—like Times-counterweights VICE, Gawker and the Village Voice—the Intercept has to close its doors?

Social media will fill in some of the gaps. Much of what we know about Anat Schwartz is because of social media accounts like @zei_squirrel’s and that of Esha Krishnaswamy, host of  the Historicly podcast. But they were investigating what could be publicly seen in social media. Journalist-owned collectives like Hellgate and Discourse Blog might fill in, too, but they don’t do much national security reporting. The day-to-day deep reporting the Intercept did to expose the Times internal debates—and the difficult work of gathering FOIAs and national security sources to report on war-making—can better be done by reporters who have, like, a “job.”

The Times is, now, reportedly “reviewing” Anat Schwartz, though as of this writing, there has been no retraction of any of their reporting. But it hardly matters. The damage is done. Much as the debunking of Judith Miller’s reporting didn’t save any innocent lives in Iraq, and quite like how even US intelligence agencies casting doubt on Israel’s flimsy WSJ-laundered claims about UNRWA has not saved the relief organization from collapsing and leaving everyone in northern Gaza without any food for weeks, the harm done by Schwartz, her nephew, and Gettelman has already happened.

Meanwhile, the Times reputation for “unsurpassed” coverage of the “Israel-Hamas war” will be further laundered by the Polk Awards. I am glad the committee at least acknowledged that the Times has been “relying on reports from longtime stringers in Gaza” to document “the unprecedented extent of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and its impact on civilians.” Still, nowhere in its press release did it acknowledge the more than 130 journalists killed by US-backed Israel—which I found particularly jarring, considering that the awards are named for George K. Polk, who was killed while reporting on the Greek Civil War in 1948.

The Polk Awards will be presented at a luncheon on April 12 hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

But by that April luncheon, if they have not yet been killed by bombs, will the few journalists in Northern Gaza who are starving like Anas Jamal and Hossem Shabat still be alive? Or will they have died of starvation, while the Times journalists enjoy the rubber banquet chicken at Cipriani?

And if they do perish, will there be any journalists in the United States who will even report on their colleagues’ deaths?

Steven W. Thrasher



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