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April 26, 2017 1:33 pm

A Case Study of Lethal Journalism: The New York Times and Marwan Barghouti

avatar by Richard Landes

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A portrait of jailed Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti painted on the security barrier near the Qalandiya crossing north of Jerusalem. Photo: Ben Siesta via Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times recently ran an op-ed by Palestinian Marwan Barghouti in which he accused Israel of arbitrary arrests, kangaroo courts, systematic torture, brutal prison conditions, and more generally of an “inhumane system of colonial and military occupation aims to break the spirit of prisoners and the nation to which they belong.”

The op-ed provoked sharp criticism for its byline, presenting Barghouti as a “Palestinian leader and parliamentarian” and thus reinforcing his claim to be a political prisoner under arbitrary arrest. Under pressure from the Timespublic editor Liz Spayd to inform readers of the relevant facts so they could judge for themselves the “credibility” of the writer, the editors of the op-ed page eventually added to their description that Barghouti was in Israeli prison for “five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization.”

To comply properly with Spayd’s concerns, the editors should have written: “guilty of 5 of 21 counts of murder; leader of Fatah’s military arm, major promoter of suicide terror before his arrest.” After the outbreak of the Oslo War against Israel in 2000, Barghouti formed the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades to compete with Hamas in committing suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. Indeed his group has the “honor” of first deploying female suicide “martyrs.” In word and deed, he expressly allied himself with those who attacked Israeli civilians — “nationalists” and jihadis. Even as he insisted in English on two states and on not attacking Israeli civilians on the other side of the Green Line, he targeted Israelis in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and loudly called in Arabic for Palestine to exist from the river to the sea.

The Washington Post, in early 2002, might be excused for giving him their op-ed without checking the information he provided. After all, it fit the Israeli-Goliath/Palestinian-David narrative so nicely; journalists back then were paying little attention to what Palestinians said in Arabic; and Barghouti had yet to be captured, tried, and found guilty by a court whose high standards of evidence only allowed them a certain verdict on five of the many counts against him. Little did they know that their credulity concerning Palestinian sources, their readiness to paint the tale as a national struggle for liberation, would only four months later have Western progressives, outraged by fake news reports of the “Jenin Massacre,” cheering on jihadi suicide terror that, then, mostly targeted Israelis (and Americans), but within a few short years would be turned on Europeans.

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But now, some fifteen years later? No learning curve? No sobriety? The Times, proud of its demanding standards for op-ed writers, runs a piece accusing Israel of heinous war crimes and initially covers up the fact that the man who wrote it is a convicted terrorist mastermind. When Spayd expressed her concerns about readers being able to assess the “credibility” or “fidelity” of an op-ed writer, she has no idea how dire the problem here. To this day, there is little to corroborate what Marwan has “written” in English, and much to contradict his accusations against Israel, his claims to moderation, to wanting freedom for his people. On the contrary, lying, like killing enemy civilians and sacrificing Palestinian lives, is a war strategy to him.

The smallest amount of research would have revealed that conditions for Palestinian prisoners are remarkably (some might say scandalously) favorable, quite the opposite of Barghouti’s lurid depictions. Further investigation would have revealed that these very descriptions, so inappropriate to describing conditions in Israel, quite accurately describe the conditions in Palestinians prisons and courts.

The Times here has committed a classic case of what I call “lethal journalism,” running Palestinian war propaganda — a projection of their own society’s evils onto the Israelis in order to mobilize hatred and desire for revenge — as credible news. They have, in their own minds, told the proper tale: a brave freedom fighter, abused by an authoritarian regime that considers itself above the law, calls on the world to show solidarity with the underdog. Barghouti the Nobel Peace Prize candidate; Barghouti, the next Nelson Mandela.

In fact, they have lionized a murderous liar who abuses their good will in order to promote a merciless war, way beyond his control, that knows no borders. In so doing, the editors have broken precisely the promise they made to their readership after their massive failure in covering the 2016 presidential election: to report… the world honestly, without fear or favor. Nothing honest here, much favor, and who knows, maybe much fear. Ironically, the very lying that the Times so readily enables is precisely what makes Barghouti the opposite of Mandela: whereas Mandela tried to humanize even his racist oppressors, Barghouti invents a racist oppressor to hate.

Let us go back to the months before Barghouti’s arrest, while he was duping Western journalists about his principles even as he organized terror attacks within Israel, while “the whole world” — including Palestinians — was aflame with outrage at the “Jenin Massacre.” A cleric employed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), referring to a widely cited Hadith about the apocalyptic moment when Muslims would kill every last Jew, had his sermon broadcast live on PA TV:

We believe in this Hadith. We are convinced also that this Hadith heralds the spread of Islam and its rule over all the lands… Oh Allah, annihilate the Jews and their supporters… Oh Allah, raise the flag of Jihad across the earth… Oh beloved, look to the East of the earth, find Japan and the ocean; look to the West of the earth, find the country and the ocean. Be assured that these will be owned by the Muslim nation, as the Hadith says, ‘from the ocean to the ocean.’

Wait. You mean the PA, that “secular” and “nationalist” organization, gives a platform to apocalyptic clerics who call for the extermination of the Jews and the subjection of infidels the world over? And Western news producers are not letting us know about their genocidal intentions, but instead presenting their more soft-spoken allies (in English) as freedom fighters for a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel in its cruelty denies them? You mean it’s not desperation, it’s aspiration?! You mean they have other choices than bringing Israel down in their self-destruction?

None of this is a secret — not that you would know this by reading the Times. Instead what we get is “own-goal” journalism of the most deranged kind: running jihadi propaganda as news to the infidel audiences the jihadis target. Surely that’s not the way a free and responsible press should behave.

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