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July 25, 2018 1:07 pm

The New Yorker Puts Its Anti-Israel Bias on Display

avatar by Tamar Sternthal

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A view of Gaza City. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“We checked nonfiction. We checked fiction. We checked poems. We checked cartoons. We checked cartoon captions,” asserted Richard Sacks, describing his work in The New Yorker’s famed fact-checking department from 1974 to 1988.

Some 25 years later, The New Yorker has strengthened its fact-checking department, according to veteran fact-checker Peter Canby. Since his early days in 1978, the department has doubled in size, and it boasts a multilingual staff working with digital technology at an accelerated pace, Canby told Columbia Journalism School students. “Nowadays, [New Yorker] Web stories, social media, special projects and even cartoons get some level of fact-checking treatment,” says Columbia Journalism Review.

Indeed, The New Yorker literally markets itself with the slogan that it is “fighting fake stories with real stories.”

The image, however, of an ironclad fact-checking department enhanced by social media tools has suffered a major blow in recent weeks. First, in early June, New Yorker fact-checker Talia Lavin took to Twitter to falsely accuse Justin Gaertner, an agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, of sporting a Nazi tattoo. The New Yorker distanced itself from Lavin’s tweet, and the fact-checker resigned after apologizing to the marine veteran, whose tattoo is a symbol of his platoon.

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Later that month, The New Yorker’s storied fact-checkers failed to carry out even the most cursory online searches. There is no other explanation for the fact that a June 28 article by Ruth Margalit (“Many Gazan Women Are No Longer Able to Enter Israel for Cancer Treatment”) contained a quote that falsely alleged: “In Gaza, there are no MRI machines.” Even an amateur fact-checker would quickly reach the Facebook page of the MRI department at the European Gaza Hospital, which in April announced the arrival of new advanced equipment.

CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, urged the publication’s editors to correct the false claim that there are no MRI machines in Gaza — and they did. But CAMERA’s in-depth investigation subsequently revealed additional factual problems with the article.

For instance, the piece, along with a prominent photo caption and a widely shared tweet, falsely charged that in 2018 Israel rejected or failed to respond to more than half of the medical permit applications from Gaza. This misinformation, supplied by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHRI), is contradicted by monthly data from the World Health Organization and Israel, which demonstrates that Israel granted entry to 52.8% of applicants this year. (This figure takes into account permits approved in the same month in which they were submitted. The year’s total figure is higher.)

Furthermore, Margalit reported that Israel had turned down the permit application of a cancer patient named Amani Abu Taema four times since her visit to Israel in January. Yet an Israeli military spokesman told CAMERA that Abu Taema has not applied for another permit since January, and reported that the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee likewise did not receive any additional requests from Abu Taema.

Margalit and her fact-checking colleagues also failed to verify the personal account of patient Dena Mekhael, the source of the false claim that there are no MRI machines in Gaza. Mekhael said that she applied for a permit in December, and that her case is still “under review,” an incomplete story that ostensibly gives weight to the false claim that Israel has rejected or failed to respond to “more than half” of all applicants.

Had Margalit bothered to cross-check the case with Israeli authorities, she would have learned that Israel said it granted Mekhael security clearance, and that the process is stalled on the Palestinian, not the Israeli side.

In addition, the article cites Efrat Mor, Margalit’s PHRI source, regarding the tragic story of a third unnamed patient. This account could not be checked, because Margalit did not include any identifying details. Given the disputed (at best) and false (at worst) circumstances regarding the other two cases, The New Yorker has an obligation to check this story as well.

It’s inexplicable that a publication that purports to take fact-checking so seriously — and subjects even whimsical cartoons to a rigorous verification process — failed to apply the most basic verification measures to a far weightier subject.

Tamar Sternthal is director of CAMERA’s Israel Office.

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