False News in The New York Times
The New York Times cannot let go of David Halbfinger’s three-and-a-half page, 4,700 word screed from December 30. In the article, Halbfinger recounted the death of young Palestinian medic Rouzan al-Najjar at the Gaza border from a ricocheted bullet fired by an Israeli soldier. Fragmenting after it hit a rock, it wounded two Palestinian men before mortally wounding al-Najjar. She became the tragic focus of Halbfinger’s expansive — and blatantly unjustified — indictment of Israel for her death.
As if that false conclusion were insufficient, it was followed four days later in the Times daily “Story Behind the Story” (January 3). It was written by Malachy Browne, a “senior story producer” at the Times, who felt “duty-bound to investigate [al-Najjar’s] death.” With his colleagues and Halbfinger, they spent five months interviewing more than 60 people and gathering video evidence “to piece together what happened.” Their “goal,” Browne explained, “was to freeze that moment in time and find out why that shot was taken.” They collected “more than 1,000 videos and photographs directly from the cellphones and cameras of more than 30 key witnesses,” using them “to create a 3-D model using photo-grammetry software.” Partnering with a British forensic research agency, Browne and his colleagues created their 3-D model of the tragedy.
Meanwhile, Halbfinger interviewed a senior Israeli commander who provided details of the four shots that wounded four protesters that day. Browne concluded that the second shot, the one that killed Ms. Najjar, was inaccurately reported. According to the Israeli military, the shot that killed her targeted and hit a protester “who was throwing stones and pulling at the coils of barbed wire” near the security fence.
According to Malachy Browne, however, who reports talking with (unnamed) “international legal experts about the rules governing the use of live fire,” the fatal shooting of Ms. Najjar “appears to have been reckless at best, and possibly a war crime, for which no one has yet been punished.” Browne concludes, ”What’s certain is that Ms. Najjar’s was an innocent life needlessly taken.”
Curiously, but significantly and revealingly, Browne omits mention of the description of Ms. Najjar’s death buried in Halbfinger’s report. “Suddenly,” Halbfinger wrote, “there is another gunshot.” A medic in front of Ms. Najjar is “sprayed in the chest by small bullet fragments.” A second Gazan “screams in pain” as he is “grazed in the thigh” by another fragment. “Behind them,” Halbfinger noted, “Ms. Najjar reaches for her back, then crumbles.” She died soon afterward.
However “improbable” it may seem that two people were wounded and Ms. Najjar was killed by one bullet, according to Halbfinger: “The Times’s reconstruction confirmed it: The bullet hit the ground in front of the medics, then fragmented, part of it ricocheting upward and piercing Ms. Najjar’s chest.” He goes on to state: “To deliberately shoot a medic … is a war crime.”
But there is not a shred of evidence, either in Halbinger’s 4,700 word report or Browne’s “Story Behind the Story,” that Ms. Najjar was shot “deliberately.” Indeed, Halbfinger convincingly demonstrated that her death, resulting from a fragmenting bullet that had already wounded two others, was purely accidental. Browne’s “story” is effectively undermined by his Times colleague, whose finding of Ms. Najjar’s accidental death he ignores.
Halbfinger and Browne have effectively collaborated in propagating a stunning example of false news. Perhaps that is the real story that requires investigation by the Times. I’m not holding my breath until that happens. The palpable bias of its reporters, who find Israel guilty of crimes that it did not commit, is the buried story that is never part of “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York, Times and Israel, 1896-2016, to be published this month by Academic Studies Press.