Flawed ‘NYTimes’ editorial – ‘Who killed Shireen Abu Akleh ?’ – suggests internal debate at the paper

A Gaza protest (Ashraf Amra - APA Images)

James North

Mondoweiss  /  June 5, 2022

A New York Times editorial bears the insulting headline, “Who Killed Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh?” When the only genuine question is, Did the Israeli soldier who killed her target her on purpose?

Today’s New York Times editorial on the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh should have appeared weeks ago. Nearly a month has passed since she was shot in the head while reporting from the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The editorial itself is curious and disjointed. That, and the long delay, suggest that the paper’s editorial board disagreed over what to say, and probably over whether to say anything.

First the good news: the Times finally spoke up about the killing of a colleague — in its lead editorial on a Sunday, the most widely circulated edition of the week. This is a step forward for a newspaper that remains silent about, for instance, Amnesty International’s finding in February that Israel’s oppression of Palestinians amounts to “apartheid.” What’s more, the editorial praises Abu Akleh, calling her “brave” and “independent,” and adding, accurately, that “she served as a model of courageous, honest reporting for many aspiring journalists, including many women.”

Also, the editorial noted disapprovingly that “Israeli police officers attacked some of the hundreds of mourners at Ms. Abu Akleh’s funeral procession in East Jerusalem.” The Times usually disguises such Israeli assaults with expressions like “clashes erupted between.” 

But the editorial board’s more strongly pro-Israeli faction also got their say here. The paper tried to partly exonerate Israeli police behavior by claiming that the occupiers wanted to “prevent the funeral from turning into a nationalist rally,” and that the pallbearers had violated a “previously approved plan” by trying to carry the coffin on foot. The existence of this “plan” is disputed, and what’s wrong with a “nationalist rally” anyway?

But the pro-Israel faction’s greatest triumph was that it successfully imposed its headline: “Who Killed Journalist Shireen Abu Akleh?” Within minutes of the killing, Israel had followed its time-honored manipulative practice of muddying the story, in this case by suggesting without evidence that “Palestinian gunmen” had killed her. Israel knew that the Times and other mainstream outlets would both-sides the story, leaving readers confused.

In fact, reporting over the past month (although not in the Times) makes clear that the only genuine questions are: Did the Israeli soldier who killed Shireen Abu Akleh target her on purpose? If so, who ordered it? And who in the Israeli chain of command is continuing the cover-up? 

The editorial board’s more honest members recognize this. So they somehow slyly slipped in this surprising paragraph:

CNN and other news organizations have begun their own investigations. After reviewing video footage, witnesses’ accounts and audio analysis of the gunshots, CNN reported that the evidence suggested that ‘Abu Akleh was shot dead in a targeted attack by Israeli forces.’

This is a masterstroke. The Times editorial faction that has some integrity is citing the CNN investigation because their own reporters on the spot have been sitting around doing nothing.

The pro-Israel editorial board faction hit back. The editorial said that “scores of other journalists lose their lives without public notice” — and you think you are about to read about some of the 50 Palestinian journalists killed since 2000, a fact noted by this site’s Yumna Patel the same day that Abu Akleh was killed. But no. Instead the Times diverts our attention by pointlessly explaining that journalists all over the world are killed “on dangerous assignments,” including recently in Ukraine.

The Times calls for an investigation, but cautions, mildly, that “Israel’s political right does not look kindly on investigating troops.” In fact, all the editorial board had to do was look at the respected Israeli daily Haaretz, which reported more decisively weeks ago that “. . . one of the reasons [Israel will not probe Abu Akleh’s death] was the belief that such an investigation. . . would provoke opposition within the [Israel military] and in Israel society in general.” A genuine investigation would almost certainly bring down Israel’s fragile coalition government, a fact the Times nowhere mentions.

But let us be thankful with this small step forward. At least The New York Times finally spoke out, even in this choppy and self-contradictory way. By contrast, The Washington Post editorial board has, so far, not said a word. 

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large