The New York Times Ignores Intense Scrutiny Of Its Oct. 7 Report

On Dec. 28, 2023, the New York Times published “‘Screams Without Words’: How Hamas Weaponized Sexual Violence on Oct. 7,” an investigation based on interviews with over 150 people in an effort to document “a broader pattern of gender-based violence on Oct. 7” by Hamas. Since its publication, the article and its authors have come under heavy criticism for inconsistencies that would place it below the reporting standards of the New York Times, or any media outlet. But the newspaper’s management has no interest in any transparency that would clear up those concerns.

The article, written by Jeffrey Gettleman, Anat Schwartz and Adam Sella, first came under scrutiny when a report from The Intercept revealed that a planned Jan. 9 episode of the New York Times‘ flagship podcast The Daily, based on the story, was put on hold so that the script could be rewritten to allow for more uncertainty. This past Wednesday, The Intercept published another look into the reporting behind the “Screams Without Words” article, and highlighted a podcast interview Schwartz gave to Israel’s Channel 12 in which she inadvertently raised questions about her own journalistic process.

“Screams Without Words” is bookended by the story of the “woman in the black dress.” The anecdote is one explicit example used to represent the systematic sexual violence: “In a grainy video, you can see her, lying on her back, dress torn, legs spread, vagina exposed. Her face is burned beyond recognition and her right hand covers her eyes.” The woman is identified as Gal Abdush, and the reporters suggest that she had been raped. The evidence cited is based on videos viewed by Israeli police and verified by the Times.

This came as new information to Abdush’s family. According to Mondoweiss, some of them said that the Times article was the first time they learned that she had been raped. In an interview with Israel’s Channel 13, her brother-in-law Nissim Abdush outright denied it, saying that he had communicated with her husband Nagi Abdush that morning, who had not mentioned any sexual assault when he texted that Gal had died at approximately 7:00 a.m., minutes after she had texted the family. (Nagi Abdush was also killed that day.)

Raz Cohen, another witness cited by the Times, had discrepancies in his account. In a separate interview, he said he witnessed multiple rapes. When speaking to the Times, he said he saw five men rape one woman, then kill her. This was supported in the article by his friend Shoam Gueta, who was hiding with him. When interviewed on Oct. 8 for NBC News, Gueta did not mention a rape but described one woman cut with a knife. The Times did not mention any of the other rapes seen by Cohen. And as The Intercept reported Wednesday, Schwartz said in her podcast interview that there were actually five people hiding where Gueta and Raz were, but “only Raz sees all the things he sees, everyone else is looking in a different direction.”

“Regarding the Dec. 28 article, we remain confident in the accuracy of our reporting and stand by the team’s investigation, which was rigorously reported, sourced and edited,” Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha said in a statement when reached for comment.

Another source used for this Times article was the volunteer emergency response team Zaka. Members of the group described finding women tied up or undressed at the site of the rave attacked on Oct. 7. A recent report from The Intercept found that Israeli media had widely dismissed Zaka as a legitimate source because of how it spread unsubstantiated stories about the Oct. 7 killings, although many American outlets still used their volunteers’ accounts in reporting.

At this point it is relevant to revisit another article published weeks earlier by Gettleman, Schwartz, and Sella, with the headline “What We Know About Sexual Violence During the Oct. 7 Attacks on Israel.” The substance is similar, but there’s a significant correction appended to the bottom of this report from Dec. 4, 2023:

An earlier version of this article misstated the kind of evidence Israeli police have gathered in investigating accusations of sexual violence committed on Oct. 7 in the attack by Hamas against Israel. The police are relying mainly on witness testimony, not on autopsies or forensic evidence.

This Dec. 8 note is critical to keep in mind, because it applies to the subsequent article: Ultimately the sourcing here is eyewitness testimony, some of which came from a discredited volunteer group, some of which came from an inconsistent witness, and some of which came from Israeli police, who say there are no autopsies or forensic evidence available. (In Jewish tradition, a body is buried within 24 hours of the death, or as soon as possible, so these cases were not examined.) In the “Screams Without Words” article, an Israeli government spokesperson told the Times there were at least four people who were sexually assaulted and survived; none of them were named or interviewed. One vividly written example—the woman in the black dress—was disputed by the victim’s family. The Times investigation specifically set out to show a systematic pattern of “weaponized” sexual violence inflicted by Hamas. The content of the story falls short of that goal, so drastically that even Schwartz was aware of the thinness of her reporting. From her Channel 12 interview, as translated by The Intercept:

“One of the questions you get asked — and it’s the hardest ones to not be able to answer — if this has happened in so many places, how can it be that there is no forensic evidence? How can it be that there is no documentation? How can it be that there are no records? A report? An Excel spreadsheet? You are telling me about Shari [Mendes]? That’s someone who saw with her own eyes, and is now speaking to you — is there no [written] report to make what she’s saying authoritative?”

The host interjected. “And you went at that stage to those official Israeli authorities, and asked that they give you — something, anything. And how did they respond?”

“‘There is nothing,’” Schwartz said she was told. “‘There was no collection of evidence from the scene.’”

The Intercept

In that interview, Schwartz admitted she had no reporting qualifications and that Gettleman gave her guidance. Gettleman is an established international correspondent at the Times; Schwartz and Sella are freelancers who started to contribute in October. Neither has a deep background in journalism. Although it’s not uncommon for reporters to emerge and develop from non-traditional backgrounds, it is unusual at the Times, an institution very particular about seniority, decorum, and reporting assignments, especially for articles that end up on A1.

But even Gettleman had an amateur moment. During a panel hosted by Columbia University on Feb. 9, he was reluctant to use the word “evidence” when describing his reporting, because he said “evidence is almost like a legal term that suggests you’re trying to prove an allegation or prove a case in court. That’s not my role. We all have our roles, and my role is to document, is to present information, is to give people a voice.”

Despite the dubiousness of the reporting, the Times published the piece and ran it on the front page of the Dec. 31, 2023 edition. Eventually, as the Times faced increased external and internal scrutiny, the story was re-reported—by Gettleman, Schwartz, and Sella themselves, in a Jan. 29 article headlined “U.N. to Study Reports of Sexual Violence in Israel During Oct. 7 Attack.” The story included the witnesses who had been interviewed for the first story, mostly reiterating their testimony. Cohen declined to be interviewed this time around, citing the trauma he suffered.

Outside of Schwartz’s reporting acumen, there was concern about her conflict of interest. Twitter user @zei_squirrel discovered that Schwartz had liked a number of pro-Israel tweets, including a post from Israeli journalist David Verthaim pushing for Israel to “violate any norm,” and to “turn [Gaza] into a slaughterhouse” if the hostages were not released immediately. As proven over the last couple of years, the Times‘ social media policy requires reporters to be objective and nonpartisan, even in their online presence. The Daily Beast reported on Sunday that the newspaper was reviewing the matter. This past Thursday, Schwartz called it an “inadvertent ‘like’” on her Twitter account.

International Editor Phil Pan, who oversaw the investigation, released through a spokesperson the same statement as he did for The Intercept: “Ms. Schwartz was part of a rigorous reporting and editing process. She made valuable contributions and we saw no evidence of bias in her work. We remain confident in the accuracy of our reporting and stand by the team’s investigation. But as we have said, her ‘likes’ of offensive and opinionated social media posts, predating her work with us, are unacceptable.”

In the conversation around “Screams Without Words,” there’s a lot of conjecture attached to actual criticism, as well as limited details, because management at the New York Times has no motivation to clarify anything to its readers or its own employees. But there is enough smoke here to merit an independent reassignment of the work—ideally by a public editor, even though that position no longer exists at the paper. The Times published a major investigation that relied on inconsistent witness testimony and no forensic evidence. When the investigation was criticized, the Times allowed those reporters to go back and check their own work. The article did not pass the smell test with the company’s flagship podcast. Two of the three reporters have minimal reporting experience, yet found their way into the byline of a major article making a very consequential claim. One of those reporters was revealed to support the destruction of Gaza; the other is reportedly her nephew and has a background in writing about sustainable food.

It is upsetting to read the details in “Screams Without Words.” It is appalling in the same way that it would be appalling to read about Hamas beheading 40 babies, a story that spread in the early days of the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack and has never been proven to be true. The graphic nature of these claims does not make them exempt to fact-checking, especially when they are used to justify the continued destruction in Gaza and systematic killing of Palestinians who had nothing to do with the events of Oct. 7.

There is another detail in The Intercept’s article that raises an eyebrow, and it’s this paragraph—more specifically, the comment from a Times spokesperson:

In the interview, Schwartz, who did not respond to requests for comment, details her extensive efforts to get confirmation from Israeli hospitals, rape crisis centers, trauma recovery facilities, and sex assault hotlines in Israel, as well as her inability to get a single confirmation from any of them. “She was told there had been no complaints made of sexual assaults,” the Times spokesperson acknowledged after The Intercept brought the Channel 12 podcast episode to the paper’s attention. “This however was just the very first step of her research. She then describes the unfolding of evidence, testimonies, and eventual evidence that there may have been systematic use of sexual assault,” the spokesperson asserted. “She details her research steps and emphasizes the Times’s strict standards to corroborate evidence, and meetings with reporters and editors to discuss probing questions and think critically about the story.”

Two months later, the official line is that “there may have been systematic use of sexual assault.” This is less confident than the nut graf in the original article: “A two-month investigation by The Times uncovered painful new details, establishing that the attacks against women were not isolated events but part of a broader pattern of gender-based violence on Oct. 7.” There was no room for equivocation before. Now, there’s hedging.

It would be easy to pin the mistakes on Schwartz, but the valid criticisms of “Screams Without Words” were invited by arrogance. The article was produced in the wide gulf between the information the reporters were able to gather and confirm, and the type of award-winning, definitive journalism that the Times is institutionally hardwired to desire. Schwartz, a filmmaker with little reporting experience, said she was specifically commissioned by the Times to work on such a story. From an Israeli Army Radio interview, also translated by The Intercept:

“The New York Times said, ‘Let’s do an investigation into sexual violence’ — it was more a case of them having to convince me,” she said. Her host cut her off: “It was a proposal of The New York Times, the entire thing?”

“Unequivocally. Unequivocally. Obviously. Of course,” she said. “The paper stood behind us 200 percent and gave us the time, the investment, the resources to go in-depth with this investigation as much as needed.”

The Intercept

The Times, if it does anything, will likely cut ties with Schwartz over her Twitter usage, call this an aberration, and keep it moving. But she’s not the underlying issue. Gettleman is no novice, and above him, Pan reviewed this front-page story before it was published. There are other people in management who should be more transparent, but the Times is obfuscating the publication process and hoping that the questions go away while it continues to collect praise, like the two George Polk Awards awarded for its coverage of the Oct. 7 attacks and subsequent slaughter in Gaza. If anything, the Times seems to be devoting more effort to uncovering the leaker within the newsroom than to checking its own reporting.

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