The New York Times ran a column by media critic David Carr earlier this week on Page One, above the fold. The title — provocatively, insinuatingly — was “Using War As Cover to Target Journalists” and Carr’s lead told us that in unspecified parts of the world (he’ll get to it) his profession was “under murderous assault.” Where could this be happening? The first example Carr chose to cite was not Russia, not Syria, not China but, of course, Israel, that great demon of the world which in the last year has been hit by nearly 2,000 rockets fired by Hamas and last week decided to respond by targeting the rocket launchers and the people who operate them.
There is no debate about what happened: Several men were in a car in a Gaza Strip street. According to Carr, the vehicle was clearly marked with the letters “TV.” — albeit, according to the Washington Free Beacon, with spray paint. Everyone in the car was killed by an IDF airstrike. This is an outrage according to Carr because “Mahmoud al-Kumi and Hussam Salama worked as cameramen for Al-Aqsa TV, which is run by Hamas and whose reporting frequently reflects that affiliation” and thus an example of governments deciding that “shooting the messenger is a viable option.” Carr seems especially peeved that that an IDF spokeswoman (“Rather than suggesting it was a mistake, or denying responsibility”!) issued only the terse rationale that “The targets are people who have relevance to terror activity.”
What’s the “relevance”? The U.S. government has designated a Al Aqsa TV “a terrorist organization because it is a primary Hamas media outlet and airs programs and music videos designed to recruit children to become Hamas armed fighters and suicide bombers upon reaching adulthood.”
What are some of these videos like? According to Palestinian Media Watch, an organization that has been called to testify before Congress many times, a recent video beamed the legend “Killing Jews is worship that draws us close to Allah.” Another video contained the jaunty lyric: “Brigades — we kidnap soldiers, Brigades — we kill Jews . . . Your body parts are scattered everywhere. The cemeteries await you.”
Is this what Carr calls “reporting which reflects an affiliation with Hamas”?
Further, the U.S. Treasury Department points out that:
Fathi Hammad, the former director of Al-Aqsa TV, currently serves as the Hamas interior minister in Gaza, is a former senior member of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, and as of 2007, was a member of the Hamas Shura Council. Hammad has supervised the construction of smuggling tunnels for Hamas and has encouraged the building and use of homemade weapons for use against Israel.
None of these elements are mentioned by Carr. They should have been. Not because they justify killing — Carr is right to point out that “civilian broadcasting facilities are not rendered legitimate military targets simply because they broadcast pro-Hamas or anti-Israel propaganda” — but because these elements increase the possibility that the IDF — and not Carr’s informants at Al-Aqsa TV — might have been right, i.e., that these so-called journalists might have been using the immunity-granting power of the “PRESS” designation to operate freely in a combat zone. The details about the character of Al-Aqsa TV, which seems to have supplied most of the facts given to Carr, add weight to the theory that the IDF may have known al-Kumi and Salama were using a car — hastily scrawled with the word “TV” — to transport weapons or soldiers to Hamas front lines. It would not be the first time terrorists have used press designations to kill or assist in killing. Journalists get access to people and places unavailable to the public. They get to speed through checkpoints when ordinary mortals must stop and open their trunks. On a battlefield, soldiers are actually supposed to forget bullets whistling by their ears and focus on not hitting the guys wearing the PRESS vests. Who wouldn’t want to scrawl PRESS on his shirt and see what it gets him?
The main lesson we learn from this is that Al-Aqsa TV is a potent propaganda outlet and that it’s befogged one more mind, this one belonging to a New York Times columnist.
Then, on November 26, Buzzfeed gave Carr the opportunity to respond to charges that he’d essentially gone to bat for terrorists with his sanctimonious column treatment. The answer he gave was pretty weak: “I ran my column by reporters and editors at our shop familiar with current events in the region before I printed it,” Carr said. “And I don’t believe that an ID made by the IDF is dispositive or obviates what the others said. Doesn’t mean that I could not have gotten it wrong, only that the evidence so far suggests that they were journalists, however partisan.”
First of all, the New York Times is the last place one should go for objective information about the full identities of people in the area who call themselves — or actually sometimes work — as reporters or cameramen. As I documented in my book The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy, the New York Times seems to be the last to know that it is practically a tradition in the Palestinian territories and at the Palestinian media outlets (which are state-run anyway) to combine reporting work with political activism, whether that be merely hosting a hyper-partisan blog (Hamas flags, shots of bloody children) or transporting weapons. So it really doesn’t matter what Carr’s editor friends said; they are clueless on this matter.
Secondly, what Carr’s critics — all over the web, not just here — did was raise questions, questions like “Could the IDF have been right?” If Carr had given this question a fair shake by including the information he excluded, he would have had to write an entirely different kind of column, one that didn’t indulge in sanctimony over Israel’s conduct during a war and one that didn’t use Israel as his Exhibit A in a piece about journalists under “murderous assault.” That might not have been as much fun to write, but it wouldn’t libel a country.