On David Frum, The New York Times, and the Non-Faked 'Fake' Gaza Photos

What they reveal about the three words that are journalists' only source of self-respect

1. A colleague at The Atlantic made a major journalistic error this week. As he has himself admitted, in the first half of a post on our site. Of course, I am talking about David Frum, who sent out a series of tweets that flat-out and falsely claimed that The New York Times had highlighted a “faked” photo of Palestinian casualties. Frum was entirely wrong; the photo was all too real; and now Frum has apologized, to the photographers and for his snap misjudgment. 
I am late to this discussion because I have been out of the country, in Europe, for a week (and still am) and only learned about it today. I want to say something about the case not to make further trouble for Frum, with whom I agree on some issues and disagree on others and am on friendly terms. Nor do I mean to offer anything like an official statement from The Atlantic, which it is not my place to do. 
Rather I want to emphasize a point about journalism that is often misunderstood or overlooked, especially when reporters are attempting to chronicle events as gruesome and politically white-hot as those in Gaza now. I am talking about something at the center of our purpose as journalists, which this episode highlights in the clearest possible way. 
2. Reporters have different interests and styles and predilections, different strengths and weaknesses, different stories of having ended up in this craft. But there is one thing they—we—have in common. It is the fundamental drive that makes us stick with this odd line of work, the usually unspoken but immensely powerful source of pride in what we do. It is summed up by three words: I saw this.
People in this business exist to witness, and to report. Those in this business can tell themselves: As a reporter I saw people doing their work, abusing their power, helping their friends, creating their businesses, doing this and that and whatever is significant in the world. I saw this with my own eyes. As a reporter, I heard people, with my own ears, answer questions, explain their views, avoid or embrace the truth. As a reporter, I traveled to see what a city, a prison, a factory, a war zone actually looked like, up close. All reporters get things wrong and have imperfect information and are "unscientifically" swayed by what they happen to observe or miss. But they are generally trying their best to see more.
Having observed all this, a reporter naturally wants to tell everyone what he has seen, and heard, and found. But the desire to tell, and be listened to, is the second most-powerful impulse among reporters. The desire to seeto hear, to experience, to ask, to attempt to knowis the most powerful of all. 
Let me give you two examples, both involving people now at The Atlantic, and both involving the question of “faked” or real victims of violence in the Middle East.
3. Ten years ago the man who is now The Atlantic's editor-in-chief, James Bennet, was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. There was an episode between Israeli forces and Palestinians; a number of the Palestinians ended up dead. But why? And killed by whom? As a reporter Bennet went out to see the bodies. His story began:

Set in fields of white, pink and red carnations, the giant cooler here, which usually holds vegetables or flowers for sale to an Israeli company, has been turned over to the dead.

It was to this cooler that, inevitably, the Palestinian doctor came Wednesday morning, when, just as inevitably, the latest Israeli Army raid touched off a parallel struggle to define reality. Were there, in fact, children among the dead, as the Palestinians claimed? How many? Did they die from Israeli sniper fire or from militants' explosives?

The doctor, Ahmed Abu Nikera, had had enough of these questions. In the dank, shadowy room, he yanked and pulled to open the bloodstained white cloth wrapping one of the bodies as tightly as a mummy.

''This is a child,'' he said, after he revealed the pale gray face of Ibrahim al Qun, 14. ''This is the exit wound.'' He pointed at the ragged, softball-sized black hole where the boy's left eye had been. A sniper's bullet entered at the back of the boy's head, he said.... 

Dr. Nikara untied a cord binding the cloth around [another] child's neck, then pulled back Asma's hair to reveal a hole the size of a half dollar over her left ear -- an exit wound. She had no sign of shrapnel wounds.

''This is what the Israelis call an accident,'' the doctor said.

[This child's brother] Ahmad lay in the flower cooler. He had a similar hole in his head, above his right ear, and he did not have shrapnel wounds.

If you read the full story, you will see that James Bennet emphasizes the murkiness and unknowability of the situation as a whole. But he knows what he saw—the little bodies, the entry and exit wounds—and he tells us that directly, with the authority of a first-hand witness, with no “some people claim” equivocation. If someone 5,000 miles away would speculate, "You know, I bet a lot of this is fake," a reporter like Bennet could have replied: At some other times, a lot of it might be. But I was there, and you were not, and I am telling you what I saw. (For the record, I did not tell James Bennet that I planned to mention this article of his.)
4. Now, the other example. About a year before Bennet’s piece, when the U.S. invasion of Iraq had just begun, I was in Israel, learning about another bitterly disputed death. This was the case of Mohammed al-Dura, a Palestinian boy in Gaza who, according to many Palestinians and other Arabs, had been mercilessly shot by Israeli soldiers as he crouched in terror behind his father. The episode was so famous that the image of the frightened and martyred boy was shown on postage stamps from some Arabic states. But according to another narrative, the boy was not shot by Israeli soldiers—and perhaps had not been shot at all, the whole episode being staged to reinforce a "blood libel" against Israel for its willingness to slaughter gentile children.
One of many images of al-Dura, from my story.
You can read the details of what I found in the resulting article, "Who Shot Mohammed al-Dura?" The similarity with James Bennet's story is that I wanted to see for myself. Not the boy, which was impossible, but as much forensic information as was available, and people who had looked into the case. My conclusion, based on what I saw and heard, was that some things were knowable: in particular, that the boy could not have been shot by the IDF soldiers known to be in the area. The physics of trajectories, sight lines, and bullet damage did not match up. What did happen to the boy—still living? accidentally shot? shot intentionally by soldiers in some other location, or by someone else?—was unprovable at the time (I asserted) and might never be known.
5. This last point brings us back to David Frum. Both my story and James Bennet's touch on the reality Frum raises in the second part of his post: that images of bloodshed, warfare, and atrocity have often been manipulated for propaganda ends. This has happened as long as there have been images, and it frequently happens now in the Middle East.
It is because of that possibility that James Bennet wanted to see the little bodies in the morgue. And because provocative imagery is sometimes faked, a few people I interviewed in Israel and the United States claimed that it must have been faked in the al-Dura case. The boy could not possibly have been shot! The whole thing was staged by the "Pallywood" propaganda film industry.
People argued to me then, and a decade later are still arguing via email and letters, that a Pallywood staging had to be the explanation. They thought I was naive and gullible to think otherwise. From my point of view, I was applying normal skepticism. Yeah, maybe it was Pallywood. But where's the proof?
Erik Wemple argues in a very tough critique of Frum's claims for The Washington Post that imbalanced, one-sided skepticism was the main problem with Frum's apology. He was willing to believe the worst about the motives and standards of the nation's leading news organization, while accepting at face value some Pallywood-style fantasies about all-fronts fakery. (Ali Gharib spoke at length with one of Frum's original sources. The results are fascinating. Bag NewsNotes also applies a convincingly skeptical view to this source. For the record, I have also seen tips from this source but didn't write stories about them because I didn't find them believable.)
6. Now, at last, the real issue. Most of us argue about Gaza from a safe distance. Meanwhile people there are being killed, injured, displaced, and terrified—the vast majority of them of course Palestinians (more than 96 percent of all deaths so far) and also Israeli soldiers and some civilians. The Israeli soldiers are there because of national policy; the Palestinians of Gaza have no choice. But also there with them, exposed to danger, are relief workers and reporters, determined to see what is happening, and through their broadcasts and their photos and their articles and their interviews to convey that reality to the rest of the world.
We all dislike something about the press, so we take for granted rather than glorify the fact that these are people taking real risks for usually minimal pay. And glorification would be beside the point. From my time in even faintly similar circumstances (during the anti-government riots in South Korea, with a rebel group in Mindanao, in Burma during the 1988 upheavals) I know that people do this for adrenaline and camaraderie and a host of normal, non-glorious reasons.
But respect is called for. For all their blind spots and flaws, reporters on the scene are trying to see, so they can tell, and the photographic and video reporters take greater risks than all the rest, since they must be closer to the action. For people on the other side of the world to casually assert that they're just making things up—this could and would drive them crazy. I'm sure that fakery has occurred. But the claim that it has is as serious as they come in journalism. It goes at our ultimate source of self-respect. As when saying that a doctor is deliberately misdiagnosing patients, that a pilot is drunk in the cockpit, that a lifeguard is purposely letting people drown, you might be right, but you had better be very, very sure before making the claim.
As he would point out quickly himself, David Frum is not of this part of the journalistic world. If he were, he would have known how grave an accusation he was making, and he would not have made it without being sure. I respect him for promptly* apologizing and saying that he had been wrong. And I have written this dispatch to express, and encourage, respect for the reporters in the Middle East and elsewhere now taking risks to tell us what they have seen.

* Several readers have noted that the apology came six days after the original tweets, so I shouldn't have written "promptly" the first time. The rest of the sentence stands.

Also Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes has written to ask that he be given full credit for the original demolition of the "source" on which Frum wrongly relied. Even though this isn't really the subject I was writing about, I know how frustrating it can be to have broken a story and not get credit for it, so I am happy to point readers to Shaw's original post.