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BuzzFeed Gets a Big Story Wrong

But it’s other journalists who turned it into a viral conspiracy theory

Liel Leibovitz
August 06, 2014
Israelis hold Israeli flags along the road of the funeral procession of Gilad Shaer, 16, one of three Israeli teens kidnapped on June 16, 2014. ( Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
Israelis hold Israeli flags along the road of the funeral procession of Gilad Shaer, 16, one of three Israeli teens kidnapped on June 16, 2014. ( Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

Yesterday, Israeli security officials claimed the funding and instructions for the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in June came from two top leaders of Hamas in Gaza: Fathi Hammad, the former Hamas interior minister, who lives in Gaza, and Saleh al-Arouri, a close associate of Khaled Mashaal, who masterminds terror operations from a safe haven in Turkey. Ordinarily, the news that a terrorist organization funds terrorism wouldn’t qualify as much of a news item. But as those paying attention to the coverage of the recent conflict in Gaza know, the question of who was behind the kidnapping has bloomed into a persistent conspiracy theory. Israel, wailed its critics, had known all along that the kidnappers were members of a breakaway sect of the terror organization, yet had blamed Hamas anyway in order to justify its bloody pre-planned assault on Gaza.

This theory, such as it was, was supported largely by the reporting of Buzzfeed’s Sheera Frenkel. “If there was an order, from any of the senior Hamas leadership in Gaza or abroad, this would be an easier case to investigate,” Frenkel quotes an anonymous Israeli intelligence officer “intimately involved in investigating the case” as saying. “We would have that intelligence data. But there is no data, so we have come to conclude that these men were acting on their own.”

Having an Israeli security officer—one “intimately involved” in the investigation, no less—flat-out deny that Hamas had anything to do with the kidnapping and murders certainly qualifies as a major scoop. But Frenkel, it’s now clear, got the story flat-out wrong: The Israelis had, in fact, reached the exact opposite conclusion three weeks ago, after having quietly taken one of the three main suspects in the case into custody.

Why believe the new, official Israeli version of events over Frenkel’s anonymous intel sources, who said flatly that Hamas wasn’t responsible? This is where some background in reporting comes in. Anonymous sources can be slippery, which is why reporters are generally very careful in relying on information that they provide. They are the lowest rung on the sourcing ladder for this kind of story. Next come public officials, who are willing to be cited by name. At the very top of the ladder are public documents, especially those that emerge in the context of a legal proceeding—where falsification of evidence could lead to jail time, and certainly to the end of any public official’s career. The new version of events comes from state documents in a court case and not from anonymous sources. By showing that a major suspect in the case was in custody three weeks ago, the documents also strongly suggest that Frenkel’s information didn’t come from a whistle-blower. Rather, it suggests that her information was either badly out of date or the result of a deliberate attempt to mislead her.

Getting a story wrong is hardly a crime. Reporters, especially young reporters—who may lack both the lived experience and the close contacts to sift grains of truth from the chaff of falsehood—are prone to getting stories wrong, especially in a high-pressure situation like a war. It’s possible that Frenkel’s source misled her on purpose, in order to disguise the fact that one of the suspects was in custody. It’s also possible that Frenkel’s anonymous source wasn’t all that “intimately involved” in the investigation after all. Six days ago on Twitter, Frenkel claimed that “I spoke to several intel officers, who are involved in the actual investigation,” making it seem like she had more than one Israeli source—all of whom, presumably, gave her bad information.

Whatever the reason for Frenkel’s big slip-up—I’ve contacted her, and she was kind enough to write back and say that she was reporting the story herself—chances are that it’s a perfectly understandable and reasonable one, the price of engaging in a fast-paced pursuit like journalism. Let he who is without sin cast the first tweet.

What’s more striking—and less forgivable—is how quickly Frenkel’s unfounded conclusions became gospel. Many of the high-profile people who vented their outrage about Frenkel’s buzzy revelations should probably be forgiven for their premature and misguided zeal: when Mark Ruffalo tweets “Wow. It Turns Out Hamas Didn’t Kidnap and Kill the 3 Israeli Teens After All,” no one should mind too much. Like Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, signatories to a recent Spanish harangue accusing Israel of genocide, Ruffalo seems to be a decent human being with passionate feelings, which isn’t a bad thing for a movie actor to be.

Professional journalists should know better. Dan Murphy, who covers the conflict for the Christian Science Monitor, for example, wrote a series of rabid tweets accusing the Jewish state of a massive conspiracy to lie to its own people and to the world in order to commit bloodshed. “The lie was for public consumption within Israel, where the press is subject to severe govt censorship,” went one example; “Israel used a pretext to go after Hamas. That is all,” read another; “They presented the arrests as a necessary intelligence gathering exercise to ‘find’ the ‘kidnapped’ boys,” snarked a third. The BBC’s Kim Ghattas added to her already strongly anti-Israeli Twitter feed by repeating the report and then wittily quipping, “good thing no one overreacted then…” And Adam Horowitz and Phil Weiss, over at Mondoweiss, called the claim that Hamas kidnapped the boys “the WMD of Gaza Onslaught.”

The evocation of the Iraq war isn’t accidental. That conflict’s cri de coeur was “Bush lied, Iraqis died.” So “Bibi lied, Gazans died” would seem to fit quite nicely.

Except professional journalists like Murphy, Ghattas, and even Horowitz and Weiss, aren’t supposed to be shaping the news according to catchy slogans and personal pre-conceptions. They are supposed to look at facts, which requires reporting—which is the process of making first-hand observations and asking informed questions of credible people in a position to have truthful answers, and then presenting the result of their efforts to the reader, who can be empowered to make their own judgments.

You can try and blame it on Twitter. You can argue that the Internet has made things move too fast, and that our information economy has been corrupted by a constant landslide of new data that moves too fast for anyone to sort truth from falsehood and forces people back on simplistic frames of understanding, which simply reflect their pre-existing prejudices. All that is true. All that is also largely irrelevant. Nothing in this world justifies the sort of wild reaction that several journalists permitted themselves in public, reactions that went far, far beyond merely re-tweeting and sharing published information, to suggesting a dark and malign conspiracy on the part of an entire nation whose children were in fact murdered by terrorists, and whose civilian population was forced into bomb shelters for weeks.

Sheera Frenkel made a mistake. In the future, presumably, she will be more selective about her use of sources. As for the others, who didn’t even bother to report at all before reaching drastic conclusions and broadcasting them to their readers as fact, it is difficult to imagine why there should be a next time.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.