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It’s Been Two Days; Why Hasn’t the Times Reporter Who Called the PA’s Pay-for-Slay Program Fake News Apologized?

An anatomy of incompetence and malice

Liel Leibovitz
April 24, 2018
Via Flickr
Via Flickr
Via Flickr
Via Flickr

This weekend, The New York Times’s tech reporter, Nellie Bowles, referred to the Palestinian Authority’s $400 million payment to terrorists and their families as a “far-right conspiracy.” Several reporters, myself included, called Bowles out for this flagrant bit of fake news, and her newspaper eventually removed the statement and issued a necessary correction. Good for them. But Bowles herself has yet to apologize or acknowledge her egregious error in judgment, which means it’s time to look into her bizarre statement and its origins in greater depth.

Where did the idea of the Palestinian pay-for-slay program being fake news come from? As several journalists pointed out on social media this weekend, Bowles’s source was likely Glenn Kessler, who writes The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column. In a March column entitled “Does the Palestinian Authority pay $350 million a year to ‘terrorists and their families’?” Kessler answered the question by giving it two Pinocchios, indicating that it is largely false. Why? Because there was no way, Kessler wrote, to know which of the aid recipients were truly terrorists.

“There is no standard definition for terrorism in the U.S. government, a problem State Department officials encountered when they sought to penalize the PA,” wrote the Washington Post’s anointed Fact Checker. “As the cliche goes, one man’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” As such, Kessler averred, it’s hard to say exactly how much money went to bona fide terrorists and how much was awarded to support needy Palestinian families in a legitimate policy of social welfare.

Ambiguity is hard! Unless, that is, you take a moment to, you know, do cursory research on the subject you are writing about. Yosef Kuperwasser, the former head of the IDF intelligence’s research branch, has already explained, in Tablet, that one main feature of the Palestinian pay-for-slay program is that “payments increase with increased punishment, which accompanies the severity of the terror attack.” In other words, it’s not the size of the terrorist’s family that matters, but the size of the family he slaughters: The more dead Jews, the longer the prison sentence, the bigger the dollar amount. It’s a basic incentive structure that every Toyota salesperson would immediately comprehend.

Most Americans, thankfully, comprehend it, too, which is why it inspired the rare bipartisan bit of legislation, the Taylor Force Act. And it moved that notorious far-right conspiracy theorist Sen. Chuck Schumer to support it, saying that “President [Mahmoud] Abbas must be held accountable for the Palestinian Authority’s record of incitement and must stop subsidizing terror. It’s abhorrent that the Palestinian Authority provides payments to terrorists and families of those who have committed terrorist violence against Israelis and Americans and others.”

But why believe the former head of the IDF’s intelligence research branch and the ranking Democratic member of the US Congress? Maybe Kuperwasser just makes stuff up because he’s a Zionist agent who therefore—just like those so-called “reporters” for far-right outlets who propagate “fake news”—doesn’t care about his credibility while spouting a bunch of self-pleasing, pernicious blather? And maybe Chuck Schumer and the rest of Congress are in Israel’s pocket, right? Why be gullible?

Here, then, is Mahmoud Abbas: “Whoever has [weapons]–go ahead and do it,” Abbas told the PLO Central Council in a January 14, 2018 address. “I say this out in the open. If you have weapons, go ahead. I’m with you, and I will help you. Anyone who has weapons can go ahead…The Americans are always telling us that we must stop paying salaries to the families of the martyrs and the prisoners. We categorically reject this demand. Under no circumstances will we allow the families of the martyrs, the wounded, and the prisoners to be harmed.”

But Kessler doesn’t seem to be swayed by direct admissions, either. Why? Apparently because he has own, more reliable Palestinian source, Defense for Children International Palestine, which Kessler characterized simply as “a nongovernmental institution.” As NGO Monitor helpfully reported, however, the organization has strong ties to the PFLP, which has long been designated by the State Department as a terrorist group.

For a self-advertised professional fact-checker and a onetime actual reporter who covered the Middle East, Kessler seems to have piss-poor judgement when it comes to sources, and/or a weird reluctance to admit when he’s dead wrong. In his role as fact-checker, the assertion of a terrorist front group as “proof” that an exhaustively documented phenomenon is “fake news” is worse than bad judgement: It’s toxic. Especially when his baseless claim is then parroted by a New York Times tech reporter, who apparently couldn’t be bothered to do, you know, real reporting.

The shoddiness of it all— from two newspapers that just jointly awarded themselves the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on Russian fake news and Trump and the 2016 election (or something; the prize citation contained so many weasel words that it was impossible to say exactly what the prize was for, or who won it)—is so blatant that it crosses into willful denialism. If this is “real news,” how could “fake news” possibly be more fake?

What one is left with is the strong impression that “real news” means any story that fits the ideological biases and narrative preconceptions of the reporter and their audience while “fake news” is whatever you disagree with or makes you uncomfortable. Which, if anyone out there at the Times and the Post still cares about such matters, makes a mockery of the idea that there is such a thing as “news,” and suggests that consumers of whatever digital product these “newspapers” are now selling would be better off getting their “news” direct from Kim Kardashian’s Twitter feed or other popular social media, which makes no pretense of being anything other than a massive multiplayer role-playing game with a popularity feature torqued by the whims of the algorithm geeks in Silicon Valley and their Putin-loving AI overlords.

I’ll say it again: It’s been two days now, with actual reporters in the real news business pointing out Nellie Bowles’s error, and still no apology. If fake news is such a serious problem, shouldn’t Bowles—a reporter at one of the few ostensibly “real newspapers” left—be eager to address her glaring error in an article about, of all things, fake news? It’s like watching someone complain about litter while throwing soda cans and empty Doritos bags into the town reservoir. Maybe the real problem of fake news is reporters like Kessler and Bowles, and the editors who fail to ensure the quality of their work.

Does this all sound way too personal? It is personal. By saying that this story is fake, these reporters are insulting the memory of Taylor Force, his family, and the US Congress, which passed the Taylor Force Act last month. They are insulting the memories of the many Israelis slain by murderers driven to bloodshed in part by generous financial incentives. And they are also blithely accusing us at Tablet and other reporters who have covered this tragic and grotesque story for years of publishing “fake news,” when they are flat wrong — and lazy, to boot. A routine correction isn’t enough. We deserve an apology, or else Kessler and Bowles should forfeit their right to complain about “fake news” or purport to “fact-check” anyone ever again.

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.