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The Narcissism of The New York Times’ Foreign Coverage

The paper now presents everything through the frame of American domestic politics, erasing regional and local distinctions

Jacob Siegel
October 28, 2020
Anthony Wallace AFP via Getty Images
Anthony Wallace AFP via Getty Images
Anthony Wallace AFP via Getty Images
Anthony Wallace AFP via Getty Images

On Oct. 16, the same day a teenage jihadist decapitated French school teacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb, The New York Times published an article about the attack under the headline: “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street.”

Headlines don’t have the same weight as calculated editorial statements but they reflect a publication’s instincts. Instinctively, the Times’ gloss was that a teenage Chechen refugee-turned-jihadist committing a ritual beheading in a suburb outside of Paris while shouting “Allahu akbar” was best understood in the context of the police response, which, given what Times readers know about the police, may well have been unjust. The initial headline was updated shortly after the article was published to: “Man Beheads Teacher on the Street in France and Is Killed by Police.” Cause and effect are clearer in the new version, with the beheading now mentioned and clearly preceding the police shooting, but it holds onto the same familiar criminal justice framework that—but for the strange, stray mention of beheading—wouldn’t be out of place in an article about defunding the police.

Yet, from the first details that emerged, the murder appeared to fit a different pattern—one that is quite real in France, and not present in the United States—of violent attacks carried out by young first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants who join entrenched criminal-jihadist networks and seek martyrdom by attacking the supposed enemies of Islam. And then, an even more specific pattern: attacks on the satirical comics weekly Charlie Hebdo for publishing impious cartoons depicting the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. According to French investigators, that’s what motivated the decapitation of Samuel Paty, who had shown his high school students the Hebdo cartoons in the course of a classroom lesson on free speech.

On Oct. 29, three more people were killed in France, their throats slit while they prayed inside a church in the southern city of Nice, by an attacker who continued to shout “Allahu akbar” even after he was detained and administered sedatives.

Shortly after the attack, Thomas Chatterton Williams, an American writer living in France, noted that the political leaders of Turkey and Pakistan “have been stoking anger at French society in general.” That context, he wrote, “has been largely unchallenged and even buttressed by Anglophone media imposing their own ideas of intersectionality where they don’t fit.” Williams linked to an article in which the writer, Liam Duffy, describes how, in France, “a growing number of people, both in and out of government, feel that their country is being badly misread and misrepresented in the Anglosphere.” Duffy quotes from an article in the left-wing French daily Le Monde, in which the author, Hugo Micheron, a political scientist studying jihadist terror networks in France, calls the American media’s coverage of France “hallucinatory” and observes that: “The progressive media appear uncomfortable with the facts. In The New York Times and The Washington Post, the two most influential newspapers on the left, the term ‘jihadism’ never appears.”

The Times’ choice to downplay the jihadist angle in its initial coverage and social media promotion of the attack on Paty provides a small window into a much larger transformation in the paper’s approach to “news.” On one hand, the paper of record now treats all foreign policy as domestic policy—i.e., as a mirror in which readers can see their own political concerns reflected. On the other hand, its domestic coverage is shaped by narratives crafted by partisan operatives and by the ideological demands of social media pressure groups. The Syrian civil war, Russian espionage, America’s war in Afghanistan, Chinese trade deals, European debates about sovereignty, and France’s battle with violent Islamists are reduced to grist for a content industry beholden to a small group of activists whose crusades now color how we see the entire world.

The Times, wrote Aris Roussinos recently in the British publication UnHerd, “is no longer predominantly engaged in descriptive analysis of the rest of the world but instead in telling its readers moral fables about the U.S.; parables in which the rest of the world features as mere local colour.” In the paper’s coverage of Brexit and English politics generally, he writes, “Britain itself, with all its complexities, is reduced to a mere shadow play for American journalists to tell their readers improving stories about themselves.”

France and Britain are not the only countries that the Times helps its readers to understand as distant reflections of us. In a December 2017 editorial, the Times expressed grave concerns that Trump’s plans to relocate the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem “almost certainly will make an agreement harder to reach by inflaming doubts about America’s honesty and fairness as a broker in negotiations, raising new tension in the region and perhaps inciting violence.” When the new embassy was eventually opened in May of 2018, the Times’ solemn coverage suggested its fears had been justified. An article titled “Killings in Gaza, New Embassy in Jerusalem, and Peace as Distant as Ever” assessed that Israel’s response to Palestinian protests and attempts to breach the country’s southern security perimeter had “restored international attention to the Palestinian cause with each one-sided casualty report, and revived Hamas’s flagging political fortunes.” The article quoted Aaron David Miller, a former White House official and fixture of Washington, D.C.’s foreign policy mandarin class. The embassy would energize not only Hamas but other jihadist groups as well, Miller warned, galvanizing “a national and religious issue around which to rally: Defense of Jerusalem.”

All of that was wrong; it was a fantasy, the politics of a narrow class of Americans projected onto a distant place whose symbolic meaning was allowed to overcome reality on the ground. In fact, the much-warned-about eruption of violence in the Arab world never occurred. Hamas is more marginalized than ever. International attention to the Palestinian cause, which has always been fickle, was not revived and, in fact, diminished considerably under the Trump administration, for reasons that are only partly about American actions. The point here is not the failure of Middle East analysis, which is hardly unique to the Times, but the fact that the paper’s view of the Middle East was constructed out of a set of talking points generated in D.C. and New York that had no connection to the real dynamics in the region, and which remained immune to all but the most superficial airbrushing even after they were shown to be false.

Examples of the same pattern are pervasive throughout the rest of the paper’s foreign coverage as well. International stories that could potentially impact American elections are usually the most egregiously skewed. The paper’s reporting on the dynamics of political corruption in Ukraine, for instance, has undergone a significant change since 2015. In that year, the Times published an article about then Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the country that described “rampant corruption and stronger efforts to rein in the power of its oligarchs” and questioned whether the “the credibility of the vice president’s anti-corruption message may have been undermined by the association of his son, Hunter Biden, with one of Ukraine’s largest natural gas companies, Burisma Holdings.” Now, of course, allegations of rampant corruption in the Ukrainian oil and gas business and worries over Hunter Biden’s involvement with those companies are held to be partisan propaganda—while the paper’s own reporting on both issues is conveniently memory-holed.

Earlier this year, an explosive Times report claimed the Russian government was paying the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers. The Times’ story was breathlessly repeated by nearly every major news outlet in the country—and by Joe Biden during the last presidential debate—despite being flimsily constructed from anonymous security sources whose claims were refuted by top defense officials. But though the reality of these allegations was never the point of the story, it also seems fair to point out that the average Times reader, who isn’t clued into the fact that an article about Afghanistan is really a coded form of attack between warring political factions in Washington, D.C., may believe that Russians really are waging a clandestine war against the U.S. by paying for the killing of American soldiers in Afghanistan. A normal person who took the Times report at face value would end up with a very misleading picture of what is going on in a country where their country is still at war—and where their children or friends might be posted.

“The paper is in the midst of an evolution from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives, on the web and streaming services,” Ben Smith wrote recently about the changes at the Times, where he’s employed as the paper’s media columnist. Another way of putting Smith’s observations might be to observe that since 2008, newspapers across the country have cut their reporting staffs by more than half, with most of those cuts affecting mid-career employees between 35 to 54. In other words, it was more mature and experienced journalists, the kind who tend to be less susceptible to social media enforced conformity and the creep of ideological activism into reporting, who were most likely to get canned. In an attempt to keep up with the economic and cultural imperatives of digital media, the Times has transitioned from a news gathering to a news making organization. It’s a change that tracks the transition from reporting to narrative construction and from news to content. In the earlier model, news was something out there that you had to go out and get. Now, content is what you make on the internet for internet consumers, often by repurposing bits of “actual news” in the service of preexisting, emotionally resonant narratives. Major publications now write articles about TikTok video memes reacting to political campaigns that are aimed at generating the kind of TikToks likely to get media coverage. The more polarized and tribally fractured America gets, the more news and content converge in an insular and self-reaffirming set of narrative frameworks that get obsessively recycled in a process that more closely resembles the functioning of a cult than an organization dedicated to news gathering.

The risks of this kind of evolution should be clear. Smith’s observation came out of an investigation into how the popular and award winning podcast Caliphate, produced by a rising star at the foreign desk, Rukmini Callimachi, made it to air despite apparently being based on a hoax. The podcast, which was pushed through production despite numerous warnings and red flags from veteran reporters and editors at the Times, was largely based on the account of Shehroze Chaudhry, a 25-year-old now under investigation by Canadian authorities who claim that his stories about joining ISIS in Syria and lurid exploits as a member of the caliphate under the name Abu Huzaifa al-Kanadi were made up. The theme in Smith’s account is that warnings about serious flaws in Callimachi’s reporting went unheeded because her narratives were just too good.

Most of the media now accepts that there was a monumental failure of coverage in the 2016 campaign cycle that left the industry blind to the deep support for Trump and totally unprepared for his eventual victory. Nothing has changed. These biases are deeply ingrained in America’s elite institutions, the national press chief among them, and they persist. Like a cracked lens they are pointed both into the American interior and outward at the rest of the world where they produce widespread errors in reporting and analysis, which in turn inform decision-making not only by politicians but also by bankers and businessmen who are foolish enough to believe what they read, as well as by ordinary people who are trying to make good decisions for themselves and their families. Privileging fairy-tale narratives of good and evil over hard reporting is both cheaper and easier for consumers and producers alike, but it seems like a bad path for a news organization—or a country—to follow.

Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.