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The Times’ David Carr Responds to Tablet

But now we have a bigger concern

Adam Chandler
November 27, 2012
A Car in Gaza With Press Credential Sprayed on Hood(Screengrab)
A Car in Gaza With Press Credential Sprayed on Hood(Screengrab)

As I noted yesterday, David Carr, a journalist I very much respect, wrote a story about the very real issue of journalists who are increasingly being targeted and murdered while doing their important work in dangerous places.

What bothered me was Carr’s lead example of such outrages—the death of three Palestinian so-called journalists in Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense. Two of the men were affiliated with al-Aqsa TV and were killed in a car that had been spray-painted with the letters “TV” to designate themselves as press. The other man was affiliated with Al-Quds Educational Radio and was killed in a separate strike. The problem was that the three men were also affiliated with the terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. To my mind (and hopefully Carr’s), this seems like a very different thing than targeting someone because they are trying to report the news.

I got in touch with David Carr and asked him for a comment. Here’s what he wrote back:

The three men who died in missile strikes in cars on Nov. 20 that I wrote about were identified as working journalists by Reuters, AP, AFP, and the Washington Post and many other news outlets. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which I treat as a reliable source in these matters, identified them as journalists as well. (as did Reporters without Borders.) I also ran my column by reporters and editors at our shop who are in narrative with current events in the region before I printed it. I don’t believe that an ID made by the IDF is dispostive or obviates what news outlets have printed. Doesn’t mean that I could not have gotten it wrong, only that the evidence so far suggests that they were journalists, however partisan.

Before I jump into the problems here, I think it’s important to show appreciation for David’s response. As a regular reader of his work, I have confidence that getting the story straight is important to him, and his frankness here reinforces that.

If I’m reading this right, being in the employ of a terrorist organization doesn’t make anyone less of a working journalist so long as other news outlets and nonprofit journalist organizations call him a journalist. There are a few problems with this—two small and specific to this case, and one broader and more troubling.

The first problem is that a day earlier, Mohammed Shamalah, a man named as a senior Palestinian terrorist leader, was targeted in an Israeli airstrike while driving a car with “TV” spray-painted on the the hood. According to reports, no media equipment was found in the car. A second problem was that one of the three journalists Carr named in an entirely off-hand way was Mohamed Abu Aisha, whom Carr identifies as the director of a private radio network. But according to the Islamic Jihad website, Mohamed Abu Aisha was one of its uniformed members.

Now let’s say that the practice of terrorists spraying “TV” on a car to use as a shield doesn’t blunt the intensity of Carr’s charges. Let’s zoom out and look at the media affiliation itself. Two of the men that Carr mourns worked for the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV, which he acknowledges in his story–apparently in the belief that Hamas’ TV network plays by similar-enough rules, and serves as similar-enough social function, to be thought of as Gaza’s CNN.

But that’s simply not true, which is why Al-Aqsa TV, has been designated by the United States Treasury as a terrorist financing organization. “Al-Aqsa 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,” notes the 2010 press release. “‘Treasury will not distinguish between a business financed and controlled by a terrorist group, such as Al-Aqsa Television, and the terrorist group itself,’ [Treasury Secretary Stuart] Levey said.”

Which brings us directly to the broader problem at work here. Committees to protect journalists and other such institutions exist in the West because of the valuable social functions that journalists perform. Making clear distinctions between journalists and combatants is essential to performing those functions, especially in conflict zones, where the work gathering news and shedding light on official conduct and abuses is all the more urgent. While there may be different standards of “engagement” for journalists in different cultures, actively promoting the murder of civilians would seem like enough to get your press card revoked. By the same token, if your “news organization” has been designed as a terrorist organization by the US Government, and you regularly broadcast “entertainment” designed to get children to martyr themselves, you probably forfeit the pleasure of drinks at the press club–and not just because some people might take issue with your news judgment. Blurring these lines is, in fact, what gets real journalists killed.

According to Carr, his story passed not only his own smell test, but also those of layers of reporters and editors at the New York Times. This raises a troubling question about whether these in-house experts lack not only the basic knowledge of the Middle East that would have quickly ferreted out the above, but also an understanding of the real circumstances under which journalists in this region work.

Update: An earlier version of this post misidentified Hammed Shamalah, a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike while driving in a car that was marked “TV.” Al-Aqsa’s Hussam Salama, named a Hamas operative, was killed a day later. We apologize for the error.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.