Students face riot police near Tehran University, during a clash which started when police occupied and closed the main entrance gate of the university, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday July 13, 1999. In a flashback to the revolution that installed Iran’s Islamic government 20 years ago, police fired tear gas at some 10,000 protesters on the streets of Tehran after they marched for a sixth day in protest of hard-liners who have thwarted efforts to institute reforms.

Why won’t the New York Times accept responsibility for repeatedly publishing a falsehood which caused many deaths?

Mohammed al-Dura, a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, became an icon in 2000 when French State television (“France 2”) ran agonizing views of the boy, cradled in his father’s arms, supposedly under fatal fire from Israeli soldiers during a Gaza battle. The incident, deplorable if true, was presented by international media (see below) virtually as a reprise of the Crucifixion. A French appeals court ruled on May 21-dismissing France 2’s libel suit against the media watchdog who exposed the hoax-that the footage could not be accepted as true, citing testimony from the former Le Monde chief editor that “the theory that the scene [of the child’s death] was faked was more probable then the version presented by France 2.”

Have you read about exposure of the hoax in the Times or other mainline media (excepting the Wall Street Journal and New York Sun)?

That the al-Dura lies incited murders of many innocent people is indisputable. The Jihadis who beheaded reporter Daniel Pearl inserted repeated footage of al-Dura in their gruesome video. Osama bin Laden cited al-Dura as a justification for his carnages in a post-9/11 recruitment video which showed the boy’s “death” 12 times. Streets and plazas–including the street on which Israel’s embassy in Cairo is located — were named after the boy.

Times reporter Deborah Sontag published a near-contemporaneous account — under a headline stating “In Battling Gazans, Israelis Sow Seeds of Hate” — on December 10 2000, which can fairly be read as justifying rather than explaining Palestinian suicide bombing. Sontag referred with certainty to “the boy shot dead as he crouched behind his father” and quoted a “cosmopolitan” Palestinian who wants a gun because he is “haunted by the image of Muhammad al-Dura.”

Sontag, a serial second-generation fictionalist, recently published a Sunday front-page article portraying returning U.S. combat personnel as deranged murderers; the Times’ Public Editor hastily acknowledged that her statistics were faulty.

The Hoax Unravels — The Journalistic Saturnalia Continues

By April, 2002, the al-Dura hoax was beginning to unravel. A German film-maker showed that the Israelis could not possibly have shot the boy. France 2 refused to air her documentary. Notwithstanding the evidence, the Times chose to elevate the falsehood by punditry. On April 17, 2002, the Times published a column by Max Rodenbeck, Middle East correspondent for the London Economist (much British reporting from the region sounds as if it was commissioned by Dr. Goebbels), opining that Arab television was winning the day because it accurately reports just resistance to “brutal” Israelis:

“Palestinian casualties… are textured with memory. Some have become household names from Morocco to Muscat: Muhammad al-Dura, the 12-year-old-boy from Gaza whose father could not shield him from a hail of Israeli gunfire… “

By February, 2005, the Times, acknowledging that authenticity of the France 2 footage was disputed, quoted Professor Richard Landes of Boston University who concluded the video had probably been faked:

“Palestinian cameramen, especially when there are no Westerners around, engage in systematic staging of action scenes.”

Nevertheless, the Times continued to publish opinion columns accepting the faked footage as truth, e.g., on August 21, 2005, the Times published a column by Palestinian publicist David Kuttab “Live from Gaza” referring to “an interview with the parents of Mohammad al-Dura, the boy who was photographed dying in his father’s arms.” The Times never published an opinion piece challenging the falsification.

The Times was not alone in this saturnalia of bigoted journalistic incompetence. Time Magazine Europe honored al-Dura as “Newsmaker of 2000.” The editor of the Independent, concluding there was “no room for doubt,” excoriated the press for insufficient hostility to Israel. The London Telegraph agreed that al-Dura provided “provocation for revenge.” The London Review of Books published a Requiem for al-Dura, eulogizing him as “an infant Jesus.” National Public Radio ran puff interviews acclaiming the France 2 team as journalistic giants. The Palestinian cameraman who faked the footage says: “Journalism is my religion.” Journalism awards were showered on France 2.

The Contemptible Afterlife of Media Falsehoods: Will Anyone Accept Responsibility?

The afterlife of these falsehoods is even more contemptible than the initial reporting. Though the French Court decision was circulated by Reuters and the Associated Press (to which most newspapers subscribe) it was reported only in France and Israel. The New York Times has not published a word about the exposure so far as I ahve been able to find.

Were it not for a few truth-telling bloggers — Tom Gross of NRO, Andrea Levin of CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting) in the Jerusalem Post, Ed Lasky in the American Thinker — the hoax would still be accepted.

To exacerbate its failures, the Times recently savaged Israel for several days for not immediately granting visas to Gaza Fulbright awardees (while not mentioning that three American diplomats were murdered in Gaza in 2003, with complicity of the Palestinian Authority, while in Gaza to conduct Fulbright interviews, an atrocity I reported contemporaneously in the Chicago Sun-Times.)

I have spent most of my life working as a lawyer while dabbling as a journalist. I once represented the New York Times in a case involving the reporter’s privilege. Law and journalism are key pillars of a free society, although there is much that should be improved in both professions.

I am subject to discipline if I lie as a lawyer; there is no similar corrective mechanism against journalists who lie (though no sensible person wants to empower the Government to regulate the press). If the fakery rises to the crescendo of a Jayson Blair, someone may be fired. But the many editors who accepted the al-Dura hoax and then failed to report its exposure are free to continue business as usual, notwithstanding they have trampled truth. If the press wants the respect it craves, shouldn’t it-starting with the eminent Times-accept responsibility for the al-Dura hoax and disclose what it will do to prevent repetitions?

Joel Sprayregen, a Chicago lawyer, has litigated landmark First Amendment cases. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Yale Law School. He is associated with several think tanks which focus on telling the truth about developments in the Middle East. Comments