By Liz Spayd, NYtimes public editor, April 18; 2017
Marwan Barghouti is an unusually popular political figure among Palestinians, especially for a man behind bars. He is a charismatic leader who has written three books and for many years has commanded an outsize presence beyond the Israeli prison where he is serving time. He was given five consecutive life terms after being convicted in an Israeli criminal court of premeditated murder for his role in terrorist attacks that killed five people, along with other crimes.
On Sunday, he wrote a piece for the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times to draw attention to a mass hunger strike for what he calls Israel’s arbitrary arrests and poor treatment of Palestinian prisoners.
“Israel’s inhumane system of colonial and military occupation aims to break the spirit of prisoners and the nation to which they belong, by inflicting suffering on their bodies, separating them from their families and communities, using humiliating measures to compel subjugation,” he wrote. “In spite of such treatment, we will not surrender to it.”
In the piece, Barghouti makes reference to his life sentences and additional 40-year term but he does not say the crimes for which he was convicted. More crucially, neither did the editors of the Opinion pages. A biographical sentence at the end of the Op-Ed simply says, “Marwan Barghouti is a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.”
I asked Jim Dao, editor of the Op-Ed pages, about the decision not to include Barghouti’s crimes.
Dao noted that the piece does say the author received multiple life sentences but he acknowledged that it doesn’t state the crimes for which he was convicted. “We are drafting an editors’ note that will provide that information,” he said.
Here’s the note, attached after our exchange:
This article explained the writer’s prison sentence but neglected to provide sufficient context by stating the offenses of which he was convicted. They were five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization. Mr. Barghouti declined to offer a defense at his trial and refused to recognize the Israeli court’s jurisdiction and legitimacy.
In the meantime, a rash of readers have objected — in emails to me and on social media — to what they say was The Times’s distorted characterization of Barghouti.
The New York Times and all media lose credibility and contribute to the degradation of journalism when they publish misleading author credentials within editorials and op-eds. The author is described by The New York Times for its readers as “a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” That is true, but what is misleading is what The New York Times elected to omit from the description — that the author has been convicted of five separate counts of murder in an Israel civilian court (not military, civilian). To omit that critical piece of information and simply describe the author as a leader and politician effectively prevents the reader from placing his opinions in proper perspective.
This isn’t a new issue for the Opinion section. I have written before on the need to more fully identify the biography and credentials of authors, especially details that help people make judgments about the opinions they’re reading. Do the authors of the pieces have any conflicts of interest that could challenge their credibility? Are they who they say they are, and can editors vouch for their fidelity?
In this case, I’m pleased to see the editors responding to the complaints, and moving to correct the issue rather than resist it. Hopefully, it’s a sign that fuller disclosure will become regular practice.