A Flat-Out Sensational Lie

Tablet Headline

Almost three years ago, while taking another writer to task for an unprovoked swipe at Heeb (where I used to serve as Arts Editor), I referred to Tablet Magazine as “The New Yorker of the Jewish publishing world.” In the ensuing years, though, this description hasn’t really held up. The outlet has turned into a home for linkbait and short, traffic-jacking posts. Does Tablet publish any good content anymore? Yes. Does it excuse their offenses (which I find to be more numerous)? Of course not.

I feel compelled to call out Tablet for a cowardly, false and unconscionable article published August 1st.1 Titled “New York Times Slams Its Own Pulitzer-Prize Winning Photographer In Gaza, [subhead:] Says Legendary Photojournalist Tyler Hicks is Bad at His Job,” the piece was published unsigned, using only the tag “Staff Notes” to mark any form of authorship. The headline is a sensational lie that doesn’t even match the article’s own broken logic.

The baseless headline comes from the following statement given to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency by Eileen Murphy, the Times’ head of communications,2 when asked why there are so few photos of Hamas militants in the Times:

Our photo editor went through all of our pictures recently and out of many hundreds, she found 2 very distant poor quality images that were captioned Hamas fighters by our photographer on the ground. It is very difficult to identify Hamas because they don’t have uniforms or any visible insignia; our photographer hasn’t even seen anyone carrying a gun.

I would add that we would not withhold photos of Hamas militants. We eagerly pursue photographs from both sides of the conflict, but we are limited by what our photographers have access to.

In no way does Murphy even come close to suggesting Hicks is “bad at his job.” Regardless of your opinion as to whether or not the statement is accurate or representative, calling it a “slam” is a flat-out lie.

And that says nothing of the piece itself which asserts right up front, pseudo-couched in the falsehood that a New York Times spokesperson said as much, “Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Tyler Hicks really sucks at his job.”

Tyler Hicks, who photographed the Syrian uprisings before carrying the body of his colleague Anthony Shadid out of Syria, really sucks at his job. Tyler Hicks, who ran into Westgate mall in Nairobi when he heard shots fired and captured the horror and panic of a terrorist attack in progress, really sucks at his job. Tyler Hicks, who, while covering the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya, was held prisoner and told by his captor, “You have a beautiful head. I’m going to remove it and put it on mine. I’m going to cut it off,” really sucks at his job.

Hicks’ many plaudits and experiences do not shield him from criticism. But perhaps they should give one pause before lobbing baseless ad hominem attacks because his work does not fit your narrative.

Tablet’s unnamed author hooks on to the word “access” in Eileen Murphy’s statement.

How does being dependent on Hamas for your daily access–not to mention your life–potentially impact coverage? Well, the fact that the Times has only two distant, grainy, unusable images of Hamas gunmen from Tyler Hicks tells you all you need to know, doesn’t it.[sic]

I’m not sure what the author sees as the alternative, here. Hicks’ access isn’t limited in the way an entertainment journalist’s access is limited, i.e. the interview is over if you bring up the starlet’s ex-husband. “Access” in a war zone means life or death. A photojournalist cannot work if s/he is dead. The top priority, always, should be getting home with the story in tow.3

Today, in an interview with James Estrin on the Times’ Lens Blog, Hicks roundly answers critics of his work, like Tablet:

This is a war fought largely behind the scenes. Hamas fighters are not able to expose themselves. If they were to even step a foot on the street they would be spotted by an Israeli drone and immediately blown up. We don’t see those fighters. They are operating out of buildings and homes and at night. They are moving around very carefully. You don’t see any signs of authority on the streets. If you can imagine every police officer, every person of authority in America gone, this is what that would look like.

If we had access to them, we would be photographing them. I never saw a single device for launching the rockets to Israel. It’s as if they don’t exist.

Sometimes people assume that you can have access to everything, that you can see everything. But the fighters are virtually invisible to us. What we do as photographers is document what we can to show that side of the war. There are funerals, there are people being rushed to the hospital, but you can’t differentiate the fighters from the civilians. They are not wearing uniforms. If there is someone coming into the hospital injured, you can’t tell if that’s just a shopkeeper or if this is someone who just fired a rocket towards Israel. It’s impossible to know who’s who. We tried to cover this as objectively as possible.

Perhaps this won’t satisfy critics of either Hicks or the New York Times, but I think it offers fascinating insight into the conflict on the whole. Critics of Israel will often point to the lopsided casualty count (a gruesome metric, indeed) on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, while supporters will say the Israeli Defense Forces have no choice but to operate as they do because the rockets are launched from civilian areas. This is exactly in line with Hicks’ statement. He can’t photograph what he can’t see. And if the Israeli military itself has trouble locating and neutralizing rockets, how could a photojournalist fare any better?

In the end, though, Tablet’s article was false when they published it and has now been dismantled. It’s shameful to see anyone put this drivel out into the world, and all the more shocking and sad that it should come from an outlet that once showed so much promise. A retraction or at the very least an editorial comment is in order, but I doubt we’ll see one. One can’t expect much from a writer who doesn’t even sign his or her own work.

  1. Journalism professor Jay Rosen was kinder and called the piece “unwise.” ↩︎

  2. Murphy is listed as “Vice President, Corporate Communications” on LinkedIn and is often quoted as a “spokeswoman for The Times.” I have chosen to use the job title on her Twitter bio, head of communications. ↩︎

  3. It’s worth noting that on the same day as Tablet’s Hicks article, the Times itself was informed that a published story would become subject to military censorship by Israel. ↩︎