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The difficulty with David Frum’s apology for bogus photo-fakery allegations

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David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, today apologized for having questioned the authenticity of some photos of traumatized, blood-soaked men that were taken last week at a Gaza hospital. The pictures depicted two brothers who had accompanied their father to the hospital after an airstrike hit their home in Khan Younis.

AP, Reuters and the New York Times all captured images of the scene at the hospital. Frum apologized: “These images do appear authentic, and I should not have cast doubt on them. I apologize especially to Sergey Ponomarev of The New York Times, whose work I impugned.”

Here are three of Frum’s tweets:

That first tweet linked to a blog post titled “More Palestinian Fakery” by Thomas Wictor, who’d noticed some inconsistencies in the various photos of the bloodied men.

Frum is a big deal, with his 101,000 Twitter followers, a long resume (including a stint in the Bush administration) and a sweet position with The Atlantic. Accordingly, the photo conspiracy theory that he fanned via Twitter — not on The Atlantic — met with strong refutations. ripped the logic of Frum and Wictor in a painstakingly precise blog post. It offered an alternative explanation for how the various photos could well have arisen. An item on the New York Times Lens Blog discredited Frum-Wictor as well, as Ponomarev explained the entire sequence of events:

In one ambulance there was a heavily injured older man and two younger men, and one of them was covered with blood and really upset. He fell on his knees, calling on Allah and gesturing.
There was a huge crowd around those people arriving, including guards and medical personnel. They went to the operating room and I followed them. The same upset man was yelling and gesturing, and we were all kicked out from the operating room so as not to distract the doctors.
Then he was gesturing and crying in the hospital corridor. I believe he was the son of the older man who was injured. So I photographed other people and then came back after the other media left him alone. I saw his brother take him to a nearby room and he must’ve washed him off because afterward there was no blood on his face and his hands were clean. He was sitting on the chair and seemed calmer, and that’s when I took the photo.

New York Times officials all but spat at the allegations.

The words of regret from Frum came in a timely manner, and they seemed sincere. With a caveat: Tacked onto that apology was a brief history of “faked or misattributed photographs as tools of propaganda,” as he puts it. He continues: “Image management is a feature of all modern war, but in the Middle East it often seems that combatants put more effort into shaping perceptions than winning any strategic result on the ground. Most recently, images from the war in Syria have repeatedly been tweeted and retweeted as Israeli-inflicted casualties in Gaza.”

To which the proper question is, So what?

What Frum appears to be saying is that this history of image manipulation contextualizes his decision to tweet repeatedly an Internet-borne conspiracy theory. Indeed, he prefaces his dive into history with this line: “Yet I also think it important to explain my skepticism when presented with such images.”

It’s precious that in a post about his credulity, Frum would credit himself with skepticism. That’s precisely what he didn’t exercise here. He trafficked allegations of high journalistic corruption, apparently without ever consulting the people he was accusing. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the New York Times, said, “Oh God no,” when asked whether Frum had ever pre-checked his tweeting. “Based on what I understand, he did not,” she says.

With all his Twitter followers, too, Frum elevated the allegations beyond the level that Wictor had taken them. “I don’t know that anybody would have paid any attention to it unless someone like Frum had tweeted it,” says Murphy. After the flare-up, Ponomarev was asked to forward his 84 raw images of the sequence to New York Times headquarters so that his supervisors could waste their time verifying that Frum had no basis for his claims.

And what claims they were! If his version of events had borne out, The New York Times and other guilty parties would have a multi-week scandal on their hands. People would have lost their jobs. The wrongdoing would get mentioned for decades into the future by the newspaper’s many critics.

At this point, it’s almost a cliche of journalism — Don’t repeat everything you read on some blog. A senior editor at The Atlantic went ahead and did so. And in his apology, he offered a history lesson to explain his “skepticism.” A better word would have been “bias.” If nothing else, Frum showed how utterly inclined he is to believe and recirculate a claim of Palestinian photo fakery. Journalists guard against their biases by checking their reporting before publishing it.

The Erik Wemple Blog has requested an interview with an Atlantic editor about the Frum situation. An Atlantic spokeswoman says that top editor James Bennet will not be available to address the incident.