The New York Times office building

The New York Times office building is seen in New York City on May 7, 2013.

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To Remove 'Cloud of Doubt,' Journalism Professors Urge Review of NYT Story on Oct. 7 Sexual Violence

Nothing can "reverse the damage done to Palestine and to Palestinians," said the professors, "but the Times could still reverse some of the damage it has done to itself with its silence."

A front-page New York Times story that Israel used to galvanize public support for its U.S.-backed assault on Gaza must be subject to an independent review, said more than 50 journalism professors in a letter to the newspaper on Monday, as growing protests signified widespread outrage over the destruction that followed the bombshell article.

The professors, many of whom worked as full-time journalists before turning to academia, wrote to Timespublisher A.G. Sulzberger, executive editor Joe Kahn, and international editor Philip Pan, calling for a "thorough and independent review" into the article "'Screams Without Words': Sexual Violence on Oct. 7."

The letter urged the newspaper to form a commission made up of journalism experts to examine the "reporting, editing, and publishing processes" for the story.

The article came under scrutiny shortly after it was published, having been reported by not only international correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman but also two inexperienced freelancers based in Israel. One, Anat Schwartz, is a "former air force intelligence official" with whom the Times cut ties after it was revealed that she had "liked" a social media post calling for Gaza to be turned into a "slaughterhouse."

"It appears that extraordinary trust was invested in these individuals andthe Times would benefit from publicly explaining the circumstances that justified such unusual reliance on freelancers for such an important story," wrote the professors, including Mohamad Bazzi of New York University, Shahan Mufti of University of Richmond, and Jeff Cohen, who retired from Ithaca College.

Mufti joined Northwestern University assistant professor Steven Thrasher in gathering the signatures, and told The Washington Post that after "serious consideration and deliberation," the academics "came to the conclusion that this is necessary."

In addition to questions that have been raised about Schwartz's and Sella's experience and bias, the professors pointed to the newspaper's acknowledgment on March 26 that "new video evidence 'undercut' some important details" in "Screams Without Words," as well as Gettleman's comment suggesting he did not view the information in the story as hard "evidence."

"Can the paper 'establish' fact if its own reporter does not consider his information 'evidence'?" asked the professors.

In March, a spokesperson for Kibbutz Be'eri toldThe Intercept that victims of the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel were not sexually assaulted, and the family of one woman who was a key figure in "Screams Without Words" has denied the report's graphic details of sexual abuse were true.

The Intercept also reported that in reporting on the alleged sexual assaults, Schwartz relied on interviews with a rescue group that was "documented to have mishandled evidence and spread multiple false stories about the events of October 7, including debunked allegations of Hamas operatives beheading babies."

Al Jazeera journalist Laila Al-Arian called Monday's letter a "major development" and urged the Times to "do the right thing."

The methods used by Schwartz, The Interceptnoted earlier this month, were the building blocks for a story that "instantly served as a powerful reference in a mounting campaign waged by Israel and its supporters" to excuse Israel's assault on Gaza.

"The impact of The New York Times story is impossible to fathom," the professors wrote on Monday. "This is wartime and in the minds of many people, the Times' story fueled the fire at a pivotal moment when there might have been an opportunity to contain it before, as the International Court of Justice has ruled, the situation devolved into the 'plausible' realm of genocide. Considering these grave circumstances, we believe that the Times must waste no time in extending an invitation for an independent review."

The article, said one signatory, Sandy Tolan of the University of Southern California, was published "as the death toll mounted in Gaza, and criticism was beginning to focus more on Israel."

"Being cognizant of the potential damages of and consequences of the timing," Tolan told the Post, "given that it didn't appear to be as well-reported as it should have been, there's all the more reason why an external review is appropriate."

The signatories pointed out that there is significant precedent for newspapers conducting independent reviews of articles that have raised questions about bias and veracity.

"If an independent review finds that the Times did nothing gravely wrong, then it will be a win not just for the Times but for all journalism," the professors wrote. "In the worst case, if an investigation does find remarkable errors or negligence in the way the newsroom operated, nothing that the Times would do in response could ever reverse the damage done to Palestine and to Palestinians but the Times could still reverse some of the damage it has done to itself with its silence."

"Doing nothing, however," they added, "and allowing a cloud of doubt to hang over this historically consequential story will ensure that all the journalism that The New York Times produces in the course of this conflict will remain under a dark shadow."

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