President Joe Biden raged against The New York Times in a private White House meeting early last week, after the Times amplified a Hamas claim that an Israeli airstrike was behind the Oct. 17 bombing of a Gaza hospital.
The news of the deadly explosion scuttled a planned presidential trip to Jordan, but the White House now believes a stray Palestinian rocket, not Israel, was to blame. (A more recent Times report has also called that assessment into question, and independent analysts continue to debate the evidence.)
The president told a small group of Wall Street executives in the White House’s Roosevelt Room early last week that he thought the headline was irresponsible and could have triggered military escalation in the Middle East, two people briefed on the conversation told Semafor. He fumed in particular that the headline had appeared “in an American newspaper.”
Democratic leaders have perpetual love-hate relationships with the Times, the most powerful media outlet by far in setting their party’s agenda – and one they typically see as insufficiently loyal.
Biden’s relationship with the news organization soured during his presidential campaign over what his team saw as unfavorable coverage that underestimated his electoral chances and political instincts. Biden has continued to rebuff interview requests with the paper’s news reporters, opting instead to speak with its friendlier opinion columnists. On X, the White House has repeatedly boosted the New York Times Pitchbot, a popular progressive account that attempts to spoof the paper.
Palestinian civilian death counts are a particularly heated and sensitive topic. This week, Biden and other White House officials dismissed the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry’s death numbers as unreliable propaganda. Some journalists agree: One person familiar with the situation told Semafor that some of the news organization’s own staff have put pressure on the Times not to use the Gaza Health Ministry’s tally. But independent journalists have said that despite that organization’s affiliation with Hamas, its numbers have largely been consistent with estimates from other aid groups.
Biden’s Wall Street meeting was also an attempt to manage a key domestic political constituency that leans hard toward Israel. Apollo CEO Marc Rowan sparked a donations boycott from some wealthy University of Pennsylvania alumni over what he said was the university’s failure to condemn pro-Palestinian student views and events that bordered on antisemitism. Billionaire investor Bill Ackman said he wouldn’t hire any students from Harvard, his alma mater, who had signed a letter blaming Israel for the Oct. 7 attacks.
Financiers funneled more donations to Biden than any other industry group, according to Open Secrets, and many have turned on him over his administration’s securities-law and antitrust crackdowns. But support for Israel is a cause they agree on, and a political opportunity for Biden to keep them onside.
Vanity Fair reported this week that there was “immediate concern” inside The New York Times over how the paper presented the Gaza hospital bombing story, as editors debated whether they should hedge who was responsible for the blast.
The Oct. 17 headline and push alert led to an extended apology from the publication, which published an editors’ note explaining the mistake and a podcast interview with executive editor Joe Kahn. (Some Times brass, one person familiar with their views told Semafor, were unhappy with how hard host Lulu Garcia-Navarro pressed Kahn.)
While other news outlets also jumped on Hamas’s claims, the Times faced the brunt of criticism from supporters of Israel and political pundits, and remains a punching bag: A Fox News host this week compared the move to the paper’s flawed coverage of the Holocaust.
The Israel Defense Forces has admonished numerous news organizations for publishing claims from the Hamas-run Palestinian government. Last week, an IDF spokesperson said during an interview on BBC that the network was simply “taking Hamas information and displaying that as the truth.”