Atlantic senior editor David Frum was ridiculed this week for pushing a conspiracy theory about photos of suffering Gazans that he based on a crazy blog. Yesterday, Frum issued a "sorry not sorry" apology with more conspiratorial accusations. And he backed them up with another crazy blog, one that even Wikipedia won't trust.
The flap started last week, when the New York Times and Reuters published a series of photographs showing two Palestinian men at a hospital in Gaza, crying over the death of their father in an Israeli artillery barrage. The unconditionally pro-Israel Frum wasn't buying it, thanks to the helpful sleuthing of some "friend" of his, a random guy on the internet named Thomas Wictor:
Editors from the Times—who reviewed all of celebrated photographer Sergey Ponomarev's shots from the hospital—as well as photographic experts on the internet* called Frum's argument what it was: a steaming pile of politically motivated horse shit. Seasoned Mideast journalist Ali Gharib—who previously worked alongside Frum at The Daily Beast—went a step further and interviewed Frum's source for the paranoid piffle, blogger Thomas Wictor, who professed his belief in ghost cats and admitted of his doctored-photos thesis: "Oh yeah, it's possible that I'm completely wrong about everything. This is just opinion."
So Frum did what any classy intellectual would do; he apologized on The Atlantic's website, kinda sorta:
I made a mistake earlier this week in a series of Twitter posts. It's not a mistake to which Atlantic editors were party in any way. But they have kindly allowed me space here to post a correction and apology in a less abbreviated form than Twitter allows...
I was wrong. 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.
Yet I also think it important to explain my skepticism when presented with such images.
As anyone who follows news from the Middle East knows, there is a long history in the region of the use of faked or misattributed photographs as tools of propaganda...
From there, he launched into a disquisition on the ways in which mostly Palestinian sympathizers use doctored images of suffering to aid their cause. "[T]here is another kind of photo falsehood that can be even more misleading: the staging of photographs for propaganda effect," he adds. "A summary of such practices in the 2006 Lebanon war can be read here."
That link in Atlantic senior editor David Frum's post leads to a most fascinating website, zombietime.com. It's fascinating because even Wikipedia's editors call Zombietime "a fringe self-published website," adding that it "is not a reliable source and should not be used as a reference for anything on Wikipedia except its own article. This includes both text and images."
As evidence, the Wikipedia critics point out that Zombietime concocted a pro-Israel conspiracy theory about 2006 photos from the Mideast conflict—a theory that hoaxed an Australian foreign minister in much the same way Frum was hooked in last week.
In that case, Zombietime claimed that photos of Red Cross ambulances attacked by the IDF in Southern Lebanon were fakes. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer pointed to the site's unsubstantiated claims as evidence that Lebanese forces were snowing journalists with fake scenes to make the Israelis look bad.
Like Frum, Downer was humiliated by journalists, Red Cross officials, and experts who quickly debunked Zombietime's blather. "The zombietime version invites the conclusion that the Lebanese Red Cross conspired in an elaborate anti-Israel propaganda plot to dupe the world's media," the Guardian's ombudsman wrote at the time. "I do not think that is proven at all." An Australian paper, after debunking Zombietime's claims, called the site "a callous blog."
So, to sum up: In responding to criticism of his credulous perpetuation of dumb conspiracy theories, David Frum wrote a post on the website of one of America's oldest magazines congratulating himself for his skepticism of Palestinian claims, and as evidence he relied on a website so thoroughly discredited that Wikipedia won't use it. A website that maintains something called "The Ultimate Online Archive of Unflattering Hillary Clinton Photos." A website that has hooked in pro-Israel stalwarts like Frum before with similar tinfoil-hat theories on "faked" photos of Israeli military victims.
Frum's unapologetic impulse to re-order facts in accordance with his ideological commitments, and his subsequent reliance on insano bloggers as evidence when mainstream facts flat-out contradict his intuitions, would not be remarkable if he were just another free radical floating about the blogosphere. But he is not; he is a Very Important Person in Magazines and on Twitter, the type whose intellectual musings are both taken seriously and spread widely.
On the other hand, Frum's celebrity is based on his role as one of the Iraq War's original cheerleaders and as the creator of the "Axis of Evil" meme, so if anybody should fall for bullshit on the internet, it's him. It's just a question of whether he should be remunerated for his credulity—and whether The Atlantic should maybe reconsider if his "apology" post, and his continued inability to appraise his biases, are up to its standards of integrity.
Other serious journalists have some thoughts on that:
Update: Michael Shaw of BagNewsNotes, the excellent media-images blog I linked in the post, asked if we could clarify that he, not the Times or Reuters or AP, was the first to call out Frum's original Twitter claims on the Gaza images. Duly noted!
[Photo credit: MSNBC]