Media watchdog catches a whopper in New York Times feature on gay life in Lebanon

Sometimes you just have to wonder whether someone’s simply asleep at the wheel.

Yes, even at The New York Times, which I consider journalism's preeminent global-news operation.

I say that, despite the Times many imperfections. To which I'd add this ambitious but seriously flawed story about gays, lesbians and transsexuals trying to survive in Lebanon. Here’s its opening paragraphs.

Throughout the Middle East, gay, lesbian and transgender people face formidable obstacles to living a life of openness and acceptance in conservative societies.
Although Jordan decriminalized same-sex behavior in 1951, the gay community remains marginalized. Qatar, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen all outlaw same-sex relations. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality can be punished by flogging or death.
In Egypt, at least 76 people have been arrested in a crackdown since September, when a fan waved a rainbow flag during a concert by Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band with an openly gay singer.
If there is one exception, it has been Lebanon. While the law can still penalize homosexual acts, Lebanese society has slowly grown more tolerant as activists have worked for more rights and visibility.

What’s that, you say? You clicked on the link to the story provided above and that’s not how the lede actually reads? Instead of “Middle East,” the story now refers to the “Arab world”?

Well, you're correct. Let me explain.

The four lede paragraphs excerpted above is how the Times story originally read, when it caught my eye. But then it was changed and for good reason.

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Here’s a hat-tip for retaining the original wording to CAMERA, a right-leaning, pro-Israel, media watchdog group, about which I’ll say much more below.

If you know anything about this issue, something about that original wording has to strike you as wrong. Middle East? Isn't Israel in the Middle East? And isn't Israel exceptionally accepting of sexual and gender alternatives? So much so that its been called “the most advanced in the Middle East, and one of the most advanced in Asia” when it comes to LGBTQ rights.

So how did Israel get overlooked in the original story lede? Ignorant writing and sloppy editing? A conscious or unconscious attempt to distance Israel, a majority Jewish nation, from its rightful inclusion in the Middle East context?

I'm guessing ignorant writing and sloppy editing, though the second option, especially on the subconscious level, can't be fully ruled out without getting totally into the heads of all those who had a hand in writing and editing the piece -- which is of course impossible.

Ignorant writing and editing is my go to option because of several other holes in the story, that solid writing and editing would have avoided.

For example, to talk about sexuality and gender issues in Lebanon and barely mentioning the role played by traditional Islam in the debate is akin to avoiding mentioning President Donald Trump in a debate about the 2018 Republican Party.

It's belies a woeful lack of journalistic awareness and perhaps even integrity.

Yet Islam is mentioned just once in the story, which is as much a photo essay accompanied by blocks of type. That reference is to an unnamed Muslim scholars’ group that objected to an unnamed event scheduled for Beirut’s first gay pride week, resulting in the event being canceled.

I have more questions. Are we talking about Sunni or Shiite Muslims? Do the forms of the faith differ in their approach to LGBTQ people in Lebanon?

What about Lebanon’s various Christian churches? What role do they play in the debate? Or the Druze, the fourth major religious group in Lebanon.

A single paragraph, or two at most, is probably all the space needed to answer these questions.

Also, did any of the LGBTQ people profiled in the story have a religious past, or present, that might enhance the story?

I realize, of course, too many personal details revealed could mean trouble for LGBTQ people in Lebanon; the story reflects this by not using family names or photos of those interviews, when requested.

I'm guessing this is also why, other than their names, we’re told nothing about the two credited writers of the story, who appear to be local freelancers. No, “So and so is a Beirut-based local freelancer …” or something like that, which is typical for the Times. One of the two writers is also credited with taking the 17 photos, many of them quite strong images, that ran with the online story presentation.

But Lebanon operates on a “confessional” system with political power traditionally doled out based on the size of the competing religious groups. So everyone has at least a tribal religious connection and it could be illuminating to know, even very generally, how that fit into the lives of those interviewed.

Also, while the story refers to Lebanon as becoming more open for LGBTQ people, its details make clear that we’re really only talking about what’s going on in some more liberal enclaves of Beirut, the capital city. References to life outside of Beirut and even other Beirut neighborhoods indicate the opposite is going on there for LGBTQ people.

Now let’s get back to CAMERA and the story’s corrected lede.

The following correction ran Dec. 31, the day this story also ran in the Times print edition.

An earlier version of this article misstated the exceptionality of Lebanon in the Middle East. While Lebanon is an exception in the Arab world, it is not an exception in the Middle East; in Israel, gay, bisexual and transgender people have widespread rights and freedoms.

Did a more experienced print staff catch what a less experienced online staff missed? Who knows?

What I do know is that CAMERA took credit for pushing the Times to make the correction. I have no reason to question the claim so I salute CAMERA for its work in this instance.

But that does not mean I have no quibble with CAMERA and other single-issue media watchdog groups that weaponize words in their ongoing battle to gain the upper hand for their side in whatever ideological struggle they're engaged.

These groups live or die on their ability to keep their support-bases fired up and willing to pony up repeated donations. As a result they tend to find fault wherever they can -- even, in my opinion, when their objection is far more political than journalistic. In other words, when a story strays from their preferred narrative.

They also tend to smear with a broad brush. Mistakes seem never to result from human error alone. Instead, they're too often depicted as evidence of widespread editorial conspiracies perpetuated by whatever news operation's error has been caught.

Here's the logic: If the Times is as good as it's said to be, errors such as those in this Lebanon story must be purposeful and a clear indication of editorial bias. Never mind that the Times is a vast organization that operates less as a well-tuned collective and more in line with one individual decision at a time.

That's how large human organizations tend to function. We're more like cats than bees.

Bottom line: Media watchdogs play a necessary role in helping to maintain journalistic standards. Sometimes they get it right -- again, as in this case -- but sometimes they overreact and function as just one more political pressure group.

Remember, first and foremost that many media watchdogs are political entities pushing a particular narrative -- even when they get it right. A key: Watch to see if the watchdogs call for accurate coverage of voices on both sides of controversial issues. Watch to see if the watchdogs are pro-journalism.

Finally, it has not escaped me that GetReligion is a watchdog in its own right and that we're subject to the same sort of criticism as I'm dishing out here. So if you'd like, please do so in the comments section below.

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