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An investigation into a New York Times story is causing internal chaos at the company

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Internal tensions at The New York Times have erupted in public over a story on sexual violence in the deadly Hamas attack on Israel. Other news outlets questioned The Times' reporting and revealed leaks about dissent over the story at The Times. Now The Times is investigating those leaks while the newsroom union is accusing the paper of a witch hunt targeting journalists of Middle Eastern descent. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now. Good morning.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Tell us about the story at the root of this conflict.

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. Conflict being the right word here - kind of mirroring what we've seen outside The Times. The December 28 story was called "Screams Without Words," and it said that New York Times had documented a pattern of sexual assault by Hamas on October 7 as a brutal strategy. It kind of goes without saying, but this all matters because The Times' influence not only affects coverage here in the U.S. but also, I'd say, the political climate in Israel and beyond.

The piece carried the lead byline of Jeffrey Gettleman, as well as two freelancers. Critics argued the anecdotes weren't fully nailed down. In one case, for example, a couple of relatives raised questions about whether or not a sexual assault had happened to the woman who was killed. One of the lead writers was a freelancer, the Israeli documentary-maker Anat Schwartz. She turned out to have liked a bunch of posts on the social media platform X after the attacks, one of which called for Gaza to be leveled by bulldozers.

RASCOE: So how did The New York Times respond to those questions?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, Ayesha, let's take the last one. First, The Times said that those social media likes, those activities by Schwartz, were absolutely unacceptable. But I've got to say - at the moment, not 100% clear whether that disqualifies her from future reporting - The Times saying it's not talking about personnel decisions. The paper did say then - and it is saying now - that it has done additional reporting and that its reports remain solid. That same reporting team did a follow-up late last month acknowledging the criticism, offering what it said was more bolstering details. But I wouldn't say that that's fully satisfied critics at, for example, The Intercept or in other outlets.

RASCOE: So why doesn't it resolve the issue?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, from those reports and from my reporting in the last 48 hours, it looks as though that story was to serve as the heart of an episode at "The Daily," The Times', you know, hit news podcast. Staffers on that show raised a lot of questions about the solidity of the reporting, really pressing reporters - Jeffrey Gettleman, among others. And something of a standoff seems to have emerged. When all of this appeared in The Intercept, editors that - at The New York Times started an inquiry, something they confirmed publicly last night.

RASCOE: The way this has unfolded - I mean, it seems pretty remarkable to have all - to know about all these internal workings at The New York Times.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I'd say it's actually - it's extraordinary to know the inner workings of The Times, but the idea that they have a leak investigation - you've got to remember, The Times relies on leaks from people in government, corporate life and other sectors of American society to feed and fuel their own reporting, particularly their investigative reporting. Leaks are things that, you know, major institutions don't want to become public, right?

RASCOE: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: But in a memo last night, the top editor of The Times - that's Joe Kahn - and his deputies, Marc Lacey and Carolyn Ryan - said, yes, it's extraordinary because the circumstances are extraordinary. They say internal working documents from "The Daily" were shared with these outside source at The Intercept, not just their disagreements, and that they have sought to work in their time to open up greater lines of communications with staffers and give them more opportunity to lodge questions and concerns. For these to be shared outside the papers inhibits those conversations. Meanwhile, I will say the union denies the material was shared. They claim just the dissent.

RASCOE: And what are the claims of this witch hunt based on ethnic identity?

FOLKENFLIK: So there was a precipitating letter on Friday night sent to The New York Times' publisher A.G. Sulzberger. The union leader alleged - a local union's leader alleged that journalists of Middle Eastern and North African extraction were targeted and asked about their direct communications and common chat groups. The chief editor, Joe Kahn, says that's preposterous. They never directly raised such questions.

There's two culture clashes here, I'll end with. One is the audio versus print. They're almost different newsrooms, and audio has felt burned by investigations in the past. They want to be tight. The other is the climate change, I think, since the George Floyd social justice movement. It means people speak up and take issues in ways we haven't seen in decades. And The Times doesn't have a handle on that clash.

RASCOE: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thank you so much, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.