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How The New York Times Lied About Egypt
by Jared Israel and Samantha Criscione

We charge that the media falsified coverage of the conflict in Egypt, and we prove it in the case of the top human rights columnist for The New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof, showing that his eye-witness report and video about the fighting between anti-Mubarak forces and their opponents in Tahrir Square February 2 constitute unbridled deceit.

Part 1: A picture can refute a thousand lies

Appendix: “Watching Thugs With Razors and Clubs at Tahrir Square,” by Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times, February 2, 2011

[May 4, 2011]

The other parts of the series are:

Part 2: To see a world in a grain of sand and mendacity in a thumbnail”

Part 3: Better lying through technology”

Part 4: The videographer’s art, enfin

This series was originally posted on March 21, 2011 as one article entitled “Mr. Kristof Invents Cairo.” As of May 4 it has been revised and expanded as a four-part series, with new material comprising almost all of parts 2 and 3. The original version (“Mr. Kristof Invents Cairo”) is still posted online at http://emperors-clothes.com/kristof.htm

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“And the ones they are in darkness, and the others are in light, and one sees those who are in daylight, those in darkness drop from sight.”
-- Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, Dreigroschenoper/Three Penny Opera


Summary

In order to understand what is happening in Libya and the rest of the Middle East, it is crucial to understand the nature of the recent (and ongoing) upheaval in Egypt: the nature of the forces that came to power in what the Egyptian military government calls the “January 25 Revolution”; what these forces want; the character of their relations with the main Western powers; who in Egypt is resisting them and why. The problem with understanding any of this is that the media has given us a false picture of events, and it is impossible to think accurately based on false information. Fortunately we can make a start in cutting through the false information by using the media’s own photos and videos to test the accuracy of media descriptions of the Egyptian conflict.

In this series we analyze one such description, written by Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times, and the images that refute it, also available courtesy of Mr. Kristof.


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You say those are horses? Why do they moo?

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The event that had perhaps the biggest effect in forming Western public opinion about the Egyptian conflict was the fighting in Tahrir Square on February 2 and 3.  Led by the major news organizations (Associated Press, The New York Times, the BBC, the Guardian, and so on), the media told us that, in the words of Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times, the appearance of pro-Mubarak demonstrators in Tahrir Square resulted from “an organized government crackdown” on the “democracy movement,” which “relied on armed hoodlums, not on police or army troops.”

According to Kristof, the pro-Mubarak people who went to Tahrir Square on February 2 were government stooges who:

“arrived in busloads that mysteriously were waved past checkpoints. These forces emerged at the same time in both Alexandria and Cairo, and they seemed to have been briefed to carry the same kinds of signs and scream the same slogans.”
-- “Watching Thugs With Razors and Clubs at Tahrir Square,” The New York Times, February 2, 2011, posted in full in the Appendix

This depiction of the Tahrir Square confrontations and fighting as pitting government-organized “pro-Mubarak mobs” against peaceful “pro-democracy crowds” (the words in quotation marks are all Kristof’s) was crucial. By reporting that the so-called “Mubarak supporters” (i.e., people demonstrating against violently overthrowing the government) were government-organized and government-paid “hoodlums,” the media greatly bolstered the view that those demonstrating for overthrowing the government represented the people as a whole (as opposed to being an aggressive minority, mainly Islamists) while the government supposedly had no support among ordinary people.

On the one side, we were told, was autocracy and its paid thugs, plus the elite; on the other side, ‘the people.’  If one accepted this view, how could one criticize Western leaders for demanding that Mubarak resign except to say they didn’t demand it hard enough, soon enough?

The coverage of the fighting in Tahrir Square on February 2 and 3 was remarkable for its uniformity. We say remarkable because if one carefully examines the pictures and videos accompanying media descriptions of supposed “hoodlums” supposedly sent by the government to attack supposedly peaceful protesters, (and we have examined all the images  publicly available from Associated Press, Getty, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Reuters, Agence France Press and more) the evidence of those photos and videos refutes what the media reported, as clearly as if we were told, ‘Look at the lovely horses in the meadow,’ and were shown a picture of cows.

In some cases the media have released videos and photos with so little identifying information that it is impossible to tell who is doing what and to whom; those images neither support nor contradict the official media line.  However, in other cases the videos and photos have enough identifying information for us to figure out what is happening; and all those images flatly contradict the media line about government-organized stooges attacking peaceful protesters in order to destroy a non-sectarian democracy movement.

Case in point: Nicholas D. Kristof’s influential New York Times column of February 2, 2011, which has the headline, “Watching Thugs With Razors and Clubs at Tahrir Square.”  (Apparently Kristof and his editors wanted to make sure that even those who read only the headline got the message.)  The column is illustrated with a photo taken by Nicholas D. Kristof and a video produced by Kristof and his cameraman, Jaron Gilinsky.  And therein hangs the tale.

In a trial – and surely the media has put the Mubarak government on trial, with us serving as the jury – if a leading prosecution witness is shown to be lying, this weakens or destroys the prosecution case, or in any event it should.  Let us take some of the accusations Nicholas D. Kristof makes in his February 2 Times column and test them against the evidence in his accompanying photo and video.  If only we can overcome the hold that authority and status have over all humanity and follow the evidence of our eyes, we will see that what Mr. Kristof, two times winner of the Pulitzer Prize and leading columnist for the Times, has written in this article about the fighting in Tahrir Square is a lie.


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Mr. Kristof makes it perfectly clear

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In his text, Kristof repeatedly states that “pro-Mubarak” people (meaning, those who didn’t want the Egyptian government and constitution scrapped) are “thugs” armed with weapons of mayhem: swords, machetes, straight razors, and so on.

By way of evidence, Kristof uses the word “thug” (or “thugs” or “thuggery”), as in “pro-Mubarak thugs,” eight times, including in the headline; “razor” three times, including in the headline; “machete” and “sword” once each; “club” twice, including in the headline; “armed,” as in “armed young men pour in to scream in support of President Hosni Mubarak,” three times; “mob” six times, as in “the pro-Mubarak mobs were picking fights.”

Following the headline, which, as you will recall, reads “Watching Thugs With Razors and Clubs at Tahrir Square,” Kristof’s first sentence begins:

“Pro-government thugs at Tahrir Square used clubs, machetes, swords and straight razors on Wednesday to try to crush Egypt’s democracy movement [...].”
-- See the Appendix

Get the message?  “Clubs, machetes, swords and straight razors” employed by government “thugs” in order “to crush Egypt’s democracy movement,” all of it witnessed by Kristof and his cameraman, Jaron Gilinsky.  That is the entire message of Kristof’s column.  In addition to repeating said message various ways, Kristof endows it with emotional power by employing the fictional device of a hero.  Indeed, not being a piker, he employs two heroes.


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Mr. Kristof meets Mr. Israel’s third grade teacher

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According to Kristof, his heroes (or rather heroines) are two:

“middle-age [sic! Should be ‘middle-aged’ – TENC] sisters, Amal and Minna, walking toward the square to join the pro-democracy movement. They had their heads covered in the conservative Muslim style, and they looked timid and frail as thugs surrounded them, jostled them, shouted at them.”
[Our emphasis – TENC]
-- See the Appendix

So, women who are “timid and frail” and “middle-age[d]” are “surrounded,” “jostled” and “shouted at” by “thugs.”  Please hold those thoughts.

Kristof claims he was awed to see the women calmly debate the supposed mob of “thugs,” who were, you will recall, supposedly armed with weapons of mayhem.  He writes that when he began to videotape an interview with the women, a “mob” of said “thugs” became enraged:

“But when I tried to interview them [i.e., the two sisters – TENC] on video, thugs swarmed us again. I appeased the members of the mob by interviewing them (as one polished his razor), and the two sisters managed again to slip away and continue toward the center of Tahrir Square [...].”
[Our emphasis – TENC]
-- See the Appendix

Since he tells us he started by interviewing (i.e., videotaping) the sisters and then continued by interviewing (i.e., videotaping) the “thugs,” Kristof should have an historic video record of the opposing forces in Tahrir Square revealing their true natures in action. Please hold that thought as well. (We shall return to it in Part 4 of this series.)

As we mentioned, Kristof’s article is illustrated with a photo and a video.

Let us examine the photo:

http://www.tenc.net/images/razors.jpg
The caption reads: “Minna, left, and Amal, with pro-Mubarak forces.”

This image is (C) Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times 2011.  It is reproduced here for educational purposes, for Fair Use Only.


So these are Minna and Amal, Kristof’s two “middle-age[d]” sisters, who “looked timid and frail as thugs surrounded them, jostled them, shouted at them,” but who bravely held their ground.

Since the photo in which they appear is right under the headline in which Kristof tells us he watched “thugs with razors and clubs at Tahrir Square,” the message is clear: the “thugs” whom these women are standing up to, i.e., the men in the photo, are very dangerous indeed.

The problem is, the photo completely contradicts what Kristof has told us.

The women in the photo are not “surrounded.”

They are not “jostled.”

They are not “shouted at” by a crowd.  There is no crowd, let alone a mob.

One man is talking to them while three others stand around casually, listening with varying degrees of interest.

Nobody looks threatening or hostile, and nobody is holding “razors and clubs” or indeed weapons of any kind.

The men appear perfectly respectable. Kristof’s photo gives us no reason to think they are “thugs.”

Or perhaps we should write, no good reason.

Notice that the photo has been set up so that the sun is shining on the two supposed sisters, with the one Kristof calls “Amal” glowing pale in a virtual halo of light, like a Renaissance Madonna, whereas the man she is speaking to is cloaked in shadow, making his naturally dark skin look even darker. Is that just an accident, or did Kristof strive for precisely that effect? It isn’t subtle: the shadow on the man’s face is so dark it is hard to make out his features.  Did Kristof hope we would think the men are thugs because they appear dark-skinned compared to the sisters? It certainly appears that way since this contrast of darkness and light, so obviously contrived, is the salient feature of this photo.

The women do not look “frail,” as Kristof claims, nor “timid” nor intimidated, as they would if they were heroically standing up to an armed, threatening mob of hired thugs, as Kristof also claims.  Quite the contrary, one is smiling and the other, “Amal,” the one who glows white, is beaming and wagging her finger condescendingly, just the way one of our third grade teachers (Jared’s) used to do when she caught somebody without their homework.  And by the way, the women do not look “middle-age[d].”

Based on the evidence of this photo, everything Nicholas D. Kristof has told us about the women and their experience in Tahrir Square is a lie. Well, almost everything: we cannot say from the photo that they are not sisters.

Now, given sufficient time, we imagine that Kristof could have staged a picture of some men threatening two women to fit the details of his story.  Therefore, if the photo did support his claims, this would not prove he was telling the truth.

But since the photo does not support his claims, since it contradicts his article on every point – no being “surrounded,” no being “jostled,” no “thugs,” no “weapons,” no being “shouted at,” no threatening gestures on the part of the men and no frailty or timidity on the part of the women, plus they are not even “middle-age[d]” – and since Kristof could have no conceivable reason for staging a picture that contradicts his article, therefore we can assume that the picture is telling the truth, whereas Nicholas D. Kristof is not.


-- Jared Israel and Samantha Criscione
Emperor’s Clothes


This series is continued in “Part 2: To see a world in a grain of sand and mendacity in a thumbnail” at http://emperors-clothes.com/kristof2.htm


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Appendix: “Watching Thugs With Razors and Clubs at Tahrir Sq.”
By Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times, February 2, 2011
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/03/opinion/03kristof.html

[Nicholas D. Kristof’s column begins here]

Pro-government thugs at Tahrir Square used clubs, machetes, swords and straight razors on Wednesday to try to crush Egypt’s democracy movement, but, for me, the most memorable moment of a sickening day was one of inspiration: watching two women stand up to a mob.

I was on Tahrir Square, watching armed young men pour in to scream in support of President Hosni Mubarak and to battle the pro-democracy protesters. Everybody, me included, tried to give them a wide berth, and the bodies of the injured being carried away added to the tension. Then along came two middle-age sisters, Amal and Minna, walking toward the square to join the pro-democracy movement. They had their heads covered in the conservative Muslim style, and they looked timid and frail as thugs surrounded them, jostled them, shouted at them.

Yet side by side with the ugliest of humanity, you find the best. The two sisters stood their ground. They explained calmly to the mob why they favored democratic reform and listened patiently to the screams of the pro-Mubarak mob. When the women refused to be cowed, the men lost interest and began to move on — and the two women continued to walk to the center of Tahrir Square.

I approached the women and told them I was awed by their courage. I jotted down their names and asked why they had risked the mob’s wrath to come to Tahrir Square. “We need democracy in Egypt,” Amal told me, looking quite composed. “We just want what you have.”

But when I tried to interview them on video, thugs swarmed us again. I appeased the members of the mob by interviewing them (as one polished his razor), and the two sisters managed again to slip away and continue toward the center of Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square, to do their part for Egyptian democracy.

Thuggery and courage coexisted all day in Tahrir Square, just like that. The events were sometimes presented by the news media as “clashes” between rival factions, but that’s a bit misleading. This was an organized government crackdown, but it relied on armed hoodlums, not on police or army troops.

The pro-Mubarak forces arrived in busloads that mysteriously were waved past checkpoints. These forces emerged at the same time in both Alexandria and Cairo, and they seemed to have been briefed to carry the same kinds of signs and scream the same slogans. They singled out foreign journalists, especially camera crews, presumably because they didn’t want their brutality covered. A number of journalists were beaten up, although far and away it was Egyptians who suffered the most.

Until the arrival of these thugs, Tahrir Square had been remarkably peaceful, partly because pro-democracy volunteers checked I.D.’s and frisked everyone entering. One man, a suspected police infiltrator, was caught with a gun on Tuesday quite close to me, and I was impressed with the way volunteers disarmed him and dragged him to an army unit — all while forming a protective cordon around him to keep him from being harmed.

In contrast, the pro-Mubarak mobs were picking fights. At first, the army kept them away from the pro-democracy crowds, but then the pro-Mubarak thugs charged into the square and began attacking.

There is no reliable way of knowing right now how many have been killed and injured in Egypt’s turmoil. Before Wednesday’s violence, Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said the death toll could be as many as 300, but she acknowledged that she was basing that on “unconfirmed” reports. There are some who are missing, including a senior Google official, Wael Ghonim, who supported the democracy activists. On Wednesday, the government said that three more had died and many hundreds were injured; I saw some people who were unmoving and looked severely injured at the least. These figures compare with perhaps more than 100 killed when Iran crushed its pro-democracy movement in 2009 and perhaps 400 to 800 killed in Beijing in 1989.

Chinese and Iranian leaders were widely condemned for those atrocities, so shouldn’t Mr. Mubarak merit the same broad condemnation? Come on, President Obama. You owe the democracy protesters being attacked here, and our own history and values, a much more forceful statement deploring this crackdown.

It should be increasingly evident that Mr. Mubarak is not the remedy for the instability in Egypt; he is its cause. The road to stability in Egypt requires Mr. Mubarak’s departure, immediately.

But for me, when I remember this sickening and bloody day, I’ll conjure not only the brutality that Mr. Mubarak seems to have sponsored but also the courage and grace of those Egyptians who risked their lives as they sought to reclaim their country. And incredibly, the democracy protesters held their ground all day at Tahrir Square despite this armed onslaught. Above all, I’ll be inspired by those two sisters standing up to Mr. Mubarak’s hoodlums. If they, armed only with their principles, can stand up to Mr. Mubarak’s thuggery, can’t we all do the same?

(C) The New York Times Company, 2011. Reprinted here for educational purpose, for Fair Use Only.

[Nicholas D. Kristof’s column ends here]

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