Home / In the Media / Speculative Journalism: The making of “The Death of Rachel Corrie”

Speculative Journalism: The making of “The Death of Rachel Corrie”

By Phan Nguyen

Mother Jones demonstrated how low it could set its standards for investigative journalism when it hired Newsweek reporter Joshua Hammer to surf the web and write a 7000-word feature story on Rachel Corrie and the International Solidarity Movement (“The Death of Rachel Corrie”, Sept/Oct 2003). Indeed fact-checking and verification was not a priority in the production of this article. Before I had even finished reading the article I had already discovered that Hammer had no shame in culling information from indiscriminate websurfing and no compunction against committing plagiarism.

Take, for instance, Hammer’s description of a memorial service held for Corrie in Rafah soon after she was killed:

Days after Corrie’s death, Arafat’s Fatah Party sponsored a memorial service for her in Rafah, attended by representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as well as ordinary Palestinians. Midway through the service, an Israeli tank pulled up beside the mourners and sprayed them with tear gas. Peace activists chased the tank and tossed flowers, and the Israeli soldiers inside threatened, in return, to run them down. After 15 minutes of cat and mouse, Israeli bulldozers and APCs rolled in, firing guns and percussion bombs and putting a quick end to the memorial.

What struck me as I read it was that I had seen the exact same phrasing before. So I looked it up and found an article by Sandra Jordan in the UK Observer from March 23:

In Rafah, Arafat’s political party Fatah held a wake for “Retchell Corie”, attended by representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade, among others. These are the militant Islamic fronts condemned by Rachel’s government as terrorists. Their people mingled with secular organisations and droves of ordinary Palestinians who came to pay their respects…

Later in the article, Jordan writes about another memorial service:

As the memorial service got under way, the Israeli army sent its own representative. A tank pulled up beside the mourners and sprayed them with tear gas. A bizarre game of cat-and-mouse began as the peace activists chased the tank around to throw flowers on it, and the Israeli soldiers inside threatened, in return, to run them down.

The game ended when the Israeli bulldozers came out, accompanied by more APCs, firing guns and percussion bombs. The insult was as clear as the danger of the situation and the people went home, the service halted.

We can break down the sentences to reveal how Hammer slightly restructured Jordan’s words. Selections from Jordan’s article (in italics) are followed by Hammer’s sentences in his own chronology.

In Rafah, Arafat’s political party Fatah held a wake…attended by representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs brigade, among others… Their people mingled with secular organisations and droves of ordinary Palestinians…

Days after Corrie’s death, Arafat’s Fatah Party sponsored a memorial service for her in Rafah, attended by representatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as well as ordinary Palestinians.

As the memorial service got under way…A tank pulled up beside the mourners and sprayed them with tear gas.

Midway through the service, an Israeli tank pulled up beside the mourners and sprayed them with tear gas.

…the peace activists chased the tank around to throw flowers on it, and the Israeli soldiers inside threatened, in return, to run them down.

Peace activists chased the tank and tossed flowers, and the Israeli soldiers inside threatened, in return, to run them down.

A bizarre game of cat-and-mouse began…

After 15 minutes of cat and mouse…

The game ended when the Israeli bulldozers came out, accompanied by more APCs, firing guns and percussion bombs.

…Israeli bulldozers and APCs rolled in, firing guns and percussion bombs and putting a quick end to the memorial.

Hammer produced an exemplary model of plagiarism, but with one major flaw. Because he had so casually swiped three paragraphs from the Observer and subtly restructured it, he incorrectly combined the “Fatah-sponsored wake” with the separate memorial service that was held at the site of her killing. Sandra Jordan did not make it clear in her article that the two were separate, and so Hammer misinterprets the article as he steals from it, thus presenting us not only with a clear case of plagiarism, but also misinformation. Once we realize this, it is not surprising to find other discrepancies in Hammer’s article.

Such is the case in Hammer’s description of the International Solidarity Movement. According to Hammer,

the ISM upholds the right of Palestinians to carry out “armed struggle” and seeks “to establish divestment campaigns in the U.S. and Europe to put economic pressure on Israel the same way the international community put pressure [on] South Africa during the apartheid regimes.”

And curiously, according to Myles Kantor in an article written for David Horowitz’s Front Page Magazine last April:

ISM refers to a “right” of Palestinian “armed struggle” and seeks “to establish divestment campaigns in the US and Europe to put economic pressure on Israel the same way the international community put pressure [on] South Africa during the apartheid regimes.”

Somehow, Hammer managed to selectively extract and distort the exact same 32 words from ISM’s 900-word mission statement as did an extreme right-wing website. Indeed both articles selected the least significant aspects from the mission statement, which least described ISM’s activities.

The mission statement had been drafted in the early days of ISM (as it is clearly dated “December 2001”), when ISM’s focus was envisioned to be broader than it currently is. Thus the reference to divestment campaigns is obsolete, as there are no ISM-coordinated divestment campaigns. Yet Hammer still felt it was significant enough to single out as a definitive aspect of ISM, simply because his right-wing web source had already done so.

The other portion of ISM’s mission statement which Hammer cites is the reference to “armed struggle.” However, if Hammer will ever decide to read ISM’s mission statement, he will learn that it refers to armed struggle only in the context of clearing the misperceptions that such is the only method of resistance and that all Palestinians engage in it. In contrast, the mission statement declares that ISM exclusively engages in “the proactive tactics of non-violent direct action epitomized by Gandhi, Archbishop Tutu, Dr. Martin Luther King, and other practitioners of creative non-violent resistance.” If Hammer reads further, he will find that while armed struggle is mentioned only once—and only in the context just described—the bulk of the mission statement refers to nonviolent resistance—that is, the only form of resistance practiced by ISM.

Ironically while Kantor’s article stated that “ISM refers to a ‘right’ of Palestinian ‘armed struggle,’” Hammer altered it to read that ISM “upholds” the right, which is even more misleading. He does not explain how ISM “upholds” this right. ISM explicitly states that it acknowledges the right of Palestinians to resist occupation in accordance with international laws. This is not a blanket “uphold[ing]” of “armed struggle,” as Hammer seems to claim.

And of all the right-wing articles Hammer could choose to swipe from, he chose to swipe from Kantor’s article, which is full of false statements, such as the libelous allegation that ISM activist Susan Barclay was working for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Kantor even falsely attributes a quote to Rachel Corrie: “More Martyrs are ready to defend the honor of Palestine.” None of this seems to trouble Hammer, who still finds Kantor credible enough to sample.

While Hammer doesn’t mind flat-out plagiarism, he is just as capable of misleading when he does mention his sources. In describing The Evergreen State College, the school that Rachel Corrie attended, Hammer references only one quote:

“The radical ideologies espoused every day at Evergreen State College are of every nasty branch of extremism,” one columnist recently wrote. “Anti-Americanism. Anti-God. Anti-life. Anti-Israel. Anti-capitalism. Anti-tradition.”

And yet who is this single “columnist” that Hammer chooses to quote? Hammer doesn’t say, but a simple Google search reveals his source: A young ultraconservative named Hans Zeiger. Zeiger, who is 18 years old, has never attended The Evergreen State College. In fact, in the article from which Hammer quoted, Zeiger cites only two visits to Evergreen—one of which was when he was in the seventh grade!

Interestingly Hammer does not bother to quote Zeiger’s homophobic statement in the same article. Nor does Hammer note Zeiger’s suggestion that Evergreen may have connections to “terrorist organizations,” or his ridiculous claim that Corrie “had stood guard outside of Yasser Arafat’s compound”, when in fact she had never even set foot in Ramallah. Hammer conveniently ignores all these revelatory tidbits because that would destroy the credibility of the man whom Hammer selectively quotes and refers to simply as a “columnist.”

Of course credibility is something that Hammer has trouble judging. He finds contradiction in the testimony of Joe “Smith,” who witnessed Corrie’s killing. “Smith” insists that the bulldozer driver saw Corrie as he approached her, and saw her when she climbed atop the dirt pile that he was pushing, while elsewhere “Smith” “acknowledged that the bulldozer operator could well have lost sight of Corrie after she tumbled down the dirt pile” that he was pushing—that is, the driver eventually lost sight of her as he was driving over her. That would seem to be common sense, and Hammer fails to explain where the contradiction lay.

Hammer also implies that ISM activists intentionally misrepresented the photos taken during the day of Corrie’s killing, that the activists merely “claimed” that the news wires had miscaptioned the photos. His baseless conclusion is that the activists were “probably just too young and inexperienced to know” not to “burn” the media. Of course he merely speculates when he says “probably,” but that seems to be good enough for his style of journalism. Instead of seeking the truth, Hammer is satisfied with his own speculation and moves on.

This type of shallow skepticism is reserved for the activists, while Israeli military claims are treated with respect by Hammer and often go unquestioned, even when the statements are clearly disputable and even laughable. While ISM activists “claimed” their versions of the story, Hammer trusts IDF spokesperson Sharon Feingold as having “assured” and “explained” to him the facts. Feingold “assured” him that the IDF “do[es] not target civilians,” that Tom Hurndall was shot in the head simply because he was too close to a Palestinian gunman. Feingold “explained” that reporter James Miller was killed because he was caught in some crossfire. Hammer questions neither of Feingold’s claims, despite numerous witnesses to both killings who all contradict the claims. In the case of James Miller, the Israeli military even evolved its explanation, since the autopsy report contradicted the earlier IDF claims that Miller was killed by Palestinians. Indeed, video footage of the Miller shooting, filmed by a fellow journalist and also clearly contradicting IDF claims, is publicly available.

Hammer gives no indication that he has viewed the footage of his fellow Middle East journalists. However he admits to having viewed an Israeli propaganda video that was produced specifically to absolve the military of any responsiblity in Rachel Corrie’s death. The video, along with a PowerPoint slideshow that was distributed to US Congress members, was produced prior to the conclusion of the Israeli investigation. This does not keep Hammer from finding that the propaganda video—which featured the inside of a D9 bulldozer—made “a credible case” of innocence for the Israelis. Nor does he wonder why the Israeli investigation, which he states was supposed to be “transparent,” has not been made public. And nor does he mention that according to the Israeli investigation, at no point did the bulldozer even drive over Corrie’s body, clearly contradicting the tread marks that appear in the photo reproduced in the Mother Jones article, not to mention contradicting the Israeli autopsy report and all the eyewitnesses who were interviewed for the investigation.

And when Feingold informs Hammer that “Palestinian terrorists are using the [Palestinian] civilians to hide behind,” he finds it worthy to quote but not to question, despite the fact that there is no clear documentation to corroborate Feingold’s accusation. Conversely, there is a wealth of documentation of Israeli soldiers using Palestinian civilians as human shields—what the IDF refers to as the “neighbor procedure”—as can be found in the mainstream Israeli press, in accounts of ISM activists, and in the work of several human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch. In fact Hammer extensively interviewed and quoted Miranda Sissons, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, but somehow failed to ask her about this use of human shields, as if Feingold’s “assurances” were adequate enough.

As well, Hammer informs us that when the Israeli military conducts home demolitions, “residents can gather their belongings; and each house is searched for occupants before it is demolished.” There have been numerous cases that prove otherwise. We can read one such Human Rights Watch report from Rafah in late 2002: “At least 20 people were injured, nine of them children, when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) prevented residents from evacuating their home while the IDF was demolishing the next-door house…” Just two weeks before Corrie was killed, a pregnant Palestinian woman, Nuha Sweidan, was killed in the process of an Israeli-conducted house demolition. And in the cases where residents are actually allowed to “gather their belongings,” Hammer fails to mention that such accomodations are often afforded fifteen minutes or less. Again, Hammer saw fit to print the Israeli claims and felt no need to question them in the face of documented facts.

But Hammer already proves that he is too willing to document and judge things he knows nothing about. For example, he revealed that “some of [Rachel Corrie’s] causes verged on New Age parody.” But he provided only one example—one that reveals his own ignorance: “She paraded through Olympia dressed as a dove in the ‘Procession of the Species,’ billed as an ‘environmentally aware celebration of the earth and life.’” Rather than being “New Age parody,” the Procession of the Species is actually a large annual family event in Corrie’s hometown that attracts tens of thousands of locals of all backgrounds. Last year Corrie organized scores of Olympia residents, young and old, to participate as doves for the event. Hammer does not bother to research the event before dismissing it as “New Age parody.” Based on this single false assumption, Hammer concluded that “some of her causes verged on New Age parody.” Was this Hammer’s attempt to make his story more colorful?

This kind of generalization also enables him to mysteriously state that the photo of Corrie burning a paper American flag “prompted anti-war protesters and other likely allies to distance themselves from her.” Once again, he makes a generalization and provides no elaboration. Just how many “anti-war protesters and other likely allies” did he find before he was satisfied enough to make a generalization? (Incidentally, the caption of the photo of Corrie with the burning paper flag incorrectly states that it occurred during a mock trial of the Bush administration. Actually it occurred during the worldwide protests against a pending US war on Iraq on February 15, in which Corrie was one of over 10 million protesters. The mock trial happened a few weeks later. There are several minor errors such as this throughout the article.)

He extends his generalizations with misleading accusations about the nature of ISM. In addition to misquoting ISM’s mission statement via Front Page Magazine, Hammer stereotypes ISM as “a motley collection of anti-globalization and animal-rights activists, self-described anarchists and seekers, most in their 20s.” The truth is ISM activists range in age from 18 to 77, and they come from all backgrounds, from college students to soccer moms to white collar professionals, and they have come from all over the world. Hammer merely demonstrates his limited experience and knowledge of ISM by applying a cliché. Out of the hundreds of internationals who have participated in ISM campaigns, how many ISM activists has Hammer met personally?

He goes on to falsely claim that ISM “embrac[es] Palestinian militants, even suicide bombers, as freedom fighters,” a baseless accusation commonly alleged and left unsubstantiated by right-wing pundits. As usual he proclaims and elaborates no further. Perhaps next time he should provide us with the website link.

In a move to show he prefers the Israeli military’s point of view, he claims that ISM “has adopted a risky policy of ‘direct action’—entering military zones…” What Hammer refers to as “military zones” are actually Palestinian cities and villages, residential neighborhoods where ISM is invited by the inhabitants. Only the Israeli military refers to them as military zones. Hamas may regard Tel Aviv as a “military zone,” but I doubt Hammer would consequently label Tel Aviv as such. Indeed, quite often the Israeli military declares a city to be a “military zone” after ISM activists have settled in.

What’s amazing is that in Hammer’s 7000-word article, he spends very little time explaining what ISM really is. He makes no mention of its purely nonviolent tactics or even its most basic activities, such as accompanying ambulances, assisting farmers in reaching their crops, clearing roadblocks, and walking children to school, perhaps because they’re not sensationalist enough to merit his attention. He does not even explain ISM’s goal, except for the misleading claim that ISM “upholds” the right to “armed resistance.” In truth ISM’s goal is to nonviolently resist the Israeli occupation. That simple objective is mentioned nowhere in his article. Instead, if we are to envision ISM according to Hammer’s description, we would have to imagine that it is a group of animal-rights activists in their 20s who enter military zones and establish divestment campaigns.

Hammer’s article freely quotes IDF spokesperson Sharon Feingold as she excuses the actions of the Israeli military. But when Hammer wishes to explain ISM, he selectively quotes from third parties who have limited experience with ISM, such as an anonymous “human-rights observer in Jerusalem” and Miranda Sissons, and he does so blatantly out-of-context. The anonymous human-rights observer is quoted immediately after Hammer incorrectly recounts two sensationalized ISM actions, while Sissons criticizes ISM in the context of what she admits are “unsubstantiated allegations.”

Hammer himself describes the “recklessness” of ISM but in the process once again exposes his own recklessness and low standard of journalism. He attempts to recount the case of a young Palestinian, Shadi Sukiya, who was captured by Israeli forces in the ISM office in Jenin. According to Hammer, “ISM insists he was an innocent, terrified teenager who’d asked for refuge during an Israeli sweep.” Here, Hammer resorts to fabrication. ISM issued a press release soon after Sukiya’s capture, which shows the extent of ISM’s “insistence”:

One of the volunteers went into the hallway to see what was happening and met a young man coming up the stairs. He looked terrified, was soaking wet and appeared to be in pain. Concerned about his welfare—under Israeli military curfew, Palestinians spotted in the streets are shot on site—he was brought into the apartment. He spoke only Arabic, which none of the ISM volunteers present understood. He was given a change of clothes, a hot drink and a blanket… Eventually the military knocked on the ISM door and 30 soldiers entered with their machine guns trained. They arrested the young man, claiming he was “wanted.” The two women were not able to prevent the soldiers from taking the young man, whose name they did not even know, but requested that he be treated humanely.

ISM reported only the events as they happened. ISM “insisted” nothing else. The question, as always, is where did Hammer come up with his claim? And where was the “recklessness?” Hammer appropriately recounts the IDF’s claim that Sukiya “was a ‘senior militant’ who’d sent four suicide attackers into Israel.” And yet he doesn’t follow up to reveal that Sukiya was subsequently held under administrative detention—that is, he was held indefinitely without charges. Hammer made no attempt to verify the IDF’s accusations. Hammer also doesn’t bother to note that the IDF additionally claimed they found either a pistol or two rifles in the ISM Jenin office when they apprehended Sukiya, a blatant lie which both the IDF and consequently the Associated Press were forced to retract. Apparently Hammer didn’t feel too “burned” by the IDF lies. (Incidentally, one of Hammer’s valued sources, Front Page Magazine, has not retracted its own claim that “a pistol and a cache of Kalashnikov rifles” were found in the Jenin office, and they have twice claimed that ISM volunteer Susan Barclay was hiding Sukiya in the Jenin office. In reality Barclay was in the United States at the time of the Sukiya “incident.”)

It is revealing that Hammer would fabricate an ISM claim that undermines the actual testimony of the activists, while he conveniently omits the proven lies of the IDF and his right-wing sources, which would reasonably undermine their own claims.

The other instance of supposed “recklessness” occurred when two Britons briefly visited the ISM Rafah office. One of the Britons later committed a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Hammer claims that they were “posing as activists,” although he doesn’t bother to mention exactly how they posed as activists, because his allegation is false.

Soon after the Tel Aviv bombing, ISM activist Raphael Cohen testified at a press conference about his brief encounter with the two:

Shortly before noon on Friday, the 25th of April, about 15 people came to the ISM apartment in Rafah, the Gaza Strip. They were in three groups: 4 British citizens from London who were looking to prepare a summer camp in Gaza in conjunction with local Palestinians from Rafah; three Italians and two Britons. The last two have been accused of perpetrating the attack in Tel Aviv early last Wednesday morning.

Our group of 5 offered all of them tea. I asked them general questions like who they were? were they with any group? and what they were doing in Rafah? The two accused Britons answered that they weren’t with any particular organization but that they came with “alternative tourism”…We stayed in the apartment for approximately 15 minutes, before we went down to the place where Rachel Corrie was killed by an Israeli Occupation Force bulldozer on March 16. Owing to the presence and approach of an Israeli army tank, we were only able to spend a few minutes at the site where Rachel was killed. We placed a flower on the place in the dirt where Rachel was run over.

Our ISM group then went to the house of Dr. Samir Nasrallah, the house that Rachel died defending, while everybody else, including the group that had visited us, went their own way.

ISM neither harbored nor provided any assistance to the two. When the bombing happended, ISM activists stated upfront that they had briefly met the two. Again, Hammer fails to explain exactly what ISM did that was reckless—only that it was. He is always willing to list the charges, but as a journalist is unwilling to investigate them.

What’s more, even if the two Britons had posed as activists, it is unclear how that would make ISM in any way responsible. Last May, a man disguised as an observant Jew boarded a bus in the French Hill settlement and detonated the explosives strapped to his body. Would that make observant Jews reckless? Would that make the bus driver who allowed him to board reckless?

However, that is enough for Hammer to label the ISM “reckless.” Hammer goes on to write, “Still, the perception has lingered that the group is a sympathizer—and even a harborer—of terrorists.” Hammer doesn’t say among whom this “perception has lingered,” only that it has. Nor does he investigate the validity of his unattributed claim. For Hammer, reporting hearsay is enough. Such unsubstantiated allegations are best left to the gossip columns, if left anywhere at all—not in writing that purports to be investigative journalism.

But Hammer is too caught up in artistic license to report accurately, as when he claims, “Corrie had come to Rafah a paper radical, primed for outrage, but with little real-world experience. That changed immediately.” The truth is that Rachel was not “primed for outrage.” Her primary interest was in establishing a sister city relationship, so she was more “primed” for exchanging pen pal letters. That didn’t sound too exciting to Hammer, who took the opportunity to read Corrie’s mind.

Hammer concludes the article with his thesis that Rachel Corrie died for nothing. He claims that “momentum has faded for a U.S. congressional investigation,” which is incorrect. House Concurrent Resolution 111 started out with 11 sponsors and has grown to 49 sponsors in the House, with the latest two having signed on September 3 (Congress was out of session in August), so the resolution is still gaining sponsors. And on September 9, the Berkeley City Council voted to endorse Resolution 111. The reason the resolution has not moved is not because “momentum has faded,” but because action is required by the House Committee on International Relations, which, under control of Henry Hyde, is failing to address it.

Hammer continues: “Corrie herself has faded into obscurity, a subject of debate in Internet chat rooms and practically nowhere else.” Once again, reality contradicts Hammer’s world-view. Her letters from Rafah have now been published in mainstream English-language media such as Harper’s and The Guardian. They have been translated into numerous other languages and have been reprinted in publications throughout the world. In the Arab world, her name continues to resonate as a reminder that not all Americans support the policies of their president. Documentaries have been made about her in the US, Japan, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Around the world, including in Israel, songs and poems have been written about her. Participation in ISM has risen as a reaction to her killing. Memorials, scholarship funds, and humanitarian centers are being established in her name and in her honor. ISM has even been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, with special recognition of Corrie, Brian Avery, and Tom Hurndall. Arab parents are naming their children after her. Veterans for Peace has awarded her with a posthumous membership. Susan Sontag recognized her as she presented the Rothko Chapel Oscar Romero Award to Ishai Menuchin of Yesh Gvul, and Israeli conscientious objectors have evoked her name when they explain their refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories.

But perhaps Hammer is too busy debating on Internet chat rooms to notice. Or worse, Hammer merely wanted to add some melodrama to his story: “And that, perhaps, is what is saddest.”

The article is littered with other errors, many are of peripheral significance, but taken together, along with all of Hammer’s proclivities as described above, add up to a shoddy piece of work: Corrie did not “propose an independent-study program in which she would travel to Gaza”, she did not fly to Israel from Seattle, the friend who returned from five months in Gaza was not involved in ISM and thus did not “talk enthusiasically to Corrie about the International Solidarity Movement,” the Red Cross did not ask ISM to vacate its Jenin office, the Arabic sentence in the article was translated to English incorrectly, and the list goes on.

Hammer’s style of investigative reporting utilizes plagiarism, indiscriminate surfing of right-wing websites, unquestioning reliance on hearsay and authority figures, skimpy fact-checking, misinformed speculation, artistic license, and a contrived melodramatic thesis. What’s most amazing is how he is able to consolidate all these flaws into a single article. Ironically the cover story of this Mother Jones issue deals with environmental protection. Perhaps Mother Jones could have spared a few trees by omitting the Joshua Hammer article, and instead providing us with links to the websites where Hammer took his information from. Then we could judge the credibility of his sources ourselves.

Please take the time to write to Mother Jones and express your outrage at Hammer’s shoddy reporting. Send your letters to Backtalk, Mother Jones, 731 Market Street, Suite 600, San Francisco, CA 94103; fax: (415) 665-6696; or email backtalk@motherjones.com.