Eerie New York article bashes infectious disease care - in Israel?

The New York Times no longer seems to stand out as a great newspaper. Opinion.

Susie Dym ,

New York Times masthead
New York Times masthead

This is eerie. It’s about an infectious disease striking New York, days after New York’s own flagship newspaper viciously attacked official handling of infectious disease in … Israel. The article (in the New York Times on 1 March) even solemnly suggested the classic NYT root cause for everything: building of "settlements in the West Bank".

You know what happened eleven days later. A highly infectious disease - coronavirus - became a worldwide pandemic. But contrary to the NYT's shrill indictment, Israel's "neglectful" Netanyahu fought back, keeping Israeli deaths from this highly infectious disease very low.

Then, pundits began remarking on the discrepancy between the 200 dead in Israel, and the shockingly high death toll -- one hundred times larger -- in New York City, whose population is about the same size as Israel’s.

Newspapers are supposed to "gather information about wrongdoings of people in power and deliver it to the public". And the person in power in NYC was NYT-endorsed mayor De Blasio -- who, by the way, endorsed Israeli settlement-basher Bernie Sanders.

It is highly possible that the NYT was so obsessed with alleged healthcare wrongdoings – and, of course, “settlements” -- in faraway Israel, that it barely analyzed, until too late, De Blasio’s handling of an infectious plague at the NYT’s own doorstep. The causes of the shockingly high death tool in NYC remain poorly understood even today, no thanks to the NYT.

The NYT’s 1 March article blasted Israel generally, as "worst among advanced economies by a mile", questioning whether the Netanyahu government could even address "major challenges" and “long-term problems” due to Israel’s “shortsighted” ministers. Billions of dollars, “more than Israel’s yearly gains” (?) were “going up in fumes”, the New York Times wrote. But the NYT article's piece de resistance was the accusation that Israel's government had been "causing" death rates from infectious diseases to "skyrocket". Under a sensationalist sub-heading (‘‘Starved for too long"), the NYT wrote that “Thousands of patients a year are dying from infections in Israel’s hospitals, the most overcrowded in the developed world".

Israel, worst in the world at preventing fatal infections! Gevalt!

Gevalt, but untrue. NYT’s statistics were both inaccurate and wrongly interpreted.

The source for the statistics in the NYT article was hard for this author to track down, attributed as they were, by the NYT, only to unnamed “experts”. But stubborn research eventually yielded a text by Dan Ben David, which presents a graph, labeled “deaths per capita” and “per 100,000 population”. The NYT statistic gleaned from this graph (“38 deaths per 100,000 patients... The mortality rate from infections... is by far the worst among economically advanced nations, according to the OECD") thus in fact related to total population – not to hospitalized patients.

But the NYT wrote that overcrowding “in hospitals” was causing infections to "skyrocket”.

Even worse was the NYT’s interpretation of its (inaccurate) statistics:

First, even in hospital populations, there are 2 categories of infections: hospital-acquired, versus community-acquired; the NYT failed to make this distinction.

Second, deducing causality ("overcrowding is causing infections to skyrocket") is a well- known fallacy. The OECD itself stresses that their data reveal correlations – not causation.

Third, the NYT failed to point out that comparing cause-of-death statistics between countries is notorious for unreliability. The National Institute of Health has found that ostensible "sharp international boundaries" between reported causes of death may be due to various countries' different diagnostic/coding practices. For example, deaths coded as ‘sudden death’ of unknown origin can only be reliably identified by autopsy. So countries which perform more autopsies may attribute more deaths to cardio-vascular causes.

Fourth, the NYT article omitted pertinent statistics which are far more reliable: that Israel's life expectancy is 10th in the world among OECD countries -- and that its total "avoidable mortality", from all causes, is second best in the world(!), according to Calcalist.

Fifth, Israel's hospitals do have almost the highest utilization rates in the world - 94% compared with an OECD average of 75%. But is this indicative of neglect, or efficiency, or both? In 2018, Globes reported that Israel was 6th in the world in health efficiency, according to Bloomberg's Health Care Efficiency Index which looks for countries with high life expectancy and low health spending.

Yet the NYT article never once used "efficient" to describe Israel's hospitals. "Overcrowded" was used instead -- four times.

Finally, a salient difference between Israel and other "advanced economies" is Israel’s shockingly high level of military expenditure - 11% of general government expenditure, relative to only 2 - 4%, in France, Canada, Spain, New Zealand, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland and Belgium, according to the World Bank. Worldwide, only a fraction of government expenditure is available for long-term infrastructure in any country. For example, in the US, the entire level of spending available for non-defense discretionary programs is a mere 14% of federal spending. Thus a country's being forced to spend 11% on defense, annually, is highly relevant, yet nowhere mentioned in the NYT article.

The short-term takeaway from the article and its eerie aftermath is that root causes for NYC's corona tragedy might be less of a mystery if only the NYC's flagship home newspaper had devoted itself, more, to probing handling of infectious disease at home, and less, to Israel-bashing.

The long-term takeaway is this: If this article is typical - in what way is the New York Times, today, better journalism than the news outlet you are reading right now? For example, attributions to unnamed “experts”, “insiders”, "critics” and “analysts” abounded in the NYT article. Why is this, if the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics contains a pointed admonition to identify sources “whenever feasible”? The SPJ website explains: "The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability…. If the news consumers… suspect information attributed to an anonymous source has been made up, then the journalists are as useful as a parka at the equator.

"To protect … credibility of their stories, reporters should use every possible avenue to confirm and attribute information before relying on unnamed sources", the SPJ says.

Also, a request to correct the inaccurate statistic in the offending article was submitted to the NYT, by this author, weeks ago. No response was received. No correction was made.


The long-term takeaway, then, is that once again, the NYT shows it is not the high quality newspaper it pretends to be, betraying the continued loyalty of many American Jews and the lingering memories held by many who have left America's shores, including this author.

Susie Dym is an Israeli patent attorney and spokesperson for Mattot Arim, an Israeli NGO.