Media’s In-House Critics to Reporters: Quit Quoting Palestinians About Civilian Deaths

The devastating explosion at a Gaza hospital on October 17 provoked soul-searching in US corporate media—over the willingness of press outlets to quote Gaza officials who attributed the calamity to an Israeli airstrike.

“News Outlets Backtrack on Gaza Blast After Relying on Hamas as Key Source,” NPR (10/24/23) reported. “The initial coverage of a deadly blast at a Gaza hospital last week offers a fresh reminder of how hard it can be to get the news right—and what happens when it goes awry,” wrote NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

“How the Media Got the Hospital Explosion Wrong” was the headline of an Atlantic article by Yascha Mounk (10/23/23), which asserted:

As more details about the blast emerged, the initial claims so credulously repeated by the world’s leading news outlets came to look untenable….

The cause of the tragedy, it appears, is the opposite of what news outlets around the world first reported. Rather than having been an Israeli attack on civilians, the balance of evidence suggests that it was a result of terrorists’ disregard for the lives of the people on whose behalf they claim to be fighting.

The New York Times (10/23/23) offered an editorial mea culpa, saying its initial coverage “relied too heavily on claims by Hamas, and did not make clear that those claims could not immediately be verified.”

(What seems to be the New York Times‘ first mention of the blast—posted on its live feed on the “Israel/Hamas War” at 4:41 pm EDT on October 17—was headed “Hundreds Die in an Explosion at a Gaza Hospital, Setting Off Exchanges of Blame.” The first paragraph concluded, “The authorities blamed an Israeli airstrike, but the assertion was disputed by the Israel Defense Forces, which blamed an errant rocket fired by an armed Palestinian faction.” By 7:32 that evening, the feed was headed, “Israelis and Palestinians Blame Each Other for Blast at Gaza Hospital That Killed Hundreds.”)

 The New York Times walks back flawed Gaza hospital coverage, but other media outlets remain silent

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy (10/26/23) demanded that numerous outlets retract their reporting—mainly because “Israel and the US have assessed that the rocket originated in Gaza, not Israel.”

CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy (10/26/23) took to task numerous outlets, including AP, Reuters, Al Jazeera, the Wall Street Journal and his own network for their “negligent reporting” that “amplified Hamas’s claims” on the blast. “Did these outlets stand by their initial reporting?” he asked them. “Was there any regret repeating claims from the terrorist group?” With the exceptions of the New York Times and the BBC, they “declin[ed] to explain to their audiences how they initially got an important story of such great magnitude so wrong.”

Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post (10/18/23) heaped scorn on “Media Suckered by Hamas’s Hospital Lie,” saying, “We’re not sure why any reputable journo ever believed Hamas in the first place.” “Hard evidence shows that…the rocket was fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, not Israel,” the tabloid confidently asserted.

A dubious recording

But the articles that chided media for being overly credulous toward Gazan authorities themselves failed to critically examine the claims they relied on. In fact, the rebukes of news outlets for citing Gazan officials were based on dubious or ambiguous evidence, and were cherry-picked to present a case that absolved Israel. This one-way skepticism suggests less a concern for careful, accurate  journalism than it does a worry that, at a time when a US-allied government is inflicting mass civilian casualties, the institutions of the targeted population will be treated as credible sources.

For example, commentators prominently cited audio offered by an Israeli military spokesperson as authoritative evidence. “Israel released what it said were recordings of Hamas operatives discussing the blast as the misfire of a rocket launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” the Atlantic wrote, adding only, “The group has denied this version of events.”

 Media suckered by Hamas’ hospital lie must stop trusting terrorists

“Don’t take our word for it!” the New York Post (10/18/23) said—instead take the word of a dodgy tape provided by Israel that audio investigators say was doctored.

“Don’t take our word for it!” the New York Post insisted. “The IDF has released audio of two Hamas operatives saying, quite literally, that the rocket is ‘from us’ (i.e. Islamist combatants trying to destroy Israel).”

What these outlets didn’t note is that serious questions have been raised about the authenticity of this audio. Alex Thomson of Britain’s Channel 4 (10/18/23) reported:

Hamas call this an obvious fabrication. Two independent Arab journalists told us the same thing, because of the language, accent, dialect, syntax and tone, none of which is, they say, credible.

The London Daily Mail (10/18/23) likewise reported that “Hamas and independent experts…said the tone, syntax, accent and idiom were ‘absurd.’”

Channel 4 (10/20/23) later reported on a forensic analysis of the tape conducted by Earshot, a nonprofit audio analysis group, which determined that the

recording is made up of two separate channels, and demonstrates that these two voices have been recorded independently.  These two independent recordings have then been edited together in a digital audio work station.

As a general rule, journalists should be particularly skeptical of intercepts that say precisely what the interceptors would want them to say—as with the hospital tape, in which one of the participants says, “That’s why we are saying it belongs to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

Cherry-picking video analysis

 What hit al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza?

An Al Jazeera video analysis (10/19/23) found that “Israeli statements seem to have misinterpreted the evidence to build a story that one of the flashes recorded by several sources was a rocket misfire.”

There was also considerable weight placed on video showing an airborne object bursting into flames around the time of the hospital explosion, with Israel asserting that this was the Islamic Jihad rocket that struck the hospital. Wrote the Atlantic:

A live video transmission from Al Jazeera appeared to show that a projectile rose from inside Gaza before changing course and exploding in the vicinity of the hospital; the Israel Defense Forces have claimed that this was one of several rockets fired from Palestinian territory. Subsequent analysis by the Associated Press has substantially corroborated this.

It’s true that an AP report (10/21/23) endorsed the Israeli scenario:

AP’s analysis shows that the rocket that broke up in the air was fired from within Palestinian territory, and that the hospital explosion was most likely caused when part of that rocket crashed to the ground.

But AP‘s was not the only in-depth examination of the video evidence, and not necessarily the most convincing. An investigation by Al Jazeera itself (10/19/23) combined the network’s own footage with video captured simultaneously by a camera near Tel Aviv. The Qatar-based outlet reported:

At 18:59:35, we can see a single rocket launched from Gaza. This is the rocket in question. This rocket can also be seen on the Israeli video.

Fifteen seconds later, Al Jazeera‘s live feed shows that the same rocket was intercepted at exactly 18:59:50. This interception has the same afterglow seen in previous interceptions.

A closer look at the video captured by the Al Jazeera live feed shows the rocket being completely destroyed and broken apart in the sky. According to all  feeds and videos analyzed, this rocket was intercepted, and was the last one launched from Gaza before the bombing of the hospital.

New York Times map pinpointing the actual location of an object that was claimed to be a misfiring Islamic Jihad rocket.

After tracing the fields of vision of various cameras that captured the object that was said to be the misfiring rocket that caused the hospital blast, the New York Times (10/24/23) indicated that this munition was actually fired from Israel, well away from the hospital.

Al Jazeera also reported that it

was able to identify four Israeli airstrikes on Gaza targeting the area near the hospital, starting at 18:54:28, then 18:55:03, then 18:57:42, and then 18:58:04.

The hospital explosion happened at 18:59:55, in line with the sequence of Israeli airstrikes in the vicinity identified by Al Jazeera. The fact that Israel had been bombing the neighborhood immediately before the blast was left out of the articles bashing news outlets for quoting the Gaza Health Ministry.

Another analysis of the video evidence conducted by the New York Times (10/24/23) also cast doubt on the Israeli account. By tracing the sightlines of the available videos, the Times determined that the object that Israeli military spokespeople had pointed to as being the supposed “misfired rocket that caused the explosion” at the hospital was actually “launched from Israel, not Gaza, and appears to have exploded above the Israeli/Gaza border, at least two miles away from the hospital.”

This analysis was published the day after the Times‘ editorial apology for its hospital bombing coverage, but does not seem to have provoked any re-re-evaluation of the paper’s coverage. (It does feature in round-up of evidence by the Times‘ David Leonhardt—11/3/23—which is otherwise mostly accepting of the official line.)

Channel 4 (10/20/23) had earlier reported on an audio analysis of the sound of the explosion, which indicated that the munition had approached from the east rather than the west; that would make the Israeli account of a rocket fired from within Gaza less plausible.

Damage points east, not west

 Human rights investigators raise new questions on Gaza hospital explosion

Britain’s Channel 4 (10/20/23) noted that independent forensic investigators were pointing to evidence that undermined the Israeli account.

Another piece of evidence in-house critics offered in favor of Israel’s denial was the condition of the blast site. This—aside from the assessments of “Israel and the US”—was the whole of the argument CNN‘s Darcy (10/26/23) advanced to declare the entirety of the coverage hopelessly wrong: “Independent forensic experts…have indicated that the available evidence from the blast was inconsistent with the damage one would expect to see from an Israeli strike.”

It is true that the relatively small impact crater contrasts with the large cavities left by the bombs Israel typically uses; however, other outlets have noted that this doesn’t rule out other Israeli munitions (Al Jazeera, 10/20/23; BBC, 10/27/23). Channel 4 (10/20/23) reported that a London University analysis of the impact site found a shallow channel of the sort an incoming missile would leave leading to the site from the northeast, while shrapnel splash marks fanned out to the southwest—again, opposite to the directions that the Israeli account would predict.

While the Israeli government insists that the hospital was never a target, it does admit that the “hospital administration had received at least three warnings from the Israeli military to evacuate its wards” prior to the blast (New York Times, 10/18/23); Israel had “hit Al-Ahli Arab Hospital with an illumination artillery shell three days earlier, according to video evidence” (New York Times, 10/24/23). This circumstantial evidence was not included in the discussion of the supposed failure of media to be sufficiently skeptical of Palestinian allegations.

US not a disinterested party

 News outlets backtrack on Gaza blast after relying on Hamas as key source

The primary reason NPR (10/24/23) offered for decreeing that coverage of the hospital blast “fell short” was that “Israel’s stance has since been backed by US and Canadian intelligence assessments.”

Perhaps the factor that seemed to most impel media’s own media critics to rebuke outlets for the initial coverage of the hospital bombing was that the US government supported the Israeli version of events. The Atlantic wrote:

By evening, US security agencies had analyzed the available evidence and come to an even more certain verdict: “We feel confident that the explosion was the result of a failed rocket launch by militant terrorists and not the result of an Israeli airstrike,” Mark Warner, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote on X.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board (10/18/23), which usually urges readers not to trust the Biden administration (1/13/22, 9/7/23, 10/13/23), presented the White House take as definitive:

We can now have confidence that the initial story was false. A White House National Security Council spokesman confirms that its “current assessment, based on analysis of overhead imagery, intercepts and open source information, is that Israel is not responsible for the explosion at the hospital in Gaza.”

The only reason the Times apologia offered for giving more credence to Israeli than to Palestinian assertions was that the former were US-endorsed: “American and other international officials have said their evidence indicates that the rocket came from Palestinian fighter positions.”

Likewise, the first reason that NPR offered for judging that coverage by “illustrious” news outlets “fell short” was that “Israel’s stance has since been backed by US and Canadian intelligence assessments.” The outlet added that “Other outside institutions”—unnamed—”have cast increasing doubt upon the validity of Hamas’ allegations, although it’s still not clear what actually happened.”

The Atlantic, too, said that “a number of observers who are critical of Israel and had at first condemned the attack subsequently acknowledged that initial reports had likely been mistaken”—without giving any indications which observers those were.

Of course, a government that is the main supplier of weaponry to another government accused of committing a war crime is not an objective analyst; the US exoneration of Israel (which was also a self-exoneration) should not have been treated as particularly compelling evidence, let alone a definitive judgment.

Quoting is the problem

 "More of the same from Washington’s paper of record, @washingtonpost. Why would anyone take “Palestinian authorities” - which translates to Hamas, to be clear - at their word?"

This is the caliber of media critic NPR‘s David Folkenflik (10/24/23) outsourced his media analysis to—one who objects to reporting any claim by a Palestinian official, because all Palestinian officials are “Hamas.”

If it does turn out that Israel was not involved in the destruction at the hospital—which, given the fragmentary evidence, has to be considered a possibility—that does not mean that media were derelict in initially quoting Gaza authorities. NPR (10/24/23) outsourced its media analysis on this issue to Drew Holden of the right-wing Washington Free Beacon, who published a Twitter thread on October 18 that (in NPR‘s words)

documented a series of prominent news outlets…that appeared to rely on Hamas’ claims as authoritative with little or scant acknowledgement of how little had been verified before publication.

Among the headlines that Holden singled out as particularly bad:

  • “At Least 500 Killed in Israeli Airstrike on Gaza City Hospital, Health Ministry Says” (PBS NewsHour, 10/17/23)
  • “Hundreds Feared Dead or Injured in Israeli Air Strike on Hospital in Gaza, Palestinian Officials Say” (BBC, 10/17/23)
  • “Palestinian Health Ministry Says 200 to 300 People May Have Been Killed in Israeli Strike on Hospital in Gaza” (CNN, 10/17/23)
  • “The Gaza Health Ministry Says at Least 500 People Killed in an Explosion at a Hospital That It Says Was Caused by an Israeli Airstrike” (AP, 10/17/23)

The Atlantic‘s Mounk acknowledged “that news outlets ascribed these details to Palestinian authorities, thereby doing the minimum to ensure that their readers would understand where the claims originated.” But simply by quoting them, they “led reasonable readers to conclude that these statements must basically be true.” Above all, they failed to stress “that the health  authorities—and all other authorities—in Gaza are controlled by Hamas.”

 Hamas-run Health Ministry Says Israeli Airstrike on Hospital Kills Hundreds

One of the first AP stories (10/17/23) on the hospital blast is the kind of coverage critics say didn’t happen enough; the accompanying story uses the phrase “run by Hamas” twice in the first two paragraphs. But it’s inaccurate; the Gaza Health Ministry actually answers to Fatah.

(Mounk did not acknowledge—as AP did, in an October 26 explainer, that “the United Nations and other international institutions and experts…say the Gaza ministry has long made a good-faith effort to account for the dead under the most difficult conditions,” or that “in previous wars, the ministry’s counts have held up to UN scrutiny, independent investigations and even Israel’s tallies.” Nor did Mounk note, as Reuters did—10/27/23— that the Gaza Health Ministry actually reports to the Palestinian Authority, dominated by Hamas’s rival Fatah.)

If 500 people were killed in an explosion in Kyiv, and Ukrainian officials blamed Russia, a subsequent revelation that the carnage was actually caused by friendly fire would not likely lead outlets to regret headlines that read “Hundreds Killed by Russian Airstrike, Ukraine Says.” After all, the vast majority of civilian deaths in Kyiv are caused by Russia—just as the vast majority of civilians killed in Gaza are killed by Israel.

It’s only when an official enemy like Hamas is involved that reporting straightforward claims that something that has happened many times before has happened again becomes problematic.

The rectified version

 Fatal Strike in Dense Area as Israelis Aim at Hamas

The lesson the New York Times (1/11/23) seems to have drawn from the hospital blast episode is not to be skeptical of everyone, but to be more skeptical of Palestinians and less skeptical of Israel.

On October 31, Israel bombed a Gaza refugee camp, killing more than 110 people, according to local doctors (Washington Post, 11/1/23). The lead story on the front page of the New York Times print edition the next day began:

An airstrike that Israel said was targeting Hamas militants caused widespread damage in a densely populated neighborhood of Gaza on Tuesday. Hamas and hospital officials said numerous people were killed and wounded.

Two paragraphs down, the story reported that

Hamas, the armed group that controls Gaza, and local doctors said hundreds of people had been killed or wounded at the Jabaliya refugee camp. Independent verification of the claim was not possible, but Israel itself described the strike as a “wide-scale” attack.

The story leads with Israel’s professed justification, goes out of its way to bring up Hamas even while citing medical sources, gives no specific estimates of deaths and stresses the impossibility of independent verification. The headline over the article, “Fatal Strike in Dense Area as Israelis Aim at Hamas,” turned Israel’s claim into an attack.

This sort of obfuscation is what critics of the coverage of the hospital blast wanted. It’s not the kind of reporting that victims of mass slaughter need.

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