By: Becket Adams – nationalreview.com – October 22, 2023
Reporters and pundits mishandled the Gaza hospital story because they wanted so badly for it to be true.
Few things are as dangerous as the newsroom that wants a story to be true.
An overzealous editor is how the really dangerous stuff gets printed.
The free press is supposed to operate from a set of principles, working within established guardrails to spare readers the publication of false information, including hoaxes and lies that may incite violence or escalate preexisting hostilities. All bets are off, however, when news editors have a deep-seated psychological need for a story to be true. And on this score, American media failed miserably this past week when major outlets falsely reported an Israeli missile strike had hit the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, leveling it completely and killing at least 500 civilians.
The story was suspect from the get-go, considering the sole source of the claim was the Gaza health ministry — in other words, Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization that runs Gaza. But this didn’t matter. The U.S. press wanted the story to be true, as evidenced by the indefensibly slipshod and irresponsible coverage that clogged up newsfeeds around the world.
There was indeed an explosion in the vicinity of the hospital, but the facility still stands. It was not leveled. It wasn’t even struck directly. Whatever exploded did so in a nearby parking lot. The civilian death toll from the explosion is estimated to be “50 at most,” a European intelligence officer told Agence France-Presse. Contrary to Hamas’s claims, there is no evidence of an Israeli missile strike. In fact, separate assessments by both Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies suggest the damage was caused by the failed launch of a Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket in Gaza, producing an explosion at ground level ground level that killed people gathered near but not in the hospital.
Yet these are the news headlines readers saw this week:“Israeli strike kills hundreds in hospital, Palestinians say,” declared the New York Times’ breaking news headline. Inexplicably, the photo that went with the front-page headline showed a different building damaged by a completely unrelated airstrike, though one would obviously assume the photo was that of the “destroyed” Al-Ahli Arab Hospital.
Later, after the New York Times decided to do the bare minimum required of entry-level journalism, the story’s headline was amended to the slightly less terrible “At least 500 dead in strike on Gaza hospital, Palestinians say.” Even after that, the headline was amended once more to “At least 500 dead in blast at Gaza hospital, Palestinians say.” Note the subtle change from “strike on” to “blast at.”
“Hospital strike kills hundreds,” claimed the Washington Post.
Many of these newsrooms even issued push alerts directly to readers’ cellphones, guaranteeing the widespread dissemination of the false allegation that Israel had intentionally targeted a crowded hospital.
The Associated Press reported, “Hamas says Israeli airstrike on Gaza hospital kills hundreds as Biden heads to Mideast.” The same newswire also reported, “Israel bombs Gaza where civilians sought refuge.”
This is what was reported in the United States and all around the globe. Israel had allegedly committed a war crime. Then daylight came. Observers soon learned that the hospital was still there, that the likely death toll was not even close to what was initially reported, and that terrorists intending to fire a rocket into Israel were most likely responsible for whatever exploded nearby.
In other words, not a single word of the breaking news reports was true. American media this week, and it failed it spectacularly.
What went wrong? A lot, actually.
For starters, “Hamas says” should have been a red flag, not a green light. That the claim originated from a terrorist group should have prompted responsible newsrooms to add an automatic layer of additional scrutiny. There’s an old journalism aphorism that says, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” And if ever there was a group whose anti-Israel claims required “checking out,” it’s the one whose entire existence is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.
But the problems this week in American media go well beyond reporters simply taking Hamas officials at their word. There’s also the fact that no one repeating Hamas’s version of events bothered to check whether the hospital had, in fact, been destroyed. Making at least an attempt to put eyes on the facility before reporting on its supposed destruction could have saved newsrooms a lot of trouble and embarrassment.
Whatever happened to that basic rule of journalism:
“It’s better to be right than to be first”?
There’s also the issue of the speed with which Gaza officials provided their death-toll estimate. Indeed, within an hour of the supposed “strike,” in the dark, under supposed “rubble,” Gaza officials put the number of dead at around 500, a claim that American newsrooms dutifully repeated. But to anyone with even an inkling of curiosity, the speed with which the number was provided should have raised red flags. Israel, which has a functioning government and the type of infrastructure that allows for swift search-and rescue operations, is still counting its dead from the October 7 slaughter. Yet, despite what we know about the typical response time to mass-casualty events in even advanced countries with fleets of first responders, American media didn’t so much as hesitate to report the figures Hamas produced almost immediately following the suppose airstrike.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but U.S. media reported Hamas’s version of events because U.S. media wanted the story to be true. They wanted to believe that Israel had committed a war crime. There’s a reason for this. Call it the college-to-media pipeline.
Consider how elite academic institutions in the U.S. have welcomed Hamas’s slaughter of Israeli civilians. Then remember that major newsrooms are staffed with reporters and editors recruited from these same elite academic institutions. One is reminded of that moment in 2019 when NBC News, still reeling from allegations that longtime anchor Matt Lauer had sexually abused co-workers, appointed an all-female panel to moderate a Democratic presidential debate. Just moments before the event, then-anchor Brian Williams boasted of the moderators’ academic pedigrees, bragging that threequarters of the panel hailed from an Ivy League college (the fourth woman on the panel, Rachael Maddow, attended both Stanford and Oxford). This isn’t to say America’s largest and most powerful newsrooms are as enthusiastic for Hamas as are the academic institutions from which their employees graduated. It is, however, to suggest that the core left-wing tenet that says Israel alone is the villain of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and that Israel must be brought to justice, clearly has a home in major newsrooms.
Whether it’s the student who holds “vigils for the martyrs of Palestine” or the news anchor who attempts to “both-sides” terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, it’s all the same belief, just expressed with different degrees of finesse. The belief that Israel is always in the wrong and that the Palestinians are victims dictates so much of the coverage in the U.S. All reporting flows from this premise because the belief that Israel is uniquely cruel and immoral is a deeply held and widely shared conviction in the institutions that supply staff for major newsrooms.
This is why one can detect a faint hint of disappointment in the press’s follow-up coverage of the nonexistent hospital strike. It’s as if they wanted the hospital to be destroyed. And why not? The belief that Israel is a violent, aggressive, oppressor nation — a core tenet of left-wing ideology — has been challenged by Hamas’s recent war-crime spree. Those who cover Israel through the prism of Palestinian liberation were desperate. How are we supposed to promote the morality of our cause and support Palestinian rights with all these Israelis talking about rape, torture, and murder? And then, oh! A hospital bombing! At last. The Palestinians are the victims again, not the Israelis! The bombing proves it! Never mind the unpleasantness of 1,300 murdered Israelis, the kidnappings, the rapes, the torture — it’s all too difficult to face because facing it would mean having to consider the possibility that Palestinian militants are not as pure, virtuous, and justified as our coverage has suggested. And to admit such a thing after years of believing otherwise, going as far as to allow that belief to bleed over into supposed straight news coverage, would be too great and shameful a thing to experience.
The hospital story was a brief, welcome return to the familiar. Hence the eagerness to seize on it, despite the total lack of evidence. It’s comforting when things appear to conform to our worldviews.
Sadly, though, the familiar does not necessarily make for good news reporting.
It’s worth noting a final word about the Barzilai Medical Center in southern Israel, which was struck by a rocket launched from Gaza on October 11. Fortunately, the rocket didn’t kill anyone because the hospital was moved underground. You likely didn’t hear anything in the U.S. press about this attack.
Now, ask yourself this: Why?
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