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Lying Eyes

Malignance and myopia in the Western media
Anderson Cooper appears on an old television screen.

For as long as I have been alive, the Western news media has been consumed by bloodlust. The 24/7 conflagration has been fueled, in no small part, by governments who have been more than happy to provide cable news networks and newspapers with all the press releases, interviews, and anonymously sourced intelligence of dubious veracity they can muster to justify their misadventures abroad.

As the tragedy of 9/11 captured the attention of the world, so did the diatribes of pundits that gave ideological credence to the drumbeats of war, stirring up fear in every corner of the American psyche that a country that had nothing to do with the attacks must be invaded so that another 9/11 could never occur. Validity of the so-called “intelligence” was no matter. The lines had been drawn, and the talking heads were more than happy to follow them. When the dust cleared and there were no weapons of mass destruction found around Tikrit, or anywhere in Iraq for that matter, many journalists feigned shock at the extent and duration of their delirium. Questions reverberated: How could they have been duped by such clearly manufactured evidence? How much damage had they caused? And, most importantly, how could the trust of the viewing public be regained?

Apologies were given, hands wrung. Promises were made to do better. But words are words, and action is action. One does not necessarily entail the other. Journalists claimed to have learned from the failure of the Iraq War, but it has become clearer and clearer with time that those lessons were limited to Iraq and the year 2003. The basic, underlying authority of the West as the world’s defender of truth and democracy has persisted, virtually unchallenged, frequent missteps notwithstanding. As Donald Rumsfeld remarked on what he learned from Vietnam, “Some things work out. Some things don’t. That didn’t.”

On matters related to Libya and Iran, China and Venezuela, Western military figures, anonymous intelligence sources, and experts from dark money-backed think tanks are still reliably trotted out to dictate the terms of our reality, whether on CNN, MSNBC, or in the pages of the New York Times. Figures like Thomas Friedman and Ari Fleischer still expect us to believe in their expertise, their know-how about the goings-on of the world, even after selling the public a pack of damaged goods about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Despite paeans to the importance of seeing “both sides,” that inveterate battle cry of the “objective” news media, they remain invested in the state’s view.

Internal opposition and the opportunity for dissent at many news outlets has been repressed or precluded wherever possible.

Israel—the “only democracy in the Middle East”—has long been a favorite of establishment media, which has for years sold the benefits of supporting such a progressive light in the proverbial darkness of the Arab world. The Israel Defense Forces are well-versed in dealing with Western journalists—always at the ready with dedicated English-language spokespeople, handy infographics, and slickly produced videos. The country is a veritable narrative production machine.

In the past, reporting on Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine has generally been minimized or else qualified by the claim that Israel serves as a bulwark against the much larger threat of Iran. When Palestine must be discussed, more importance tends to be placed on the vague threat of Islamist terrorism; little attention is paid to the complex set of events that led to the current conditions on the ground in Gaza and in the occupied West Bank. This careful media equilibrium was upended by the Hamas-led incursion beyond Gaza’s borders on October 7, a stunning attack that killed over one thousand Israelis—more in twenty-four hours than had been killed in all four years of the Second Intifada.

In the wake of the attack, Israel could have reconsidered its ability to keep Gaza under its thumb in perpetuity; instead, it chose to double down on its own illusions and is now poised to launch a deadly ground invasion. Senior Israeli officials have warned the West to expect a war that could very well last as long as ten years. Similarly, the Western media could have taken a moment to stop and consider how its narratives may have contributed to Israel’s false feeling of invulnerability, and how it contributed to the dehumanization of the Palestinians. Instead, they too have doubled down in their support of war. They just tend to couch this support in far more neutral language: explicit warmongering may have to be left to interview subjects like U.S. senators, but reporters are still able to uncritically report obvious propaganda about Hamas beheading babies, as long as it comes from a supposedly neutral source, the always-reliable Israeli soldier.

The New York Times editorial board wasted no time proclaiming that the United States has a “critical role” to play and must “stand firm in its support” of Israel; the paper’s actual reporting, in conjunction, has appeared to bolster the assumption that Israel is engaging in a justified war of self-defense, not a disproportionate campaign of retributive slaughter against a captive population. Other papers, such as the Wall Street Journal, have gone down similar paths, publishing fear-mongering op-eds about the scale of Iranian power, accompanied by dubiously sourced reports about Iran’s alleged role in the Hamas attack.

To enforce the party line, internal opposition and the opportunity for dissent at many news outlets has been repressed or precluded wherever possible. MSNBC quietly pulled three of its Muslim anchors off the air within days of the Hamas attack, according to Semafor (which the network denies, vowing it would cover “the barbaric terrorist attacks on defenseless civilians in Israel . . . and the tragic war it has provoked thoroughly and in all their dimensions”). Networks like CBS and CNN initially scheduled Palestinian voices in their programming—only to sideline or attempt to censor said voices for criticizing the networks’ failures, as Jewish Currents reports. In another instance, executives at Upday, Europe’s largest news aggregator, told employees not to push anything discussing Palestinian deaths in the ongoing war without “information about Israel coming higher up in the story.”

Individuals advocating endless slaughter have found a receptive audience in journalists and anchors unwilling to challenge the consensus view. Democratic and Republican politicians alike talk as if Hamas is a global menace, that this war must be won lest the entirety of the Western world come under threat, and while we’re at it, why not annihilate Iran as well? When Palestinians do manage to make it on the air or into news stories as sources, they are regularly upbraided, demanded to condemn Hamas, even as they describe the death of whole branches of their family trees. Seemingly unsatisfied with demonizing Palestinians, journalistic ire has also been directed at the antiwar movement. The BBC, for instance, characterized pro-Palestinian protesters in London as backing Hamas, which it only later admitted may have been “misleading.”

But it is the horrifying massacre of hundreds of civilians at the al-Ahli al-Arabi Hospital in Gaza last week that has exposed the media’s deference to the Israeli narrative in the most indefensible ways imaginable. On the ground, graphic footage emerged of dead Palestinians, limbs missing, burned by fire, pulled from the rubble. The massive casualties were obvious and impossible to unsee. Western news organizations tried anyway.

CNN, the most egregious offender, saw its star anchor Anderson Cooper correct himself after saying the casualties at the hospital were all civilians. Clarissa Ward, also at CNN, then went on to uncritically report the IDF’s claims that a misfiring Hamas rocket (which was then revised to be from Palestinian Islamic Jihad) may have been what hit the hospital. Journalists with the BBC and MSNBC seemed skeptical of Israel’s statements, but they regurgitated them for the sake of reporting “both sides.” Undisclosed U.S. intelligence and flimsy evidence proffered by the Israeli government took precedence over the accounts of survivors and the Gaza Health Ministry, which held a press conference surrounded by dead bodies. Several news outlets, including ABC, made sure to qualify the health ministry as “Hamas-led,” as if to imply that the Palestinians may have been lying about their own deaths.

Last Wednesday, President Biden appeared to lend his support to Israel’s version of events, despite ample evidence to the contrary, noting that “based on what I’ve seen, it appears as though it was done by the other team.” (This, from the man who’d claimed only one week earlier to have seen photos of children that Hamas had beheaded.) A preliminary analysis from the independent research agency Forensic Architecture casts significant doubt on Israel’s claims about the hospital attack.

There are cracks beginning to form in this stone wall of consensus, however. Just as some journalists were incredulous at the idea that a single Palestinian Islamic Jihad rocket could kill hundreds of people, there are some anchors unwilling to entertain the murderous feedback loop. Take Krishnan Guru-Murthy, lead anchor of Channel 4 News, who last week pressed the Israeli ambassador to the UK on how Israel could possibly expect to eliminate Hamas without “massive, massive civilian casualties.” “So the question is,” he went on, “are you really talking about erasing a people when you’re talking about erasing Hamas?”

Despite Israel’s insistence on the importance of “press freedom,” it doesn’t want actual journalists; it wants propagandists.

While an almost uniform narrative has been constructed in newspapers and on cable news, the actual opinions of Americans are shifting. A recent CBS News poll indicates the majority of Democrats, as well as independents, are opposed to sending more weapons to Israel; they’d prefer that humanitarian aid gets sent to Palestinians in Gaza. But journalists representing this bloc are still few and far between. Even if more of them realize what is going on, the damage has already been done—and it will have far-reaching implications for democracies around the Global North.

European governments have moved swiftly to criminalize Palestinian solidarity. Pro-Palestine demonstrations have been explicitly banned in France, Berlin, Vienna, and New South Wales. Further restrictions seem all but inevitable. The UK’s conservative Home Secretary Suella Braverman has suggested that waving a Palestinian flag may be a criminal offense in some contexts. In the States, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has proposed deporting those supportive of Hamas, a viewpoint that might sound uncontroversial considering the group’s terrorist designation, until you realize that Hamas is his shorthand for “supporting Palestine.” The hysteria continues to spread: incidents of harassment of Palestinians and antiwar activists are multiplying, and the hoax of a “Global Day of Jihad” has been cited in the gruesome murder of a six-year-old child in Illinois, who was stabbed twenty-six times by his family’s landlord, a man convinced that Muslims were going to rise up and attack.

Despite the West’s deference to Israel, the country still isn’t satisfied. Officials routinely criticize Western media for not adopting official IDF language, for questioning Israel’s staunch moral code, for not accepting the necessity of mass civilian casualties, for not believing in the righteousness of a ground invasion of Gaza. Western journalists need to understand this: despite Israel’s insistence on the importance of “press freedom,” it doesn’t want actual journalists; it wants propagandists. Any attempt to divert from the official narrative—to ask questions, to conduct even the most basic due diligence—will be met with hostility.

There is no greater evidence of this than what happened several days ago when a correspondent from the Qatari pan-Arab station al-Araby was confronted by an Israeli security officer while filming a live report. The officer asked him his origin, and, not understanding Arabic, demanded to know if he was “saying good things.” The correspondent offered that he was just “saying what the Israeli military is doing.” This was not a value-neutral statement to the officer. He raised his voice, demanding that the reporter better demand that Hamas be “slaughtered” and threatened him if he didn’t “report the truth.” He then turned to the news camera and said to the Arab audience watching from home: “We’ll turn Gaza to dust! Dust!” Elsewhere, in newsrooms far away, reporters try and find more nuanced ways of putting it.