The “fog of war” has often been used as a convenient excuse for journalistic laziness. But what happened with the Gaza hospital bombing is turning out to be a case of outright malpractice, one that may have cost some lives and could have cost many more, had it not been headed off by Israeli investigators (who are mostly not believed) and President Biden (who mostly is). But as we look at the damage that was done by this rush to judgment, this Mother of All Overreactions committed by some of the world’s most reputable journalists, publications and networks, the fog of war is developing a definitive stench.
What is irrefutable is that something horrible happened and innocent people died. That is beyond tragic and should have sufficed as news, until the cause could be discovered. That’s not what happened. The initial claims of Israel’s responsibility were dutifully reported, and in a manner that suggested veracity.
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I am a journalist myself, as well as a rabbi, and I am humble enough to know that even now, the facts could reveal a different truth. But I am not responsible for producing the front page of the New York Times, so the damage I can do is relatively minimal. I was not capable of singlehandedly causing the cancellation of a crucial summit between President Biden and several Arab leaders in Amman. I’m not responsible for the 300,000 Israeli soldiers waiting for an order to invade, or for the 200+ hostages who might have been on course to be released when the hospital lie took hold.
So let’s take a quick look around at some reactions, shall we? First, from the President of Israel.
Now let’s look at some front pages from this morning:
I'm trying to recall. Please remind me. Exactly what country's derriere did the US save in the first Gulf War? And which country deliberately did not fight back when Iraq fired dozens of scud missiles its way, forcing a traumatized population to escape to safe rooms? Please remind me. Oh yes. The US and Israel. Too bad General Schwartzkopf died in 2012. I think he might have had an unprintable reaction to that headline.
This one from the Washington Post subtly leads to the conclusion that a deliberate attack (a "strike," by whom... hmm?) resulted in hundreds of deaths (anyone have a verified count?) widespread protests and the spread of conflict. The heartbreaking photos are real, but the context of the surrounding words triggers a muscle memory leading to one conclusion only. You-know-who did this. Israel is accused in every manner but name. It's like a headline screaming, "Titanic sinks after encountering something very cold (wink, wink)!"
And below, see the Boston Globe's classic example of "both-sidesism" at its best. The headline literally says "both sides." They used a N.Y. Times report but capped it with the most hilariously tragic headline imaginable. Here's a good rule of thumb. When the story is not verified by your own reporters on the ground, and the accusation comes from a source that is affiliated with a group that committed an act of genocidal terrorism in plain view a week before, in whose interest it is to create chaos and drum up resentment, maybe it's time for a little skepticism. For a day at least? A few hours?
People - stick to the known! Not the finger pointing, but the hospital, the human element. What’s known is sensational enough. The next example will show you how to do it.
Check this out, below, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which has been on point throughout this crisis. The headline is appropriately large but not incendiary, focusing on what is known rather than speculating on what is not. The headline of the article below the fold appropriately slants toward the claims of the nation that happens to be a democracy that didn't just commit an act of mass genocidal terror against a civilian population. It might have helped that Las Vegas is in a western time zone and they had a few more hours to get it right. But I think it’s OK to resist bothsidesism when one of the sides just decapitated babies, don’t you?
And then there's CNN, with an eternal infatuation with the romanticized "Arab Street." Even after President Biden took some of the oxygen out of the flames by giving the US assessment that the explosion likely came from a misfired rocket from Gaza, the prevailing narrative on CNN was that this won't fly on the "Arab Street." Of course it won't. Not if your cameras are obsessed with seeking out the most incendiary photo op - literally looking for burning flames, anything burning, preferably near an American embassy, preferably with Lawrence of Arabia riding in on a camel. Maybe the more responsible thing would be to douse some of those flames by turning the cameras in some other direction, rather than continuing to repeat yet another Big Lie. But that would be responsible and might hurt ratings.
Here's an interesting tidbit. When news of the D-Day invasion was first reported in 1944, the source was, of all things, Radio Berlin. You can hear it on the NBC broadcast (below). That in itself is amazing, but what's even more amazing is that western news services believed Radio Berlin. They’re the ones who practically invented modern propaganda and the Big Lie. It’s equally remarkable that Radio Berlin, at least in this case, told the truth. It just shows us how the concept of truth has been degraded over the last 80 years. Now people are skeptical when a democracy like Israel speaks of decapitated babies, while they are more than willing to believe genocidal terrorists at the drop of a hat.
Aside from the degrading of truth, the unfair degree of skepticism toward Israel is traceable to several possible causes:
1) Israeli military has an imperfect track record in transparency, with the most recent cases cited being recent deaths of journalists in the West Bank and Lebanon.
2) Just before the holidays, Israel's Prime Minister completed a blitz of the American media where his lies were so prolific that they were almost Trumpian. I believe that's why Netanyahu has barely been heard from on US television since Oct.7. That and the fact that his credibility is shot at home too, along with his reputation for protecting Israelis and probably his political career.
3) Because Israel is a Jewish state, and the old anti-semitic trope of Jews as slithery, conniving, bloodthirsty, child-killing monsters is rearing its ugly head once again, which is leading to another antisemitic classic: the blood libel.
Do I really believe that antisemitism is the reason that Israel is held to a higher standard of truth by the media, many of whom are themselves Jewish? No, I don't think Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer are antisemites. For one thing, they are proud Jews. But I don't doubt that the leaders of Hamas are, and they've taught their children to be, and there is just so much more antisemitism in the air right now, everywhere, so I can't discount it. The idea that Israel would deliberately murder children, in a hospital or anywhere, is pure psychological projection from a group that has just done precisely that.
What happened to Israel last night feels like what President Herzog says it was - yes, a blood libel.
And if this is an example of blood libel, it might be one of the worst examples, worse than 12th century Norwich, 19th century Damascus, Mendel Beilis in 1913 Ukraine, or Leo Frank in Atlanta. Or Pizzagate, for that matter. Hopefully President Biden cut off its oxygen supply before it could get ugly and the conspiracists could really go to town.
From this point, whether or not this really gets ugly is not up to the "Arab Street" or white supremacists, but to those who, yesterday at least, demonstrated that they can't tell the difference between the search for truth and casual, lazy acceptance of the sensational, convenient lie.
The professional media should be ashamed of itself.