Seven days ago, Hamas started a new Middle East war with a massacre of more than 1,200 Israeli civilians. Next up: a likely ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, a patch of the Mediterranean coast controlled by the terrorist organization since 2005. The last time Israel sent tanks into Gaza, in 2014, we saw many in the U.S. media work to undermine the effort by blaming the Israelis for heavy casualties among Palestinian civilians who were, in fact, put in danger by the cruel decisions of cynical Hamas leaders.
For years, some journalists have preferred to downplay the horrors of Hamas, even though their targeting killing of innocent civilians is longstanding and well-known, including attacks on a restaurant (16 dead), a nightclub (21 dead), an open-air market (16 dead), a coffee shop (11 dead), multiple bombings of city buses, including in 1994 (22 dead), 1996 (a pair of attacks that killed 45), 2001 (15 dead), and a 2002 attack on a hotel where Jews were celebrating Passover (30 dead).
In August 2003, just days after Hamas terrorists blew up yet another Jerusalem bus crammed with civilians (24 dead), ABC News correspondent Mike Lee mildly referred to Hamas as “a political and social welfare organization with a military wing.” So, like community organizers, with a bit more attitude?
Which brings us to June 2014, when three Israeli teenagers — all seminary students, including one with dual American citizenship — were abducted and later found dead. Hamas did not claim responsibility outright, but “applauded the abductions as a heroic act,” as CBS Evening News correspondent Alex Ortiz reported July 1. Israel responded by arresting hundreds of suspects, and with air strikes on Hamas facilities in the Gaza Strip, while Hamas launched hundreds of rockets toward Israeli population centers.
During the next several weeks, TV viewers — especially those watching NBC and MSNBC — saw a “news” narrative that cast Palestinians as victims of a powerful bully, Israel. “The Palestinians don’t have the advantage of the underground shelters. They don’t have, obviously, Iron Dome,” Andrea Mitchell fretted on her July 14 MSNBC show. Correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin, who would be a reliable voice against Israel during those weeks, added to the portrait: “You’ve got to keep in mind, Andrea, that Gaza has been under siege for several years now.”
“For years, Gazans have been living in prison-like conditions,” NBC’s Richard Engel echoed on the July 23 Nightly News. “Palestinians say their choice is to die fighting Israel or live quietly in the jail Gaza has become.”
When Hamas officials — who relentlessly targeted civilians — accused Israel of war crimes, their inflammatory charges were repeated as news. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the defensive in a July 21 interview: “Last night, our network aired scenes of the largest hospital in Gaza having to turn away dead bodies at the hospital morgue — there was no more room....How does it strike you as a father, as a human being?”
Immediately after grilling Netanyahu, Williams gave the terrorists some free advertising: “Hamas tells NBC News in a statement tonight, quote, ‘It is Netanyahu and his army of war criminals that have targeted and continue to target innocent and defenseless civilians....’”
“Over the past 24 hours, Palestinian medical sources are describing what is happening here as nothing short of a massacre,” MSNBC’s Moyheldin relayed on Morning Joe, July 21. A day earlier, on NBC’s Today, Richard Engel passed along yet another anti-Israeli quote from Gaza: “One Palestinian medical official said it was a war crime in the making.”
A reason for the high number of civilian deaths was Hamas’s cynical practice of locating their military apparatus in occupied schools and hospitals. Yet instead of denouncing Hamas for a “human shield” strategy that led to civilian deaths, the media rewarded Hamas by blaming the Israelis for the resulting casualties.
“The U.N. workers, UNRWA, have collaborated with Hamas for years and years. They know that there are missiles in the schools, in the hospitals, in the mosques, and they know what’s going to happen. Kids will be killed and that’s going to be on television,” conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer explained on FNC’s Special Report on July 23.
Yet the very next night, after a United Nations school came under fire, all three broadcast evening newscasts played the tragedy just as Hamas wished. CBS anchor Scott Pelley proclaimed: “Death in a safe haven. Shells hit a U.N. school in Gaza where civilians had taken shelter from the war.” Over on ABC, correspondent David Wright read from the same script: “They had sought refuge from this war at a U.N. school. Today their safe haven came under attack.”
On NBC, Richard Engel tried to insulate Hamas from criticism, asking the director of United Nations relief operations in the area: “Were militants operating inside this school?” Robert Turner replied, “No, we are very, very strict about the neutrality of our installations. It’s just civilians.” As if he could openly admit it otherwise.
“This continued killing of women and children in a way that appears to be indiscriminate is asinine. It is bad,” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough fulminated on July 31. That same morning, NBC’s Savannah Guthrie confronted Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer on Today: “Again and again Israel has said it doesn’t target civilians....And yet, we continue to see civilians die.”
“Do you ask yourselves, ‘Okay, we may be winning militarily, but we are losing the larger battle, the PR war?’” she demanded.
“The PR battle” is shorthand for American and international public opinion, heavily influenced by how the media frames the conflict. And many journalists chose to frame the fight as too lopsided against Hamas, casting Israel out to be the bad guys. “What do you say to [Americans], that Israel may be losing its soul, may be losing the war because of the political impact of what is happening on the ground,” Andrea Mitchell asked Ambassador Dermer on July 29.
The hostility to Israel sounded just right to some of the most left-wing voices on television. “I think our network, this time around, and I think the media more generally — and now I’m talking about the New York Times and other places — have been doing a much better job in this conflict,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes proudly told a Palestinian journalist who had complained that the U.S. media were still too pro-Israel.
Hayes boasted: “I think the image that most Americans are seeing from this conflict, by in large, are images of the destruction in Gaza. I think that’s been the defining feature of this, and in fact, there’s all these people talking about how the Israelis are losing the media war for the first time.”
For a few days at least, the world seemed revolted by last week’s atrocities. Yet there are already disturbing signs that the history of 2014 is repeating itself, with some media voices already condemning Israel for “war crimes” and inflicting “terror” as it seeks to end the obvious threat from a despicable and deadly foe that has cynically embedded itself within a vulnerable civilian population.
It’s the ultimate example of “blaming the victim.” Let’s hope there are others in the media who have learned from their past mistakes.
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.