After Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel, IDF forces responded with airstrikes, leveling Gazan buildings. The violence so far has claimed the lives of more than 2,500 people. Western media, however, show far more interest and have much greater sympathy with Israeli dead than Palestinian ones and have played their usual role as unofficial spokespersons for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
EXTRAORDINARY CLAIMS, ZERO EVIDENCE
One case in point is the claim that, during their incursion into southern Israel, Hamas fighters stopped to round up, kill and mutilate 40 Israeli babies, beheading them and leaving their bodies behind.
The extraordinary assertion was originally reported by the Israeli channel i24 News, which based it on anonymous Israeli military sources. Despite offering no proof whatsoever, this highly inflammatory claim about an enemy made by an active participant in a conflict was picked up and repeated across the world by a host of media (e.g., in the United States by Fox News, CNN, MSN, Business Insider, and The New York Post).
Meanwhile, the front pages of the United Kingdom’s largest newspapers were festooned with the story, the press outraged at the atrocity and inviting their readers to feel the same way.
Extraordinary claims should require extraordinary evidence, and a story like this should have been met with serious skepticism, given who was making the claim. The first question any reporter should have asked was, “Where is the evidence?” Given multiple opportunities to stand by it, the IDF continually distanced itself from the claims. Nevertheless, the story was simply too useful not to publish.
The decapitated baby narrative was so popular that even President Biden referenced it, claiming to have seen “confirmed” images of Hamas killing children. This claim, however, was hastily retracted by his handlers at the White House, who noted that Biden was simply referencing the i24 News report.
The story looked even more like a piece of cheap propaganda after it was revealed that the key source for the claim was Israeli soldier David Ben Zion, an extremist settler who had incited race riots against Palestinians earlier this year, describing them as “animals” with no heart who needs to be “wiped out.”
Manipulating the U.S. public into supporting the war by feeding them atrocity propaganda about mutilating babies has a long history. In 1990, for instance, a girl purporting to be a local nurse was brought before Congress, where she testified that Iraqi Dictator Saddam Hussein’s men had ripped hundreds of Kuwaiti babies from their incubators and left them to die. The story helped whip the American public up into a pro-war fervor. It was later revealed that it was a complete hoax dreamed up by a public relations firm.
THE MURDERED GIRL WHO CAME BACK TO LIFE
Another piece of blatantly fake news is the case of Shani Louk. Louk attended the Supernova Festival, ambushed by Hamas. It was widely reported that Hamas murdered her (e.g., Daily Mail, Marca, Yahoo! News, TMZ, Business Insider), stripped her, and paraded her naked body trophy-like through the streets on the back of a truck. Louk’s case incited global anger and calls for an overwhelming Israeli military response.
There was only one problem: Louk was later confirmed to be alive and in hospital, a fact that suggests the videos of her on the back of a truck were actually images of people saving her life by taking her to seek medical assistance.
Few of the outlets irresponsibly publishing these wildly incendiary stories have printed apologies or even retractions. The Los Angeles Times was one exception: after publishing a report claiming that Palestinians had raped Israeli civilians, it later informed readers that “such reports have not been substantiated.”
LIONIZING ISRAEL, DEHUMANIZING PALESTINIANS
Few readers, however, see these retractions. Instead, they are left with visceral feelings of anger and disgust towards Hamas, priming them to support Western military action against Palestine or the wider region.
In case their audiences did not get the message, op-eds and editorials in major newspapers hammered home this idea. The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed entitled “The Moral Duty to Destroy Hamas”, which insisted to readers that “Israel is entitled to do whatever it takes to uproot this evil, depraved culture that resides next to it.” Thus, the outlet implicitly gave Israel a free pass to carry out whatever war crimes it wished on the civilian population, whether that is using banned chemical weapons, cutting off electricity and water, or targeting ambulances or United Nations officials.
The National Review’s editorial board was of a similar mind, stating that “Israel needs a long leash to destroy Hamas.” This long leash, they explained, meant giving Israel far more time to carry out the destruction of Gaza. Western leaders would have to refrain from criticizing Israel or calling for calm and peace.
The message was clear: international unity was paramount at this time. Mere trifles such as war crimes must be overlooked. And while Israel and its people were treated with special sympathy (e.g., Washington Post), the other side was written off as bloodthirsty radicals. While the phrase “Palestinian terrorists” could be found across the media spectrum (e.g., Fox News, New York Post, New York Times), its opposite, “Israeli terrorists” was completely absent from corporate media. This, despite casualties on the Palestinian side outnumbering Israelis.
Underlining the fact that Israeli lives are deemed more important is the way in which deaths from each side are reported. The BBC, for example, told its readers that Israelis have been “killed” while people in Gaza merely “died,” removing any agency from its perpetrators and almost suggesting their deaths were natural.
Missing from most of the reporting was the basic factual background of the attack. Few articles mentioned that Israel was built upon an existing Palestinian state, and that most of the inhabitants of Gaza are descended from refugees ethnically cleansed from southern Israel in order to make way for a Jewish state. Also left unmentioned was that Israel controls almost every aspect of Gazan’s life. This includes deciding who can enter or leave the densely populated strip and limiting the import of food, medicine and other crucial goods. Aid groups have called Gaza “the world’s largest open-air prison.” The United Nations has declared the conditions in Gaza to be so bad as to be unlivable.
These are actually Palestinian child survivors of an Israeli attack.
But you'd never guess that from the headline. pic.twitter.com/niCviIYbhO
— Alan MacLeod (@AlanRMacLeod) October 13, 2023
One of the principal reasons that this crucial context is not given is that it could influence Western audiences into sympathizing with Palestinians or supporting Palestinian liberation. Giant media corporations are largely owned by wealthy oligarchs or by transnational corporations, both of whom have a stake in preserving the status quo and neither of whom wish to see national liberation movements succeed.
Some media outlets make this explicit. Axel Springer—the enormous German broadcaster that owns Politico—requires its employees to sign its mission statement endorsing “the trans-Atlantic alliance and Israel” and has told any staff members that support Palestine to leave their jobs.
Other outlets are slightly less overt but nonetheless have Israel red lines that employees cannot cross. CNN fired anchor Marc Lamont Hill for calling for a free Palestine. Katie Halper was fired from The Hill for (accurately) calling Israel an Apartheid state. The Associated Press dismissed Emily Wilder after it became known that she had been a pro-Palestine activist during her college years. And The Guardian sacked Nathan J. Robinson after he made a joke mocking U.S. military aid to Israel. These cases serve as examples to the rest of the journalistic world. The message is that one cannot criticize the Israeli government’s violent apartheid system or show solidarity for Palestine without risking losing their livelihoods.
Ultimately, then, corporate media play a key role in maintaining the occupation by manipulating public opinion. If the American people were aware of the history and the reality of Israel/Palestine, the situation would be untenable. For those wishing to maintain the unequal state of affairs whereby an apartheid government expels or imprisons its indigenous population, the pen is as important as the sword.