When It Comes to Israel, Rushing to Judgment Is Nothing New
Readers have undoubtedly heard by now about an incident two weeks ago involving a group of kids from Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, Native American activists, and a group of Black Hebrew Israelites (to avoid confusion, Black Hebrew Israelites have nothing to do with Jews, Judaism, or Israel).
A short clip that was initially widely circulated on social media attempted to portray one of the kids, Nick Sandmann, as aggressive and harassing towards one of the Native American activists, Nathan Phillips. When a longer video emerged, however, it showed the Black Hebrew Israelites had harassed the kids for over an hour, at the end of which Phillips approached the kids, beating a drum and singing. An observer would not have been able to readily ascertain Phillips’ purpose in doing so, but the kids were clearly not the aggressors. The longer video exonerates them.
In the interim, however, snap judgments were made, and the teens were the target of outrage not only from celebrities and pundits, but also from within the media. Condemnation initially came from both the left and the right. A New York Times news headline read, “Viral Video Shows Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Surrounding Native Elder,” and the accompanying article referred to an “an unsettling encounter.”
When the fuller picture emerged, apologies came from both left and right. The reputational damage, however, was already done. And then, even while admitting their error, some people refused to back down on their initial assessments of the Covington kids as “white-privileged a**holes.” Others doubled down, looking for new reasons to back up their initial negative assessment.
All of this rushing to judgment without waiting for all the facts had a sadly familiar feel. We frequently see it in news coverage pertaining to Israel.
Recall Laila al-Ghandour, the Gaza baby who died last May. Initial reports claimed that she died of Israeli tear gas. Once again, there was a rush to judgment. A May 15 Huffington Post headline read: “Palestinian Family Says 8-Month-Old Died From Israeli Tear Gas In Gaza Protest Crackdown (GRAPHIC).” The same day, Al Jazeera reported, “Laila Anwar al-Ghandour, an eight-month-old baby girl, died of tear-gas inhalation at dawn, Gaza’s Ministry of Health says.” Heart-wrenching photos accompanied the story.
Hundreds marched in the funeral of eight-month-old Leila al-Ghandour, whose body was wrapped in a Palestinian flag.
“Let her stay with me, it is too early for her to go,” her mother cried, pressing the baby’s body to her chest. The family said she died of inhaling tear gas.
And Yousef Munayyer, the Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian rights, tweeted, “The 59th victim of Israel’s brutal repression against Palestinians in Gaza today was Leila Anwar al-Ghandour. She was 8 months old.”
But as CAMERA has noted, soon afterwards, Hamas removed the baby from its list of fatalities that it alleged were caused by Israel. Reports began to emerge that the baby had a heart condition, and a Gaza doctor said that the condition was the cause of her death. Later, a relative alleged that the family had been paid by Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar to say the death was from tear gas. But that didn’t matter — the damage had already been done. Some reporting was never corrected. Munayyer never deleted his tweet. And at year’s end, Reuters backslid into the debunked narrative that the baby had been killed by Israel.
When children are involved, it’s easy to jump to conclusions in order to find an outlet for anger. On July 28, 2014, after children in a refugee camp were killed by a rocket, MSNBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin tweeted, “Israeli strike on Shati Camp: victims rushed to shifa in civilian cars, on motorbikes, in ambulances. more than 30 casualties brought so far.” At the same time, he cast doubt on the IDF’s claims that the deaths were caused by a Hamas misfire: “Israel: HAMAS rocket ‘struck Shifa hospital killing several Palestinians’ Strange since no one died in Shifa strike the dead were from Shati.”
On the same date, an NBC headline claimed, “Strikes Near Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, Refugee Camp Kill at Least 10.” Although the article included the IDF claim that “failed rocket launches by Palestinian militants were to blame,” the use of the word “strike” in the headline implied that it was a deliberate IDF action. The article also reported, “a Palestinian health official says at least 10 people, including children, were killed in Monday’s strikes and dozens were injured.” A headline in The Nation, “Missile Strike at Al-Shati Refugee Camp Kills 10, Including 8 Children,” also implied that Israel was the perpetrator. The Nation’s sub-headline? “‘I saw a massacre,’ says one survivor.”
By July 29, however, an Italian journalist, Gabriele Barbati, confirmed not only that it was a Hamas misfire that killed the children, but that Hamas was preventing journalists from reporting the truth through intimidation.
Neither The Nation nor NBC corrected their misleading headlines.
This phenomenon, of course, extends beyond battlefield situations, or those involving children. This past October, after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Haaretz ran a headline that read, “Israel’s Chief Rabbi Refuses to Call Pittsburgh Massacre Site a Synagogue Because It’s non-Orthodox.” The story quickly spread through American media: The Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Associated Press, The Washington Post, and The New York Times all picked it up.
There was just one problem — the rabbi had actually said the opposite of what was quoted. Although CAMERA, The Forward, and JTA all explained what Rabbi Lau had actually said, all five of those mainstream news outlets failed to correct the error. The Times, moreover, allowed the falsehood to be repeated just last month in an opinion piece written by its Deputy Washington Editor Jonathan Weisman.
The Washington Post’s Megan McArdle wrote of the dialogue surrounding the Covington incident:
After you’ve been lobbing flaming insults from the moral high ground, any subsequent climbdown is humiliating. Frequently, people are tempted to cling to their increasingly untenable position, which only extends the period during which they look utter fools.
In other words, people often simply have a hard time admitting they’re wrong. This is so even absent “flaming insults” lobbed “from the moral high ground,” though it’s probably more pronounced in such cases. The result is that we sometimes see people, including in the media, hanging on to a debunked narrative. The more prudent course of action usually would be to refrain from jumping to conclusions before all of the facts are in.
In the aftermath of the Covington incident, the media — and the public — may learn a lesson about domestic reporting. But will they be able to apply it to reporting on Israel? That remains to be seen.
Karen Bekker is the Assistant Director in the International Letter-Writing Group at CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.