The mainstream U.S. media is using the word “hostages” to describe the Israelis who Hamas militants have captured and taken into Gaza. Analyzing this usage is a good way to introduce how the mainstream is distorting this latest crisis. First, some of the captured Israelis are soldiers, who should properly be called “prisoners of war,” especially as Benjamin Netanyahu has actually declared war on Gaza. But, in fact, other captured Israelis are in fact civilians, and “hostages” is arguably the appropriate description.
But wait. This conflict didn’t start at 6:30 a.m. on October 7. Israel has occupied both West Bank Palestine and Gaza for nearly 60 years, and over that time has arrested and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, often without even show trials. Nathan Thrall, in his impressive, just published book, explains that during the First Intifada (1967-1993) the Israeli occupiers jailed some 700,000 Palestinian men and boys on the West Bank, roughly 40 percent of the entire male population there.
Today, the Israeli occupiers continue to arrest Palestinians, holding them for long stretches without anything resembling a fair trial. But the U.S. mainstream never seems to describe these Palestinian people as “hostages.”
The double standard perfectly illustrates the U.S. media’s playbook on how to distort the crisis. First, twist your actual reports, with one-sided language and biased framing. But second, and arguably even more important; ignore any of the history in Israel/Palestine, so that the attack from Gaza looks like an inexplicable, unprovoked spasm of violence and Jew-hatred.
At least the New York Times and the Washington Post do call the armed Palestinians from Gaza “militants.” But much of CNN, some of MSNBC, and of course Fox News describe them as “terrorists.” And there is more subtle linguistic bias. One observer, Jeff Sharlet, noted on Twitter that CNN routinely calls Israelis “people,” but refers to Palestinians mainly as “Palestinians,” which is “the kind of unwitting language that shapes narratives.” As the coverage continued through its second day, the bias grew: the cable networks almost exclusively interviewed Israeli victims, but nearly ignored Palestinians.
CNN’s color-coded map of Israel/Palestine, which it displayed on screen regularly all week-end, was another instance of slanting. The map showed the entire occupied West Bank as “Palestinian-controlled,” which will be a surprise to Palestinians who every single day have to pass through Israeli military checkpoints.
The mainstream also failed to actually report Hamas’s stated reasons for launching the attack. By contrast, Haaretz, the Israeli daily, did quote Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political bureau. Haniyeh charged Israel with damaging the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. He also accused Israel of continuing to ethnically cleanse the occupied West Bank: “We also warned them against continuing the policy of demographic change in the West Bank, and the acceleration of the settlement project, but they continue the raids on the cities and refugee camps. . .”
And Haniyeh concluded:
Israel could have silenced us by giving us crumbs, but the government turned its back on any possibility of a prisoner exchange deal, and continued the siege of the [Gaza} Strip.”
You could watch the centrist U.S. cable networks from morning to night and have little or no idea what Haniyeh is talking about. Whether you end up agreeing with him or not, you should at least know what he said.
(The Washington Post, to its credit, did run one valuable report explaining “Why the Israeli raids on al-Aqsa Mosque are stoking tensions.” But the rest of the paper’s reporting reflected the mainstream slant.)
National Public Radio was surprisingly better than its usual low standard. NPR even ran an interview with Yousef Munayyer, the respected Palestinian-American analyst, who did explain the significance of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Another huge angle the U.S. mainstream is mostly missing is:
1) The Netanyahu government’s colossal failure to detect the coming attack, and
2) Even more important: how and why the arrogance of Netanyahu’s far-right ruling coalition contributed to the disaster.
Haaretz, by contrast, didn’t mince words. One after another, reporters and columnists blistered Netanyahu’s coalition, pointing out that the far-right government continued to push the “settlement” campaign in the West Bank and stood by as the “settlers” carried out pogroms against Palestinians. Then, having provoked increased Palestinian resistance, Netanyahu had to move army units to the occupied territory, leaving the southern border with Gaza relatively unprotected.
Haaretz commentators, instead of blindly “standing with Israel,” didn’t hesitate to blast their own government.
There were a few exceptions to the prevailing U.S. mainstream bias. During the first morning of the attack, on MSNBC Ali Velshi and Ayman Mohyeldin actually did thoughtful reporting that provided some truths and background. Velshi even interviewed Diana Buttu, the well-known Palestinian legal expert.
But more typical was the coverage guided over at CNN by Wolf Blitzer, who commandeered the anchor’s chair for long hours over the weekend. Blitzer rattled on with pro-Israel talking points, citing the Israeli death toll without mentioning Palestinian casualties inside Gaza. His most ludicrous moments came when he invited on English-speaking Israeli military spokesmen and let them give long propaganda speeches while he sat there like an elderly gargoyle, apparently forgetting that part of his job is supposed to be to challenge interviewees with follow-up questions.
One of the military mouthpieces, Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, was already known at this site. Back in 2021, we reported how he duped the New York Times into making a false report that Israeli ground forces were already attacking Gaza. The Times, and others, published articles reporting his statement. In fact, he had lied. Israeli news outlets explained that the fake news was Israel’s effort to trick Hamas fighters into hiding in their underground bunkers, where Israeli warplanes would be able to strike at them.
The Times, to its credit, revealed back then that it had been tricked. Maybe someone should show that article to Wolf Blitzer.