The ‘Tectonic Shift’ in Media That Changed Perceptions of Israel: ‘What’s Left Is a System Run by Activists’

“The press has been gutted. The bureaus have shrunk, and into that vacuum have come ideological voices,” says Matti Friedman
April 3, 2024
Pro-Palestinian protestors outside The New York Times building protest coverage of the Israel-Hamas War. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

It gives journalist Matti Friedman no satisfaction to know he was early to realize that a change had come to covering Israel, favoring fixed narratives and activist journalism over a tradition of fact-based reporting. 

Friedman, a former reporter and editor at the Associated Press based in Jerusalem from 2006-2011, quit the global news agency after being censored by his editors, and realizing he would have to censor what he and his colleagues knew to be true about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And what was the case a decade ago is more true now, he told me.

“The press has been gutted. The bureaus have shrunk, and into that vacuum have come ideological voices.”
– Journalist Matti Friedman

“The press has been gutted. The bureaus have shrunk, and into that vacuum have come ideological voices,” he said. “Now Human Rights Watch gives you a report, in English, and you write a story based on that report.  And you end up serving as the media arm of the hard left, the world of NGOs.”

This mattered less when the conflict had fallen out of the headlines. But now that the heated war between Israel and Hamas has come to dominate the global news cycle, this shift has dramatic consequences on regional tension amid a frightening spike in anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment around the world.

Examples of this shift abound. A 7,000-word piece in The Intercept cast doubt on a New York Times investigation into the sexual assault and mutilation of Israel women by Hamas on Oct. 7; it was clearly aimed at undermining the credibility of the reporting. Early in the war the Times and others reported that Israel deliberately shelled al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City, allegedly killing hundreds — based on information provided by the Hamas-run Health Ministry — and later learning that it was almost certainly an errant shell from a Gazan military group which killed a small fraction of that number. (Google this and you still cannot get any kind of straight answer.)

An Israeli military operation at al-Shifa Hospital in recent days that captured a reported 500 Hamas and other fighters and killed nearly 200 (a stunning fact that suggests the hospital isn’t just a “hospital”) has received only sporadic attention in The New York Times, with headlines focused on civilian casualties for well over a week before the headline on March 28: “Fighting Rages Around Two Gaza Hospitals as Pressure on Israel Rises.” Previous coverage seemed skeptical that it even was a military raid, noting in the sub-headline of a March 21 article: “The military said it had killed dozens of people it described as terrorists. The account couldn’t be verified.” A second story on March 24 focused on civilian fears at the hospital that relegated the military raid to the 20th paragraph.

The Times’ spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha responded: “In this case of the [al-Ahli] hospital headline, we published a thorough editors’ note to explain the lapse.” She disputed that the recent Shifa hospital raid was not covered as such. “Your question appears to ignore a larger body of coverage of this raid and mischaracterizes the stories referenced — all of which make Israel’s position, that it is targeting Hamas in a military operation, clear.” (I haven’t found that other coverage, and searched again. There are no images reflecting Hamas’ presence in the hospital, and though Israel has released names and titles of senior officials captured or killed, they are not included in Times coverage.)

In the midst of this is a full-on vacuum of information about who Hamas is, their rule over 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza and any sense of accountability for their actions in the current conflict.

It wasn’t that way when I started my career as a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem, working for Reuters during the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s. (Yes, dear reader, you read correctly.) At the time, every major American and European newspaper had a correspondent based in Jerusalem. Most of us spent our time on the ground, in the then-occupied territories and Israel proper, covering the lives of Palestinians and Israelis and writing about their complicated and painful realities as well as the political dynamics that surrounded them. We all used both Israeli and Palestinian freelancers to support our work, but they did not replace going into the field to see for ourselves what was happening.

A combination of the decline in newspaper resources for foreign reporting, the rise of an activist strain of progressive journalism and the inability of journalists to report independently from Gaza itself has led to a skewed and often confusing narrative, with a tendency to lean into a simplistic portrait of Israel as an aggressor in this conflict. 

It is very different now. A combination of the decline in newspaper resources for foreign reporting, the rise of an activist strain of progressive journalism and the inability of journalists to report independently from Gaza itself has led to a skewed and often confusing narrative, with a tendency to lean into a simplistic portrait of Israel as an aggressor in this conflict — despite the fact that the country was attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7 — and Palestinians as the victims. 

It’s not that Palestinians are not suffering. They are, hugely, and one cannot diminish the reality of the fate of Palestinian civilians during this conflict. The crushing loss of life, the deprivation of critical resources — from food instability to lacking medical care to the constant stress of living in a war zone — is horrific. No one can ignore or be unmoved by the images and stories that have emerged from Gaza. But reporting on this is more complicated than it appears.

I met Friedman, Canadian-born and a longtime citizen of Israel, on a balmy Friday morning at a cafe in Baka, the old part of Jerusalem not far from the Old City. The cafe is on an old street called “Bethlehem Road,” which in fact points toward Bethlehem. It’s a short drive and a distant galaxy from here to the border with the West Bank. 

“This stuff has been brewing for a while,” Friedman said. “It’s erupted now, but the pieces have been in place. There are activists, and those who are cowed by activists, remnants of the Boomers in the system. Those are the old school journalists, but what’s left is a system run by activists.”

“If you consume Western media coverage, it’s not a war, it’s a campaign against Palestinian civilians.”

As Friedman observed, “the coverage of Gaza is not coverage of a war,” and he wonders why there is so little interest in how Hamas operates in Gaza today to accompany the understandable focus on the suffering of the Palestinian population. “If you consume Western media coverage, it’s not a war,” he said. “It’s a campaign against Palestinian civilians.”

Independent journalists cannot enter the strip today, and Gaza’s side of the conflict is covered by locals — as it was with Gaza before the war. “Palestinian stringers are either intimidated by Hamas, or they are Hamas,” he said. “You can only operate in Gaza if you cooperate with the regime.”

This is not evident to many readers who see the coverage. (I got into an extended exchange on X with a pro-Palestinian reader who found this quite impossible to believe.)

The AP has a bureau in Gaza, he noted. “Hamas built 750 kilometers of tunnels under Gaza and that was never once worth writing about?” The question was rhetorical, as Friedman knew why — a government the U.S. deemed terrorist was in charge. “We couldn’t cover Gaza properly once Hamas was in control. If you wanted to understand events here you couldn’t do it in the mainstream press.” 

A recent heart-rending piece on the front page of the Times about Palestinian civilians buried beneath the rubble of buildings destroyed by Israeli air raids in Gaza had four bylines and one contributor credit. None of them was in Gaza, nor did the story point that out.

Said the Times spokeswoman: “We report from Gaza when permitted, and continue to work with local journalists in Gaza.” To my question about why the Times is not transparent about its inability to report from the ground, she pointed to a one-time note published in December 2023 that explained this in detail. It would be useful to have a link to this note added to stories about Gaza, for those of us who missed it.

Beyond that, an ideological shift in newsrooms has become part of the dynamic affecting reporting on the war. Back in 2014 Friedman wrote an essay in Tablet magazine explaining how his work at the AP was being dictated from above. 

“During the 2008-2009 Gaza fighting I personally erased a key detail — that Hamas fighters were dressed as civilians and being counted as civilians in the death toll — because of a threat to our reporter in Gaza.”

He noted that the policy then and now was not to inform readers that the story was censored unless the censorship was Israeli. The AP’s Jerusalem news editor reported and submitted a story on Hamas intimidation, he wrote, only to find the story back-burnered and never published.

AP chief of communications Lauren Easton responded that Friedman left the news organization long ago but she did not address the question of censorship. Similarly, in the company’s response to his criticism at the time, it noted only: “The AP does not report many interactions with militias, armies, thugs or governments. These incidents are part of the challenge of getting out the news — and generally not themselves news.”

In response to the question of shrinking coverage and activism seeping into newsrooms, Easton said: “This is a completely inaccurate reflection of the work AP carries out in the region every day, and ignores the vast array of coverage AP journalists have produced — coverage that shows the importance of on-the-ground reporting. Our journalists in both Gaza and Israel have covered this story at great personal risk.”

Matti Friedman
(Photo by Sharon Waxman)

The personal risk is undeniable. Reporting on foreign conflict has never been more dangerous. But this other, ideological aspect also bears discussion.

The pushback experienced by Friedman reflects a much broader shift in newsrooms that has been coming for years, and created a generational split among those who favor “old school” reporting (like me) and younger reporters who believe their values should inform who gets to report on what topics.

Increasingly, institutions are bending to these demands. The firing of New York Times op-ed editor James Bennet over his publishing a column by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, expressing right-wing views that some at the paper found objectionable, is one example. The signing of a manifesto by reporters condemning Israel for “genocide” is something unimaginable for the previous generation. (In fact The New York Times does not allow such advocacy, and The Los Angeles Times editor Kevin Merida clashed with his boss, owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, over benching newsroom staff who did so.)  

Friedman also pointed out the cancellation of “Jihad Rehab” filmmaker Meg Smaker, who was inexplicably deemed an “Islamophobe” for her Sundance documentary about former Islamic radicals in a rehab center in Saudi Arabia. The film was disinvited from every film festival where it was scheduled to go, including SXSW, after that.

From there it’s a short leap to actual censorship: In recent weeks an essay about the fallout from the war by an Israeli writer and peace activist in the arts magazine Guernica was unpublished, complete with an apology (yes!) for the mistake of allowing such a creature to be heard.

“The media and arts world is clearly in the thrall of a certain ideology,” Friedman said. “The world is very grey. But the arts world is no longer willing to put up with grey. People want to be in the business of fighting for justice. So instead of covering the circus, they want to be part of the circus.” 

This black-and-white construction is most nakedly evident on elite American university campuses where the Palestinian cause is just, no matter the atrocities committed by Hamas, and the Israeli response genocidal. The media has begun to reflect aspects of this binary worldview. 

I asked Friedman what he thought was the biggest misconception Americans have about the Israeli-Hamas conflict. He did not hesitate. “Americans think this is a story about inequality,” he said. ”And about their own inequality. They graft their politics onto this conflict.” In fact, Friedman said, it’s about something else entirely: “This is a story about the rise of radical Islam – in Iraq. In Syria. Yemen. Algeria. Afghanistan. Parts of Africa. 

“There are six million Jews here trying to hack it. Making good decisions. Bad decisions. It has nothing to do with what’s happening in America. Americans are self-involved.”

His comical example is the time Israel rescued two hostages in Gaza on Super Bowl Sunday, and U.S. commenters suggested Israel had used the event as a diversion. “Most people in Israel have never heard of the Super Bowl,” Friedman said. “It’s a silly example of a real problem. American think that everything is about them.”

It’s unclear what the solution is, if there is one. Friedman has become a freelance writer, contributing to The Atlantic magazine and Bari Weiss’ Free Press publication, which has a strong bent against the media politics of the far left. He prefers staying away from mainstream publications. But he is willing to speak up about what he has seen, as few others are. 

Can we fix it?

He shrugged. “The tectonic plates are shifting,” he said. “It’s a time to say what we really think.”

Sharon Waxman is founder and editor-in-chief of The Wrap. She is an award-winning journalist and best-selling author, and was a Hollywood correspondent for The New York Times. Twitter: @sharonwaxman. This piece was originally published in TheWrap, and is reprinted with permission.

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