It is a sad reality that the establishment news media’s coverage of the Israel-Hamas fighting may be even more shallow, biased, and hawkish than the coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war or previous international conflicts. The willingness of most prominent news outlets to serve as little more than conduits for pro-war propaganda is not really a new problem. Similar defects were evident during the Persian Gulf War, the U.S.-NATO air wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and at least the early stages of the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Prominent publications even tried to sell the Obama administration’s blatantly false portrayal of Syrian insurgents trying to unseat Bashar al-Assad’s government as democratic freedom fighters. Most of those insurgents were, in fact, Sunni jihadists. Even in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq, major players in the establishment press turned against those missions only when it became obvious to all except the most obtuse individuals that U.S. policy had become a fiasco.
However, the bias seems to have become even more shrill and crude with respect to the Ukraine conflict and the new explosion of violence in the Middle East. Barely four days into the Russia-Ukraine war independent journalist Glenn Greenwald ruefully observed: “It is genuinely hard to overstate how overwhelming the unity and consensus in U.S. political and media circles is. It is as close to a unanimous and dissent‐free discourse as anything in memory, certainly since the days following 9/11.” The same point applies with even greater validity to the media’s perspective on the current conflict in Gaza.
Some of the press accounts during the Ukraine war have proven to be downright embarrassing. During the early weeks of the fighting, Ukrainian officials highlighted the supposed bravery of marines defending Snake Island, who allegedly died rather than surrender to a heavily armed Russian flotilla. The supposed martyrs of Snake Island, who allegedly were blown to smithereens after defying and cursing a Russian warship, turned out to be very much alive.
Other popular propaganda messages circulated in the Western press proved to be equally bogus. Some footage of aerial combat between Ukrainian pilots and Russian aggressors were from video games. 2015’s Miss Ukraine was not taking up arms against the Russian invaders, despite a well‐covered photo op. A closer examination of the image even showed that she was brandishing an Airsoft gun. A widely circulated image of a Ukrainian girl verbally confronting Russian troops actually was an older clip of a Palestinian girl confronting Israeli troops.
The media’s credulity about Ukrainian government propaganda has largely remained intact despite the passage of time. American news outlets dutifully reported a Ukrainian military account in early March 2022 that it had severely damaged, if not sunk, the Russian patrol ship Vasiliy Bykov in the Black Sea. The credibility of Kyiv’s claim took a major hit on March 16, though, when the Vasily Bykov sailed, apparently unharmed, into the Russian port at Sevastopol in Crimea.
More recently, the U.S. press gave extensive coverage to Kyiv’s September 25, 2023, boast that Ukrainian forces had killed Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Moscow easily refuted that claim when it released a video taken the following day showing Sokolov attending a navy ceremony. Kyiv then backed off from its assertion. In contrast to the earlier episode, at least some portions of the Western press had noted early on that the claims of Ukrainian officials could not be independently verified.
Nevertheless, too many journalists have given exposure to questionable Israeli accounts. One story that made an especially big splash was a report that Israeli troops had found at least 40 dead babies “some beheaded,” in an Israeli kibbutz recaptured from Hamas. That story soon became clouded with uncertainty. At first, the Israeli government conceded that it could not confirm the report. Then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office presented photos of dead children, although their authenticity could not be verified by outside experts.
Whether true, false, or exaggerated, the account had served its purpose as widely circulated propaganda to generate hate toward Hamas and the Palestinians. As pervious wartime episodes have confirmed, most readers and viewers remember the initial high-profile stories about alleged atrocities (often vividly when bloody images are used) rather than later, more restrained, less prominent analyses. Pro-war propagandists shamelessly exploit that tendency.
Indeed, this Israeli account had a somewhat musty quality. Hawks used a similar story in late 1990 about Iraqi troops pulling Kuwaiti babies from incubators in a Kuwait city hospital and letting them die on the floor. The supposed witness to the atrocity turned out to be the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States. Subsequent investigations confirmed that the story was bogus, but by that time, it had helped shape public opinion to support President H. W. Bush’s decision to launch Operation Desert Storm.
Indeed, the tactic of using exaggerated or phony atrocity stories (frequently with innocent children as the victims) goes back much earlier. During World War I. the British government conducted an extensive campaign to portray Imperial Germany as the epitome of evil, Kaiser Wilhelm II as “the beast of Berlin,” and German troops as homicidal monsters. One very effective initiative was the circulation of supposed eyewitness accounts of German soldiers raping nuns and bayoneting babies. Those phony propaganda stories were not debunked until the postwar years.
Given that history, one might think that responsible journalists would be very cautious about regurgitating accounts – especially atrocities stories – put forth by one faction waging a war. However, with respect to both Ukrainian and Israeli accounts, most establishment media outlets have displayed very little prudent skepticism. Such unprofessionalism has embarrassed previous generations of editors, columnists and reporters. The same dismal outcome is likely this time.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also held various senior policy posts during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).