CNN’s Investigations: Biased Expert Analysis

[Editor’s Note: This is Part Three of a five-part series addressing five categories of flaws repeatedly found in CNN investigations into allegations against Israel. Find Part One, regarding the omission of exculpatory information, here. Part Two, regarding the omission of important information about the credibility of witnesses and reliability of evidence, is available here. Part Four will address the use of skewed context and language. Part Five will address the partisan agenda repeatedly found in the investigations. Note that these issues are not universal at CNN, and there are outstanding CNN journalists and fair-minded hosts. Nonetheless, these issues are pervasive enough that they require exposure.]

Expert analysis, when used properly, can help audiences contextualize factual reporting. But when used improperly, it can mislead audiences by exaggerating or downplaying certain details to fit into a preconceived narrative. Repeatedly, CNN’s investigations have fallen into the latter category by portraying demonstrably biased “experts” as neutral sources.

  • The Munitions Investigation (Background available here)

In CNN’s 12/22 munitions investigation, authored by Tamara Qiblawi, Allegra Goodwin, Gianluca Mezzofiore, and Nima Elbagir, one of the main experts relied on for commentary is Marc Garlasco. CNN’s repeated use of Garlasco to support sensationalized allegations against Israel is perhaps one of the clearest examples of biased journalism at the network. Not only does he have a demonstrable record of anti-Israel bias, but he has also been repeatedly caught spreading lies about Israel on the very topic he is relied upon by CNN.

This CNN investigation alleged that Israel was using massive bombs in Gaza that had a lethal fragmentation radius of 365 meters. As explained previously, the authors omitted that those bombs were being detonated underground in such a way that substantially reduced the danger.

Garlasco is introduced to readers simply as “a former US defense intelligence analyst and former UN war crimes investigator” and “military adviser at PAX, a Dutch non-governmental organization that advocates for peace.”

Marc Garlasco’s 430-page book on Nazi paraphernalia

This description suggests Garlasco is a neutral, independent source. On the contrary, Garlasco is perhaps most well-known for being the former Human Rights Watch staffer with a disturbing obsession with Nazi memorabilia. And saying PAX “advocates for peace” is perhaps the most uninformative and irrelevant description the authors could have chosen. Readers should know that the organization has a history of political advocacy against Israel, including calling for the boycott and sanctioning of Israel.

Surely if they were interested in impartial expert analysis the authors could have located military experts without such a partisan record.

But in addition to his clear bias, Garlasco also has a history of spreading falsehoods on the exact topic CNN was reporting on. Over a week before CNN’s article, the Washington Post was forced to correct after CAMERA alerted the paper to Garlasco’s inaccurate data which was designed to depict Israel as engaged in an unprecedented bombing campaign. He had falsely claimed only 7,423 munitions were dropped on Afghanistan during an entire year. In fact, the U.S. dropped 17,500 munitions in Afghanistan in just the first 76 days of bombing.

But nine days later, CNN nonetheless turned to him to make the same type of accusation. Garlasco is cited to claim that “the density of Israel’s first month of bombardment in Gaza had ‘not been seen since Vietnam.’” But what is meant by “density”? As CAMERA’s Gilead Ini pointed out, this claim is dubious, at best. For example, Mariupol, in Ukraine, which is less than half the size of the Gaza Strip, saw 90% of residential buildings damaged or destroyed. Even in terms of the number of munitions dropped, “US-led forces dropped over 29,000 munitions on Iraqi targets in the first 30 days of fighting —double the rate of Israel, which dropped the same estimated number of munitions but in twice the time.”

CAMERA’s Gilead Ini documented Garlasco’s dishonesty elsewhere, too. In one article he wrote for the Lawfare Blog, Garlasco misleadingly compared the number of bombs dropped by Israel in “the first six weeks” of the current war with the number dropped by the United States “during the entire Iraq war in 2003.” As Ini points out, the “entire Iraq war in 2003” lasted less than six weeks (about four weeks). Garlasco’s wording deceives readers into thinking Israel was bombing at higher rate, when the opposite was true.

In the same article, Garlasco also bizarrely claimed that “most bombs dropped [by Israel] are among the largest in regular use – 2,000 pound bombs.” Yet even CNN was only able to identify around 500 craters “consistent” with such bombs, which would account for less than 2% of the number of bombs Garlasco said had been dropped in the first six weeks. Notably, the link Garlasco points to for his proposition says nothing of the sort.

Garlasco is obviously not a credible source on this topic. His repeated use, notwithstanding the many available experts on the subject matter, suggests the CNN journalists are less interested in accuracy and more interested in getting the “expert” testimony that fits a preconceived narrative.

Disturbingly, Garlasco is not the only biased expert CNN relied upon. The article quotes two individuals, John Chappell and Annie Shiel, from the organization CIVIC. It takes only a few minutes of perusing their social media profiles to discover that far from being impartial analysts, they have been deeply engaged in political advocacy against Israel. Specifically, they’ve spent weeks advocating against the United States selling weapons to Israel with spurious allegations of widespread war crimes. Indeed, their Twitter profiles in recent months have been focused almost entirely on Israel, retweeting and liking posts from far-left politicians like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar and anti-Israel activists like Francesca Albanese and Omar Shakir advocating against or criticizing Israel. Shortly after Hamas’s atrocities on 10/7, Shiel was even “liking” posts objecting to the use of the term “terrorism” against Hamas and blaming Hamas’s murder, rape, torture, and mutilation of Israelis on Israeli “apartheid.” The bias comes from the organization’s leadership, too. The Middle East and North Africa Program Manager, Natalie Sikorski, is a signatory on an 11/13 open letter that absurdly accuses Israel of “ethnic cleansing,” “genocide,” and “apartheid.”

The point is not that CIVIC, and Chappell and Shiel in particular, have deeply controversial opinions. The point is that they were presented, alongside Garlasco, as impartial experts on a subject on which they are demonstrably biased. When the article quotes Chappell to claim that the “devastation” in Gaza has been “co-signed by the United States,” the audience deserves to understand Chappell and Shiel have been vigorously advocating against supplying defense materials to Israel. The audience deserves to know the motivations of the “experts” cited.

  • The Munitions Investigation and Government Statements

A related problem found in the CNN investigation into Israel’s use of munitions is the selective quotation of government officials. In short, the authors chose to include only quotes from U.S. governmental officials that cast a negative light on Israel, while omitting directly relevant statements that challenged their allegations.

The article says that “US President Joe Biden accus[ed] Israel of ‘indiscriminate bombing’ of the coastal strip,” and quotes Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf saying she thinks the death toll is likely very high. The authors even cite “US intelligence sources” for the claim that 40-45% of munitions dropped on Gaza were “dumb bombs.” The examples suggest the U.S. believes Israel is indiscriminately devastating the Gaza Strip.

But not once does the article cite the many statements by U.S. government officials giving exactly the opposite impression. For example, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby walked back Biden’s comments the next day, telling reporters that the IDF was taking steps to prevent civilian casualties that he doesn’t think even the United States would take. Kirby has also torn into those accusing Israel of atrocities, stating “Israel is not trying to wipe the Palestinian people off the map. Israel is not trying to wipe Gaza off the map. Israel is trying to defend itself against a genocidal terrorist threat.” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has emphasized to reporters that Hamas has placed “an incredible burden on the IDF, a burden that is unusual for a military in today’s day and age,” by employing human shielding as a strategy.

The impression is that the authors’ interest in government statements depends not so much on their relevance, but on whether they fit the preferred narrative.

  • The Abu Akleh Investigation (Background available here)

Another glaring example is the reliance on Chris Cobb-Smith in CNN’s May 2022 investigation that accused Israel of “targeting” the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an IDF counterterror operation in Jenin. Cobb-Smith is introduced to readers as “an explosive weapons expert.” Authored by Zeena Saifi, Eliza Mackintosh, Celine Alkhaldi, Kareem Khadder, Katie Polglase, Gianluca Mezzofiore, and Abeer Salman, the article uses him for the proposition that there was “no chance” the gunfire that killed Abu Akleh could have been “random firing” because of the “tight grouping of the rounds” that hit a tree nearby the journalist. The proposition was questionable for several reasons, explored here.

But like Garlasco, the authors hid Cobb-Smith’s affiliations that raise questions as to his credibility. Cobb-Smith was an adviser with an organization known for its anti-Israel advocacy, Forensic Architecture, which also promotes the boycott and sanctioning of Israel. That is, CNN turned to an advisor from an organization that advocates against Israel to make a claim against Israel without mentioning that detail.

And that organization is known for making clearly absurd allegations against Israel.

For example, well after it was plainly clear for any impartial observer that the explosion at al-Ahli Hospital was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket, Forensic Architecture, and Cobb-Smith in particular, were still engaging in pseudoscientific analysis to suggest it was an IDF (referred to as “IOF,” which stands for “Israeli Occupation Force,” showing clear bias) artillery shell that hit the hospital. The social media thread even compared the scene at the hospital to an image of what it claimed was an “artillery shell” impact in Ukraine that actually turned out to have been caused by a rocket (Forensic Architecture quietly admitted this a month later).

It again raises the obvious question: of all the military experts out there, why would CNN turn to an “explosive weapons expert” from an organization that advocates for the punishment of Israel for an analysis of an allegation against Israel that had nothing to do with explosive weapons? It raises the question of whether the journalists considered the important detail about Cobb-Smith his bias, not his expertise.

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