CNN’s Mea Culpa on Al-Ahli Hospital Coverage Isn’t Enough

In reporting on the yesterday’s (October 17) explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, CNN got it wrong. Big time. Today, the network’s Oliver Darcy published what amounts to a mea culpa about how journalists got the story wrong. Self-reflection by the network is praiseworthy, but unfortunately Darcy missed the important points about how CNN failed.

Contrary to his depiction, it wasn’t that this was a “he said she said” issue on who blew up the hospital, and they just failed by not waiting for the “she said.” The issue was that they took Hamas’s claims at face value, and then they gave the terrorist organization’s claims equal weight to that of Israel’s, notwithstanding the IDF’s claims were backed up by audio and visual evidence.

“The first draft of history is not always perfect,” Darcy explained in his article. “The fog of war is very real.” Addressing why the coverage changed, he wrote that “soon after those [Hamas] reports, a more complex picture emerged,” and news organizations moved to reflect the IDF’s response. “Cable news chyrons were tweaked. Ledes rewritten. Headlines changed,” he explained. “But,” Darcy wrote, “even in the wake of Israel’s vigorous denial, news organizations are still unable to definitively say what transpired, putting them in a difficult position and leaving audiences confused.”

These self-serving explanations miss the point and suggest CNN still hasn’t learned the right lessons.

The first missed lesson is that they were not (and still are not) being transparent with their audience about sources. Consider CNN’s first tweet on the hospital explosion:

The “Palestinian health ministry” is an entity of Hamas, an internationally designated terrorist organization, which has spent the last week blatantly lying about the atrocities it committed on October 7th. By refusing to explain that the “Palestinian health ministry” is under the control of Hamas, CNN is helping launder a terrorist organization’s claims. It would be as if the network reported the claims of Islamic State during the battle for Mosul as coming from the “Iraqi health ministry.”

Worse, in CNN’s initial story on the explosion, it referenced “the Palestinian government in Gaza” as the source of one statement on the hospital explosion, and then separately referenced another statement by “Hamas,” as if the two are different entities. This is beyond deceptive.

The other enormous failure by CNN – and many other outlets – is that they continue to treat the claims of Hamas and the IDF equally, notwithstanding only one has produced actual evidence for its claims. Within hours, the IDF was producing video footage, drone imagery, and audio from intercepted Hamas communications that evidenced the explosion was caused by a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket.

Israel began publishing video evidence (at 4:33pm ET) shortly after its denial (at 4:00pm ET). Footage of the incident was also being published by independent journalists around the same time (4:28pm ET), supported with additional documentation of timestamps (4:54pm ET).

It wasn’t until approximately 7:00pm ET that CNN’s live updates even hinted at the nature of the IDF intelligence – specifically, the intercepted communications and drone footage. Meanwhile, publicly available and credible footage and analysis were left unmentioned.

Incredibly, even as of the next morning, CNN was still depicting it as a “Palestinian officials say, Israeli officials say” situation, writing:

Some context: Hundreds died following Tuesday’s blast at the hospital in Gaza City that was sheltering thousands of displaced people, Palestinian officials said. They blamed Israel for the bombing, although Israeli officials said a rocket fired by Islamic Jihad was to blame.

As late as 10:30am – at least five hours after even U.S. President Biden indicated the hospital was hit by a Palestinian rocket – CNN was still treating Hamas and the IDF’s accounts equally.

It’s important to emphasize another aspect of what happened here. CNN rushed to spread Hamas’s claim of an Israeli strike without any skepticism. At no point in its website updates or social media posts did CNN inform its audience that a large rocket barrage occurred at the same time as the explosion at the hospital, something the Jerusalem Post immediately pointed out. It was never mentioned that there is a documented history of Palestinian terrorist rockets frequently misfiring and killing Palestinians inside Gaza. Neither on its website nor on social media did CNN mention the well-known practice of Palestinian terrorist organizations using clinics and hospitals for military purposes.

Instead, the only context CNN’s live updates provided:

While Israel says “IDF does not target hospitals,” the UN and Doctors Without Borders say during the past 10 days, Israeli airstrikes have struck medical facilities, including hospitals and ambulances.

The selective context is egregious, as is CNN’s continued insistence on treating the opposing claims as equal.

None of this is to say that CNN should have automatically accepted Israel’s claims. But CNN’s rush to uncritically amplify terrorist propaganda, while slow-walking its reporting of evidence backing up a democratic country’s claim, raises questions about the network’s judgment. Moreover, that CNN continues to deceive its audience about the source of these claims (depicting Hamas as the “Palestinian health ministry”), and that the network only added context that worked to implicate Israel, raises questions about its fairness.

Darcy is right that heightened vigilance is needed, and reports come with consequences, such as the mass protests against Israel for what the United States is now saying was likely Islamic Jihad’s action. But Darcy is wrong that this was a consequence of “fog of war.” CNN’s error was bad journalism.

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