National Public Radio (NPR) has long been criticized for its biased coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, causing some unhappy listeners to substitute the word “Palestine” for “Public” in the public network’s well-known acronym. Dependent in large part on funding from its listeners, NPR continuously denies its clear bias, promoting its reporting as “impartial,” “honest” and “transparent.” But no objective person who has been listening to NPR’s coverage of Hamas’ current war on Israel can remain in any doubt that the media outlet’s reporting on the conflict is as biased as ever.
The detailed analysis that follows focuses on NPR’s reporting of a single incident – a deadly explosion that took place on Oct. 17 at the parking lot of the Al-Ahli hospital in Hamas-run Gaza. It provides a case study of the methods NPR reporters use to bolster an anti-Israel narrative and run interference for Israel’s enemies. Despite the mounting evidence and conclusions by international experts that Israel was not at fault for the explosion, NPR steadfastly refused to rule out Israeli responsibility, eventually turning to an anti-Israel, BDS activist to cast doubt on Israel’s account.
Even with all evidence pointing to a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket landing in the parking lot of the Al-Ahli Hospital, Hamas used the incident as a propaganda weapon against Israel. Through its health ministry, it declared that an Israeli airstrike had targeted a hospital filled with civilians who had come for treatment or were taking shelter there, killing many hundreds of Palestinians. Israeli spokesmen immediately denied involvement, arguing that the IDF does not target hospitals and did not fire in that area. Shortly afterwards, the IDF provided evidence – including video footage, photos taken by drones, and intercepted Hamas communications indicating a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket as responsible for the damage and for the resulting loss of Palestinian lives. The Pentagon, National Security Council, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as EU, Canadian and British Intelligence Services and individual munition experts independently uncovered and analyzed evidence that supported Israel’s assessment of the explosion. Estimates of the number of lives lost in the incident also yielded a far lower number than Hamas claims. A U.S. intelligence report cited by Reuters estimated the death toll as “probably at the low end of the 100 to 300 spectrum” while AFP cited a senior European intelligence official who estimated the death toll as 10-50 people. Hamas never provided any evidence for any of its claims.
By the time NPR’s All Things Considered was broadcast on the day of the explosion, Israel had already pointed to evidence of a misfired terrorist rocket as the cause, but that program and subsequent ones presented the two claims as competing but equally compelling versions of what had happened, with reporters sowing uncertainty about which claim held more weight. Over the following days, NPR reporters would continue to distort the story and mislead readers by one or more of the following methods:
- Putting the incident into the context of Israel airstrikes on Gaza, either with or without presenting Israel’s denial of responsibility (the latter being the most disingenuous way of implying Israeli fault without directly saying so.)
- Presenting the cause of the explosion as a dueling narrative, giving Israel’s evidenced account equal weight to the unverifiable proclamations of the Hamas terrorist regime.
- Casting doubt on Israel’s version of events.
- Presenting Hamas statistics as fact, unquestioningly, despite Hamas’ long track record of lying about casualties and Hamas’ directives to call all casualties “innocent civilians.”
- Providing no transparency about sources: using anonymous or unnamed sources, obscuring Hamas’ authority over sources by referring to the Health Ministry or Palestinian Health Ministry or Gaza Health Ministry or their employees, with no indication that these are directly under Hamas governance and pay.
- Concealing the partisan affiliations of guests, interviewees and sources.
Oct. 17, 2023
In the leading segment of All Things Considered on the day of the explosion, reporter Daniel Estrin cited videos from nameless social media accounts and testimony from an anonymous “eyewitness” (whom Estrin hadn’t interviewed himself but who had given an account to the Qatari-state-owned Al Jazeera) to amplify Hamas’ claims – i.e. the numbers of victims and damage that allegedly resulted from the blast. There was no validation of the sources, nor any indication of the likelihood they were part of Hamas’ propaganda machine. The insinuation throughout was that the explosion represented a deliberate attack targeting the hospital.
“It’s on the Al-Ahli Hospital…It’s where eyewitnesses told us that thousands of Palestinians have been sheltering because hospitals have long been considered off-limits for military targets in Gaza. People feel safe sheltering there. But videos on social media are showing a massive wall of fire rising up, bodies strewn over the grass of the hospital grounds. An eyewitness spoke to Al Jazeera and said men, women, children were among the victims.”
Only after this introduction did Estrin add Israel’s denial of responsibility, followed by an immediate “but” to cast doubt on it as he relayed allegations by the Hamas-funded hospital as fact to refute Israel’s claim that it does not target hospitals.
“Now, the Israeli military is saying that according to its intelligence sources, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group … misfired a rocket barrage as it was firing toward Israel and that it hit the hospital. We do know from past wars there have been Palestinian rockets that have fallen short inside Gaza. But, you know, this very same hospital said it was struck by Israeli rocket fire just a few days ago. (All Things Considered, Oct. 17, 2023)
Methods: 1, 2, 3, 4
Estrin went on to place the incident directly into the context of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, with the remainder and bulk of the segment devoted to testimony from NPR’s Gazan producer about the victims and damage that allegedly resulted from an alleged Israeli airstrike elsewhere.
“Palestinian Americans are grieving for loved ones in Gaza as Israel continues to bomb the area in response to a Hamas attack that killed more than 1,400 Israelis. The Palestinian death toll now tops 3,000. Hundreds more died today in a hospital bombing. It’s not yet clear who is responsible.” (All Things Considered, Oct. 17, 2023)
October 18, 2023
“So – and of course, you know, despite all of that pain, there is an ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza where hundreds of Palestinians were just killed in a recent hospital attack yesterday in a blast.” (Morning Edition Oct. 18, 2023)
Methods: 1, 4
“Both sides are trading blame. Israel says it was the result of a failed rocket launch by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Israeli Defense Forces are putting out some footage and a recording they claim is a conversation between a Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad official allegedly talking about the misfire. But I should say, you know, really clearly NPR cannot independently verify any of this. And we do know from past wars that there have been Palestinian rockets that have fallen short inside Gaza. But at the very same time, you know, this hospital said just a few days ago that it was hit by Israeli rocket fire just a few days ago. And this is all happening amid intense fighting. You know, there’s 3,000 Palestinian people killed, according to the Ministry of Health, 1,000 of those kids. Ten thousand people have been wounded.” (Morning Edition, Oct. 18, 2023)
Methods: 2, 3, 4, 5
“The West Bank, like much of the Arab world, has erupted in protest after an explosion at a hospital killed at least 500 people in the Gaza Strip. The cause is still unconfirmed. But even before this, there were signs that tensions in the West Bank could easily boil over. Israel’s punishing airstrikes on Gaza, the total siege of basic goods, hospitals running out of fuel, people running out of food has many Palestinians outside Gaza – in the West Bank and inside Israel – wondering how much harder their lives might get. And they have reason to worry. (Morning Edition, Oct. 18, 2023)
Methods: 1, 4
“Hundreds of people were killed in the blast, which happened the night before President Biden arrived in Israel on Wednesday. Palestinian authorities blame Israel. The Israeli military blames Islamic Jihad, another militant group based in Gaza, claiming the hospital explosion was a failed rocket launch. What exactly happened remains disputed.” (Consider This, Oct. 18, 2023)
Method: 2, 4
“[President Biden’s stated support for Israel comes] after yesterday’s explosion at a hospital in Gaza that killed hundreds. Several hundred people were killed, and Israel is blaming a rocket from Gaza militants that fell short. Palestinians and much of the Arab world blame Israel.” (Morning Edition, Oct. 18, 2023)
Methods: 2, 4
By October 18th, the U.S. National Security Council had already publicized its independent assessment of the evidence, noting that “based on analysis of overhead imagery, intercepts and open source information, Israel is not responsible for the explosion” and the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee stated that based on their review of intelligence, they were confident that “the explosion was the result of a failed rocket launch by militant terrorists and not the result of an Israeli airstrike.”
On that evening’s edition of All Things Considered, National Security Correspondent Greg Myre and Science Correspondent Geoff Brumfiel discussed some of the evidence that was available about the origin of the blast. Myre noted the National Security Council’s statement – which he qualified as “not final” – while Brumfiel turned to Marc Garlasco whom he introduced as an expert who works for a Dutch nonprofit called PAX, without mentioning that both Garlasco and PAX have histories of radical activism against the Jewish state. Despite his history of anti-Israel partisanship, however, Garlasco confirmed Israel’s account that this was “not an airstrike.”
Such confirmation might have held even more weight, coming as it did from someone with an anti-Israel history, yet Brumfiel continued to cast doubt on Israel’s evidence, while Myre concluded by implying that the jury was still out on who was responsible for the blast and that both sides’ accusations were equally plausible.
“Could it have been a Palestinian rocket that fell? Maybe. Some sort of non-standard Israeli weapon? Perhaps. A missile intercept? There’s just not enough to go on…. It happened at night in an area that’s been cut off from the world. And, you know, most of the data on what happened is held by the combatants. The Israeli military has radar data and such. But, you know, they have a stake in saying what happened, controlling the narrative.”
Method: 3, 6
“I’ve seen the Israelis and the Palestinians make terrible, deadly mistakes – both of them. Way back in 1996 in southern Lebanon, Israel fired artillery at what it thought was a Hezbollah position. Instead, it hit a group of Lebanese civilians taking shelter, killing more than a hundred. In Gaza in 2005, Hamas held a street parade to celebrate the departure of the Israeli military from the territory. Hamas had live rockets in those trucks. At least one went off, killing 15 people and wounding dozens. Hamas claimed it was an Israeli airstrike even though hundreds of witnesses knew that this wasn’t true.” (All Things Considered, Oct. 18, 2023)
Another segment on the same program discounted support for Israel’s version of events by President Biden and the Pentagon. Reporter Ruth Sherlock, perhaps confusing herself for her namesake (Sherlock Holmes), suggested that NPR reporters were better equipped than the Pentagon to reach a conclusion as to the cause of the explosion.
“Now, both Israel and Palestinian leaders have tried to trade blame over who is responsible. Israel says this was the result of a failed rocket launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the militant group. And it’s put out some video footage and other material it says is evidence. And now President Biden says data provided by the Pentagon backs Israel’s claims. But I should be really clear here, you know, NPR cannot independently verify any of this.” (All Things Considered, Oct. 18, 2023)
Oct. 19, 2023
“The Palestinian Health Ministry says around 470 people were killed in that blast. Many, if not most, were children. Israel blames an errant militant rocket, but Palestinians and the rest of the Middle East, including the governments here, say it was Israel. And so the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is on display every day that this war continues.” (Morning Edition, Oct. 19, 2023)
Methods: 2, 5
Despite the growing body of independent analysis that was accumulating to support Israel’s account, NPR continued to cling to the possibility that Israel, despite all evidence to the contrary, might still be the culprit. Even as the confirmation of Israel’s account started to come in — first from the Pentagon, then the U.S. intelligence community, followed by France’s military intelligence, Canada’s Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, and from British intelligence agencies – NPR reporters ignored much of it. Like reporter Sherlock, they instructed listeners that only their own independent analysis of social media would be sufficient to confirm Israel’s account. Like Sherlock, Myre, too, apparently deemed insufficient the support for Israel’s account voiced by the U.S. President, based on independent intelligence agencies and the Pentagon’s own information.
“Me and my NPR colleagues have been going through all the available evidence, but what we don’t have yet is clarity…nothing for certain [about who was responsible for the explosion]… The Israelis say a militant Palestinian faction – Islamic Jihad, not Hamas – fired 10 rockets toward Israel. They say one of those rockets misfired and crashed into the hospital grounds, and that’s the cause of all these casualties…[The Palestinians] say Israel has been striking almost every corner of Gaza with relentless airstrikes that have killed many civilians and that this was just part of that bombing campaign. Now, we should note that Israel airstrikes are often conducted with very powerful bombs and missiles, and they tend to leave very large craters that can take down a large section of a building and in some cases an entire building itself. But Israel also has smaller weapons in its arsenal, so it’s not yet possible to rule in or rule out all the various possibilities here…The president said that [his support of Israel’s version of events] was based on information he received from the Pentagon, but neither he nor the Pentagon provided any details.” (Morning Edition, Oct. 19, 2023)
Methods: 2, 3
In a segment discussing disinformation, Correspondent Shannon Bond explained that NPR reporters were independently consulting social media feeds where “people [were] taking advantage of this chaos to push their own narratives, especially on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.” And that was why it was so hard for them to reach any conclusion.
“Researchers and media organizations, including here at NPR, colleagues are analyzing video and images. But some I spoke to say that work itself is harder because of this flood of misleading and false content on social media. And this kind of work takes time, right? We want answers immediately, and social media platforms are designed to deliver that even when there aren’t yet answers to be had. And these things, this makes us vulnerable to manipulation by those who want to shape the narrative, as well as to unintentionally sharing bad information.” (Morning Edition, October 19, 2023)
Did NPR journalists actually believe they possessed superior competency to assess materials they found on unverifiable social media posts? Was this merely a show of their hubris or did it represent a more sinister bias against Israel, and the inability to let go of a prejudgment of guilt even in the face of all evidence of the contrary? The answer soon became apparent.
NPR made no mention of additional assessments by international intelligence agencies that supported Israel’s claim. Instead, the public radio network went silent on the issue until several days later when it aired yet another All Things Considered segment on the topic — followed the next day by a repetition of the same claims on Goats and Soda, NPR’s global health and development blog.
It turns out that Science reporter Geoff Brumfiel had found a new guest to cast doubt on Israel’s account: The NPR reporter introduced Lawrence Abu Hamdan, the director of an NGO called Earshot, whose analysis of the sound of the missile seemed to put into question the direction from which Israel said it came.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan:
“We’re saying that [our findings on the sound pattern of the missile] reduces the probability that this is coming from the west. It’s rocket science, after all, so we can’t completely rule it out.”
“And what he means is a misfired rocket could have changed direction and come back and hit the hospital. But the Israeli army needs to explain why this sound seems to point to the opposite direction of the initial rocket fire.” (All Things Considered, Oct. 23, 2023)
Methods: 3, 6
This new revelation, while not sufficient to completely refute Israel’s account, was meant to cast overall doubt on Israel’s version of events. However, it was not corroborated or validated by any other legitimate source. It seems to have originated with a post on X (Twitter) announcing the results of a “joint investigation” by Forensic Architecture, Earshot NGO, and Al Haq, none of whom are impartial observers. It was then promoted by Iran’s Fars news agency, the propaganda arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Forensic Architecture (FA) is notorious for its anti-Israel activism and has been characterized by NGO Monitor as a “pseudo-research project that consistently generates analyses that are inaccurate, misleading, and blatantly prejudiced.”
Al Haq is a Palestinian group that two years ago was declared by Israel’s defense minister a terrorist organization operating on behalf of the PFLP.
And the third group involved – curiously, the only one that NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel introduced – was the relatively unknown Earshot NGO run by Lawrence Abu Hamadan.
What the NPR reporter failed to tell listeners was that the Earshot NGO is an offshoot and partner to the biased FA, whose website still lists Earshot director Hamdan as a research fellow. Nor did the reporter mention that in addition to working for FA, Hamdan has his own history of anti-Israel, BDS activism.
That NPR reporters refused to accept Israel’s account of the explosion, despite independent conclusions by the White House, Pentagon and international military intelligence analysts, that they continued to inform listeners day after day that Israel’s version of events could not be confirmed, that they searched out someone who would cast doubt on Israel’s account and then concealed from listeners the partisan nature of their source exemplifies NPR’s reporting on Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is neither honest, transparent or impartial.
Remember that the next time NPR accosts the airwaves for a donation.