Hamas gambled on biased Western journalism. CNN played right into it.

Troops from the IDF’s 98th Division operating in Jabalia, the northern Gaza Strip, May 2024. Credit: IDF.

by David Litman

(CAMERA) — CNN’s international diplomatic editor, Nic Robertson, recently authored an analysis (“Hamas gambled on the suffering of civilians in Gaza. Netanyahu played right into it,” Jun. 11) castigating Israelis for foolishly falling for Hamas’s tricks. Robertson’s piece instead illustrates, ironically, the failure of CNN’s journalism. Rather than successfully depicting Israelis as fools caught in Hamas’s trap, the analysis instead exemplifies how western journalists have become Hamas’s “useful idiots.”

The gist of Robertson’s analysis is that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar has masterfully manipulated Israelis. “Netanyahu has played right into” Sinwar’s trap by waging a “brutal” war against Hamas, thus turning public opinion against Israel.

But in crafting his argument, Robertson unwittingly demonstrates how it is himself, and the media at large, that have played into Hamas’s hands. In doing so, he shows that it’s not the conduct of the Israeli Defense Forces that has turned public opinion against Israel, but rather the media’s portrayal of the IDF’s conduct. That portrayal involves spreading propaganda and narratives crafted by Hamas, but which are entirely detached from reality.

Perhaps the most glaring example of this is when Robertson declares, without qualification or attribution, that the number of Palestinians killed so far in the war is over 36,000. This number comes straight from Hamas’s media office and has been widely discredited, to the point that even the United Nations quietly backtracked on repeating the media office’s figures.

It is publicly known that Hamas has a cynical strategy to deliberately exploit global sympathy for civilian casualties. That is why it doesn’t just engage in the most sophisticated and systematic exploitation of human shielding, but it also regularly inflates the casualty figures for media consumption, which CNN falls for hook, line, and sinker.

And CNN is known to not just uncritically repeat these propaganda figures, but to deceptively obscure the source in a transparent attempt to give the figures a false appearance of credibility. The network has repeatedly laundered these Hamas figures by falsely attributing them to the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations, and even aid agencies, who themselves acknowledge they’re just using Hamas’s figures.

The network has also worked overtime to portray the IDF’s conduct in the worst light possible, omitting and obscuring important, contradictory context. It has repeatedly made a big deal about the large blast radius of Israel’s 2,000-pound bombs  – so as to portray the IDF as indiscriminate – all while omitting that these bombs are intentionally detonated underground, thereby substantially reducing the blast radius. When Robertson then goes on to write that the “devastating effectiveness” of Israeli weapons “is becoming a liability” in terms of international opinion, he’s omitting that the reason they’re controversial is because his own network has distorted how these weapons are actually being used. Worse, CNN journalists have used their platform to engage in activism in favor of an arms embargo on Israel.

But what Robertson’s analysis shows best is just how skewed the network’s overall coverage has been.

Israel is placed under a microscope in a way that Hamas and the Palestinians are not, as if this isn’t an armed conflict between two sides, but a story of “oppression,” of one side imposing its will on the other. With every new event in the conflict, CNN spills much ink casting responsibility, real or imagined, onto Israel, while the role the Palestinians played is often entirely absent.

This isn’t just an anecdotal observation. If one searches CNN articles between October 7, 2023, and March 31, 2024 for articles on the conflict, the data bears out this disparity. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is mentioned nine times as often as Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and an obscene 31 times as often as both Hamas leaders Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh.

As with CNN’s overall coverage of the conflict, Robertson also avoids truly tangling with the actions and agency of Palestinians in order to cast responsibility solely on the Jewish state. His analysis was prompted by a Wall Street Journal report about several messages sent by Yahya Sinwar in which the terrorist leader made clear the organization sees Gazan civilians not as subjects to be protected, but as pawns to be sacrificed. The goal: to elicit international outrage and pressure against Israel. Sinwar knows this will work because media figures like Robertson can’t, or won’t, entertain the moral and legal distinction between a military which dropped the bomb but does its best to avoid civilian casualties and the terrorist organization that deliberately exploited the civilians as cannon fodder to feed to western cable news audiences.

Yet instead of taking this opportunity to give CNN’s audience a straightforward explanation of how Palestinian terrorists have intentionally and cynically exacerbated the war’s effect on civilians, Robertson turns the story on its head and instead makes it once again about Israeli actions. Think about that. A Hamas leader admitted to deliberately engaging in war crimes as a matter of strategy, and CNN’s Robertson still made it instead about Israel being bad.

The refusal to seriously consider Palestinian agency is how we end up with a headline like “Hamas gambled on the suffering of civilians in Gaza. Netanyahu played right into it.” It might as well read: “Hamas put civilians in harms way. Here’s why harm to civilians is still Netanyahu’s fault.”

Sinwar couldn’t have asked for a more useful journalist.

In a similar vein, Robertson also repeats the “you can’t kill an ideology” argument, a yawn-inducing platitude associated with Western armchair strategists sitting thousands of miles away on the other side of an ocean from any real threat. Strangely, while the international coalition didn’t kill the Islamic State’s ideology, no one seems to talk about the threat from that organization much since its “caliphate” was obliterated and its military power degraded into insignificance. You can’t kill an ideology, but you can kill its ability to wreak havoc and commit widescale atrocities, even if western media analysts seem intent on advocating for the preservation of terroristic military power.

This is all, of course, to say nothing of the typical inaccuracies and spin found in CNN articles. Robertson claims, for example: “Earlier this year, university campuses across the United States and Europe combusted in spontaneous protest over the toll of Israel’s war on civilians in Gaza…” This isn’t “Israel’s war,” the war is not “on civilians in Gaza” (at best, atrocious writing), the protests did not start “earlier this year,” they were not “spontaneous,” and they were not “over the toll of Israel’s war.” Israel was attacked – it is Hamas’s war. The pro-Hamas demonstrations were already being organized on October 7, before Hamas had even finished butchering its way through southern Israel and before Israel even had a chance to begin any organized campaign in Gaza. Within hours of the attack, malicious anti-Israel organizations were already sending out “toolkits” not just glorifying the terrorist massacre, but also giving instructions to the demonstrators.

Robertson also claims that Ireland, Spain, Norway, and Portugal recognized “Palestine” because they are “frustrated Netanyahu won’t agree to a peace deal,” suggesting the problem is “Israeli intransigence.” It’s an astonishing inversion of reality, given that it was Palestinian leadership that has repeatedly said no to offers on the table since even before the State of Israel was born, including three major offers in the 2000s.

But why get into the history of Palestinian rejectionism when CNN can instead just blame some unspecified “Israeli intransigence” for the lack of a Palestinian state that the Palestinians keep saying no to?

And why tell the truth when the network can get away with a bald-faced lie like, “None of this means Sinwar will be winning a popular vote in Gaza during his lifetime…” Except Hamas, an internationally designated terrorist organization, did win the popular vote in Gaza in 2006, and the pro-Hamas sentiment hasn’t changed. Palestinian surveys consistently show that Palestinians widely approve of Hamas’s October 7 massacre and that a large majority (61 percent) prefer Hamas in control of Gaza over Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Of course, misleading audiences about polling data, and even outright fabricating polling data to avoid acknowledging Palestinian responsibility for the conflict, is a regular occurrence at the network.

Robertson is free to armchair strategize from his comfortable perch in the United States, where he need not fear multiple terrorist armies just a few hundred yards from his family. But before accusing others of playing into Hamas’s game, it would be wise of Robertson, and indeed the entire CNN network, to consider the wind they’ve blown beneath Hamas’s wings with their slanted, inaccurate, and lazy coverage.