The ‘Tectonic Shift’ in Media That Changed Perceptions of Israel: ‘What’s Left Is a System Run by Activists’

“The press has been gutted. The bureaus have shrunk, and into that vacuum have come ideological voices,” says Matti Friedman

Pro-Palestinian protestors gather outside of the New York Times building to protest the newspaper’s coverage of the Israel-Hamas war in December 2023
Pro-Palestinian protestors outside The New York Times building protest coverage of the Israel-Hamas War. (Credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM – It gives journalist Matti Friedman no satisfaction to know he was early to realize that a change had come to covering Israel, favoring fixed narratives and activist journalism over a tradition of fact-based reporting. 

Friedman, a former reporter and editor at the Associated Press based in Jerusalem from 2006-2011, quit the global news agency after being censored by his editors, and realizing he would have to censor what he and his colleagues knew to be true about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And what was the case a decade ago is more true now, he told me. 

“The press has been gutted. The bureaus have shrunk, and into that vacuum have come ideological voices,” he said. “Now Human Rights Watch gives you a report, in English, and you write a story based on that report.  And you end up serving as the media arm of the hard left, the world of NGOs.”

report-from-israel

This mattered less when the conflict had fallen out of the headlines. But now that the heated war between Israel and Hamas has come to dominate the global news cycle, this shift has dramatic consequences on regional tension amid a frightening spike in anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment around the world.

Examples of this shift abound. A 7,000-word piece in The Intercept cast doubt on a New York Times investigation into the sexual assault and mutilation of Israel women by Hamas on Oct. 7; it was clearly aimed at undermining the credibility of the reporting. Early in the war the Times and others reported that Israel deliberately shelled al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City, allegedly killing hundreds — based on information provided by the Hamas-run Health Ministry — and later learning that it was almost certainly an errant shell from a Gazan military group which killed a small fraction of that number. (Google this and you still cannot get any kind of straight answer.)

nyt headline front page 2 al ahli hospital.jpg
New York Times original front page headline on a strike at al-Ahli hospital in Gaza
Serial New York Times headlines on a strike at al-Ahli hospital in Gaza
Serial New York Times headlines on a strike at al-Ahli hospital in Gaza

An Israeli military operation at al-Shifa hospital in recent days that captured a reported 500 Hamas and other fighters and killed nearly 200 (a stunning fact that suggests the hospital isn’t just a “hospital”) has received only sporadic attention in The New York Times, with headlines focused on civilian casualties for well over a week before the headline on March 28: “Fighting Rages Around Two Gaza Hospitals as Pressure on Israel Rises.” Previous coverage seemed skeptical that it even was a military raid, noting in the sub headline of a March 21 article: “The military said it had killed dozens of people it described as terrorists. The account couldn’t be verified.” A second story on March 24 focused on civilian fears at the hospital that relegated the military raid to the 20th paragraph.

The Times’ spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha responded: “In this case of the [al-Ahli] hospital headline, we published a thorough editors’ note to explain the lapse.” She disputed that the recent Shifa hospital raid was not covered as such. “Your question appears to ignore a larger body of coverage of this raid and mischaracterizes the stories referenced — all of which make Israel’s position, that it is targeting Hamas in a military operation, clear.” (I haven’t found that other coverage, and searched again. There are no images reflecting Hamas’s presence in the hospital, and though Israel has released names and titles of senior officials captured or killed, they are not included in Times coverage.)

In the midst of this is a full-on vacuum of information about who Hamas is, their rule over 2.2 million Palestinians in Gaza and any sense of accountability for their actions in the current conflict. 

***

It wasn’t that way when I started my career as a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem, working for Reuters during the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s. (Yes, dear reader, you read correctly.) At the time, every major American and European newspaper had a correspondent based in Jerusalem. Most of us spent our time on the ground, in the then-occupied territories and Israel proper, covering the lives of Palestinians and Israelis and writing about their complicated and painful realities as well as the political dynamics that surrounded them. We all used both Israeli and Palestinian freelancers to support our work, but they did not replace going into the field to see for ourselves what was happening. 

It is very different now. A combination of the decline in newspaper resources for foreign reporting, the rise of an activist strain of progressive journalism and the inability of journalists to report independently from Gaza itself has led to a skewed and often confusing narrative, with a tendency to lean into a simplistic portrait of Israel as an aggressor in this conflict — despite the fact that the country was attacked by Hamas on Oct. 7 — and Palestinians as the victims. 

It’s not that Palestinians are not suffering. They are, hugely, and one cannot diminish the reality of the fate of Palestinian civilians during this conflict. The crushing loss of life, the deprivation of critical resources — from food instability to lacking medical care to the constant stress of living in a war zone — is horrific. No one can ignore or be unmoved by the images and stories that have emerged from Gaza. But reporting on this is more complicated than it appears.

Sharon Israel
Journalist Matti Friedman (Photo by Sharon Waxman)

I met Friedman, Canadian-born and a longtime citizen of Israel, on a balmy Friday morning at a cafe in Baka, the old part of Jerusalem not far from the Old City. The cafe is on an old street called “Bethlehem Road,” which in fact points toward Bethlehem. It’s a short drive and a distant galaxy from here to the border with the West Bank. 

“This stuff has been brewing for a while,” Friedman said. “It’s erupted now, but the pieces have been in place. There are activists, and those who are cowed by activists, remnants of the Boomers in the system. Those are the old school journalists, but what’s left is a system run by activists.” 

As Friedman observed, “the coverage of Gaza is not coverage of a war,” and he wonders why there is so little interest in how Hamas operates in Gaza today to accompany the understandable focus on the suffering of the Palestinian population. “If you consume Western media coverage, it’s not a war,” he said. “It’s a campaign against Palestinian civilians.”

Independent journalists cannot enter the strip today, and Gaza’s side of the conflict is covered by locals — as it was with Gaza before the war. “Palestinian stringers are either intimidated by Hamas, or they are Hamas,” he said. “You can only operate in Gaza if you cooperate with the regime.”

This is not evident to many readers who see the coverage. (I got into an extended exchange on X with a pro-Palestinian reader who found this quite impossible to believe.)

The press has been gutted. The bureaus have shrunk, and into that vacuum have come ideological voices

Journalist Matti Friedman

The AP has a bureau in Gaza, he noted. “Hamas built 750 kilometers of tunnels under Gaza and that was never once worth writing about?” The question was rhetorical, as Friedman knew why — a government the U.S. deemed terrorist was in charge. “We couldn’t cover Gaza properly once Hamas was in control. If you wanted to understand events here you couldn’t do it in the mainstream press.” 

A recent heart-rending piece on the front page of the Times about Palestinian civilians buried beneath the rubble of buildings destroyed by Israeli air raids in Gaza had four bylines and one contributor credit. None of them was in Gaza, nor did the story point that out.

Said the Times spokeswoman: “We report from Gaza when permitted, and continue to work with local journalists in Gaza.” To my question about why the Times is not transparent about its inability to report from the ground, she pointed to a one-time note published in December 2023 that explained this in detail. It would be useful to have a link to this note added to stories about Gaza, for those of us who missed it.

Beyond that, an ideological shift in newsrooms has become part of the dynamic affecting reporting on the war. Back in 2014 Friedman wrote an essay in Tablet magazine explaining how his work at the AP was being dictated from above. 

“During the 2008-2009 Gaza fighting I personally erased a key detail — that Hamas fighters were dressed as civilians and being counted as civilians in the death toll — because of a threat to our reporter in Gaza.”

He noted that the policy then and now was not to inform readers that the story was censored unless the censorship was Israeli. The AP’s Jerusalem news editor reported and submitted a story on Hamas intimidation, he wrote, only to find the story back-burnered and never published.

AP chief of communications Lauren Easton responded that Friedman left the news organization long ago but she did not address the question of censorship. Similarly, in the company’s response to his criticism at the time, it noted only: “The AP does not report many interactions with militias, armies, thugs or governments. These incidents are part of the challenge of getting out the news — and generally not themselves news.”

In response to the question of shrinking coverage and activism seeping into newsrooms, Easton said: “This is a completely inaccurate reflection of the work AP carries out in the region every day, and ignores the vast array of coverage AP journalists have produced — coverage that shows the importance of on-the-ground reporting. Our journalists in both Gaza and Israel have covered this story at great personal risk.”

The personal risk is undeniable. Reporting on foreign conflict has never been more dangerous. But this other, ideological aspect also bears discussion.

The pushback experienced by Friedman reflects a much broader shift in newsrooms that has been coming for years, and created a generational split among those who favor “old school” reporting (like me) and younger reporters who believe their values should inform who gets to report on what topics. 

Increasingly, institutions are bending to these demands. The firing of New York Times op-ed editor James Bennet over his publishing a column by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, expressing right-wing views that some at the paper found objectionable, is one example. The signing of a manifesto by reporters condemning Israel for “genocide” is something unimaginable for the previous generation. (In fact The New York Times does not allow such advocacy, and the L.A. Times editor Kevin Merida clashed with his boss, owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, over benching newsroom staff who did so.)  

Friedman also pointed out the cancellation of “Jihad Rehab” filmmaker Meg Smaker, who was inexplicably deemed an “Islamophobe” for her Sundance documentary about former Islamic radicals in a rehab center in Saudi Arabia. The film was disinvited from every film festival where it was scheduled to go, including SXSW, after that.

From there it’s a short leap to actual censorship: in recent weeks an essay about the fallout from the war by an Israeli writer and peace activist in the arts magazine Guernica, was unpublished, complete with an apology (yes!) for the mistake of allowing such a creature to be heard.

“The media and arts world is clearly in the thrall of a certain ideology,” Friedman said. “The world is very grey. But the arts world is no longer willing to put up with grey. People want to be in the business of fighting for justice. So instead of covering the circus, they want to be part of the circus.” 

This black-and-white construction is most nakedly evident on elite American university campuses where the Palestinian cause is just, no matter the atrocities committed by Hamas, and the Israeli response genocidal. The media has begun to reflect aspects of this binary world view. 

I asked Friedman what he thought was the biggest misconception Americans have about the Israeli-Hamas conflict. He did not hesitate. “Americans think this is a story about inequality,” he said. ”And about their own inequality. They graft their politics onto this conflict.” In fact, Friedman said, it’s about something else entirely: “This is a story about the rise of radical Islam – in Iraq. In Syria. Yemen. Algeria. Afghanistan. Parts of Africa. 

“There are six million Jews here trying to hack it. Making good decisions. Bad decisions. It has nothing to do with what’s happening in America. Americans are self-involved.”

His comical example is the time Israel rescued two hostages in Gaza on Super Bowl Sunday, and U.S. commenters suggested Israel had used the event as a diversion. “Most people in Israel have never heard of the Super Bowl,” Friedman said. “It’s a silly example of a real problem. American think that everything is about them.”

It’s unclear what the solution is, if there is one. Friedman has become a freelance writer, contributing to The Atlantic magazine and Bari Weiss’s Free Press publication, which has a strong bent against the media politics of the far left. He prefers staying away from mainstream publications. But he is willing to speak up about what he has seen, as few others are. 

Can we fix it?

He shrugged. “The tectonic plates are shifting,” he said. “It’s a time to say what we really think.” 

Comments

21 responses to “The ‘Tectonic Shift’ in Media That Changed Perceptions of Israel: ‘What’s Left Is a System Run by Activists’”

  1. Michael Maratsos Avatar

    My family and I lived in Israel for 10 months in 1982-1983. We went there as strong supporters of Israel, like most Americans. Among the things we saw there was how American media were slanted to present a favorable picture of Israel, as opposed to what really happened in the country. We also saw that in reality, Arabs were regarded like Indians in the old era of ‘cowboys vs. indians’ in America: stupid, dirty and vicious. We came back with our views sharply reversed from what they had been when we entered the country. (A note: I am of neither Jewish nor Arabic descent, myself). For decades Israel has received heavily biased media coverage in its favor in the American press. Now its actions in Gaza have ended some (not all) of this bias, and what this article is expressing, is actually upset at Israel’s losing this privileged position. I am sure that mistaken reporting happens on both sides, as it is likely to do in war, but what is happening is that the foulness of Israel’s actions and future intentions in Gaza have finally removed some of the favorable biased treatment it has been receiving for decades.

    1. Charles Avatar
      Charles

      This is a similar experience to mine. As I got older, I got to see what causes the radical Islam the writer talks about, it it’s massively from the inequity and apartheid nature that Israel has put on the Palestinians. Hamas is evil but Israel has propped it up as it completes with the PLA in the West bank, while “Settlements” aka colonies are built and split the land of the West bank. The extremism was going to happen.

      1. ross Avatar
        ross

        Yeah since 634AD. Islam spread upon the pain of death, not young men dressed in short-sleeve shirts with a black tie and slacks riding bicycles. The Kfir must “submit” or will receive death.

    2. Tony Longhurst Avatar
      Tony Longhurst

      I’ve been following this conflict since the 6-Day war, and I too have made the journey from staunch Israeli supporter to becoming much more nuanced in my take on the issues. I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the attitudes and mistakes made by both sides, but Israel, as the original instigator and ongoing perpetuator of the problem, deserves more attention than it’s ever received until recently. Israel has been on a mission, since before 1948, to portray the Palestinians as less than civilized, less even than human. A quote from Freidman illustrates this very well: “This is a story about the rise of radical Islam…”. No, it’s a 100-year old+ story about rights to the land. It only became about religion recently and only superficially at that. Saying the problem is all about the rise of Islamic radicalism is another attempt by Israel supporters to define the issues and the Palestinians in a way that furthers their own narrative at the expense of truth and fairness. I’m still supportive of Israel, but I feel pretty hopeless that a solution can be reached until both sides can be brought around to believing in the same same set of historical facts, perhaps an impossible goal. 

  2. Dee Avatar
    Dee

    The Press no longer reports the news, they want to make the news. I stopped listening to them a long time ago. They are the Pravda of the Millenium.

  3. Steven Avatar
    Steven

    Yep, the reporter Matti Friedman pulled up the carpet and showed the dirt underneath.
    This is when the news media switched to putting out slogans rather than information (Fake News).  The fourth estate news media is no longer a “watch dog”, but rather a tool to attack one’s political enemies through cancel culture and censorship.
    This has resulted in the rise of independent journalism and alternate media.
    The internet has made this possible and now even stronger tools are on the rise.
    AI will made traditional news media as archaic as ox carts.
    The traditional media and government will do everything in their power to shut it down, because it’s an existential threat to their credibility and an even bigger threat to their gravy train economics.
    If traditional journalists are silenced, there are opportunities to find other platforms to express themselves, but the highest priority should be to show the  true colors of the traditional media, and that they are no longer a truthful source of news.

  4. Scott Nudds Avatar
    Scott Nudds

    I posted 12 responses to articles on MSN and Yahoo news yesterday concerning the Genocide being committed by Israel in Gaza.

    10 of them were deleted.

    All of them were simply factual in nature.

    Corporate censorship in America has never been more extreme than it is today.

    As to Israel… Nothing but lies come from Israel.

  5. Ross Farr Avatar
    Ross Farr

    Weakened by cowardice and with no principles but those fed to them by their twin idols Bureaucracy & Academia, the high-profile denizens of the West no longer pledge allegiance to the truth, but to whatever their parties, influencers, or corporate owners demand. Thus the media commit fraud by omitting such details as that Hamas masquerades as civilians, or that they confiscate supplies meant for civil relief, or that they operate out of hospitals and rape hostages,…etc and the West’s servile leadership cows in turn.

    1. Scott Nudds Avatar
      Scott Nudds

      Didn’t Israeli soldiers masquerade as civilian doctors and nurses so that they could enter a Gaza hospital and murder patients being treated there?

      Yes they did.

  6. Raymond Pugh Avatar
    Raymond Pugh

    The only documented accusation of rape with a “confession” was coerced under standard Israeli interrogation techniques such as the “Palestinian Chair” taught to US torturers at Abu Ghraib.

    1. Scott Nudds Avatar
      Scott Nudds

      Correct.

      Even Palestinian doctors are reporting that they were abducted by Israel, and tortured.

  7. Sam I am Avatar
    Sam I am

    This opinion piece is written as if the reduction in establishment media correspondents and the proliferation of social media are the issue, not the genocide.  I can hear the freaking out inside your heads – losing what you’ve assumed would always be the case – controlling the narrative.  

    In an era where people have lost trust in the media and institutions, people are finding more truth with their eyes watching people mowed down trying to get food, rather than the bias that has been built into what is not covered, how it is languaged as a passive death versus killing or starvation, and how Western media routinely just takes IDF press releases and issues them as fact without fact checking.  The reason Western reporters are not in Gaza is because Israel won’t let them in.

    Omitting history and context is the grey area you won’t acknowledge, while forgetting these truths shall always prevail: Genocide is always wrong.  Civilian targets are always wrong.  Starvation and ethnic cleansing is always wrong.  But keep up the idea of this being because ABC reduced headcount and can’t spew out the passive language. People know that babies are being massacred and starved, and smartphone cameras, not the political lobby, will have the final word.

    1. Sharon Waxman Avatar
      Sharon Waxman

      This kind of makes my point. Your view is entirely reductive and succumbs to the black and white, binary narrative that is convenient but not reflective of reality. You throw around the very catch phrases and labels that feel good but, again, don’t reflect actual knowledge of the reality in Gaza. I’m sorry you missed the entire point of my piece. 

      1. Sam I am Avatar
        Sam I am

        Just because you use catch-phrases like “reductive” and “binary narrative” does not make this a think piece. “It’s complicated” is a great way to shut down discourse when you disagree with it.  The narrative is shifting due to the actual genocide happening live on your smartphone, not the number of reporters NBC imbeds with the IDF to parrot their talking points.

        Yesterday, 7 people with the WCK in Gaza whose mission was to distribute food to starved civilians were killed by an Israeli airstrike.  This was reported by the WCK and confirmed by Palestinian sources on the ground before it hit all news sources. This bombing replicates thousands of similar events over the last six months over ordinary Palestinian children, women and men. The war crimes are well documented by the UN and International Courts; none of this you acknowledge. According to your logic, it’s not true until someone ‘trustworthy’ reports on it, and the WCK would be lumped in with radical left-wing human rights orgs. 

        Just because you use

  8. Scott Nudds Avatar
    Scott Nudds

    I was just told by an Israeli that “No Palestinians have been killed.”

    “Just Dogs”

    1. Bobby Byrd Avatar
      Bobby Byrd

      That works for me. Exterminate hamass.

  9. Rebel Avatar

    Nobody is believing a word of anything written by a Zionist anymore…  The author is a Zionist, Friedman is a very “Gentile” name…   The fact is Zionists own and control 70% of the newspapers in the USA, 80% of the radio airwaves in the USA & 75% of broadcast TV…yet they comprise less than 2% of the US population…retribution is coming…

    1. Matthew Egel Avatar
      Matthew Egel

      Take your racist/anti-semitic conspiracy theories elsewhere.

  10. Eli Avatar
    Eli

    Facts. Israel expelled its citizens and gave gaza to the gazans over 20 years ago with the expectation that it would become a ME singapore like paradise… yep the gazans turned it into a retched terrorist base… facts are now radioactive, that’s how we have the queers for palestine… their narrative has become the religion of the left… facts the cardinal sin of … without their narrative their life falls apart, so they fight with their lives for their narrative… unfortunately their religion is bringing them to their end… …

  11. Andrade Avatar
    Andrade

    This article argues that Americans mistakenly think that the Israeli-Hamas conflict is about inequality. It argues that this is due to the transition from an old-school, fact-based press (which has been gutted) to a younger generational, value-based activist journalism that favors ideological voices… of the hard left.

    Evidence is providing in the differing accounts of the shelling of al-Ahli hospital, the IDF’s second military operation at al-Shifa hospital, and The Intercept’s challenge of a NYT piece claiming a pattern of rape by Hamas on Oct 7th. The article concludes that Israeli-Hamas conflict is in fact about the rise of radical Islam in the middle east and in parts of Africa. This is a non-sequitur.

    No facts/discussion are provided related to Islam, other nations, or inequality. The article does not mention the ongoing siege, starvation and famine of Gazan civilians. It does not mention recent Security Council binding resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, or the ongoing ICJ case regarding potential genocide brought on by South Africa. The South African delegates described it as apartheid, which is a state policy of racial segregation and inequality.

  12. anonymous Avatar
    anonymous

    these are just advocates of rapists and baby dismembering islamic rape terrorists no different than the nazis other than the hamas iranian gazan nazis may be worse as they recorded their own atrocities. Ignorance is at an all time high and this mislead generation has been lied to by companies that pushed anti semetic racism and the nazi parrots millenials which support these iranian pro genocide advocates of rape and ethnic cleaning of minorities. Democrats now support terrorists and are anti semetic just like the muslim brotherhood which sponsored al qaeda previously. Democrats are hamas patrons and have blood of americans on their hands as 8 americans are raped and tortured daily by the hamas rapists these nazi advocates are supporting. they are on the wrong side of history and the democrats are siding with ethnic cleaning minority genocide states like china and iran, IT is not the part of minorities, who do you think will be next once the dems help iran kill all jews, the latinos and blacks will be next, dont trust ethnic cleansing racist democrats or pro terrorists islamic rapists of gaza

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.