The Media Today

Horror in the Middle East

October 9, 2023
07 October 2023, Palestinian Territories, Rafah: Hamas fires a large number of rockets towards Israel in the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. Photo by: Abed Rahim Khatib/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Fifty years ago last Friday, Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated attack on Israel, sparking the fighting that would come to be known, variously, as the Yom Kippur War, the Ramadan War, and the October War. The offensive quickly became a huge global news story—one that, as a trio of academics wrote for Journalism Quarterly two years later, brought an “extremely large number of media people from around the world” to Israel, enabled by technological advances in transport and satellite communication, that made it possible to cover the war in “great depth and intensity.” Werner Sonne, who covered the conflict for the German broadcaster ARD, recalled recently that Israeli authorities, in facilitating access to the front lines and censoring copy, “had an interest in shaping the perception of the war,” since “modern battles are also about dominating the narrative.” By one count, some fourteen thousand people were killed in the fighting. At least one foreign reporter—Nicholas Tomalin, on assignment for London’s Sunday Times—was among the dead, hit by a Syrian missile while reporting in the Golan Heights.

Sonne’s recollection, written for Haaretz, was one of many published last week to mark the anniversary of the war. Over the weekend, a modern-day parallel took over the news cycle. On Saturday, Hamas fired rockets into Israel from Gaza while its fighters penetrated the border and attacked towns and military bases on the other side; they massacred many of the people they found there—including at a music festival, where young people had been dancing in the desert—and took hostages back to Gaza. The attack quickly became a huge global news story. Soon, Israel had fired rockets into Gaza in response; earlier today, Israel’s defense minister ordered a “complete siege” of the territory. As of this morning, more than seven hundred Israelis and around five hundred Palestinians had been killed. At least one Palestinian journalist, Mohammad El-Salhi, was among the dead. As of Saturday, the Committee to Protect Journalists was investigating reports that two other Palestinian journalists may also have been killed.

As soon as the attack began, the words “Yom Kippur” began trending on social media in Israel—shorthand, Anshel Pfeffer noted for Haaretz, for military failure, complacency, and national trauma. As Pfeffer and others noted, for all the parallels with 1973, the Hamas attack differed in various key respects. One of these, of course: the modern information environment, itself defined by technological advances. Ruth Margalit, a Tel Aviv–based journalist (who has covered Israel for CJR), ducked into the stairwell of her building with her family and neighbors after an air-raid alarm sounded. “We spoke of previous rounds of rocket fire, all of which had been intercepted by the Israeli military to a high degree, so panic was not in the air; even the kids were acting blasé,” she wrote for The New Yorker. “But then we opened our phones.” According to Isabel Kershner, of the New York Times, residents in areas under land attack used their phones to call into local TV stations. “Speaking in whispers, they pleaded for help and said they could hear the militants outside, or even inside, their homes,” Kershner writes.

Quickly, graphic videos of unspeakable violence spread on social media. (“Don’t search the trending,” one friend texted me to advise.) These were how the friends and relatives of some of those killed or taken captive found out about the fate of their loved ones. “The sky fell over me,” Moshe Or told Margalit after being sent footage of his brother and his brother’s girlfriend being abducted from the music festival. Around the world, TV news shows aired clips from some of the videos. “It is incredibly disturbing to see,” Anderson Cooper said on CNN, before broadcasting footage showing the kidnap of another festival-goer. “But it is important to see.”

Hamas itself uploaded video footage of its attack, often on the messaging service Telegram, where the group’s following ticked up significantly through the weekend. Some of the footage was shaky, shot from handheld devices. Some of it was slick, including sweeping aerial shots showing the bombing of Israeli observation towers and rockets streaking across the sky. At various major news organizations, reporters set about trying to authenticate the footage. (CNN found that the videos Hamas posted were “heavily edited.”)

Indeed, visual investigators and fact-checkers were kept busy as they tried to keep up with the torrent of online content coming out of the conflict. Some of the imagery was doctored; some was real, but depicted past, not current, events. The situation was seen as a major test for X, formerly known as Twitter, whose status as the key platform for keeping up with unfolding crises in real time has always been complicated by the proliferation of junk information, and has recently foundered as the platform has become less friendly to the sharing of reliable news under the ownership of Elon Musk. On Saturday, Musk recommended that users follow a pair of accounts that are known for spreading bad information and, in one case, anti-Semitic slurs. (Musk later deleted his post.) “I’ve been fact-checking on Twitter for years, and there’s always plenty of misinformation during major events,” Shayan Sardarizadeh, a journalist with the BBC’s Verify service, wrote. “But the deluge of false posts in the last two days…is something else.”

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If the attack played out, in some ways, at a new frontier in our online information hellscape, in other ways it felt grimly familiar. Semafor’s Ben Smith said that the graphic content circulating online put him in mind of the ISIS tactic of uploading execution videos, “amplifying a global sense of their power and supercharging their recruiting” in the mid-2010s. And the nascent information war around the attack carries echoes of the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Going forward, it will be important to continue to track this information war—alongside the many other story lines, from the hyperlocal to the geopolitical, that the attack has opened up, but also with the understanding that the information war will shape how we perceive these other stories.

And, if the theater in which information wars play out has changed greatly in the past decade or so, the idea of information warfare is far from an invention of the digital age; when Sonne wrote that “modern battles are also about dominating the narrative,” he was referring to the fighting in 1973. Tonally, if nothing else, some echoes from that time ring particularly clearly today, not least in the sharp sense of shock that the weekend’s attack provoked. In recent weeks, some of the 1973 anniversary coverage spoke of that war more in the language of distant memory—unthinkable today—than of parable. Just ten days ago, at a festival organized by The Atlantic, Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, declared that “the Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.” “Behind this moment,” The Atlantic’s Gal Beckerman wrote over the weekend, “are failures of intelligence, but also of imagination.”

A profound sadness also echoes down the decades and through the coverage of the present horror. As well as interviewing Moshe Or about the abduction of his brother, Margalit spoke with a friend of Or’s brother’s girlfriend. As they spoke, Margalit heard weeping in the background. It was coming from Yaakov Argamani, the girlfriend’s father, who had just rewatched the video showing his daughter’s kidnapping. Later, Argamani himself spoke to the press. In one interview, he wept again as a reporter put an arm around him. In another, he referenced people in Gaza, saying, “They have also lost loved ones in the war. They also have captives. They also have mourning mothers.” He added, “We are two nations from the same father.… Let’s please make peace.”

Other notable stories:

  • Before Hamas attacked Israel over the weekend, the big story in the US news cycle was the chaos in the US House of Representatives, where Republicans are in the process of picking a new Speaker following the ouster of Kevin McCarthy. Late last week, NPR’s Ari Shapiro spoke with three US-based foreign correspondents to find out how news consumers around the world view the story; the trio’s answers conveyed that “this is not just a story about American dysfunction or American political dysfunction,” Shapiro told them. “Your readers, your listeners, your viewers specifically understand that this is dysfunction within the Republican Party.” Meanwhile, Fox News lined up plans for a televised debate with the Speaker candidates, only for Republican lawmakers to react poorly and the event to be scrapped. The Washington Post’s Will Sommer has more.
  • Last week, Wired published an op-ed by Megan Gray, a former attorney with the Federal Trade Commission, claiming that Google tweaks the language of its users’ searches on the back end in order to steer them to pages that make Google more money. Google subsequently told The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel that the claim is “flat-out false,” and suggested that Gray had misinterpreted a chart presented as evidence during the ongoing antitrust trial the federal government has brought against Google. Wired deleted the op-ed, acknowledging that it did not meet the magazine’s standards. Warzel notes, however, that while Gray may have gotten her facts wrong, the broader concerns driving her op-ed “form the heart of the government’s case against the company.”
  • In local-news news, NPR and Floodlight profiled Florida Politics, an influential news site whose founder, former staffers say, has “repeatedly distorted coverage at the behest of corporate interests and political campaigns.” Elsewhere, Andrew Travers—a former editor of the Aspen Times who was fired last year amid claims that the paper’s owners censored coverage of a billionaire with business interests in the town—sued his former employer; the Colorado media-watcher Corey Hutchins has more. And a Pennsylvania man was arrested on suspicion of shooting the publisher of a Spanish-language paper in the arm after the paper published caricatures depicting the suspect’s family.
  • The Intercept’s James Risen charted the untold story of how the New York Times came to publish the Pentagon Papers in the early seventies. Risen obtained a previously unpublished memo showing that Neil Sheehan, the reporter who obtained the documents, surreptitiously copied them without the permission of Daniel Ellsberg, Sheehan’s source. Risen also interviewed Ellsberg prior to Ellsberg’s death earlier this year, finding that he “was eager to talk—at greater length and in far more detail than ever before—about…his intense and volatile relationship” with Sheehan and the Times
  • And for CJR, Joel Simon reflects on an event that he convened, with Ann Cooper and the Haystack Book Festival in Connecticut, to remember Anne Garrels, a former NPR war reporter who died from lung cancer last year. After Russia invaded Ukraine, “Garrels insisted she was going back to the front lines to cover the war,” Simon writes. Per Cooper, “She finally abandoned the idea when she realized she wasn’t strong enough anymore to even carry her suitcase, let alone spend weeks reporting from a war zone.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.