Among the thousands of people who should have spent more time thinking before posting about Israel and Hamas, Sen. Tom Cotton may have just taken the prize.
The Arkansas Republican on Thursday jumped on what he called “reports” that freelance photographers who documented Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israelis “almost certainly knew about the attack in advance” and “even participated” in the plot. He fired off a letter demanding that the Justice Department “immediately open a national security investigation” into four media outlets that employed the journalists: CNN, the Associated Press, Reuters, and the New York Times—the latter of which Cotton has, infamously, written for.
Hours later, the head of an Israeli media watchdog organization whose speculation had sparked these accusations against the journalists admitted he had no evidence for it. Gil Hoffman, who runs “HonestReporting”—a website that says it aims to combat media disinformation about Israel—said he was just “raising questions” when he suggested in a widely circulated online post Wednesday that the freelancers who took photographs of Hamas invaders during their attack must have known it was coming: “Is it conceivable to assume that ‘journalists’ just happened to appear early in the morning at the border without prior coordination with the terrorists?” the site asked. “Or were they part of the plan?”
Hoffman told the AP on Thursday that those were “legitimate questions” but also said he accepted the subsequent explanations from some of the freelancers he impugned that they had not, in fact, conspired with the terrorists to commit mass murder. Hoffman also said: “We don’t claim to be a news organization.”
The real news organizations that Hoffman was questioning have responded to his post by stating that they did not have advance knowledge of the attack and that they have no indication the freelance journalists they paid did either. The earliest photo at issue, published by Reuters, was taken 45 minutes after Hamas gunmen entered Israel, the outlet said. All available evidence suggests that Palestinian reporters, who live in the geographically tiny Gaza strip, rushed to the scene of major news event, “doing what photojournalists always do during major news events,” as the Times said.
Despite that complete lack of evidence—not to mention the improbability of Hamas tipping off the world’s leading news organizations about their secret plan—Hoffman’s questions were quickly converted into assertions, widely repeated.
The public diplomacy office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Deputy PM Benny Gantz, picked up on Hoffman’s claim to attack the reporters on the ground. “These journalists were accomplices in crimes against humanity,” the PM’s account claimed on Thursday. “Their actions were contrary to professional ethics.”
Journalists found to have known about the massacre, and still chose to stand as idle bystanders while children were slaughtered—are no different than terrorists and should be treated as such.
— בני גנץ – Benny Gantz (@gantzbe) November 9, 2023
Cotton’s letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland flatly asserted: “These individuals almost certainly knew about the attack in advance, and even participated by accompanying Hamas terrorists during the attack and filming the heinous acts.” And in a tweet sharing his letter, Cotton said the DOJ should investigate whether news outlets “committed federal crimes by having journalists embedded with Hamas.”
It is not true that the journalists “almost certainly” had advance knowledge of the attack. Cotton’s claim that the journalists were “embedded” is also unsubstantiated. One Palestinian journalist, Hassan Eslaiah—with whom the AP and CNN have cut ties—was spotted in a video from October 7 riding on a motorcycle with another person. One of them, it it unclear which, was holding a grenade. If the person is a Hamas militant, riding with him might be considered a breach of journalistic ethics, but it doesn’t prove any of the claims.
Eslaiah has said he was catching a ride back to Gaza, not headed in the direction of the attacks, and that he had no advance knowledge of the day’s events. (He also denies holding the grenade.) There is no indication as yet that any of the journalists covering the attacks accompanied the militants into Israel, and certainly no hint that the news organizations involved agreed to any such arrangements.
Journalists covering Israel’s attacks on Gaza, meanwhile, are dying at high rates. At least 40 reporters have been killed in the war since October 7, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thirty-five were Palestinian, killed while documenting the war or in their homes, along with thousands of their neighbors.
Responding to Cotton, who also wrote to the Times on Thursday, Times attorney David McCraw noted that reporters are facing “great risk” while documenting the war. (Disclosure: My spouse covers health for the Times.)
“You say in your letter that you are relying on ‘reports’ that New York Times employees were involved with the deadly Hamas attack of October 7,” McCraw wrote. “In fact, you are merely parroting disinformation harvested from the internet based on a website that has conceded it had no evidence for its claims.”
Cotton responded by continuing to question if freelancers employed by the paper had advance knowledge. But he did not offer any further evidence to support his charges. Asked if he had any, his office did not respond.