Analysis

Netanyahu Accused CNN, NYT of Being 'Fake News.' So We Fact-checked His Fact-check

The prime minister's Facebook rant against the media is very liberal - with the truth

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crumples and throws the newest Hamas document into the garbage can, in this still shot of his Facebook video.
Israeli Prime Minister's Office/via Reuters

With two short words, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed he is doing his utmost to impress Donald Trump as the U.S. president gears up for his visit to Israel. After all, what better way is there to win the president’s heart than to demonstrate that he is an enthusiastic ally in Trump’s angry crusade against U.S. mainstream media?

In the latest video, shot on Netanyahu’s fake office movie set decorated with bookcases and a family photo, the prime minister asks knowingly “Ever wonder what fake news is?” That is the headline on his Facebook page. And then of course he tells us. The “Fake News” video has itself made headlines in various media outlets due to its theatrical ending. Netanyahu crumples up a new Hamas declaration and tosses it into the garbage can, showing that low-tech has greater impact and is much more dramatic than deleting a tweet.

But it’s not a campaign-style gimmick that makes the video disturbing.

It’s the fact that Netanyahu, following in the footsteps of Trump, is deliberately twisting the definition of “Fake News” to serve his own needs. The term originated with deliberate hoax stories planted on unknown and dubious websites during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Trump has co-opted the term, using it to refer to media outlets that reports on him unflatteringly, even when the news he doesn’t want to hear — and doesn’t want anyone else to hear, either — hews closely to the facts.

The subject of the video is a new document of principles issued by Hamas in Doha, Qatar. In the pre-Trump era, Netanyahu’s messaging would have been aimed directly at the hostile militant regime that rules Gaza. But, knowing that bashing CNN and the New York Times will impress the White House, this script was written differently.

It opens with Netanyahu intoning: “Last week, headlines in CNN and Al Jazeera and the Guardian said that Hamas now accepts a Palestinian state along 1967 lines. The New York Times headline calls this ‘moderation.’ The intimation is that Hamas now accepts the State of Israel.”

Netanyahu calls the stories “a complete distortion of the truth.”

Fact: None of the stories that Netanyahu lambastes do in fact “intimate that Hamas now accepts the State of Israel.”

One, actually, states the polar opposite in its headline.

CNN: "Hamas says it accepts ‘67 borders, but doesn’t recognize Israel" (After the publication of this story David Keyes, the prime minister's spokesperson to foreign media, sent Haaretz a screenshot of what had been the original CNN headline: "'Hamas policy document' accepts 1967 borders in goal for Palestinian state." The network later changed it, he said.)

And the New York Times headline reads: “In Palestinian Power Struggle, Hamas Moderates Talk on Israel.”

Hamas, the Times says clearly, has moderated its talk. It hasn’t “moderated.” A vocabulary lesson for Netanyahu: Saying that someone has “moderated” their rhetoric does not mean that you are calling what they have to say “moderate.” It only means that whatever they are saying now is more moderate than what they were saying before — which it is.

The Times article suggests with proper journalistic skepticism that what Hamas says in its new document is spin and that it is “trying to offer a more mainstream-friendly version of its vision for the Palestinian cause.” The Times puts this in context by explaining that the document is “less a change in Hamas’ fundamental beliefs than a challenge for credibility of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as internationally.”

It does not, as Netanyahu charged, “call this moderation.”

Both stories were balanced and included extensive quotes from Netanyahu’s office.

But why should Netanyahu let the truth stand in the way of his creation of a media bogeyman whom he can chide: “Is moving from calling for genocide of all Jews to calling just for the annihilation of Israel, is that progress or moderation? Only if you have no standards whatsoever.”

By the end, now that he’s presumably gotten Trump’s attention, he launches into the expected broadside on Hamas. “Hamas murders women and children. It has launched hundreds and thousands of missiles at our homes and brainwashes Palestinian kids in suicide kindergarten camps.”

Netanyahu’s Hamas-bashing isn’t unexpected or out of place. He is, after all, gearing up for a possible effort by Trump to get negotiations going, and he is pushing back on Hamas’ charm offensive, by launching a preemptive strike against any pressure to let Hamas participate in regional negotiations.

But he really needs to get some new lines. He’s been repeatedly citing “suicide kindergarten camps” for the past two decades, and not only in reference to Hamas. In 2002, then-Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was the villain, making summer vacation deadly for Palestinian children, according to Netanyahu. “He has suicide kindergarten camps. He has suicide universities. He has suicide museums.”

It’s not Netanyahu’s old rhetoric that’s troubling — it’s the new press-bashing page he is tearing from the Trump playbook. In the case of both politicians, the goal of smearing legitimate news reports as being “fake” is the same. The less credibility the press has with the public,the less painful the sting will be when Netanyahu and Trump are covered critically and their missteps accurately reported.

In the case of both leaders, the calculation is the same. It’s not yet clear whether they are on the same page as far as the Middle East goes, but on this issue they are in perfect harmony. Damaging a pillar of democracy — a free press that doesn’t hesitate to hold the powerful accountable — is a small price to pay for their personal political survival.