Tom Cotton Suggests Without Evidence That AP Acted as 'Human Shields' for Hamas

Cotton took a 2014 essay out of context to make the accusations.

Published May 25, 2021

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 20: U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) attends a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on voting rights on Capitol Hill on April 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Among the other witnesses who will testify are U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT); Stacey Abrams, Founder of Fair Fight Action; and Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein-Pool/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
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In May 2021, Israel and Hamas exchanged brutal rocket and aerial attacks that claimed lives of at least 230 Palestinians and 12 Israelis, many of them civilians and children. Amid the fighting on May 15, the Israeli Defense Forces bombed a high-rise building that contained both residential units and the Gaza bureaus for two major international news organizations, Al Jazeera and The Associated Press (AP).

The airstrike on the media office building drew condemnation. But the Israeli military said it gave civilians in the building advance warning so they could evacuate in time. It also claimed the strike was necessary because Hamas, the de facto governing organization in Gaza that the U.S. has designated a terrorist group, was using the building while hiding behind its civilian tenants.

News reports quoted U.S. and Israeli officials, the AP, and the owner of the building, citing disagreements over how much evidence, or if any evidence, existed that Hamas was in the building.

AP spokesperson Lauren Easton told Snopes in an email that, "We have no indication of a Hamas presence in the building, nor were we warned of any such possible presence before the airstrike. This is something we check as best we can. We do not know what the Israeli evidence shows, and we want to know."

Gilan Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and U.N. said during an appearance on Israeli public radio station KAN that he didn't believe the AP knew about the Hamas presence in the building because it was secret.

Two days after the airstrike, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton took this scenario to a new level of extreme. In a speech on the Senate floor, Cotton posed rhetorical questions implying that the AP may have actively cooperated with Hamas.

"Why is the Associated Press sharing a building with Hamas," Cotton stated. "Surely these intrepid reporters knew who their neighbors were. Did they knowingly allow themselves to be used as human shields by a U.S.-designated terrorist organization? Did the AP pull its punches and decline to report for years on Hamas's misdeeds? I submit that the AP has some uncomfortable questions to answer."

Here's a video clip of these comments:

There is no evidence the AP cooperated with Hamas in the manner suggested by Cotton, or in any other manner.

When we asked Cotton's office whether the senator had evidence to support his leading questions about the AP during his speech, e.g. "the AP has some uncomfortable questions to answer" about Hamas, a spokesman for Cotton only sent us follow-up remarks made by Cotton the next day.

In those comments, Cotton cited a 2014 essay written by Jerusalem-based journalist Matti Friedman, published in The Atlantic. Although he echoed some of its wording, Cotton took that essay out of context.

Friedman's essay is a nuanced, pointed media critique from the perspective of an insider. It falls short of accusing The Associated Press of collaborating with Hamas.

The November 2014 piece was written following the 2014 Gaza war between Israel and Hamas. In it, Friedman argued that the international press has blind spots that distort its reporting and thus its audiences' understanding of reality.

These include deference to non-governmental aid organizations with biases that skew against Israel. Friedman also points out that Hamas has learned to game the norms and practices of the Western news media in such a way that it exploits those blind spots to get the coverage it wants. And the media, Friedman wrote, isn't transparent about that.

"Hamas is aided in its manipulation of the media by the old reportorial belief, a kind of reflex, according to which reporters shouldn’t mention the existence of reporters," Friedman wrote in 2014. He then added:

In Gaza, this goes from being a curious detail of press psychology to a major deficiency. Hamas’s strategy is to provoke a response from Israel by attacking from behind the cover of Palestinian civilians, thus drawing Israeli strikes that kill those civilians, and then to have the casualties filmed by one of the world’s largest press contingents, with the understanding that the resulting outrage abroad will blunt Israel’s response. This is a ruthless strategy, and an effective one. It is predicated on the cooperation of journalists. One of the reasons it works is because of the reflex I mentioned. If you report that Hamas has a strategy based on co-opting the media, this raises several difficult questions, like, What exactly is the relationship between the media and Hamas? And has this relationship corrupted the media? It is easier just to leave the other photographers out of the frame and let the picture tell the story: Here are dead people, and Israel killed them.

Friedman, who worked for the AP's Jerusalem bureau from 2006 to 2011, also cited a another essay he wrote in 2014 for Tablet in which he argued that the international press, including the AP, selects stories and dumbs down reporting on the region's conflict in service of telling far-flung audiences a narrative he calls the "Israel story." Friedman described the "Israel story" as a "modern morality play in which the Jews of Israel are displayed more than any other people on earth as examples of moral failure."

We reached out to Friedman asking about his reaction to Cotton using his work in the way that he did. In an emailed response, Friedman pointed out that the political landscape in 2014 during the Obama era was much different than it is now.

"A press critique in 2021 doesn't read like one in 2014, in the days before attacking the press became a cynical political tactic," Friedman said in his email. He added that nevertheless, "all I can do as a journalist is make sure I'm telling the truth, and both of my essays are correct (unfortunately) both in their details and in their conclusions."

In 2014, the AP responded to Friedman's essays with a statement that read in part, "His arguments have been filled with distortions, half-truths and inaccuracies, both about the recent Gaza war and more distant events. His suggestion of AP bias against Israel is false." The statement continued:

Courageous AP staffers worked around the clock in Gaza, often at the risk of great personal harm. Intense Israeli airstrikes literally shook the high-rise building housing the AP’s office. Two AP employees were ultimately killed in Gaza, and a third critically wounded and maimed. Our body of work included images and stories about Hamas rocket fire from civilian areas, the suffering of the residents of southern Israel living under the threat of rocket, mortar and tunnel-based attacks, Hamas' summary executions of suspected collaborators, the fears of Gazans to criticize the group, Hamas' use of civilian areas for cover and the devastation wreaked on Gazan civilians by Israeli airstrikes and artillery attacks.

Friedman told us he stands behind the essays, pointing out that nothing in them was corrected or retracted. He said he hopes "the mainstream press takes the criticism to heart and does a better job, not just on this story but all around."


Update [May 25, 2021]: Changed format from fact check to news.

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who started her career as a daily newspaper reporter and has covered everything from crime to government to national politics. She has written for ... read more