On December 26, 2020, I published an essay featuring my proposals for reforming the fact checking industry. My main critique of the fact checking industry was that so-called fact checkers have a tendency to appeal to their own so-called authority to add a veneer of impartiality to their own opinions. As I opined in that piece, there is no problem with presenting one’s opinions and making the case for them. There is a problem with laundering one’s political opinions as fact checks.
The fact checking industry is not the only part of our greater news and commentary ecosystem that is guilty of trying to add unearned gravitas to opinions. Headline writers are often guilty of giving readers a false impression of what they are about to read. One way they do this is by using the Experts Say headline. This usually comes in the format of “Experts Say [insert view that I or my employer hold and want you to believe].” Who are the experts? You will be lucky if you find out. It is hard to come up with appropriate use-cases for the Experts Say headline. Lead with identifying which experts you speak of or use a more humble, honest headline that evinces your taking some responsibility for your own writing.
On October 8, 2023, I came across a particularly egregious example of the abuse of so-called experts to smuggle political views in the Huffington Post (it seems to be HuffPost these days). Before continuing, I will follow my own advice from the fact checking article and throw my cards on the table. Based on the fact that I wrote articles noting my votes for Mr. Lee Zeldin in the 2022 Republican primary for governor of New York and for Mr. Curtis Sliwa as the Republican candidate in the 2021 election for mayor of New York City, combined with my article praising the law and order wisdom of Mr. Thomas Sowell and my use of The Washington Times as an example for a good use-case for author-specific RSS feeds, one can deduce that I am not the HuffPost’s target audience. HuffPost does have news in addition to commentary – and notwithstanding my not being a fan of the outlet, I have read interesting articles on it in the past (albeit none interesting enough for me to recall off the top of my head). Opinion outlets are capable of real news reporting – the now-defunct Buzzfeed News of all things, for example, composed some solid reporting on the 2016 presidential primaries (the moment quickly passed). Breitbart has what I find to be good reporting on the U.S.-Mexico border. But news from these outlets, like fact checks, often comes with a whiff of the general editorial line. I will fully grant HuffPost does not hide its general editorial position as a general matter, which place it above some of the outlets I criticized in my fact checking piece such as PolitiFact and Snopes. But as we will see, it does produce some shifty articles.
The article in question was written by Ms. Sanjana Karanth an in the immediate aftermath of the Islamist terror group Hamas’s savage massacre of hundreds of Israeli citizens and a smaller number of foreign nationals (let us not forget the many hostages whose lives are in grave danger). The HuffPost, however, hides its commentary behind the following disingenuous headline: “Media Calls The Attack On Israel Unprovoked. Experts Say That’s Historically Inaccurate.” I also submit the archived version on the off chance the original article changes in the future. Before continuing, it is important to note that Ms. Karanth is a news reporter (formerly with the AP according to her bio) and the article is presented as a news piece and not an op-ed. A summary review of headlines of her other recent articles did not suggest similar headline-level editorializing (or foreign affairs reporting, for that matter).
(Aside: Contrary to he headline, I think Hamas is getting remarkably good coverage from many U.S. and European mainstream outlets if one accounts for what it has perpetrated and what it continues to do.)
As Israel worked to clear Islamist terrorists out of its towns and cities while simultaneously trying to identify the bodies of deceased and figure out who was taken hostage (the families of some of the deceased learned when Hamas terrorists used the phones of the deceased to upload photos to social media), Ms. Karanth and the HuffPost hid behind so-called experts to launder their quasi-defense of Hamas’s actions. Similarly, Hamas terrorists will spend the next few days, if not weeks, hiding behind Israeli hostages and Gazan women and children as they scramble to avoid the deadly consequences of their authentically evil actions. Note again that I am not hiding behind experts – my views are my own and I cite to various sources in support that I think are worth sharing in support of my position.
But who are these experts referenced by Ms. Karanth? What are they experts in? Are they experts in foreign affairs? Provocation? Experts in the latest Hamas video production techniques? Perhaps they are just shields for certain so-called news outlets to camouflage as news pro-Hamas views that may be more than a little bit discomfiting as Hamas gleefully parades horrific videos of its terrorist members and Gazan supporters desecrating the bodies of the dead.
Against my better instincts, I decided to learn about these experts.
The first paragraph:
As the violence between Israel and Hamas rages on, groups and experts familiar with the Israeli government’s decades long apartheid against Palestinians stress that it is inaccurate for officials and media to call the attacks unprovoked.
Here, we see that the “experts say” framing in the headline reflects the content of the article. That is something, at least. But who are these groups and experts? (I note we are adding “groups” in addition to “experts.”) The next few paragraphs provide little information as Ms. Karanth put her own spin on the events leading up to Hamas’ massacre while referring to the perpetrators as “Palestinian fighters” and only using the term “Hamas” to note that the U.S. and European Union designated it “as a terrorist organization due to its armed resistance against Israel’s occupation…” (that is one way to put it, I suppose). Note that I encourage everyone who is interested to read the original for yourselves – you need not take my word for it.
Ms. Karanth’s intro continued into the sixth paragraph, wherein she returned to the experts:
The attack has resulted in strongly worded support for Israel from many Western nations, including the U.S., which along with the media are describing the violence as unprovoked and unprecedented. But experts on the region’s history, as well as groups supporting Palestinian liberation, say that description is false.
While we still have not had an actual citation to an expert, Ms. Karanth linked “say that description is false” to an AP “report” (I have expressed my negative view of the AP’s presenting commentary as news) syndicated to the HuffPost: Israel Deploys Heavy Police Presence Ahead Of Anti-Palestinian Jerusalem March. While I understand that people may find the march referenced in the AP report disagreeable, I struggle to see how it would have provoked Hamas into video taping the murder and kidnapping of Israeli civilians, and desecrating the bodies of the dead. If the experts were to suggest such a direct causal nexus, I would have to raise some questions about their expertise. In the next paragraph, we forget the march and finally cite to a group:
IfNotNow, a progressive American Jewish group that opposes Israeli apartheid, said that while ‘we watch the unfolding horrors with heartbreak and dread for our loved ones ― Israelis and Palestinians alike’ ― the attack by Palestinian fighters was a result of decades of oppression.
IfNotNow is a group. I would describe it as largely anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. Without ever holding Palestinians accountable for their actions, Ms. Karanth describes IfNotNow as opposing Israeli apartheid. Tomato, tomahto. But in any event, IfNotNow is very clearly an advocacy organization – or as Ms. Karanth would frame it, a group  supporting Palestinian liberation. It does not hide this fact. But this is not delivering on the promise of the headline. I was promised an expert explanation of how Hamas was justifiably provoked into murdering, raping, and kidnapping Israeli civilians, including helpless infants and the elderly and distributing proof of their exploits on video. I was not promised a carefully crafted press release from IfNotNow.
Ms. Karanth quoted from the “group” (or is this the “expert”?):
‘We cannot and will not say today’s actions by Palestinian militants are unprovoked,’ the group said in a statement on Saturday. ‘Every day under Israel’s system of apartheid is a provocation. The strangling siege on Gaza is a provocation. Settlers terrorizing entire Palestinian villages, soldiers raiding and demolishing Palestinian homes, murdering Palestinians in the streets, Israeli ministers calling for genocide and expulsion.’
Setting aside that “terrorists” is a better term for Hamas than “militants” (in my non-expert opinion), all I glean from this is that IfNotNow does not want to talk about what the “militants” with are actually doing, opting instead to re-litigate its grievances against the Israeli government. While this is expert footsie with Hamas, expert footsie is not the kind of expertise I was expecting. Perhaps the expert take is lurking in the next quote-paragraph:
‘These are the provocations of the most extreme right wing government in Israel’s history and an emboldened fascist movement escalating this crisis across the land.’
This statement does not evince expertise, instead it evinces a generalized absence of expertise. Contrary to unfortunately popular belief, “fascist” is not a synonym for “things I don’t like.” For example, while I think that Hamas is an evil Islamist terrorist organization, I do not think that it is “fascist.” Words have meaning. IfNotNow seems to think that fascist means things it does not like (I suspect for that reason it would probably agree with me that Hamas is not fascist). Moreover, the “most extreme right wing” government is a subjective view, not an expert view, and one that is slung often. Israel has had mostly right-wing (on its spectrum) governments since 1976, and the “most right wing” critique is a common one. I await the careful comparison of the current Israeli government to some of the Shamir-led governments in the 1980s. History establishes that most of the IfNotNow-types were not big fans of the left-wing governments that guided Israel to victory in its major 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars either.
We have another vague reference to “experts” in the next paragraph:
The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 resulted in what is known as the Nakba, which refers to the mass murder of Palestinians and permanent displacement from their land. Since then, multiple human rights groups have released reports on why Israel’s efforts to remove Palestinian families from their land, jail Palestinian dissidents and kill civilians ― including children ― amount to apartheid.
Vague experts. Nakba links to HuffPost article on the UN commemoration from May. We see that “amount to apartheid” links to a another HuffPost article describing Amnesty International accusing Israel of apartheid. The first article is reducible to an opinion about the Israeli War of Independence. The second entails Amnesty International characterization of Israel as an apartheid state. Rather than link directly to experts, we have links to HuffPost articles on the UN simply being the UN and to Amnesty International’s negative view of Israel. I suppose had the article actually discussed an Amnesty International report, it could have appealed to expertise (granting Amnesty International’s takes on Israel come with a consistent slant not often applied elsewhere). But it did not even do that much. Ms. Karanth continues to claim she is reporting on expert analysis without identifying experts or describing their expert takes. This is commentary in the news section. When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter accused Israel of slouching toward apartheid, he wrote a book, put his name on the book, and stood behind his book. He did not hide in the news section. People who disagreed with Mr. Carter knew exactly who they were disagreeing with.
The next paragraph quotes a tweet from “Nathan Thrall, a writer and expert on Israel-Palestine”… How is he an expert? Ms. Karanth does not tell us. Am I supposed to trust that she is an expert on experts? Note here we only have the link to the X, or Tweet. Absent unusual circumstances, I would not fulfill a promise of expertise with Xs. His X is not interesting enough to cause me to take the time to look him up.
Finally, Ms. Karanth concludes with a joint statement from IfNotNow and the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations – again, I understand they, like Ms. Karanth, have strong views about contextualizing Hamas’ massacre of hundreds of Israeli civilians, but their expertise is not established here. The article culminates with a two-paragraph quote from their statement wherein IfNotNow and the Council condemn the “killing of innocent civilians” before stating that “[t]heir blood is on the hands of the Israeli government, the U.S. government which funds and excuses their recklessness, and every international leader who continues to turn a blind eye to decades of Palestinian oppression…” While I am not an expert on the caliber of those who write press statements for IfNotNow and and the Council of Muslim Organizations, I cannot help but notice that they seem more focused on metaphorical blood on the hands of the Israeli and U.S. governments than on the real, warm, bright red blood of hundreds of Israeli civilians and foreign nationals on the hands of the Hamas terrorists who murdered them. But again, I am no expert. The next quoted passage states: “Anyone who minimizes or ignores this context will only continue to be surprised as more blood is shed.” As someone who fully supports freedom of speech – I will note that the current U.S. Department of Justice leadership and the FBI leadership have surveilled American Catholics and parents who want a say in what their children learn in taxpayer-funded schools for less than what reads like a bit of a threat (note for the record that I understand that they are merely justifying Hamas’ behavior abroad and I do not think that doing so should lead to surveillance, I am simply noting how the Department of Justice orders its priorities on certain matters).
(As always – I invite everyone who is interested in Ms. Karanth’s article to read it in its full context. I include links so you do not have to take my word for it – reach your own conclusions.)
After one more abuse of the word “fascist” (maybe this needs to be an article), we conclude. The “experts” relied upon by Ms. Karanth consisted of a links to a couple of HuffPost articles, some writer on Twitter, IfNotNow, and the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations. All of them aired long-standing grievances – I would argue selective, but nevertheless not new – and upon reading them I did not come away with a clear and distinct idea of how Hamas was provoked into butchering and kidnapping hundreds of Israeli civilians and many unfortunate foreign nationals in the area beginning on October 7, 2023, and still ongoing.
Before returning with the original point of the article – let it be said that I do think it is important to understand why bad actors behave in the way they do. For example, no one who is familiar with Hamas’ charter (see e.g., Article Seven) and origins should be surprised that Hamas sees killing Jews as intrinsic to its mission and to the practice of Islam. Moreover, because the HuffPost seeks to remove agency from Hamas members, it entirely omits the influence of external affairs as possible explanations for why Hamas undertook such a large scale heinous operation at this particular time – notably Israel’s normalization discussions with Saudi Arabia and the opposition of Iran and other actors such as Qatar to those efforts. Understanding Hamas in no way detracts from its evil – it instead informs decision-makers on how to best deal with, or permanently neutralize, their capacity to cause murder and mayhem. One could argue that in light of all of these factors, Israel and/or external parties made policy and strategic mistakes (e.g., overestimating the degree to which Hamas can be managed) which ultimately put its civilians in unnecessary danger without trying to whitewash Hamas’ actions or cast its members as noble freedom fighters.
My views on this matter are not limited to Israel. For example, trying to understand why the Russian government launched its war of aggression against Ukraine and its people is important in understanding how Russia views, its own equities and interests. This is entirely distinguishable from justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, much less agreeing with it. The same applies to the Chinese Communist Party’s strange relationship with the regime of North Korea or its saber rattling in the direction of Taiwan. In each of these cases, decision-makers should try to understand why things happen when they happen in order to respond to, or perhaps preempt them. This is especially important when the party one is supporting is the weaker party. It is entirely possible to question whether specific policies make bad outcomes more likely without glossing over the actions of the entities that perpetrate the bad outcomes.
In this spirit, while I am not in the business of providing life advice to Hamas sympathizers – whether overt like the Democratic Socialists of America or discrete like IfNotNow and certain HuffPost journalists – they would do well (consider this unsolicited advice) to take the time to understand how Israel understands its own security interests, notably the primacy of deterrence. Understanding this rather than their fantasies about decolonization will give a much clearer picture of how Israel will handle the Hamas problem in the immediate term.
Separate from the views expressed in the HuffPost “report,” I find it and much of the similar commentary disagreeable because the goal is not to elucidate, but instead to obfuscate Hamas’ motivations, remove agency from terrorist savages, and in so doing justify and glorify their atrocities.
Returning to the original point of the article – the experts say framing of the HuffPost article is almost as bad as the content, but it should be questionable even if you agree with the content (heaven forbid). While I cannot read the minds of reporters, this opinion piece pretending to be a report or an explainer reads like a nervous effort to buttress the resolve of people who are both steadfastly anti-Israel while supporting Palestinian actions to roll back, or entirely eliminate, Israeli sovereignty over its territory. Understandably – some people who have made these sorts of views of Israel part of their political identity might be a bit squeamish after seeing their decolonization force go full ISIS on a music festival and many Israeli babies, children, and grandmothers. Recording videos of oneself slitting throats, smashing skulls with hoes, and desecrating dead bodies in the street is a bit more visceral than reports of the occasional stabbing, kidnapping, suicide bombing, or rocket barrages. The article reads like an effort to comfort supporters of the cause by sanitizing what Hamas is doing (someone who only read Ms. Karanth’s so-called report would have little idea) and making the case that members of Hamas, unlike other human beings, are only capable of reacting to provocations and has no affirmative will of their own (this coddling of Hamas strikes me as a bit racist, but I will file those concerns away in the “not my circus, not my monkeys” folder).
(Lest one argue that I erred in omitting garden-variety two-state solution supporters from the target audience of the article, I think that many of those people have generally concluded that Hamas being is true authentic self combined with the Palestinian Authority evincing no discomfort with Hamas’ behavior set-back the two-state solution cause, which was already barely clinging to life-support, in a dramatic way.)
Of course, the irony is that Ms. Karanth is unable or unwilling to throw all of her cards on the table and own her position in this article. Whether she was constrained by this technically being in the news section or concerned that a reporter who is not a well-known name would lack the gravitas to persuade I know not. But presenting the article as a hard-news explainer (my distaste for explainers should be its own piece) based on ‘expert’ analysis was misleading, and I am comfortable in saying deliberately misleading. The reliance on so-called expert quotes – which amount to two advocacy organizations views and some guy on X, formerly known as Twitter – adds a flimsy veneer of scientific detachment to the fig leaf covering her own assessment of the state of affairs. This is an opinion piece masquerading as a report or explainer, and in that sense it is deceptive – even granting HuffPost’s open ideological tilt.
Say what one will about IfNotNow, but it is throwing its cards on the table and making its views and priorities about current events crystal clear (granting their convenient omission of descriptions of what Hamas is doing of course). While I would have disagreed with Ms. Karanth’s views regardless of the set-up, the piece would have done better if she had affirmatively presented her argument instead of tentatively making arguments in an improper forum.
Not to call my own number, but contrast this article with my 2020 piece articulating my position that American politicians were hiding behind the specter of discrimination against Asian Americans to deflect criticism from the Chinese Communist Party of its handling of a certain virus (I maintain that piece aged fairly well for something written in May 2020). Nowhere in the piece did I resort to passive variation of experts say. I had a position based on my own reading of what was going on in the world and I cited to many sources to support specific assertions in my argument. Now, to be sure, readers may agree or disagree with my argument or take issue with one source I pointed to or another. That is all well and good. But unlike Ms. Karanth, I made clear from the top that the views expressed and the arguments advanced were my own. If I have something to say, I can support my argument with citations to news sources, experts, or people with interesting opinions without hiding behind them. If I am merely reporting what someone else said, I need not use the report to shield my own editorial. This is a much better way to advance arguments and share interesting perspectives than the irritating experts say framework.
(Update for 10/10/23: Fixed two typos where I wrote IfNotThen instead of Now.)