It started with an Israeli bomb smashing into the Associated Press offices in Gaza. It ended with an AP journalist fired for her pro-Palestinian activism while she was a college student.
The Israeli military has justified its May 15 attack on al-Jalaa Tower — which hosted numerous foreign press bureaus in Gaza — by claiming that the Palestinian militant group Hamas had offices in the building. The Associated Press has denied that claim, and Israel has not publicly provided evidence to support its side of the story.
But right-wing U.S. media and a disgruntled former AP employee have attempted to drum up justification for the airstrike by painting the American news agency as a partisan, pro-Hamas source. Their claims have been given airtime by mainstream journalists, putting the AP — rather than the foreign military that bombed it — on the defensive.
The campaign against AP finally met with serious pushback this week. Recent college graduate Emily Wilder was fired from the Associated Press on Thursday after right-wing activists dug up her previous involvement in Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, two pro-Palestinian campus organizations.
Wilder’s firing was widely criticized as an example of “cancel culture.” Her local beat in Arizona had little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the attacks focused on statements Wilder had made years before she became a journalist.
The Associated Press was criticized for bowing to an outside pressure campaign. The reputational attack against the agency came after a physical attack on its offices during this month’s brief war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which killed over 200 people and ended with a ceasefire on Thursday.
On the afternoon of May 15, journalists in al-Jalaa Tower suddenly received a call from Israeli forces telling them to evacuate promptly. The building owner pleaded for time and journalists scrambled to save as much equipment as they could, escaping just before an American-made Joint Direct Attack Munition destroyed the building they had worked in for years.
Israeli forces claimed that Hamas military intelligence was operating out of the building. But there were plenty of reasons to doubt the official line. A day before the airstrike, the Israeli military fed foreign journalists misleading information about Israeli movements in order to lure Hamas fighters into a trap.
The Associated Press, which has called for an independent inquiry, says it had seen no indication of a Hamas presence for the 15 years its bureau was based in al-Jalaa Tower.
Israeli sources claim to have given the U.S. government a “smoking gun.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed on Tuesday that he had been shown intelligence related to the airstrike, but declined to comment on its content.
Endangering American journalists may have been a bridge too far. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Menendez (D–N.J.) issued a rare rebuke of Israel in response to the airstrike. President Joe Biden, mostly supportive of the Israeli air campaign at that point, voiced “concerns about the safety and security of journalists.”
Defenders of Israel’s actions, however, were ready to launch an informational counter-attack. The ammunition had been stockpiled tor more than half a decade.
In 2014, three years after leaving the Associated Press, former AP journalist Matti Friedman went public with accusations that the news agency’s reporting on Israel was motivated by a “hostile obsession with Jews.”
Friedman, who had served in the Israeli military before becoming a reporter, alleged that the Associated Press had quashed several stories favorable to Israel or unfavorable to Hamas, including eyewitness accounts of Hamas rocket launches near the AP office.
Friedman’s former bureau chief Steve Gutkin, who is himself Jewish, has pointed out that the Associated Press actually printed many of the facts that Friedman claimed were covered up.
In any case, hostile reporting does not turn a news bureau into a legitimate military target.
But the claims did put the Associated Press on the defensive, so several right-wing news outlets resurrected them this week. On Sunday, the Epoch Times, the New York Post, and The Blaze all mentioned Friedman’s old claims in articles about the attack on al-Jalaa Tower. The Jerusalem Post, the National Interest*, the National Review, and The Daily Mail joined in the next day.
Friedman himself threw fuel on the fire.
“Contrary to what I’ve seen attributed to me today, I didn’t write [in 2014] that Hamas operated out of the same building, and don’t know if that’s true,” he wrote on Twitter. But he then claimed that “a conversation with a friend who is intimately familiar with military decision-making right now suggests there were indeed Hamas offices there.”
The idea began to gain traction in the mainstream press. CNN reporter Brian Stelter brought up Friedman’s claims, without citing where they came from, in a Sunday interview with AP executive editor Sarah Buzbee.
“Rockets would lift off from Gaza toward Israel, and the Gaza bureau would look the other way,” Stelter said. “There’s been questions in the past about the Gaza bureau.”
Stelter’s CNN colleague Jake Tapper later shared Friedman’s thread without comment.
“Here’s [Tapper] sharing a claim that AP was ‘compromised’ by Hamas – a false claim used to justify the Israeli targeting of a media bureau building. Same justification used for the slaughter of Palestinians,” wrote AJ+ senior producer Sana Saeed in her own Twitter thread. (AJ+ is affiliated with Al Jazeera, which also had offices in al-Jalaa Tower.) “Why are CNN anchors (like [Stelter] too) keen to justify this?”
The campaign against the Associated Press gained momentum, and even entered the halls of Congress.
“Why is the Associated Press sharing a building with Hamas? Surely these intrepid reporters knew who their neighbors were,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.) said in a Monday floor speech. “Did they knowingly allow themselves to be used as human shields by a U.S.-designated terrorist organisation? Did 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.”
Rather than scrutinizing a foreign military force that had driven American journalists out of their office with bombs, members of Congress and parts of the mainstream press were now asking the journalists themselves to deny wrongdoing.
Amidst all the controversy, the Stanford College Republicans saw an opportunity to settle some old scores. The campus conservative club had a long history of negative interactions with Wilder, who had just been hired as an AP associate to cover Arizona news.
In 2019, Wilder had helped organize a talk at Stanford by Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley. The College Republicans put up fliers comparing Valley’s pro-Palestinian work to Nazi propaganda, prompting a national outcry.
Later that year, the Stanford College Republicans brought conservative speaker Ben Shapiro to campus. Wilder penned an op-ed calling him an “intellectual fake” and “little turd.”
Now, with an atmosphere of suspicion around the Associated Press, the Stanford Republican activists leapt for the microphone.
They posted a Twitter thread on Monday accusing the news agency of hiring a “former Stanford anti-Israel agitator,” highlighting criticisms Wilder had made on social media about Israel and conservative figures.
Two right-wing outlets, the Washington Free Beacon and The Federalist, piled on with articles about Wilder’s past pro-Palestinian activism. Both articles were clearly geared towards justifying the Israeli airstrike on the AP office, and leaned on reporting by Canary Mission, a group that blacklists students it deems to be pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. That list is sometimes used by Israeli security services to bar critics from the country.
“AP’s objectivity in question amid revelations it shared office space with Hamas,” the header of the Free Beacon article read. Tom Cotton echoed the same line on Twitter.
Wilder has told multiple reporters that AP management had previously told her not to worry about her past social media posts. But the news agency fired Wilder on Thursday.
The firing was ostensibly “for violations of AP’s social media policy” after Wilder was hired, and she had indeed made a Twitter post on Sunday criticizing American media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“To me, it feels like AP folded to the ridiculous demands and cheap bullying of organizations and individuals,” Wilder told the Washington Post.
Many journalists came to Wilder’s defense, highlighting how young reporters are punished for small mistakes while much more egregious violations of media ethics go unpunished.
But while the Associated Press and Wilder fight attacks on their ethical integrity, the spotlight has moved away from the Israeli actions that precipitated the controversy.
The bombing of an American news bureau generated more scrutiny on the journalists who were bombed than on the military that dropped the bombs. It resulted in immediate consequences for a young journalist who had nothing to do with the incident, and no one else.
The Israeli officials behind the decision to bomb al-Jalaa Tower privately regret it now, according to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, who told Israeli television that the military only “managed to destroy…Israel’s relations with the media, along with several empty Hamas offices.”
Whatever temporary damage the attack did to Israeli relations with American media, it does not seem to have materially damaged the U.S.-Israeli relationship. On Friday, U.S. Senate leaders came out against an attempt to block a $735 million arms sale to Israel.
The sale includes the same type of bomb that was dropped on the AP office.
*The author of this story was formerly employed by the National Interest.