Dor: Intifada Hits the Headlines, and Reporters Without Borders: Israel/Palestine: The Black Book, and Muravchik:Covering the Intifada
It is common knowledge among those who closely follow the Israeli occupation of Palestine that the Israeli press is head and shoulders above the U.S. mainstream media when it comes to coverage of the occupation. However, the superiority of the Israeli mainstream press over its American counterpart is less an indication of the health of the Israeli press than it is a worrying sign that U.S. journalism is critically ill. Daniel Dor’s important book drives this point home vividly by carefully dissecting precisely how the Israeli press failed to fulfill its basic obligation of informing its readers of the basic facts about the al-Aqsa intifada during its first month. When its role as an unforgiving watchdog of those with the power to kill and destroy needed crucially to be fulfilled, the Israeli mainstream press consciously chose to do the opposite: playing cheerleader and serving as a propaganda platform for the Israeli government, the military establishment, and those who staunchly supported their policies. The methodology that Dor adopts to make his case is as refreshing in its simplicity as it is sound in its execution. He compares stories fielded by reporters of the three major national Hebrew-language dailies—Yedi’ot Aharonot, Ma’ariv, and Ha’Aretz—with what actually ended up in print and examines editorial interventions for patterns of bias. The result is a solid indictment of an establishment that prides itself on being one of the best journalistic institutions in the world. Stories that echoed the official line, that played on reader angst and anger, and that exploited racist stereotypes and crass ignorance systematically grabbed front-page headlines. Stories that contradicted the official narrative or the notion that Israel was under siege during the first month of the intifada or that showed Palestinians acting as would any humans under violent assault were relegated to the inside pages or altogether suppressed. Cherished myths aggressively peddled by the Israeli government and the military establishment were adopted without challenge: Ehud Barak was generous in his offers; Yasir Arafat, not Ariel Sharon, was the cause of the uprising; Israel was responding with restraint; Arafat was in control of the intifada and could shut it down if he wanted, etc. In essence, the Israeli press “joined the campaign of delegitimizating the Palestinian people as a partner for peace, a campaign at the heart of Prime Minister Barak’s political strategy” (p. 16). Front-page photographs also systematically showed Israeli soldiers in a “holding pattern,” sitting or milling around, while Palestinians systematically were shown in violent motion. Mention of Palestinian casualties vanished from the front pages two days after the intifada started, while large headlines announcing Israeli casualties persisted, even though the toll on Palestinians was far greater. National clichés thought to be buried long ago were dutifully resurrected. Nothing had changed since 1973, echoed the headlines and the editorials: Israel was again in a state of war, under siege, beleaguered, and fighting for its survival; Israeli actions were invariably reactions to Palestinian provocations; at worst, the army was guilty of regrettable mistakes; at worst those Israeli citizens and Jewish settlers engaged in violence against Palestinians (citizen or otherwise) were committing understandable crimes of passion. A simple formula was observed: If a story reinforces the received framing, highlight it; otherwise, bury or kill it. The consequences are as devastating as they are tragic: The reader is left with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, a feeling that there is nothing that can be done to avert disaster, because Israel had done all it could do and more. But evidence that fundamentally contradicted the prevailing view did exist in the dispatches of numerous journalists. For example, one week after the outbreak of the intifada, Ha’Aretz’s Amira Hass reported that “when the PA and Fatah called on the population to protest against ‘Sharon’s provocation,’ the response was lukewarm; no more than a thousand people came to the mosque. Again, as many times before, the PA proved incapable of mobilizing tens of thousands of people for violent and dangerous clashes with the IDF” (p. 25). Ha’Aretz military commentator Ze’ev Schiff noted, “The riots on the Temple Mount broke out following an Israeli provocation” (p. 24), while Danny Rubinstein, also of Ha’Aretz, wrote, “Many members of the Palestinian leadership approached their senior Israeli acquaintances and tried to prevent Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. . . . The response was negative” (p. 25). What is important to note from these examples is that compelling eyewitness accounts from professionals systematically were given far less prominence than accounts from government officials and members of the military establishment who spoke and acted with a clearly defined agenda of demonizing the Palestinians and presenting a one-dimensional, self-serving rendering of events on the ground. The abundance of reliable accounts from credible international organizations is illustrated in Israel/Palestine: The Black Book, edited by Reporters Without Borders. This book gathers sixteen compelling reports highlighting human rights abuses by the state of Israel (ten reports) and by the Palestinian Authority (five reports). It is a must read for any reporter who covers the Israeli occupation and any editor who has a say in how field dispatches are presented to readers and what editorial line his or her paper should take (assuming that basic facts intervene in setting editorial lines). A short but powerful introduction establishes the basic parameters necessary to understand the occupation: the context of the creation of the Jewish state, the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, the annexation of East Jerusalem, the Geneva Conventions, the first intifada, the Madrid Conference and the Oslo Accords, the authoritarianism of the Palestinian Authority, Camp David’s failure, and the second intifada. The book also provides evidence of just how short of the mark the U.S. media has fallen in its duty to inform, enlighten, and empower its readers. Readily available reports by respected and established human rights organizations rarely are cited in news items, let alone in editorials. Instead, U.S. media, as I have demonstrated in my own books, use loaded words that betray a remarkable unquestioning adoption of the language spoken by the Israeli prime minister’s office: Israel engages only in “retaliations” and “responses”; Palestinians are killed in “crossfires” and “errant shells”; Israelis engage in carefully “targeted” killings rather than political assassinations or discriminate collective punishment; Israelis engage in “sweeps,” eliminate “targets,” mobilize for “incursions,” etc. Readers also have to endure blatant double standards: the killing of Palestinian civilians receives far less urgent attention than the killing of Israeli civilians (to this day, despite protests that are now two years old, CNN has a web site showing a picture and short bio of every Israeli killed in a suicide bombing, but has nothing comparable for Palestinian civilians); the death of Israeli children is treated as a far greater tragedy than the death of Palestinian children; suicide attacks by Palestinians against Israelis are carefully chronicled (the Associated Press routinely publishes such statistics, with summary charts and vivid graphics), with nothing even remotely similar for Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians. Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, knows full well the essential role entrenched narratives play in ensuring the success of a propaganda project and how dangerous and even fatal to the project anything that undermines them can be. In Covering the Intifda, he angrily pinpoints instances in which he feels the U.S. media veered off the righteous path and engaged in the sinful practice of challenging the received word. What is obvious and axiomatic to Muravchik is that only Israelis are murdered, only Israeli officials tell the truth, only Palestinians go on rampages, only Israelis truly want peace. Add to these axioms the following: Arafat is evil incarnate; he not only ignited, but orchestrated and sustained the intifada; the Israeli government and its institutions are respectful to a fault of the law and of human rights; the notion that Palestinians are united against the occupation is a silly fabrication; Barak (“very much a dove” [p. 46]) is goodness and tolerance incarnate; Sharon is a realist, but he never lies and truly wants a peace settlement with the Palestinians. With self-assured relish, Muravchik tears into the miscreants who dare quote Palestinians without providing incriminating evidence that wholly undermines what they say (this he calls setting the story in its “proper context” [p. 41]), who dare challenge the pronouncements of Israeli officials (this he calls “editorializing” [p. 5]), who dare report what they see when the reporting shows Israelis in a bad light (he insists that reporters should remind the reader that Israel is acting in self-defense [p. 56]), who dare hint that Palestinians are acting in self-defense (he denounces this as “false equivalence” [p. 53]), and who dare to take a step back and provide an honest assessment of the big picture as they see it (this he offers as evidence of “outright anti-Israeli tilt” [p. 53]). Not surprisingly, Peter Jennings, known for marginally challenging received views on foreign affairs, bears the brunt of Muravchik’s ire (Jennings is accused of harboring “[an] ill-concealed animus toward Israel” [p. 105]), while Fox News is singled out as the network that knows how to do its job (as Muravchik understands that job to be [p. 61]). In short, a more systematic and unswerving regurgitation of the familiar destructive arguments from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, and Hillel campus chapters cannot be found. Indeed, this is an excellent manual for anyone who already subscribes to the gospel according to Ranaan Gissin, Ariel Sharon’s loutish—to borrow the sparkling language of the late Edward Said—spokesman, and it should make for soothing reading whenever anyone’s conscience should prick him or her for violating the truth in the name of blind zealotry. ______________________________________________________
Ahmed Bouzid is founder and president of Palestine Media Watch (www.pmwatch.org) and author of Framing the Struggle: Essays on the Middle East and the U.S. Media (iUniverse, 2003) and The Media Playbook: A Handbook for Media Activism and Criticism on the Middle East Conflict (Palestine Media Watch, 2002).