Consider this lofty statement on media conduct from Jovial Rantao, editor of The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg:
Credibility is the lifeblood of our profession. Without it we are nothing. Without it, not one person will believe a single word that we write. One of the basic tenets of our profession is to ensure that the credibility of the information we gather…is unquestionable.”
If you follow a clutch of anti-Israel titles, including Guardian, the Independent, The New York Times, and the BBC, you will know that the statement is wrong. Their Middle East reporters and correspondents care not a jot for credibility of information. Yet they are believed. What accounts for this anomaly?
The answer lies in something the statement failed to consider. Journalists not only report news, they also make news, or they participate in making news.
Before illustrating how they do that, we have to understand that a journalist can function in two different ways:
1. He can faithfully report what he observed and heard.
2. Alternatively, he can insert “attitude” in the report, allowing it to color, embellish or even create a story.
The first journalist is the one Rantao’s statement had in mind – the guy without attitude. There are no personal judgements in his report, no inclination to share feelings, and no desire to influence readers to share his feelings. The second journalist would do all of those things.
To illustrate both types, here are two reports on war. They are different wars in different periods, one in Afghanistan, the other in Libya. But we are interested in contrasting reporting styles, not their contexts. The first report was filed by Christian Lowe of Reuters.
The pattern of Nato airstrikes on Tripoli indicates that the alliance is trying to reduce Gaddafi’s ability to defend himself at the moment when his opponents, who for the time being are underground, decide to rise up.”
The credibility of the information is unquestionable, and the report meets the lofty statement of conduct.
Here’s the second report, again from a war zone, filed by Robert Fisk of Independent.
Sure it was a bad place for a car to break down. But what happened to us was symbolic of the hatred and fury and hypocrisy of this filthy war.
We at once know that we’re reading no observational report. Whatever purpose the writer may have, it’s not to report news. He conveys a personal attitude while not admitting to his attitude. He could equally have written, “I hate this war,” which would be stating a bald fact, not about events, but concerning his attitude toward events. We would know that he personally disapproved of the war, while not finding ourselves drawn into sharing his disapproval.
That’s clearly not the case here. The reporter, in the grip of strong emotion, gives us the benefit of his judgment and forces us to share that judgement. He hates war and so must we. The purpose of journalism of this type is quite different from journalism intended to relay a story.
The cases to follow might not be so obviously and nakedly emotional, yet all belong to the second type of journalism. They want us to share the writer’s feelings. More than reporting news, they make the news.
The case of grammar
Two Reuters reports, on the same day, deal quite differently with an act by Islamic pirates on the one hand and a US military operation on the other. We may call the first the passive case and the other the active case.
Under the headline “Achille Lauro mastermind in custody,” we read:
[Abu] Abbas is the leader of the Palestine Liberation Front, which highjacked the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean, resulting in the death of a disabled elderly American man, Leon Klinghoffer.
Observe the passive case: “resulting in the death” – as if by some regrettable accident. In the film “The Pianist,” there’s a scene where Nazi troops storm into a Jewish apartment and order the family to its feet. The wheelchair-bound grandfather is unable to rise, so the Nazis carry him in the chair out to the balcony and dump both into the street far below. Change the apartment into a ship and the street into the sea and you have what took place on board the Achille Lauro. Abu Abbas (not to be confused with PA President Mahmoud Abbas) and his band carried the elderly man in his wheelchair to the ship’s side and dumped both overboard
Reuters not only omits these facts but alludes to a regrettable and unintended accident. And there is a further attempt to influence our opinions. The victim was “an elderly American man.” In fact he was an elderly Jew, the very reason that Abbas and his band selected him to be murdered. They identified him as a Jew. Reuters did not want us to know this.
In the same wire service we read:
A senior US military officer said…he would launch an investigation into the killing by US soldiers of an Iraqi boy…
We may observe here the active case, “killing by American soldiers…” While the Islamic act leads (softly) to the death of a man, the act of Americans is a violent one, to kill.
The case of chocolate-bar man
What would it take for news of someone killed by a bulldozer to make the front page, not of a tabloid, but of a broadsheet for the serious-minded? And what would be the chance of this event making the front page if it happened in a distant country? To lengthen the odds, what if the story had no corpse to show for it? To make the odds even longer, what if the victim was no celebrity or VIP, but an ordinary citizen?
Yet it all came together, in the Independent. Justin Huggler’s story was about how citizen Salem met his end.
Why was Mr. Salem front-page news? For one thing, he was a Palestinian. For another, he was a victim of Israel. Who was it who told Justin Huggler the story? The dead man’s son and daughter.
“Old” – that was the first adjective to stir emotions for the dead man. He was old. While on this tack, what more to wring out of the tragedy? What deeper emotion to plumb? On top of being old, the victim was deaf. Who said so? The son, Maher Salem, and the daughter said so.
“What more can you tell me about your old and deaf father?” we can almost hear the reporter, deeply stirred, ask. Salem jr at this point disclosed a poetic turn of mind, relating how his father’s head had been flattened to the thickness of a chocolate bar. On this he was exact, describing the head as no more than two centimeters thick, after Israeli bulldozers had flattened him in the house.
Here was a story to evoke outrage, told by the victim’s children, verified by neither mortuary nor grave with the father’s remains; without even a document that there’d been a father, in human or chocolate-bar form.
‘The Great Hoax Massacre’
We advance from a sham murder to a hoax massacre. The infamous Jenin hoax illustrates the journalist who cannot wait for news to happen, and makes it himself. The results were spectacular and went full circle: a scoop story, fame for the reporter, embarrassment, the most indelicate retraction, and oblivion.
On April 16, 2002, Independent splashed its front page with a story headlined “Silence of the Dead.” In font size, the headline equalled headlines after 9/11, a headline for history-making news.
“A monstrous war crime that Israel has tried to cover up for a fortnight has finally been exposed,” wrote Phil Reeves. He was on the spot, treading the “wasteland” that had been the Jenin refugee camp, assailed by “the sweet and ghastly reek of rotting human bodies.” Detestation of Zionists oozed from every word of the report. The harangues of a pogrom-bent street mob set the reporter’s tone. And how Reeves forces us to share his hatred!
But Hollywood could not have bettered the production “Massacre in Jenin.” The ghastly reek effects, it turns out, were obtained with animal carcasses, the phantasmal credits shared among complicit UN officials and Palestinian leaders.
But the finale, quite un-Hollywood-like, was muted, underplayed, self-deprecating. The anti-Israel movement, impatient to move on to the next Zionist crime, scanned the vague, almost wistful apology tucked away on some inside page. Phil Reeves owned up. His scoop story was “highly personalized” (read: driven by my personal feelings towards Israeli Jews).
It was clear that the debate over the awful events in Jenin four months ago is still dominated by whether there was a massacre, even though it has long been obvious that one did not occur” (read: Israelis would not oblige so I produced their crime, which is no more than my job entailed).
Strange murder cases
Fabricating Israeli crimes is not the only way journalists can make news. In the first case we look at how Reuters and the BBC made news by inserting their own interpretations in the report.
Murder of a bus stop
In April 2011, a bomb in a telephone booth went off by Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. Reporting it, Reuters found it necessary to explain terminology. Although Israelis might see it as an act of terrorism, explained Reuters, others might not see it the same way.
Police described the explosion as a “terrorist attack” — Israel’s term for a Palestinian strike.
A unique and grotesque way, you might think, of reporting a bomb that killed a woman and injured many pedestrians.
What exactly did Reuters have in mind? Think if it had reported the London bus bombings with the same formula: “Police described the explosions as a ‘terrorist attack’ — Britain’s term for an Al Qaeda strike.”
What did Reuters hope to gain? First, it’s protecting a patent right. Israelis must on no account usurp the role of victim; the victim patent is held by the Palestinians, a valuable and jealously guarded patent. A terror attack claims innocent victims; a strike does not. The whole narrative would be turned on its head should Israelis become the victims of terror attacks. Remember, Palestinians are the oppressed people.
Secondly, the euphemism “strike” in place of “terror attack” is carefully chosen. This, too, keeps the narrative intact. “Strike” is softer than “attack,” and infinitely more so than “terror attack.” It is not so hostile or so deadly. Palestinians do not attack – Israel does that. Palestinians, remember, are the oppressed people!
“Strike” also conveys a normal military operation. Just as Israel is a nation with a right to defend itself, so, too, the Palestinians are a nation with the same right. Reuters conveys that one nation may strike another. A bomb to kill pedestrians at a bus station is one method of striking; hitting Hamas combatants as they fire rockets into Israeli towns is another way. Both methods are part of the conflict — the “cycle of violence.” Reuters, we see, is not merely reporting; it is conditioning news, packaging it in appropriate shape and form to keep the plot tidy.
To learn something different from the same case, look to the BBC:
Deadly bombing targets Jerusalem bus stop.
This too is a formula, though different from Reuters. We are to understand that the bomb was not targeted at people. No, its target was a bus stop, an object fixed on the side of the road. Clearly the BBC has the same object in mind as Reuters: Israelis must on no account usurp the role of victim. Better the victim be a bus stop.
Knife murders family
Here’s a story that allows one to watch the reporter as he goes through the process of moulding news. He starts off blaming a knife for the murder of the three Fogel siblings and their parents in Itamar, March 2011.
Who blamed the knife for slitting throats and almost decapitating a toddler? Time magazine’s Karl Vick blamed the knife. “The murder by knife of three children,” Vick writes. Palestinians don’t kill children in their beds, knives do that. And the Fogels were not a family, they were “settlers.” By using the impersonal and passive voice, Time removes Palestinians from the horror.
“The slaughter did not eradicate the family,” Vick goes on. Now he decides that a knife is too inanimate an object for a credible murderer; he is prepared to own that something, or someone, called “the slaughter” did the deed. But he’s not sure whether “the slaughter” is to be given human shape and form. “The means of entry into the settlement,” he writes, reverting to the impersonal voice.
We can understand Vick’s problem: “The slaughter’s means of entry” doesn’t work too well. Only near the end of the report Vick concedes that humans might have perpetrated the horror. Still, he steadfastly keeps Palestinians away from it. The murders were done by “attackers” whose identity “remains unknown.”
Like Reuters and the BBC, the agenda of Time is not to muddy the plot. Palestinians may not be cast as murderers. They are the oppressed people – remember!
The melting pot
A popular and effective media device is to throw Israeli deeds into the pot with Palestinian deeds. What comes out of the pot is a tasty porridge named “cycle of violence.”
The melting pot offers two benefits. One, acts of Palestinian barbarism can be softened or hidden altogether; and two, Israelis can be paired with this barbarism to impart the idea of both sides in the slime pot together.
There are many cases to draw on for the melting pot trick. I choose three, for their clarity or horrendous details. The first case deals with the execution of an Israeli child in her bed in the settlement of Adora, 2002.
We know the reporter, Phil Reeves, producer of “The Great Hoax Massacre.” The headline (to be fair, we have no way of knowing if it was written by him or an editor, but the point stands) foreshadows what Reeves will do with the story. It refers to aggression by Israel. One has to wade through four columns on Israeli “offensives” before coming, near the end, to a casual reference to the shooting of five-year-old Danielle Shefi in front of her mother. “And so,” Reeves concludes, “the cycle of violence goes around.”
Into the slime pot he throws the Palestinian “militants” killed in armed conflict, and a child executed in bed, in front of the mother.
I say no more about the porridge Reeves dishes out. But here’s the Associated Press (AP), applying another version of the “melting pot trick.”
In January 2002 there were two incidents on the same day:
1. A militant sprayed Jews with machine gun fire while they shopped for the Sabbath in downtown Jerusalem.
2. The IDF found a bomb factory in the West Bank, and in a shoot-out killed the Hamas bomb-makers operating it.
Throwing the two incidents into one pot, AP produced the headline ”Israel kills 4, Palestinian wounds 8.”
Observe: Jews are first to be thrown into the pot, their act being worse – they killed. The Palestinian goes into the pot next – he does no more than wound people. Let’s simulate. had AP reported a WW II story it would headline it “British forces kill 4 SS men, SS men wound 8 camp inmates.” Then the British would weigh in heavier than the SS on the scale of evil. Hail AP and its mess of porridge!
For a third case of the melting pot syndrome, we return to Itamar, where terrorists slit the throats of a three-month old baby, two toddlers and their parents. An editorial in the The Los Angeles Times throws the atrocity into the pot and out comes the cycle of violence:
We’re currently witnessing the cycle in real time. On Saturday, five members of an Israeli family living in the West Bank settlement of Itamar were killed, including an 11-year-old boy, a 4-year-old boy and an infant girl, presumably by Palestinian militants. In response to this brutal tragedy, the Israeli government announced that it would build 500 more houses in existing settlements in the West Bank… Which is worse — stabbing children to death or building new houses in West Bank settlements? The answer is obvious. But that’s not the point. The point is that no matter how abhorrent the murders are, it serves no purpose to aggravate the provocation that led to them in the first place.
In other words, the murder of a family is a predictable response to the provocation of building houses. Here’s a typical resort to excusing the murder of Israeli Jews. Anti-Zionists brought it into play for 9/11, claiming that it was brought on by America’s provocative support for Israel. Provoke Al Qaeda by supporting a country it hates and that’s what you get - 3,000 innocents consigned to a fiery death. America brought 9/11 on itself.
So with the LA Times: build houses in the wrong place and that’s what comes of it – a family slaughtered like sheep. Israel brought this on itself. Into the same melting pot go the deeds of both sides: slitting throats and building houses.
Karl Vick of Time is another adherent of the houses = slaughter formula. But he brings more categories into it. “Events,” he writes, “lurched forward with something very like vengeance.” And he itemizes Israel’s acts of vengeance: (1) Israel’s condemnation of the murder; (2) Israel’s approval of more home construction; (3) Israel’s complaint to the UN; (4) Israel’s fundraising for the surviving children; and (5) Israel’s call on Palestinian leaders to stop promoting violence.
Therefore: slaughter of parents + children = fundraising + complaint + house construction.
The media was not happy when Israel considered banning reporters who hitched a ride on the flotilla to Gaza. Journalists took to the high seas with activists and celebrities to “break Israel’s blockade” of Gaza.
The Foreign Press Association (FPA) reacted thus:
This sends a chilling message to the international media and raises serious questions about Israel’s commitment to freedom of the press. Journalists covering a legitimate news event should be allowed to do their jobs without threats and intimidation.
Note, the flotilla was newsworthy only because the media covered it. If the media did not cover it, the flotilla would not have sailed. The media creates the news event through its coverage, and then demands the right to cover the story it created.
And that’s how the media, whether they report the news or make it, condition us.