At first I thought the latest video by Israel’s foreign ministry — the one that lampoons media coverage of last year’s Gaza war — was unfunny, amateurish, and useless. Needless to say, it wasn’t my cup of satire.
After seeing the overheated reaction by many journalists, though, I must admit to a slight change of heart. It may still be true that the animated clip, which cast foreign reporters as myopic and oblivious to the realities of the region, was ill-conceived. But it turns out that the video, whether by design or not, was actually useful in that it exposed some of the strange beliefs, blind-spots, and self-justifications relied on by prominent journalists, whose angry reactions in fact underscored the truth behind the video’s central premise: that media coverage of Israel deserves criticism.
Note, for example, the response by Robert Mackey, a news columnist at The New York Times. While dismissing the video’s message that coverage of Israel is flawed, Mackey oddly describes Israel’s now-defunct Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs as the “ministry of Hasbara — responsible for what Israel calls public diplomacy and its critics call propaganda.”
I looked back through the news pages and found example after example of New York Times journalists, Mackey included, introducing ministries in straightforward, neutral terms — even when writing about the most repressive governments. So why, when it comes to Israel, is it different? Why the use of the foreign word hasbara, which Israel’s opponents have attempted to usurp as a derisive word, instead of the English name of the ministry, which more than sufficiently describes its function? Why, only when it comes to Israel, are unnamed critics given the opportunity to introduce the country’s ministry responsible for communications and advocacy? (I try to answer those questions in more detail here.)
Is this hostility by Mackey, who sounds less like an objective journalist and more like the anti-Israel extremists he all too frequently turns to, really supposed to convince us that Israel has no legitimate gripe with foreign journalists?
Mackey also suggests that the country’s use of satire means there must be no “actual examples” of problematic media coverage. The clip, he insists, “would seem to raise the question of why, if wildly inaccurate, comically misinformed reports on the conflict from foreign correspondents are so common, Israeli officials cannot simply point to actual examples but instead find it necessary to resort to fiction again and again to illustrate this reality.”
The flaws in this logic should be clear. Satire is an established genre of expression. And the use of satire, however well-executed, hardly indicates a dearth of concrete examples.
And indeed, there is no shortage of examples of bungled coverage. There was Shati and Shifa, where the death and damage from misfired Palestinian rockets were blamed on Israel; the downplaying and ignoring of Hamas rocket attacks; the newspaper that described destruction in Israel as being from “purported” Palestinian rockets; the patently false assertions that Netanyahu failed to quickly condemn the murder of a Palestinian boy; a slew of headlines downplaying Palestinian violence; journalists siding with Hamas and against other journalists; reporters self-censoring incriminating statements; and a funnier-than-fiction claim that a bridge links the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These are just a few of the examples that could have been mentioned in Israel’s video.
Not that specificity really matters. When a former AP correspondent penned three detailed and devastating exposés about anti-Israel bias, the reporters who now grumble about lack of detail in Israel’s satire clip were largely silent. When even The New York Times public editor called on reporters to “strengthen the coverage of Palestinians” because “they are more than just victims,” there was little public soul searching.
In short, there is plenty of specific criticism about media coverage of Israel and of the recent war. By pretending otherwise, Mackey makes Israel’s case — that the media misinforms — better than any video could.
Mackey wasn’t the only New York Times reporter to suggest that the resort to satire somehow proves Israel has no specific claims.
On Twitter, Diaa Hadid, who covers the Palestinian territories for the newspaper, referred to “A new video by Israel mocking foreign correspondents — but no actual example of incorrect coverage they so mock.” Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren was one of several jounalists to share Mackey’s piece on Twitter, even though she knows more than most that criticism of coverage tends to be specific and substantiated.
A Times opinion editor went further. “If you don’t have a good story to tell,” editorial board member Ernesto Londoño wrote, “a tried and tested tactic is to lampoon the press.” In other words, he believes the problem is not only that Israel has no evidence to back up criticism of media coverage; it is that Israel criticizes the press because it has no compelling narrative about the conflict in general. Fair-minded observers might disagree with the disinterested dismissal of Israel’s story — a story in part about Hamas, its overt anti-Semitism, its commitment to the violent destruction of Israel, the thousands of indiscriminate rockets it lobs toward Israeli cities; a story in part about Israeli families who must send their finest off to fight in a crowded, hostile territory, understanding that they might not come back, but understanding too that the Palestinian rocket attacks must be brought to an end to protect innocent lives.
There’s more to disagree with in Londoño’s piece. Twice he tells readers that the Gaza Strip is currently “occupied” by Israel. Although some political scientists have argued as much, notwithstanding the absence of a single Israeli in the territory, other experts in international law including Eugene Kontorovich, Yuval Shany, Eyal Benvenisti, Ruth Lapidoth, Elizabeth Samson, Salon Solomon, and Benjamin Rubin have assessed that the territory is not currently occupied. Again, if the larger question is whether journalists give Israel a fair hearing, Londoño’s piece, and its attempts to conceal the full range of views about Gaza, would suggest that they do not.
To close out his argument, Londoño insists that “Israel’s image problem is not the result of global misunderstanding of Hamas.” Maybe, but it is telling that, to substantiate the claim that the media treats threats to Israelis seriously, he points to a piece entitled “Hamas Is Accused of Using Gaza War as Cover to Torture and Kill Palestinians.”
The heavy-handed reaction to the video clip wasn’t limited to New York Times journalists. A Haaretz reporter insisted on Twitter that Israel’s video efforts “recall 15 year old boys cracking rape jokes, then sneering at girls ‘you feminists have no sense of humor!’”
#lasttweet IsraelMFA vid efforts recall 15 year old boys cracking rape jokes, then sneering at girls “you feminists have no sense of humor!”
— Noga Tarnopolsky (@NTarnopolsky) June 17, 2015
(Outside the circle of offended journalists, there should be no need explain why jokes about unprofessional news reporting are different than jokes about violent sexual assaults.)
ABC’s Jon Williams took to Twitter to suggest that bad war reporting shouldn’t be criticized because it is a dangerous job: “Reporting from Gaza no joke. 14 media killed since 1992.”
Surely Williams wouldn’t likewise argue that misbehaving police officers should not be lampooned because their job is dangerous. But as this episode shows, many journalists — certainly not all, but many — don’t handle criticism well when it’s directed at them. As former BBC correspondent Richard Miron put it in a thoughtful critique of the press’s Gaza performance, the media “is better at calling out the wrong-doing of others, than admitting to its own faults.” Still, he underscored the importance of the Western media accounting for its own conduct, “including apparent omissions and failures in the reporting of the [2014 Gaza] conflict.”
Here’s a good place to start: Journalists should recognize the obvious, which is that the production of a satire video by the Israeli government in no way vindicates their own reporting. They shouldn’t insult readers’ intelligence by suggesting otherwise. And they should take a deep breath before reacting. Because they might just prove the very point the video tried to make.