As a blogger, some pieces don’t come easy to me. I’ll get inspired by a topic, brainstorm what I want to get across, formulate my talking points, do some research, start drafting, change my mind repeatedly, procrastinate, reframe my original thesis, restructure the content, and then finally put it on hold because it’s been superseded by other hot topics. Unfortunately my collection of these frustrated and lonely drafts is growing.
But sometimes, they write themselves in a couple of hours, beginning when I’m in the shower and ending after a few cups of coffee, or some other fortification, or at some other random moment when I get overwhelmed by inspiration (I won’t lie, I once wrote an entire blog during a boring kids’ movie in the cinema during school holidays).
The way the world media and public discourse has handled the current protests and rioting in Gaza and Israel’s military response inspires such a blog.
I’m not going to rehash the same old gripes about the media bias against Israel, we are sadly accustomed and resigned to it. And I won’t pretend that I don’t have my own biases – nor should anyone honest – provided we acknowledge we have them, and are willing to open our minds and at least listen to reasonable points of view that may conflict with our own.
It’s when these biases defy logic, and cause people to turn issues into point scoring for their “team”, where empathy for human beings is either replaced by coldhearted inflexible partisanship, or selective, and often completely misdirected empathy for a member of “Team My Enemy’s Enemy”.
So to be clear, I’m not here to discuss the moral rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, nor in the context of current events. What I am here to discuss is how alarmed I am at how even “reputable” news sources play the partisan baiting game, fuelling and galvanising this partisanship. I don’t mean just by the predictably provocative and leading headlines, though that in itself is egregious and irresponsible. It is more the subtext of the way the facts are delivered, as well as how concurrent events are conflated and footage selected and juxtaposed. The most obviously harmful example of this is how the timing and nature of the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem and the ongoing rioting in Gaza is framed by the media. It is a dangerous, divisive, and most importantly, a very misleading conflation.
It is misleading because, despite the fact that this was certainly a primary stated reason for some of the protestors, it is also part of a wider movement, called the Great March of Return, launched on March 30, a planned series of protests culminating on May 15, the 70th anniversary of modern Israel’s sovereignty, which the Palestinians refer to as Al-Nakba (catastrophe) Day, where the intensified 1948 War of Independence led to the displacement of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. Heck, even pro-Palestinian experts state this.
What makes it dangerous, is that it not only feeds the usual caustic barbs about the US and Israel being in each other’s pockets, it also continues to drag Israel more and more inextricably into the perceived tango with the more unsavoury aspects of American politics and policy, and I fear one day the association will be irreversible, even when more nuance is eventually shed on it, because the horse has long bolted.
It is divisive for all the usual reasons, in that the media delivers the Palestinian narrative first and foremost, while only perfunctorily touching on Israel’s side of the conflict. Furthermore reporters no longer even try to cover up their snide intonations of “Israel claims that security was breached” or “Israel says they are doing (x, y or z) in self defence”. Their intentions to mock Israel’s narrative are as palpable as their smug prejudices on the conflict.
To wit, I was watching ABC News (Australia)’s coverage one night last week and not only was it predictably selective in terms of content, but caricatural in terms of reporter delivery. There was actual footage of the violent rioters while the reporters blathered on as usual about the IDF using force and the number of Palestinians who were killed, and then it cut to a Hamas activist with his face fully covered in black, the translation of what he was saying being that he was demonstrating because of the embassy move. Then, they cut to a BDS protest at Sydney Town Hall, ostensibly organised by a “Cut Ties with Israeli Apartheid” banner-wielding group called Sydney (University) Staff for BDS, where the journalist, Philippa McDonald, reported from there, sounding more like she was giving an impassioned speech on their behalf, with that perfect balance of melodrama and plaintive righteousness in her voice (emphasised words in capitals):
70th anniversary of the creation of Israel, leading to displacement of hundreds of thousands of people who STILL SUFFER TODAY…..and the people here today are calling for the Australian government and international condemnation…..the BRUTAL response, the DEADLY response to those protests overnight”
While the ABC news here tends to be generally more “informative” – ostensibly catering more to the “intellectual elite” – and less tabloid like compared to our commercial free-to-air TV news, they still have their political proclivities, and as Australian audiences will probably remember, their coverage on Israel is comparable in emphasis and “dramatic” narrative to commercial television’s “60 Minutes Australia”’s treatment of the conflict, back in the day.
But it gets better.
That day’s episode of The Drum, a daily news panel discussion show that follows ABC news, was where I felt the conflation between the embassy move and the Gaza protests was becoming dangerous. Three of the four panelists kept the conversation focused on this, without further context, with only one, Greg Sheridan, foreign editor at The Australian, pointing out that the notion of the Palestinians rioting solely because of the embassy move actually infantilises the Palestinians, a sentiment which, incidentally, I wholeheartedly share.
But it was the input by Saman Shad, a freelance writer, who raised my hackles. I shouldn’t have been surprised at her emotive commentary, given her fiction writing background, but she sounded like she’d done about five minutes of research on the topic, and had absolutely no idea outside her own biases about the conflict and its history. She naturally paraded the usual tropes about how “uneven” the conflict is, and that she woke up to seeing images of Palestinians “being corralled and shot like fish in a barrel”, pontificating about how thanks to America’s support “Israelis can get away with anything with no recrimination”, and making outrageous claims that “Israel gets 3.1 billion dollars in foreign aid while all the Palestinians have is the right to protest”.
Oh, but my favourite was this gem by Ms Shad:
If it had been Israelis killed instead of Palestinians, then the conversation would not have been so muted”
Huh? Muted? Seriously?
So basically not only are we flooded by news and commentary that has had such a strong influence in the formation of such widely held opinions by relying on a rather narrow prism of understanding, we are also to believe that the bias still lies in favour of Israel’s narrative.
And furthermore, Israel, thanks to their alleged “nudge-nudge-wink-wink-VIP-boys-club” relationship with big old superpower USA, gets carte blanche to do cruel and horrible things to the Palestinians with impunity?
I’m sensing a few shades of not-too-subtle Jewish – err, I mean Zionist, of course – “control” conspiracy subtext here, aren’t you?
But Shad also alluded to another point scoring favourite among wannabe pundits who are following the conflict on the news and social media, and in fact rears its head each time an inflammation of the Israel-Palestine conflict makes global headlines: “How come Israel has such few deaths or injuries, while the Palestinians suffer so many”? Now please understand, I do not bring this up to be callous to innocent Palestinians who have been injured or killed in the line of fire, either during recent or past events. But the fact that is is brought up so many times, without any mention of the actual dangers and attacks Israelis have faced in the region, both historically and now, is very telling. Why are these downplayed just because the Israeli army, due to necessity over decades, has had to galvanise the means to protect its civilians – which is its duty by the way, and notwithstanding the fact that tragic mistakes, collateral damage and abuse of rules of engagement and protocol have happened just like in any army – and has done so successfully?
Clearly though, it’s not convenient for the moralising mainstream TV anchors to try and impart from their high horses, for example in this recent interview with Northwestern University’s law professor Eugene Kontorovich by CNN anchor Hala Gorani, her disdain is obvious from her face and body language, as well as the predictable attempts to loudly talk over his explanations. More importantly, note that at the six minute mark on the video, she accusingly asks the golden question, perfectly seasoned with a look of self-righteous tut-tutting.
Another interview on BBC Breakfast News with Michael Freeman, Counsellor for Civil Society Affairs at the Embassy of Israel in London, at the 2:42 mark, Louise Minchin, the presenter interjects, “no Israelis…as far as we understand were injured yesterday, but 58 Palestinians killed, is this proportionate?”. To her credit, she was patient enough to hear Freeman out without trying to constantly interrupt or talk over him, nor show any kind of disdain as so many presenters do, but still, the question was there.
So naturally, many Jewish and other Israel supporters have a question of their own on their lips: would you feel better if more Israelis died? If the numbers were more balanced, or if the Israeli army simply withdrew altogether while the insurgents advanced, broke through borders with grenades, Molotov cocktails, knives and other weaponry and killed a number of Israeli civilians? In my own line of thinking, and with no cynicism or facetiousness whatsoever, I would confidently say that no sane person, no matter whose side of the conflict their sympathies lie, would think that any number of deaths over zero is a good thing.
I say this not to insult anyone’s intelligence. I say this firstly to point out the perverse point scoring game that would effectively humanise Palestinians on one hand, while by contrast reduce Israelis to faceless, soulless beings on the other hand.
Secondly, and more importantly, this underscores why reporting gaps need to be filled. Realistically, it is expected that live news and current affairs producers are under strict time constraints, that they are under pressure to deliver and provide commentary to news on all different events that come in relentlessly and unpredictably, and they have little time to organise them into topic formats, and cover them all within the respective allotted air time. Still, they need to answer to journalistic ethics, and since the contentious Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn’t just show up at the door yesterday, it is disappointing that after so many decades, and so many revolutions in information delivery, that presentation of the conflict is still stuck on the same binary model of pre determined “team A = good guys and team B = bad guys”, and therefore continuing to filter information through this model today.
So the result, despite journalism allegedly being grounded in impartiality, is a proliferation of reporting networks where the participants themselves effectively impart their own prejudices, leading both their peers and their audiences to jump to conclusions, assume the worst before all of the facts come out, continue to conflate certain events and insinuate a relationship between them, all based on understandings which evolved from a persistently skewed perspective of past events. This was alarmingly obvious when the numbers of deaths were reported and the hand-wringing occurred even before it surfaced that out of the 62 reported deaths during the border clashes last week, around 50 were Hamas members, according to one of their own officials.
Or what about the details of Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar’s incendiary statements and openly stated goals during an interview on MEMRI TV, that followed? I mean, those stated intentions had been circulated in a video released back in early April, which included Sinwar’s infamous quote where he vowed that the goal was to “tear down that border and tear out their hearts from their bodies”. Why was this viral video downplayed or even ignored by these news and analysis segments up until now, despite having been available for several weeks? Or videos of swastikas flying between Palestinian flags, tyre burnings (including images of children standing proudly bearing said tyres), the setting off of Molotov cocktail kites, including one bearing a swastika, flown on Hitler’s birthday?
These videos and reports are as easily looked up and available for broadcast and discussion as anything else.
Did they fear that, say the violence in Sinwar’s voice, or the environmental vandalism created by those burning tyres, or the flying of Nazi symbols might reveal some uncomfortable truths that don’t sit well with their neat little aggressor-versus-victim model of reporting? Or that it would go against their safe and familiar summations of an ongoing conflict?
And ok, in terms of the numbers of Palestinians killed (and injured), let’s say for arguments’ sake, that Hamas fudged some numbers because they wanted to claim glory and instil fear, and that many of you out there still feel that there are more deaths of innocent and peaceful protestors than reported, then why is your cynicism reserved only for when it can be used to promote the Palestinian cause and demonise Israel and the IDF?
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this kind of partisan reporting and discourse featured on popular TV programs is still considered acceptable, not just because of commercial interests, but because it appears that the die is cast in terms of moulding public opinion, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has already become crystallised in people’s minds no longer as a controversy but a universal paradigm of condemnation of Israel, in other words, the accusations of disproportionate and excessive force during unrest, the tropes about Israel being an apartheid state, land stealers and brutal colonisers, the comparisons between the IDF and the Nazis and so on are being more and more widely accepted as fact not opinion. And alarmingly so, going by the visceral hatred towards Israel, and Israel supporters, where more and more of their friends and even family members are either cutting ties with them altogether, or excoriating them as “supporters of genocide/ethnic cleansing/child murder”. Same shit, different day.
To be honest, in spite of this, I still hold these media to account and it goes without saying that this level of editorial partisanship is simply not acceptable. Of course, this is to be distinguished from individual pieces of discourse and op-eds, which will always have some kind of slant, and that’s fine because perfect neutrality cannot possibly exist and a range of analyses should be widened. Which is why the onus is on TV news producers and online and print publishers, to take some more responsibility with editorial and programming content, and take much bolder steps to include diversity of opinion in the conversation. Because so far, while they claim they tick all the boxes in this respect, in reality, they still “play it safe” by staying within the parameters of popular opinion, getting around this by carefully selecting panelists they know will tout these and even shout down “unpopular” opinions or having a news presenter who is unable to remain impartial on a “hot topic”.
Because, believe it or not, there are balanced perspectives out there, that point out the realities and the facts without being inflammatory. Yair Rosenberg’s piece in Tablet Magazine, “13 Inconvenient Truths About What Has Been Happening in Gaza”, is one excellent example, as is Dr Tzvi Fleischer’s analysis “Gaza deaths a win for Hamas, but show Palestinian leadership failures” in the Sydney Morning Herald.
So I implore the popular media, will you ever pay attention and take that responsibility, not only for the sake of balance and nuanced understanding, but in the interests of creating a society that is a little more resilient and open to truths and complexities that are outside their level of comfort, unfamiliar but still valid?
Because whether you like it or not, in this age of social media and viral information overload, you are playing a huge role in creating highly charged emotions that make rational debate and the exchange of ideas impossible, and in turn this leads to the breakdown in professional and personal relationships. This may sound melodramatic, but then again, drama is what you are feeding off, no?
Make sure you even up the score when it comes to fair and balanced reporting, but don’t treat it like a game. And please, for everyone’s sake, do lift yours.