Ira Straus

Media honesty at last on civilian deaths in Gaza?

It was a semi-honest paragraph on civilian deaths in Gaza — a subject that has been reported dishonestly every day in virtually all of the mass media. It came in no less important a venue than the Washington Post. Here it is, [using brackets like this for correcting it where it still fell short]:

“Israel’s war in Gaza [more accurately, just “the war in Gaza”; there are two sides that are shooting], launched after [by] the devastating Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, has killed more than 31,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians but says the majority of the dead are women and children [but that doesn’t really mean what it’s meant to imply – that they’re civilians; many women and minors have been Hamas fighters and terrorists. The number also doesn’t distinguish between those killed by Israel and those killed by misfired Hamas-PIJ rockets.] The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimates it has killed between 11,500 and 13,000 militants [and about 10,000 civilians], as it seeks to eradicate Hamas from the enclave.”

If those words inside brackets [ ] had been there in the article, this would have been a truly honest paragraph. Yet even without them, it is tremendous progress over the daily mass media performance.

Unfortunately the needed corrective words weren’t there. And unfortunately this paragraph was buried in the middle of a long article.

Still, it is possibly the most honest paragraph yet seen on this in the mass media.

Here is how the paragraph would have to read, in order to be fully honest:

“The war inside Gaza, begun by the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, has killed more than 31,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. This figure is intended for making the world think Israel has killed this number of civilians, but the number actually does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Also, the dead have been killed by both sides; thousands of Hamas and PIJ rockets, fired from civilian areas, have misfired and landed inside Gaza, and some Gazans have been shot by Hamas for terror purposes and to keep people from evacuating. Hamas blamed 500 deaths on one such fallen rocket. It was trying to blame the deaths on an Israeli bomb – a false accusation uncritically copied in the Western media and spread worldwide – but it turned out to be from a PIJ rocket. We do not have estimates on the total number of Gazan civilians killed deliberately by Hamas-PIJ or inadvertently by their rockets; we journalists have neglected to look into this question.

“Hamas and media reports state that the majority of the dead are women and “children”, intending by this to mislead people into think they are all innocent civilians. In reality, many Gazan women and minors have been Hamas and PIJ fighters and terrorist suicide-bombers. We do not have the numbers for this either. We have neglected to look into it, but it is not small. Children have been taught for a generation in Hamas schools to want to be suicide-bombers, and young women in particularly have been taught, even by the more moderate Palestinian Authority itself, that this is the way to redeem themselves as an allegedly sinful and inferior sex.

“The Israel Defense Forces estimates that it has killed between 11,500 and 13,000 Hamas combatants and that about 10,000 civilians have been killed. This would be a civilian:military death ratio of 0.8 : 1.0, which would be low for any war — uniquely low in urban warfare. If the Hamas numbers were right instead and it was 6000 Hamas killed, 31,000 dead; if 25,000 of those 31,000 were civilians; if only 1000 of those 25,000 were killed by Hamas-PIJ rockets — then that ratio would become 4 civilian:1 military killed, which is still well below the average 10:1 ratio in the world. Either way, it shows the opposite of indiscriminate or willful killing of civilians. In point of fact, Israel has made uniquely strong efforts to enable civilians to evacuate. We in the media have failed to ask the relevant questions and do the investigative research needed for estimating the actual ratio, so we cannot state a clear conclusion as to which ratio is the closer to the truth, the Israeli 0.8:1 ratio or the Hamas-implied 4:1 ratio.”

Could the media finally start fixing their deception of the world about this?

To regain basic journalistic integrity, all the media would have to do is say what’s said above, and do it every time they quote the Hamas-declared death count. An authentic news media would make this obligatory for their correspondents. It would be like a standard disclaimer.

Instead it was said in the Post as a one-off, in the middle of an article that was actually devoted to trying to justify the Hamas numbers and argue that they understate the problem. It was an out of place paragraph that was given no importance of “punch”: buried in the belly of an article. And with the article devoted to saying the opposite, readers were unlikely to register the point in their minds, beyond suspecting that there is some contradiction somewhere in all this.

Why then the out-of-place truth telling?

It could be because Prime Minister Netanyahu, on the major American media platform of Meet the Press, had a couple weeks ago pointed out the Israeli statistics on combatant and civilian deaths in Gaza and the incredibly low ratio between them. He pointed out that this indicated very great care to avoid civilian deaths. The Meet the Press anchor had expressed astonishment at this, indicating in turn that it was the first he had ever heard of it. Again, a cognitive dissonance.

It could also be because the influential small journal Tablet had more recently published an article thoroughly discrediting the daily Hamas numbers on civilian deaths. Tablet too brought up such information as we have on the actual considerations – combatant deaths, the importance of the combatant:civilian death ratio, the fact of many Gazans killed by Hamas’ own side — considerations that have been neglected in almost all media and governmental discussion about this.

Maybe the Post reporters had heard the Netanyahu statement. Or maybe they had read the Tablet article and this had influenced them for the better.

Maybe this will become a trend. Maybe the actual news will start getting reported in the mainstream media.

It would be a wonderful thing for the world, not just for the integrity of our journalism, if the Washington Post’s half-correction in one obscure paragraph were to become the beginning of a full-fledged, intentional correction everywhere.

But more likely not. If the Post reporters had heard about Netanyahu or the Tablet points, they seem to have wanted to refute them. Thus their main argument: that Hamas should actually be giving higher numbers than it already does on civilians killed, because a lot of deaths go unrecorded. Meanwhile they could have felt they needed to cover their rears and acknowledge obliquely some of the points they couldn’t deny from what Netanyahu and Table had said.

In other words, the Post was not really trying to be honest for once. It is not likely to set a positive trend.

Nevertheless, it could happen: the Post article, following upon the Tablet article, following upon the Netanyahu statement, could yet start a positive trend in the media. They all deserve to be built on for this purpose.

It is as if three shoots of relevant information have just broken through the cement of the collective political line of the Western media.

Israeli spokespersons ought to take heed. They ought to make sure that these relevant points are brought up time and again. It is their job, along with that of all honest journalists, to make sure that these small breakthroughs for the truly relevant information aren’t left to die on the vine.

The cost of the media’s mass deception

Most of the new wave of anti-Semitism in the world would never have arisen, if the media regularly made the full disclaimer we’ve suggested here – and made it up front, every time they give the Hamas numbers. Much of it would still go away, if they chose to belatedly correct their mistake and start doing so. It would show that they really are journalists. It would allay concerns that they are mostly just a power structure posing as journalists.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The media show no sign of using an honest disclaimer as a general rule on this matter.

Thousands of Jews around the world could eventually to be killed, due to the mushrooming anti-Semitistic the media have already spawned by this deception. The likelihood and size of this pogrom will keep increasing as long as the media keep deceiving the public about civilian deaths.

It is, alas, worse than a mistake. It is a motivated mistake. The motivations are clearly traceable to a shared prevalent media ideology and narrative.

That makes it a malicious slander, committed with reckless disregard for truth and for its probable murderous consequences.

Holding the media accountable

Holding the media accountable, with real penalties for this all too real crime, is likely to be the only way to penetrate the power of group cohesion and narrative in the media — and penetrate it enough that they will feel that they had better clearly stop committing the crime.

Are enough of the Jewish victims of this anti-Semitic wave ready to try to hold the media accountable for victimizing them? Are there enough good lawyers who are ready to pursue their case?

That is the question.

About the Author
Chair, Center for War/Peace Studies; Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council of the U.S.; formerly a Fulbright professor of international relations; studied at Princeton, UVA, Oxford. Institutions named above for identification purposes only; views expressed herein are solely the responsibility of the author.
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