Ira Straus

NBC v Netanyahu on Civilian Deaths

PM Netanyahu took on NBC on the issue of civilian deaths last Sunday. He did it gently, but it was epic – because it was on “Meet the Press”.

Jonathan Karl, for NBC, gave the usual spiel on Israel killing civilians. Netanyahu advised him that:

“I’d be cautious with the Hamas statistics. And I can tell you that, according to these urban warfare experts and other commentators, we’ve brought down the civilian-to-terrorist casualties, the ratio, down below 1-1, which is considerably less than in any other theater of similar warfare.”

Mr. Karl broke in to express shock: “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You’re saying it’s only been one civilian that’s been killed for one Hamas terrorist, in Gaza?”

Netanyahu answered “Yes”. He went on to explain that Israel’s estimate is 20,000 killed, 12,000 of them Hamas fighters.

The language was a bit garbled, but the message got through: that everything that is being said about this in the Western media is the opposite of the truth.

What the ratio means

A civilian:military kill ratio of 1:1 is very low by global standards. The international norm is closer to 10:1 – ten civilians killed for every combatant killed.

That norm is tragic, but it is the reality of urban warfare. It is a miracle that Israel has kept civilian deaths so much below this norm – whether or not whether the 1:1 figure is precise.

This analyst cannot say with any confidence how close 1:1 is to the reality, or what a more precise figure would be. That is what we are supposed to have investigative media for. We don’t have them. What can be said with confidence is that the precise figure is far below 10:1.

A Breakthrough for Israel to Exploit

It is not the first time Israeli officials have explained the relevant ratio, and how they have been getting it down way below international standards. But it is probably the first time it got through forcefully to a large Western audience – in no small part because Mr. Karl expressed shock at it, enabling the viewers to realize how important it is. Karl himself evidently had no idea of this ratio; his reaction made clear that he never heard of it from his NBC sources or any of his fellow media.

Getting this out on Meet the Press was like creating a beachhead across a hitherto impassable river. Or one up out of a covered-over hole into the daylight. It was a breakthrough for hitherto suppressed information.

Israel and honest journalists now have a chance to widen the bridgehead and spread this news much farther. If they do, it might reach a critical mass where it could no longer be suppressed.

Did NBC proceed to correct its lies about this?

One might suppose that Mr. Karl and NBC would do this themselves: that they would feel an urgent need to look into this ratio, and correct their narrative according to what they would find.

But no. Karl quickly got his shock back under control and moved on to other matters.

He didn’t go into the ratio any further, as any serious journalist would have done. He didn’t ask Netanyahu how the figures were arrived at, or who he should contact at IDF about that. He didn’t promise that he and NBC would devote some of their immense investigative capabilities into checking the figures out, so they could henceforth report honestly. He didn’t promise to correct any mistaken impressions NBC has been leaving.

Real versus fake journalism

Any real journalist would have done this. And perhaps Mr. Karl and his colleagues are secretly acting like real journalists and looking into it now. They ought to.

But it is unlikely, given their silence on it – unlikely, that is unless they are doing it a dishonest manner, trying only to find a way to discredit the information, and will let us know about it only if they figure out a way to do that.

Meanwhile, Karl went straight on to find another accusatory question to throw at Netanyahu.

How might this dereliction of duty be seen by the law?

In a court of law, this inattention to journalistic duty could be adduced as evidence that Karl felt that the making of accusations against Israel was his real job, more important than finding out the truth or providing information.

It would mean that Karl felt that upholding the media’s political narrative was a job more important than his pro forma job of discerning and telling the truth.

The failure to want to seek out evidence and clarify the facts would be explained in court by the evident fear among journalists that, if they did their job honestly, it would undermine their narrative about Israel bombing civilians indiscriminately.

This motivation would in turn constitute evidence that winning for their narrative counts more for our journalists than discerning and reporting the facts honestly.

It would also constitute evidence that the media do their best to avoid correcting their falsehoods in public. It’s not at all like their attitude to politicians that they dislike; the media are adamant in demanding that such politicians admit to lying — often even when the politicians are telling the truth. But no such luck when it comes to their own lies. They instinctively close ranks, cover for one another, and explain away discrepancies. Clearly correcting their lies in public could put in doubt their public standing as the superior arbiters of truth.

The media do, to be sure, correct their lies when a court or a lawsuit requires it of them. Yet even then, it is usually done in such a subdued way that the truth never catches up with the lie. The media don’t campaign for the correction, the way they did for their lies. They don’t keep repeating it and drumming it into the public mind. Often they let other people go on repeating their old lies even after (quietly) admitting their falsity. And they continue making arguments and deductions on the basis of their (quietly) admitted lies.

What does this dereliction mean for society?

It means something terrible about journalism. It means that, when it matters most, our major media journalists are disregarding their standards. They are not acting as real journalists. They are acting in some other, undeclared capacity.

It means they have other motives than truth and public information. These motives include malicious ones, as with all people. They may barely understand their own motives, but these can be easily recognized by other people.

Their ideological motives, in this case, overlap closely with the motives of the street protesters against Israel. These in turn overlap partway with the ideological motives of Hamas.

Their sociological group motives require more complex analysis. Fortunately they have been well analyzed elsewhere, by scholars such as Richard Landes (Can the Whole World be Wrong? Lethal Journalism and Antisemitism, and Heaven on Earth), Lewis Samuel Feuer (Psychoanalysis and EthicsConflict of GenerationsThe Anti-Imperialist Mind), and James Burnham (Suicide of the West). They have shown how the distorted behavior of many journalists, and of many in other sectors of the knowledge industries, derive from a sense of being a morally and intellectually superior class compared to society, and from a need to affirm their class identity and their sense of superiority by dumping on their society.

They would do well to look into it. If they don’t understand themselves, they will never be able to cease making even the worst mistakes.

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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