Deconstructing Baltimore Sun’s Praise of Al-Jazeera’s Gaza Coverage

The Baltimore Sun’s veteran television reviewer, David Zurawik, told readers “no one is doing a more thorough job of covering the death and destruction in Gaza than Al Jazeera.” He claimed that the satellite broadcaster provided “some of the best reporting out of Gaza the last two weeks” (“Gaza images prompt shift in viewers’ perceptions,” July 27).


“Social media are absolutely a driving force in the shift in coverage, but I also believe the heavy presence of Al Jazeera and the excellent work its correspondents and producers are doing have raised the games of all the news organizations on the ground.” Zurawik noted that Al-Jazeera Arabic, Al-Jazeera English and Al-Jazeera America had been covering Israeli-Hamas fighting but said he had been watching primarily Al-Jazeera America.


Ten days after Zurawik’s praise for Al-Jazeera, MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute, which translates Arabic and other Middle Eastern language news media into English and analyzes content) issued a report headlined “Al-Jazeera TV Journalists Use Their Facebook, Twitter Accounts as Propaganda Mouthpieces in Service of Hamas.”


And not just Al-Jazeera’s social media. “One of the blatant manifestations of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s absolute support of Hamas was the Qatari channel Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the latest conflict in Gaza,” wrote MEMRI’s Y. Yehoshua, B. Chernitsky and Y. Graff. “During this confrontation, the channel became a prominent propaganda mouthpiece of Hamas.


“…[I]ts coverage of the conflict was slanted and one-sided to the point that any speakers on the channel’s live programs who were even slightly critical of Hamas were met with censure and reproach. In fact, Hamas supporters launched a ‘One Million Thanks to Al-Jazeera’ campaign on Twitter to express their gratitude for the channel’s ‘leaning in favor of the resistance.’”


Al-Jazeera America sanitized Web site


That was Al-Jazeera Arabic, the “mothership.” Was something also amiss with the images Zurawik was watching, and the portrait he painted for Sun readers of Al-Jazeera America’s coverage of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in the Gaza Strip?


On August 1, Al-Jazeera America’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Nick Schiffrin videoed a Hamas rocket launching site in a residential neighborhood and an Israeli attack nearby. By August 11, the video clip had disappeared from Al-Jazeera’s Web site, though an August 1 tweet from Schiffrin describing the events was still up (“Al Jazeera’s Hamas Rocket Launch Video Disappears,” CAMERA, August 11).


The Sun’s enthusiastic review went awry starting with its second paragraph. Zurawik described Al-Jazeera as “the Qatar-based news operation.”


Three weeks earlier, he had suggested (“Al Jazeera excels in Israel coverage; Despite aggressive, fair reporting of killings of Middle East youths, ratings negligible,” Baltimore Sun, July 6) one of the main reasons for Al-Jazeera America’s small audience was a lingering “nasty bit of branding” by the Bush administration of Al-Jazeera Arabic as a “terrorist network.” Al Jazeera Arabic gained attention in the U.S. as Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s outlet of choice for its audio and video releases.


But there’s an even deeper reason to doubt Qatar’s satellite network. Qatar is a tiny, natural gas-rich peninsula (“al jazeera” is Arabic for peninsula) jutting into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia. It took Iran’s place as Hamas’ primary financier. It did so after Hamas parted from Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s ally, as he battled Sunni Muslim radicals in Syria’s civil war.  


What’s Al-Jazeera America to Qatar?


Hamas (the Palestinian “Islamic Resistance Movement”) itself is a radical Sunni Muslim movement, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel, Canada and other countries. Its charter calls for the destruction of Israel, its replacement with an Islamic theocracy and elimination of the Jewish people.


Zurawik did not remind Sun readers that Qatar’s ruling family reportedly overpaid Al Gore Jr. and Joel Hyatt hundreds of millions of dollars for their struggling Current TV cable channel and converted it to Al Jazeera America. Why?


To provide U.S. viewers, as Al Jazeera America claims and Zurawik seems to accept, a balanced, in-depth television news source? Or to give Qatar—whose Al Jazeera English largely had been denied access to U.S. audiences by skeptical cable operators—access to tens of millions of households and a means to influence public opinion and government policy? Al Jazeera America as a Qatari experiment in philanthropic support of the free press, when the sheikdom restricts its domestic journalists, seems doubtful.


Zurawik did not focus on Al-Jazeera Arabic, whose operations might help explain Al-Jazeera America. Al-Jazeera Arabic is Qatar’s psychological warfare lever against bigger neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s military government. One of its most popular personalities for years has been Sheik Yousuf al-Qaradawi, a Sunni Muslim “spiritual leader” and guide for the Muslim Brotherhood. (Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.) Qaradawi calls for a second, Arab-led Holocaust against the Jews and conversion of Europe and North America to Islam.


At least until Operation Protective Edge, Al-Jazeera America’s viewership was negligible. The ambitious operation reportedly required heavy subsidizes. Perhaps for Qatar’s ruling family—pro-Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Hamas—the images from Gaza it specialized in and that so impressed Zurawik justified the continuing investment.


Zurawik described Al-Jazeera’s July 8 to July 27 reporting about the Israel-Hamas fighting (which included additional terrorist groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian Resistance Committees) as “vivid.” On the basis of one statement by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, The Sun’s reviewer said “there’s good reason” for Israel wanting to shut it down.


Those ‘suffering Palestinians’: Who, but not why


Not good enough, apparently, for Israel actually to do so. The satellite-and-cable network broadcast from Israel and the Gaza Strip throughout the fighting.


Zurawik said, based on his viewing of Al-Jazeera, CNN, NBC and others that “Israel is losing the public relations war over its action in Gaza in a way I cannot remember seeing in any of its recent military actions. And part of that is because the suffering of Palestinian civilians is being depicted with an unprecedented sensitivity and prominence—at least, in American media.”


Public opinion polls contradicted Zurawik. As The Economist reported (“Israel and the world: Us and them,” Aug. 2, 2014) “polls show that Americans overwhelmingly sympathize with Israelis more than Palestinians—even more than they did in the 1990s.”


The magazine noted younger Americans appear less supportive of the Jewish state—but contrary to Zurawik, this generational change was underway before Al-Jazeera appeared on U.S. television screens. It likely reflects multiple causes. One of which has been pre-Al-Jazeera out-of-context news coverage emphasizing the “Palestinian narrative” of unjustified “Israeli oppression.”


Zurawik’s invocation of “the suffering of Palestinian civilians …depicted with an unprecedented sensitivity and prominence” suggests appearance over substance. So did the reviewer’s silence on the cause of Palestinian suffering—Hamas misrule in general and what Harvard University law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz has called its “dead babies” strategy of provoking Israeli counter-attacks and Palestinian casualties.


Zurawik does not examine television’s seeming inability to show strategy, such as Hamas’ willingness to endanger and sacrifice Palestinian noncombatants—thereby generating the images Zurawik was so taken with—to discredit Israel. Instead, he cites Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s charge that Hamas “use[s] telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause” to observe: “[T]he images are so affecting, in fact, that the words of Israeli officials are often thrown back at them in a mocking fashion” as New York Magazine did with Netanyahu’s “telegenically dead” phrase.


But this begs the question: Was Netanyahu’s charge correct, or New York right to mock it?


From literacy to pictograph? 


The Sun’s reviewer closed by citing the Committee to Protect Journalists, which claimed two press people had been killed and three injured in Israeli air strikes. He wrote that on July 23 “the Foreign Press Association issued a statement strongly condemning ‘deliberate official and unofficial [Israeli] incitement against journalists working to cover the current warfare’ in Gaza.”


Zurawik provided no examples of such incitement. He concluded by implying that Israeli forces intentionally targeted the journalists and sarcastically advised “shooting the messenger is never the road to better coverage.”


The CPJ has its own credibility problem. As CAMERA has noted, annual lists of journalists fallen in the line of duty compiled by the committee have included employees of “Syrian state media, Iran’s Press TV, of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas’ media operations and other propagandists (‘Reporters without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists Undermine Free Press,’ Dec. 10, 2013” 


Zurawik indicted Israel—home of the Middle East’s freest press—for Hamas’ crime. On August 11 the Foreign Press Association issued a statement protesting Hamas’ “blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods” of press harassment. According to the FPA, never shy about criticizing Israeli soldiers or police, Hamas’ attempts to intimidate journalists and suppress news had been going on for a month. That is, during the period Zurawik was consuming Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Operation Protective Edge.


“International media
are not advocacy organizations …” FPA protested. At least they’re not supposed to be, but given Qatar’s pro-Hamas policy and Al-Jazeera’s apparent reluctance or institutional inability to contradict that policy, let the viewer—if not the reviewer—beware. 


Equating news by foreign correspondents in the Gaza Strip with news from Israel, let alone when Al-Jazeera is the conduit, is a journalistic trap. Traditional journalism—who, what, when, where, why and how, in context and corroborated—is a product of open societies, like the United States or Israel. It is a threat to closed societies—not just hermetically sealed ones like North Korea but also essentially one-party dictatorships, like Cuba under the Castros, Gaza under Hamas or perhaps Qatar under the al-Thani dynasty.


Hamas rules—the real Gaza press game


A former New York Times foreign correspondent understood what Zurawik did not. Writing in The Washington Times, Clifford D. May, now president of the Washington, D.C. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said “Hamas restricts what journalists in Gaza may film, photograph and even write about. Hamas threatens and intimidates journalists who do not follow what might be called Hamas rules—rules designed to shape media coverage and influence perceptions around the world” (“Hamas rules; Journalists in Gaza should acknowledge the bias they must display” August 6). 


The press was free to show scenes of destruction caused by Israel, but warned about showing Hamas command posts, missiles storage and infiltration tunnels into Israel from under Gaza hospitals, schools, mosques and apartment buildings. In keeping with the old TV news formula, “if it bleeds, it leads” there was little video of Israelis running for shelters when sirens sounded, due to the success of the country’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. Pictures of Israeli tanks and the rubble of Palestinian houses, yes, but virtually no “sensitive, prominent” clips of Hamas gunmen mingling with displaced Gazans in U.N. shelters, launching rockets next door to mosques (hundreds of which fell short, landing in the Gaza Strip) or booby-trapping apartment buildings to bring them down on Israeli soldiers and not coincidentally produce more homeless Gazans.


What looks like news—especially on television—from such conflicts is at best “news lite.” Audiences are left with false equivalences of words and especially images.


This structural bias allowed Zurawik to claim “words can no longer compete with the images of Palestinian suffering driving the dominant narrative.” Not when those words are unphotogenic Israeli explanations about avoiding noncombatant casualties when possible, words about warnings of pending attacks (thereby losing the element of surprise and probably increasing Israeli casualties), or explaining Hamas’ use of Gazans as human shields while attacking Israeli noncombatants (a dual war crime).


If Zurawik is correct, this raises the question of whether “images driving the dominant narrative” are journalism or one side’s intentionally bloody propaganda. If images are dominant, do the words of Hamas’ genocidal charter or the invisibility of Hamas commanders operating from bunkers under hospitals matter much? If they don’t, then images of Israeli-caused destruction appear outside the frame of Hamas’ willingness to sacrifice countless Palestinian Arabs to discredit if not kill Israeli Jews. 


Syndicated columnist George F. Will once wrote that if the Civil War Battle of Antietam—the bloodiest day in American military history—had been televised, the United States would have been two countries today. Zurawik is right that images can be powerful; “a picture is worth a thousand words.” But he doesn’t say which ones or in what context. 





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