Journalism suffered a melt down during the Israel-Hamas war, July and August, 2014. Conducting and acting on “lessons learned” reviews would bolster credibility at many news outlets.
In an August 12 article headlined “Hamas Lies; And the Media Believed It,” for U.S. News & World Reports, Oren Kessler, formerly of The Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz, made the following observation about fatality counts—repeatedly described as mainly if not overwhelmingly civilian:
For more than a month after the fighting began on July 7, Western media relied on Gaza’s Health Ministry for casualty figures. Hamas ran the ministry, but readers, listeners and viewers were rarely informed of that.
The ministry further acknowledged that it considered all casualties civilians unless claimed by an armed group. This paralleled the Hamas-run Interior Ministry’s advice—warning would be more to the point—early in the fighting to social media users in the Gaza Strip: Describe all casualties as “innocent civilians” before talking about their role in “jihad.” Hamas, of course, almost never admitted that Israel killed any of its gunmen.
The U.N.’s Human Rights Council, a chronically anti-Israel agency with member states including human rights exemplars Algeria, China, Kuwait, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela condemned Israel for “indiscriminate” attacks. Human Rights Watch, which has raised funds in Saudi Arabia (“Human Rights Watch Asks Saudi Arabia for Money to Continue Its Campaign Against Israel,” July 15, 2009), Saudi Arabia by touting its Israel-critical credentials, charged the Jewish state with “collective punishment.” The United States, whose forces have killed higher percentages of non-combatants in Afghanistan and Iraq than Israeli troops in Gaza (see below), announced “Israel has to do a better job to avoid civilian loss of life.”
All this was reported widely and almost always without the context that would have suggested to readers that Israel was being condemned according to a double standard.
The Palestinian black-out
The Guardian newspaper in Great Britain, a predictably anti-Israel source, bannered its front page with a July 30 headline echoing the U.N. Human Rights Council. The headline declared “the world stands disgraced.”
Disgraced by what? Palestinian terrorists launching thousands of mortars and rockets at Israel; a network of tunnels meant to facilitate mass kidnappings and murders of Jews; Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others using Gaza civilians as human shields? Every one of these actions is a war crime.
No, according to The Guardian, the world stood disgraced by an Israeli attack that killed 15 civilians, including women and children, at a U.N.-run school. In a report long on emotionally charged voices critical of Israel, The Guardian did note, almost in passing, that Israeli sources said Hamas had fired mortars near the facility.
U.S. and coalition efforts in Afghanistan are estimated to have resulted in a 3-to-1 non-combatant to combatant fatality ratio, and in Iraq a 4-to-1 ratio. Israeli figures during and after Operation Protective Edge indicated the civilian-to-gunman ratio of fatalities among Palestinian Arabs in the Gaza Strip was roughly 1-to-1.
This suggested restraint, not indiscriminate or deliberate targeting of non-combatants by
the Israel Defense Forces. But that was not Palestinian, U.N., Guardian or general media story line for most of the fighting.
Hiding in plain sight
Not that U.S. and other Western media were not cautioned about Hamas, other Palestinian and even international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) alleged casualty figures. On July 29, three weeks into the fighting, TIME magazine’s Web site published CAMERA’s analysis, “How Hamas Wields Gaza’s Casualties as Propaganda.”
This review by age and sex of deaths reported by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights—which claimed 82 percent non-combatant fatalities—found, among other things: children under 15 and adult women, who constituted 71 percent of the total population, accounted one-third of the fatalities. But males between 21 and 27—prime fighting age—comprised 44 percent of the fatalities and males 17 to 39 nearly 60 percent.
CAMERA issued a news advisory, citing these and similar breakdowns based on other sources of casualties, including Physicians for Human Rights and other NGOs not known as pro-Israel. The advisory also noted CAMERA’s previous, similar analyses of casualty figures from the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon and the December 2008 – January 2009 Operation Cast Lead, the first Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.
Each time, many major Western media outlets, relying on either Palestinian or Lebanese sources, or international agencies like the United Nations or Red Cross, reported that “the majority,” or often “the overwhelming majority” of Palestinian or Lebanese fatalities were non-combatants. And each time, months or years after the fighting, Hamas and Hezbollah acknowledged much higher fatalities among their gunmen that previously admitted or reported, each time roughly tracking those claimed by the IDF, 50 percent or more of the total.
CAMERA suggested to the media that Operation Protective Edge was unlikely to be different, especially since early in the fighting Hamas’ Interior Ministry instructed Palestinian Arabs on social media “anyone killed or martyred is to be called a civilian from Gaza or Palestine, before we talk about his status in jihad or his military rank … Don’t forget to always add
‘innocent civilian’ or ‘innocent citizen’ in your description of those killed in Israeli attacks on Gaza.’” (MEMRI is the Middle East Media Research Institute, which translates Arabic and other Middle Eastern language news media into English and analyzes content.)
Some news outlets, including The Washington Post and USA Today, began at least to hedge, noting—in some but not all reports—that sources for Palestinian fatalities were Hamas’ controlled or influenced, that Israel disputed those figures. But many did so rarely if at all.
If a tree falls in the forest … is it still down?
Then there was the matter of the missing photographs and deleted reports. “The Images Missing from the Gaza War,” a July 31 commentary by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Uriel Heilman, cited a CAMERA review of 75 photographs about the conflict, posted on The Los Angeles Times Web site. Not a single one pictured a Hamas gunman.
What about The New York Times? Wrote Heilman, “Looking through The Times’ most recent three slideshows on the conflict, encompassing 37 images, there’s not a single one of a Hamas fighter.”
JTA itself reported a Palestinian news agency dispatch about Hamas killing dozens of Palestinian Arabs suspected of collaborating with Israel. Several days after JTA’s story some major media got around to this news. However, coverage often omitted the likelihood that those murdered by Hamas were not collaborators—Israeli intelligence sources reportedly denied that claim—but rather Gaza dissident
s or Fatah loyalists.
Heilman concluded that “for many viewers, the narrative of this war must appear quite straightforward: Powerful Israel is bombarding defenseless Palestinians. That’s understandable when there are hardly any photographs of Palestinian aggressors. …
“If media outlets are suppressing images of Hamas fighters using civilians as shields, using hospitals and schools as bases of operations, then people watching around the world naturally will have trouble viewing the Israelis as anything but aggressors and Palestinians as anything but victims.”
One of those taken in by those pictures—the ones shown and, complementarily, by the ones not shown—was The Baltimore Sun’s veteran television reviewer David Zurawik. An August 12 CAMERA Backgrounder, “Deconstructing The Baltimore Sun’s Praise of Al-Jazeera’s Gaza Coverage,” noted that Zurawik told readers “no one is doing a more thorough job of covering the death and destruction in Gaza than Al Jazeera.” (He framed the news as about “the death and destruction in Gaza,” not the war against Israel by an Islamic supremacist movement that calls for the destruction of the Jewish state and genocide of the Jewish people.)
Zurawik claimed that Al-Jazeera America and Al-Jazeera English 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.”
Doing the Al-Jazeera two-step
Ten days after Zurawik’s praise for Al-Jazeera, MEMRI 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 researchers. “During this confrontation, the channel became a prominent propaganda mouthpiece of Hamas.”
On August 1, Al-Jazeera America’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Nick Schifrin, 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,” August 11.”
Escaping The Baltimore Sun’s enthusiasm for Hamas-permitted pictures of Israeli destruction and dead and wounded Gazans was another factor that also skewed reporting in an anti-Israel direction: news media intimidation.
Alan Johnson, a professor of democratic theory and practice and senior research fellow for BICOM, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, observed in a Daily Telegraph post (“Hamas manipulated and intimidated the media in Gaza. Why was that kept from us?” August 13) that “the long record of shutting down news bureaus, arresting reporters and cameramen, confiscating equipment and beating journalists has already been documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists. In the latest conflict Hamas wanted to reduce the reports coming out of Gaza to what [the influential 20th century Protestant theologian] Reinhold Niebuhr once called ‘emotionally potent over-simp
Such insidious over-simplifications often succeeded, certainly with The New York Times. The Foreign Press Association—no friend of Israel’s, regardless of the fact that the Jewish state has the freest press in the Middle East—protested on August 12 about “blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox” intimidation of journalists in the Gaza Strip by Hamas.
‘I’m not intimidated,’ she shrieked
The Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, Jodi Rudoren, immediately denounced the press association’s statement. She said she was not aware of any Hamas obstruction or intimidation of reporters, e-mailed the FPA that its statement could be “dangerous” to the “credibility” of international journalists covering the conflict. She also asserted that “every reporter I’ve met who was in Gaza during the war says this Israeli/now FPA narrative of Hamas harassment is nonsense [the emphasis was Rudoren’s].”
Three days after Rudoren’s attack on the Foreign Press Association, a Times of Israel headline read this way: “Hamas admits intimidating foreign press who reported wrong ‘message’; We got to those whose work was ‘immoral’ and made them change ‘one way or another,’ says spokeswoman, also acknowledging booting out journalists who sought to ‘film places where missiles were launched’”.
Reviewing the coverage in general, Izzy Lemberg, CNN’s former senior producer in Jerusalem, wrote an August 7 Times of Israel post headlined simply “Is Journalism Dead?” Lemberg, criticizing CNN among others, said “if there’s a crisis in journalism, the Arab-Israeli [conflict] highlights it as never before.”
Matti Friedman’s August 26 Tablet magazine article, “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth; A former AP correspondent explains how and why reporters get Israel so wrong, and why it matters,” was recirculated widely. In it Friedman, an Associated Press reporter and editor in Jerusalem from 2006 to 2011 and a journalist covering Israel since 1997, wrote that for much of the news media:
“Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate … Who they are and what they want is not important: The story mandates that they exist as passive victims of the party that matters.”
Jews as bad guys
“Most reporters in Gaza believe their job is to document violence directed by Israel at Palestinian civilians. That is the essence of the Israel story.”
“Many of the people deciding what you will read and see from here view their role not as explanatory but as political. Coverage is a weapon to be placed at the disposal of the side they like.”
“You don’t need to be a history professor or a psychiatrist to understand what’s going on,” Friedman asserted. The Jews of Israel have become what their grandparents, the Jews of Europe and the Middle East were: scapegoats, “the screen onto which it has become socially acceptable to project the things you hate about yourself and your own country. The tool through which this psychological projection is executed is the international press.”
Friedman asserted that “a knowledgeabl
e observer of the Middle East cannot avoid the impression that the region is a volcano and that the lava is radical Islam, an ideology whose various incarnations are now shaping this part of the world. … But reporters generally cannot see the Israel story in relation to anything else. Instead of describing Israel as one of the villages abutting the volcano, they describe Israel as the volcano.”
As a result, “The Israel story is not … about current events. It is about something else.”
That something else, claimed Friedman, stemmed from the fact that “for centuries, stateless Jews played the role of a lightning rod for ill will among the majority population. They were a symbol of things that were wrong.” Today “when people went looking for a country that would symbolize the sins of our new post-colonial, post-militaristic, post-ethnic dream-world, the country they chose” was Israel. News media, intentionally or not, portrayed Jews as “a symbol of the evils that civilized people are taught from an early age to abhor. International press coverage has become a morality play starring a familiar villain.”
Becoming a conveyor belt, unwittingly or not, for old antisemitic themes gilded by post-modern sensibilities qualifies as a media meltdown. Did press coverage that inverted the realities of the 2014 Hamas-Israel war validate Lemberg’s suspicion that journalism is dead—at least when it comes to covering Arab-Israeli conflicts? That will depend on what lessons, if any, are learned.
(This CAMERA Backgrounder is based on talks given by the author at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Baltimore, Md., on Sept. 15, 2014 and Temple Rodef Shalom, Falls Church, Va., on Sept. 28, 2014.)