New York Times Turns to Comic-Book Journalist on Arab-Israeli Conflict

Cartoonist Joe Sacco has made it a professional goal to champion the Palestinian cause, presenting their perspectives on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in easily-accessible, comic strip form to the American public. His longest work to date on this issue is a 9-issue comic book entitled “Palestine,” originally published by Fantagraphics in 1993 and republished in book form in 2002 with an introduction by noted Palestinian polemicist Edward Said. Written after a 2-month backpacking stint in the Gaza Strip during the first Intifada, the comic book depicts Israeli interrogators, soldiers, and Jewish settlers brutalizing and harassing innocent Palestinians.

Sacco himself makes no pretense of being objective and admits that his views on the conflict have been largely influenced by such individuals as Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, whose writings are notoriously skewed.

In fact, Sacco rejects traditional, objective American journalism. In an article detailing his attachment to the Palestinian cause, Sacco told British reporter Peter Aspden that while he “studied journalism in its pure, American version,” he “began to reject it.” Admitting that he started comics journalism when “comic books were so under the radar that you could do anything in any form” with “real freedom,” Sacco claims that:

It is almost preposterous to think that a western reporter could be objective in a situation like that [i.e. the Palestinian-Israeli conflict]…I admire more the approach of British journalism, where the writer injects himself into the piece, you get more of a sense from that kind of writing of what a place is really like. (Financial Times [London]. June 27, 2003)

Nevertheless, the New York Times Sunday Magazine on July 6, 2003 chose to run a comic strip by Sacco entitled “The Underground War in Gaza,” presenting it – not as satire or commentary – but as a straightforward “report”. According to the Times blurb:

As the peace process lurches forward (and backward), towns like Rafah are still at war. A comic-book journalist reports on the battle over Palestinian tunnels and Israeli bulldozers. [emphasis added]

Sacco’s comic strip account, while presenting somewhat more context than usual, is still predictably one-sided, focusing primarily on supposedly innocent Palestinian victims. Here they are victims not only of Israeli soldiers and policy but of Palestinian “gunmen”. Worried-looking women and children wonder aloud whether their houses will be next for demolition while Israeli soldiers explain that houses are destroyed because they are used for cover to shoot at bulldozers. The Israeli soldiers are depicted as harsh and callous and their explanations presented as questionable – in the words of the Palestinian protagonists and in the mocking tone and selective use by Sacco of quotation marks. At the same time, Palestinian allegations are cast as indisputable fact. Missing entirely from the pictures is any depiction of the innocent Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism and weapons smuggling.

This type of one-sided story depiction blurring fact, fantasy, and opinion is to be expected in works by Sacco, who after all does not pretend to present things otherwise. The question is why such propaganda finds its way into the New York Times and why the Times presents it as objective reporting by a “journalist”?

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