Robert Fisk: Telling it Like it Isn’t

Robert Fisk, the notoriously anti-Israel Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, charged on Monday, December 27, in the Los Angeles Times that friends of Israel have successfully influenced the semantics of Middle East coverage by American journalists, supposedly leading to “journalistic obfuscation” to the detriment of the Palestinians (“Telling it Like it Isn’t:”). Underlying Fisk’s ire about American coverage is the reality that from his perspective as an extreme pro-Palestinian partisan, reporting by U.S. media is insufficiently tilted in the direction he prefers.

An examination of his various claims reveals that it is Fisk himself who is guilty of “telling it like it isn’t.”

Colonies vs. Settlements

Fisk writes:

Illegal Jewish settlements for Jews and Jews only on Arab land are clearly ‘colonies,’ and we used to call them that.

The term “colony” in modern usage implies an alien community established in foreign territory by an imperial power. This usage applies neither historically, legally, nor logically to the Israeli presence in the West Bank. A Jewish presence on this land pre-dated the establishment of the Jewish state. The biblical lands of Judea and Samaria (aka “the West Bank”) are intrinsically bound to thousands of years of Jewish history. Fisk is likely accustomed to the use of “colony” in UK or European media, but the term is virtually absent — as it should be — from mainstream American media.

Settlements vs. Neighborhoods

Fisk continues:

I can remember the moment around two years ago when the word “settlements” was replaced by “Jewish neighborhoods” – or even, in some cases, “outposts.”

It’s notable that Fisk omits specific articles and sources. One only need flip to the Los Angeles Times‘ news section yesterday — the same day Fisk’s rant appeared — and read Laura King’s article with references to “the largest Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank,” “Jewish settlement activity,” and “228 new settlement homes in the settlements of Beitar Ilit and Efrat.”

The paper’s news pages referred to “settlements” in four other news articles this month. And the term “Jewish neighborhoods,” which Fisk contends replaced “settlements” appears in exactly zero articles in the same time period. The same pattern applies in the overwhelming majority of American media. Whether pro-Israel advocates would prefer “neighborhood” to “settlement” or not — most media refer to “settlements.”

Settlements vs. Outposts (A False Formula)

Fisk further distorts matters by claiming that the word “settlements” is sometimes replaced by “outposts.” In fact, the two terms do not have the same meaning and media outlets do not use them interchangeably, nor has one replaced the use of the other. Over the course of this year, for example, the Los Angeles Times has repeatedly used both terms — “outposts” and “settlements” — in the same article because they mean two different things. It is commonly understood, except perhaps by Fisk, that “outpost” refers to unauthorized caravans placed by Jewish youth on a number of hilltops, usually within a mile or so of a larger, older established settlement. While settlements are legal under Israeli law, outposts are not. The Quartet’s “road map” makes clear that outposts are distinct from settlements:

GOI [Government of Israel] immediately dismantles settlement outposts erected since March 2001.

Consistent with the Mitchell Report, GOI freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).

Therefore, for Fisk to claim that media outlets are using the term “outpost” in place of “settlement” is additional fabrication on his part. Notably, again, he offers no specifics articles or examples.

Occupied vs. Disputed

Fisk also writes:

Similarly, “occupied” Palestinian land was softened in many American media reports into “disputed” Palestinian land…

Fisk’s assertion here is false on several accounts. First, Fisk is himself misrepresenting the facts when he insists that it is incorrect to refer to the West Bank as “disputed” rather than “occupied.” Because Jordan and Egypt illegally occupied (from 1948-1967) the West Bank and Gaza Strip respectively, the areas are arguably still unallocated parts of the British Mandate, which Israel currently administers in part. For more on international law and the legal status of the territories, read the CAMERA backgrounder on the issue.

Second, Fisk once more fails to identify the “many American media reports” which have substituted “disputed” for “occupied.” The LA Times, certainly, is not among them. In 2005, the paper, both in editorials and news stories, referred to the West Bank (and sometimes including also the Gaza Strip) as “occupied” more than a dozen times. In contrast, not a single news story, editorial or even guest Op-Ed refers to the territories as “disputed” in the entire year. The editorials include “Israel’s Election Hurdle” (Dec. 22); “Risking Peace” (Nov. 22); “The Gift of Life,” (Nov. 10); “Making Peace Work,” Oct. 23); “Hope and Rage in Gaza” (Aug. 19); “A Chance to Live Without Fear” (Feb. 9); and “Palestinians Vote for Hope” (Jan. 11). And the 2005 news stories which refer to “occupied” are: “Ex-JDL Member Gets 20 Years in Prison” (Sept. 23); “Four Slain Arabs Buried in Jerusalem” (Aug. 6); “Israeli on Bus Kills 4 Arabs” (Aug. 5); “British Teachers End Israel Ban,” (May 27); “Peaceful Departure of Most Settlers Expected” (April 4). It is interesting that Op-Ed editors would choose to print a column which is contradicted by their very own pages.

The media’s controversial preference for the term “occupied” over “disputed” is widespread. A Lexis-Nexis search of American media outlets for the month of December shows that in not one instance did a news report or editorial refer to the territories as “disputed.” (One letter-to-the editor in the St. Louis Post Dispatch used the term.) In contrast, at least 10 news items in American media outlets this month referred to the territories as “occupied.”

Wall vs. Fence

About Israel’s West Bank barrier, Fisk writes:

…it does not follow the line of Israel’s 1967 border and cuts deeply into Arab land. And all too often these days, journalists call it a “fence” rath er than a “wall.” Or a “security barrier,” which is what Israel prefers them to say.

Where to begin? To use the Los Angeles Times as a case study again, Lexis-Nexis searches show that in 2005, the paper very rarely referred to the barrier as either a “wall” or a “fence.” When it does, it is referring to a particular portion of the barrier, for instance, next to Jerusalem, where it is actually a wall. Instead, the Times usually uses the more general “barrier,” or sometimes “separation barrier” or “security barrier,” a term that Fisk disparages, but which indeed serves the truth. The barrier has prevented many suicide bombers from reaching Israel. In the areas where the structure is completed, the first year showed nearly a 90% reduction in attacks . Also, it should be noted that the Times usually provides detail about the barrier’s composition, as in the Dec. 16 report which states:

The planned 450 mile-barrier, a combination of fences, concrete walls, patrol roads and trenches snaking in and around the West Bank…

What the Times hides from readers, however, is the fact that only 5% of the barrier is a concrete wall.

Fisk casts doubt on this fact, while at the same time not mentioning the actual figure:

For some of its length, we are told, it is not a wall at all – so we cannot call it a “wall,” even though the vast snake of concrete and steel that runs east of Jerusalem is higher than the old Berlin Wall.

Again Fisk dissembles when he refers to the Green Line as “Israel’s 1967 border.” The Green Line is an armistice line established April 3, 1949 by Article III of the Israel-Jordan Armistice Agreement. It served as an armistice demarcation line, not a “border.” As for the claim that the barrier “cuts deeply into Arab land,” this too is telling it like it isn’t. The separation barrier largely follows the Green Line but deviates to the extent that about 8 percent of the West Bank lies between the Green Line and the barrier (See, for instance, Report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, June 27, 2005).

To label the land “Arab” is prejudicial, given that even the “road map” says the final status of the land will be determined in future negotiations.

Terrorist vs. Militant

Having set up his phony characterizations of the Arab-Israeli conflict and its coverage in the American press, Fisk self-righteously admonishes:

So let’s call a colony a colony, let’s call occupation what it is, let’s call a wall a wall.

His indignation, however, about “the semantic effect of . . . journalistic obfuscation” is apparently not aroused when it comes to a genuine failure of the American media to call terrorism what it is. It is a near universal phenomenon among American media outlets to describe Palestinians who murder Israeli civilians eating at pizzerias, or shopping at the mall, as “militants.” And the Los Angeles Times is no exception .

Of course, the most obvious counter-evidence disproving Fisk’s claim that the American media is derelict about publishing material which favors Palestinians is that the fact that the Los Angeles Times has given Fisk himself 800 words to espouse his view. (Also, his Op-Ed follows on the heels of a recent contribution by pro-Palestinian writers George Bisharat.) Fisk’s own numerous past examples of telling it like it isn’t — such as passing off doctored alleged quotes by Israeli leaders as fact, or blaming the 1994 bombing of an Israeli embassy in London on an “Israeli agent”, or the false claim that as a result of an Israeli strike against Hizballah in 1997, Lebanon’s power supply “had been cut by a third for the next 18 months”, makes his allegations about the U.S. media withholding truth — in Israel’s favor — all the more ridiculous.

The question is why the LA Times would publish such a conglomeration of distortion and error about a subject they know first-hand.

Comments are closed.