Competing Views of Media Bias in the Coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

July 8th, 2008 · No Comments

The following essay is an expanded version of a guest commentary that appeared in the Iowa State Daily.

To many of us, it seems that, while there may be no conscious effort on the part of the media to minimise the injustice suffered by the Palestinians, there is nonetheless a tendency to report on the Israeli occupation of Palestine in terms favourable to the occupier: to neglect Israel’s responsibility to end the occupation and offer reparations. We are not so naive as to think that a return to the 1967 borders – to name but one issue – will buy Israel her peace; rather, we feel this to be a necessary precondition for peace (which would incidentally deprive militants of recruitment material), and is just even in the face of extremist and irredentist intent.

Confusion also exists over what this implies about our stance towards Israel and, more seriously, Jews in general. Unfortunately, the modality of the discussion is such that the rejection of one side is often taken to necessitate the embrace of another, and that anti-Zionism is equivalent to anti-Semitism. According to this paltry logic, by criticising Israel we are supporting the likes of Hamas and the Hizbollah, while our distrust of any form of nationalism – except when used in fighting colonialism or fascism – marks us as anti-Semites. We repudiate these former groups unequivocally and are the severest critics of racism and bigotry – our refusal to view the conflict in binary terms is nonetheless unwavering. Our imperative is one of human rights, and we will criticise and demand justice be done to whosoever may violate them.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I offer an admittedly partisan (to assume otherwise would be naive) critique of a lecture given by Gary Kenzer of HonestReporting on “Media Coverage of the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” which was held at Iowa State University on April 1, 2008 and sponsored by the Ames Jewish Congregation and the local chapter of Hillel. The organisation Mr. Kenzer represents is avowedly pro-Israel and “dedicated to defending Israel against prejudice in the Media.” Mr. Kenzer, to his credit, does not believe that Israel is infallible or even immune from creating its own bias; however, he does seem to presuppose a conspiracy intent on maligning the state of Israel within “the Media” to explain supposed bias in articles and photographs. After examining his claims, I am led to believe that HonestReporting is more likely engaged in the manufacture of bias where none exists (or is unimportant), so as to obscure certain inconvenient facts about the occupation.

To begin with, it is important to realise that, aside from a few particularly irrelevant slides pertaining to the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, the lecture dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian, and not the wider Arab-Israeli, conflict. It is rather galling to observers, as well as demeaning to the Palestinian people, to represent the conflict as an ethnic struggle instead of nationalist one. If Yasser Arafat can be said to have done anything positive for the Palestinian people, it was to define their struggle as one for national self-determination; but if we view the conflict as Mr. Kenzer implicitly suggests, we are forced to see it as little Israel against the Arab world, instead of the continuing oppression of an impoverished, miserable, and small population.

Not content with conflating the plight of the Palestinians and Middle Eastern politics, Mr. Kenzer then proceeded to vilify Palestinians wholesale by presenting, for no good reason that I can recall, the despicable photos of Palestinians in East Jerusalem celebrating the 9/11 attacks. I do not contest the fact that there were a great many stupid Palestinians, and Muslims in general, that welcomed the attacks; rather, I wonder what reason could there possibly be in a lecture on media bias to show this isolated and contested (at least one of the participants said she was persuaded to appear after being given sweets) celebration than to engender hostility towards the Palestinians, to depict them as hate-filled fanatics that cultivate their children to love death?

Before addressing the so-called content of the lecture, I must point out that Mr. Kenzer has the curious habit of infantilising his audience in order to make them draw the desired conclusions. We were asked to explain “why bias is bad” and, with an almost psychiatrical insistence, what we “saw” when made to view several photographs without any accompanying explanation.

It was during our analysis of the infamous Tuvia Grossman photograph that Mr. Kenzer’s attempts at leading the audience to realise bias seemed to falter. The horrifying photo shows a bloodied young man in the foreground with a menacing IDF soldier, baton in hand, towering over him in the background. During his initial interrogation, Mr. Kenzer appeared somewhat disappointed that the audience didn’t immediately adopt the view that, according to the HonestReporting website, most of the world had taken in assuming that Mr. Grossman was a Palestinian and the IDF soldier was responsible for his gruesome wounds; instead, members of the audience inferred that Mr. Grossman was fleeing from violence and to the soldier for protection – as it turns out, Mr. Grossman had just escaped from the clutches of a murderous Palestinian mob.

Mr. Kenzer eventually lessened his reliance of this form of “audience participation” in favour of a more straightforward “exposure” of bias: he chose to either simplify or distort photographs and stories, or engage in piteous and, it would seem, willful acts of illogic in explaining them (incidentally, the tactics he accused the media of). A few of the most egregious examples:

On January 3, 2004 the AP reported that “the IDF opened fire on a large number of Palestinians throwing stones,” which resulted in the death of three. Having quoted but not discussed the story, Mr. Kenzer proceeded to show a photograph, purportedly of the incident, of Palestinians hurling bricks and concrete – challenging the idea that Israeli forces overacted, as the bricks could conceivably pose a mortal threat to the soldiers. By way of further comments, the audience was led to believe that the media systematically downplays the danger of Palestinian mobs armed with “stones”. Mr. Kenzer, however, failed to point out that the above quote came from an Israeli army spokesman; furthermore, that the original caption of the photograph, which he also chose not to show, clearly states that the incident it depicted occurred on the second of January and not the third (the day the killings took place). This, then, is clearly not a case of anti-Israeli bias (unless we are to believe that the IDF are anti-Israel), but would be best characterised as an attempt on Mr. Kenzer’s part to downplay the unjust violence inflicted on the Palestinians – which, I freely admit, they at times bring upon themselves.

In fact, as the night wore on, it became ever more apparent that a large part of combating anti-Israeli bias is merely the whitewashing of the Israeli occupation. Take, for instance, Mr. Kenzer’s coverage of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza caused by the recent Israeli blockade. On January 20, 2008, due to a lack of fuel, the only power plant in Gaza, which serves Northern Gaza and Gaza City (population 400,000), was shut down. It is true that inattentive observers may have been led to believe that all of Gaza was without electricity (the rest of Gaza receives power directly from Israel); however, rather than clarify this misapprehension, Mr. Kenzer, by showing photographs of unknown origin of protesters holding candles with electrical light clearly visible in the background, made it seem as though Gaza City was awash with electricity, that the very real lack of power in Gaza City was just an elaborate piece of Hamas propaganda.

One of the more mundane of Mr. Kenzer’s criticisms involved a critique of a “terrible” Associated Press story (January 1, 2001) with the title “Explosion Kills Bomber in Tel Aviv.” This vile act of terror killed 20 Israelis; why then, Mr. Kenzer asks, does the AP headline focus on the bomber and not even mention the dead? HonestReporting went so far as to call this story dishonest – one of the most dishonest of the year. It isn’t that the AP is biased; rather, that their reporters are constrained to writing what they know at the time of filing. The story thus makes no mention of the unfortunate dead for an entirely prosaic reason: the reporter simply didn’t know the death count, or even if there were casualties, only the number of wounded.

Mr. Kenzer’s final example of bias, his coup de grace, was a chart of the world, featured in The UK Sun, showing the number of Islamist terror attacks in each country. Conspicuously absent was any indication of the horrendous number of attacks on Israel. When asked about this oversight, The Sun’s absurd response was that there were just too many. Finally, the epitome of anti-Israeli bias, but should it be of any concern? I think not, for The Sun is tabloid rubbish – only slightly more respectable than our own National Enquirer. While it may have the highest circulation of any English-language daily, it is most known for, and popular because of, its sensationalism and photos of topless of women appearing on page three. To criticise it is to diminish one’s own position.

The night wasn’t all criticism though. In his laudatory remarks, Mr. Kenzer found time to praise the conservative blog Little Green Footballs (asking an audience member who had heard of the site, “It’s great, isn’t it?”) and Pat Robertson (saying, he isn’t “fair and balanced” he’s “pro-Israel” and “absolutely remarkable”). While this former remark may be merely discomforting to progressive Zionists, the latter endorsement must be held as unconscionable and utterly contemptible. The embrace of Christian-Zionists, such as Pat Robertson, by Israel and her supporters is nothing less the wholesale repudiation of all that Israel aspires to: humanism, equality, and the numinous. All of this, swept aside for the support of the most kind-hearted anti-Semites imaginable: oblivious to their own callousness, they extol an expansionist Israel only to bring about the Rapture, they declare that the recalcitrant Jew will go to Hell, they wish to “perfect” the Jews, and would still be calling the Jews Christ-killers if they hadn’t finally realised a need of them for the Apocalypse – for the very destruction of Israel.

The night closed with advice by Mr. Kenzer on how to be an effective activist. Amongst his tips on letter writing, he recommended that one should “write as a concerned individual, not as part of a campaign.” This of course means that one should conceal the source of one’s ideas, for a letter writing campaign is much more effective when an editor doesn’t know that people aren’t acting on their own accord or forming their opinions, but are rather directed by an organisation with an agenda. However, in the event that words should fail you, HonestReporting can supply you with a form letter.

Mr. Kenzer made much of the fact that Honest Reporting has over 160,00o members, monitoring some 500 papers. I can only wonder what immeasurable amount of good they could be doing if they were writing letters to the Israeli government, asking them to return to the 1967 borders or halt the expansion of settlements in occupied territory, instead of obsessing over a largely illusory matter.

Tags: 2008 · AP Issues · Commentary · June 2008 · Ryan Gerdes

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