The Never-Ending Story

circles[1]The conflict rumbles on as if on a loop – just when we all thought that it had gone quiet the incendiaries start flying back and forth again.

I am not (thankfully) speaking bombs and bullets but rather the war of words about the foreign media coverage of the recent Gaza conflict.

This latest outbreak began with a piece by Matti Friedman a former Associated Press staffer, accusing the international media of playing a starring role in fomenting hatred of Israel and Jews, and to failing to treat the story as anything other than a series of caricatures with Israel playing the villain and the Palestinians the victim. He also accused his former boss – Steve Gutkin – of burying a highly significant story about a peace offer made some years ago by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during negotiations with the Palestinians, because it ran counter to the AP’s predetermined view of the Israelis as the rejectionists.

In reacting to Friedman’s initial piece I found myself – as a former Middle East based journalist and UN staffer – recognizing certain aspects of his thesis. I also felt he was right in suggesting that some journalists reporting from Gaza abandoned objectivity and that Western news organizations had wilted before Hamas’s implicit and explicit censorship.

Steve Gutkin also responded to Friedman’s piece describing both the general thesis and specific allegations as ‘hogwash’. He maintained that as AP’s onetime Jerusalem bureau chief he was motivated by a desire to tell a difficult and complicated story objectively and without bias, adding also that he did categorically did not bury a piece, as was alleged .

The row between the two (now former) AP journalists has mushroomed with a further piece by Friedman and Gutkin, and an added intervention by a third former member of staff, on what may or may not have occurred and why. This argument is best left to those who were most closely involved in what occurred at the time.

But it is worth examining the opposing viewpoints of the two main protagonists, to highlight their shared mistaken understandings concerning the media coverage of Israel and the Palestinians.

Beginning with Matti Friedman, who describes the ‘global mania’ of news organizations in covering Israel, which he says is rooted in a ‘hostile obsession with Jews.’ He blames news organizations for elevating the Israeli-Palestinian story to disproportionate levels of coverage – seemingly out of malice – thus drowning out other more urgent and deserving issues from around the world.

I do share some of his frustration that tragedies and outrages elsewhere are woefully under-reported in comparison to the copious coverage afforded to Israel and the Palestinians. But Friedman also misjudges a number of issues to support his belief that it’s all about malevolence towards Jews, which it is not.

To begin with, just because there is excessive coverage does not mean it is all ill-intended. Added to which there are a range of factors driving the extent of the coverage of Israel (and by extension the Palestinians), many of which have little to do with hatred but much more to do with familiarity and convenience.

In an earlier post on my blog, I asserted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ‘is simply the Bible and Koran brought to life 24/7 on-line, on TV, Radio, and in print. Billions of people around the world, overwhelmingly Christians, Moslems, and Jews, know of the ‘Holy Land’ from their holy texts’. Added to the ancient story, Jews – individually and communally – have played an influential and often tragic role in the Christian and Muslim worlds over the course of centuries. The Jewish presence has been a fellow traveler, beneficiary, contributor and victim in the development of Western (and Middle Eastern) societies. In our ever shrinking world this translates into a fascination among many for Israel and for Jews.

For some it induces infatuation, for many others it results in hatred. The media did not originate this situation, which predates the internet, TV, Radio, and even newspapers. Journalists consciously or unconsciously are the influenced by the currents of history that swirl around them – they are not removed from world they describe – they are part of it.

There are also other less esoteric factors which feed the modern media’s thirst for the ‘Israel story’, including the freedom of the press and the relative lack of danger to journalists compared to elsewhere in the region. Added to which, Israel’s size, and modernity in everything from communications to hotel services makes it a prime destination for headline hungry journalists. While Friedman sees all this attention as a bad thing, it can and does play to Israel’s advantage. When Israelis are under attack –  be it by missiles from Gaza, suicide bombers on buses, or fanatics driving diggers at civilians –  the cameras of the world are pointed in its direction. Atrocities – be they in Congo, the Bangladesh/Myanmar border, Southern Sudan and elsewhere, invariably take place in the absence rather than the presence of the mass media.

Of course there are those, including educated and influential individuals who have an obsession with this little corner of real estate at the far end of the Mediterranean, not because they care about the fate of the Middle East, human rights or even indeed the well-being of Palestinians but rather because they are consumed with hatred – for Israel and ‘Zionism’ (as conveniently differentiated in their own minds from Jews). Sadly, in my experience this is becoming more common.

I recently encountered such sentiments from a former BBC colleague – once an editor, who now teaches (!) journalism. In a number of Facebook comments he compared Israeli actions in Gaza those of the Nazis, wrote of Israel as a sick society, and spoke of the apparent power of the Israel lobby in getting a well-known BBC radio presenter to tone down his normal aggressiveness when interviewing an Israeli official. This is not an argument against Israeli policies, it amounts to a diatribe against the very essence and existence of the country.

Some take this lowly standard as representative of all journalists or indeed anyone who questions Israeli policies including its military actions in Gaza or settlement construction in the West Bank.

Let’s be clear – criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic. That would make most Israelis self-hating Jews. I also know many fine journalists whose reports cast Israel in a negative light, but who are motivated by sound critical thinking, sharp observation and legitimate questioning. Over the years Israeli governments have taken wrong, misguided, and immoral actions, which have been deserving of comment and condemnation.

The attention and criticism of Israel are varied in their sources and their intentions. Matti Friedman is right to be vigilant but he is wrong in thinking that this is all to Israel’s detriment, or a modern manifestation of an ancient hatred.

On the other side of the debate about the media coverage, Steve Gutkin also overstates and simplifies. Firstly he says that the job of journalists when he was in Jerusalem was not to ‘frame’ the roles of Palestinians and Israelis but rather to, ‘simply bear witness to what we saw unfolding before our eyes’.

The media are not accountants with microphones; their job is not just to record statistics and events on a never ending list. This is akin to suggesting that history is just a series of dates with events attached. The act of witnessing is not a sterile activity carried out far removed emotionally and psychologically from the action. It is influenced from where events are seen, by whom, and the ‘baggage’ that the witness brings.

Gutkin himself talks of his own influences including most importantly his belief in ‘humanity’ as somehow freeing him of the clutter of bias. He fails to see that his viewpoint is also partial and in its own way – tribal, rooted as it is, in particular values and assumptions.

The ‘respectable’ news organizations – to which AP belongs – have the job of interpreting the ‘facts’ and framing them, with as much fairness and objectivity as possible. This often means explaining differing narratives containing contradictory versions of the same events. I argued in my blog and continue to insist that the overwhelming majority of news organizations failed to do that in the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. They mostly stuck to a particular predetermined view and were guided by it – of Israeli might and cruelty, versus Palestinian weakness and suffering. And while elements of that description are true, it did not reflect the whole story. Contradictory narratives don’t make for simple story-telling but they represent a truer version of what often occurs.

Gutkin also shrugs off too easily the connection between some of the reporting from Gaza and the ensuing outburst of anti-Semitism witnessed – most obviously – in Western Europe. The media was certainly not the sole or necessarily the major cause for the racism that consumed the streets of Paris, London, Berlin and elsewhere. But its willingness to fall in with a single reading of events combined with irresponsible emoting by some, did help ignite the dry tinder of anti-Semitic sentiment that had built up within many countries.

Steve Gutkin states by way of conclusion that that the ‘real danger (to Israel) does not come from the media reporting the news’ but rather from journalists like Matti Friedman and others who are sparing Israel criticism and thus leading to the demise of the two-state solution.

This is nonsensical in a multitude of ways. The Middle East is a state of huge upheaval as mutually loathing groups go about killing each other with varying degrees of barbarity. The only thing that unites ISIS, Assad, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Iran and others is their shared hatred of Israel – and this – not anything else –  represents the greatest threat to Israel.

There are indeed some supporters of Israel who won’t countenance any criticism of the country or its policies, and who freely use the bludgeon of anti-Semitism to quell any dissident views. But these apologists for wrong Israeli policies – such as the settlements on the West Bank at the expense of Palestinians – don’t call the shots. Israeli Prime Ministers are the ones responsible for driving the country towards the looming  political disaster of a one-state solution.

The ‘story’ of the Israelis and the Palestinians has become a global template for much more than the two peoples fighting over a patch of land. It is a stage for different and competing truths set amid an ancient backdrop and fuelled by very modern passions. Discussion of how it is reported reflects these same currents.

In an effort to bring balance and closure to this issue, it’s seem certain that Steve Gutman and Matti Friedman are unlikely to agree on much when it comes to the treatment of Israel by the media, and much like the conflict itself their argument will run and run.

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