Victims become villains in U.S. coverage
Malcolm X once said, “If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
Nowhere is this warning more relevant than in the corporate media’s one-sided coverage of Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, which left 160 Palestinians dead, including 105 civilians and 34 children (Palestine Centre for Human Rights). In stark contrast, rockets fired into Israel claimed the lives of four Israeli civilians and two soldiers. One civilian death is one too many, no matter which side suffers, but a kill rate of nearly 27 Palestinians for every one Israeli should raise serious questions about Israel’s explanation that its attacks were intended to protect human life. Yet a CNN poll (11/19/12) found 57 percent of Americans believed Israel’s attacks were justified.
Given the American media’s traditional Israel-can-do-no-wrong mindset (Extra! Update, 8/06), overwhelming support for Israeli aggression shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, official Israeli spokespeople flooded news media airwaves with carefully crafted talking points that went unchallenged by mainstream reporters. The same was true for print publications, which time and again exclusively quoted Israeli officials, allowing them to set the narrative—beginning with who started this latest round of hostilities.
The New York Times’ Isabel Kershner and Fares Akram (11/15/12) declared that Israel’s attacks came “after persistent Palestinian rocket fire.” The same conclusion was reached by NPR’s Audie Cornish on All Things Considered (11/14/12): “The strikes were in retaliation for the launching of more than 100 rockets at Israel in recent days.” The Associated Press (11/19/12) followed suit, maintaining that Israel’s assault was “in response to days of rocket attacks out of Gaza.”
Absent from this narrative was Israel’s systematic pattern of violent incursions into Gaza, which almost always precipitated rocket fire into Israel. In the weeks leading up to Israel’s November assault, dozens of Palestinian civilians were injured or killed (Electronic Intifada, 11/15/12).
On November 4, Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man who, medics said, was unarmed and mentally ill and strayed too close to the Israeli imposed “buffer zone,” a 300-meter-wide stretch of land that cuts into Gaza’s side of the border with Israel. The next day, militants fired a rocket into Israel. On November 8, the IDF shot and killed a 13-year-old while he played soccer with friends in front of his home. A day later, two rockets were fired into Israel, injuring four soldiers. Israel responded with aerial and ground attacks that killed seven Palestinians, including five adult civilians and three children who also happened to be playing soccer. This pattern persisted up until Israel’s extra-judicial assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmad al-Jabari, signaling the beginning of Israel’s assault.
Though these killings were well-documented, American news outlets couldn’t seem to get the facts straight. They also failed to place events in the context of Israel’s decades-long, brutal occupation; its six-year-long blockade of Gaza that restricts even basic items, like food and medicine from entering the strip; and the fact that Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, where 1.7 million people, half of whom are children, have nowhere to run or hide from Israel’s aerial attacks.
The only thing worse than the omission of Gaza’s reality was the downplaying of Israel’s atrocities, which became an increasingly difficult task as gruesome photos of the human toll in Gaza flooded the Internet. That didn’t stop the Washington Post (11/16/12) from “balancing” pictures of dead Palestinian children with victim-blaming captions. The Post prefaced one series of photos with the subtitle, “Israel carries out a series of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip against Hamas in retaliation for rocket attacks; Hamas vows revenge and fires more rockets.” Included within the caption of a photo showing a doctor carrying the corpse of a bloodied four-year-old Palestinian boy was a reminder that “Palestinians continued to lob rockets across the border and Israeli aircraft responded with renewed airstrikes.”
Even as the death toll in Gaza topped 100, the media continued to praise Israel for showing restraint. The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen (11/19/12) declared with the utmost confidence, “Israel cares more about sparing innocent lives—including those of Palestinians—than does Hamas.”
Jodi Rudoren, the New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, took a different route: Rather than depicting Israelis as perfect, she instead portrayed Palestinians as morally, emotionally and culturally inferior. After attending a funeral for eight members of the Dalu family—including four small children—who were killed in an Israeli airstrike, Rudoren (11/20/12) observed “few if any visible tears” among the mourners. Moreover, the tone of the event was “far more fundamentalist than funereal” for her taste, which she proceeded to blame on “the culture of martyrdom that pervades this place.”
Rudoren’s comments echoed common accusations among the anti-Arab crowd (e.g., Guardian, 9/21/10), who argue that Palestinians have a desire for death and are proud when their children are blown to bits by Israel, whereas Israeli Jews love their children and respect the sanctity of life. She even referred to the funeral as “militant pageantry,” suggesting that the anger and calls for revenge were theatrics rather than a natural response to what many considered to be a deliberate massacre.
But if Palestinian culture was subject to critical examination, Israeli officials’ incitement to war crimes was not. Right-wing Knesset member Michael Ben-Ari calling on Israel to “erase” Gaza—the analog to a U.S. senator demanding the American military eradicate the entire Afghan population—did not qualify as newsworthy (Mondoweiss, 11/19/12). Neither did Israeli Transport Minister Israel Katz insisting that Israel punish Gazans by cutting off “electricity, water, food and fuel” (Electronic Intifada, 11/15/12). Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai declaring that “the goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages” (Haaretz, 11/17/12) merited a handful of mentions (Washington Post, 11/18/12; L.A. Times, 11/20/12).
The most striking attempt by the Western media to sanitize Israel’s actions came from the BBC, which initially down-played an airstrike that killed several family members of one of its own journalists, Jihad Masharawi, including his 11-month-old son Omar. Only two sentences were devoted to Omar’s death, buried at the very bottom of the BBC article, “Three Israelis Killed by Gaza Rocket as Violence Escalates” (11/15/12), and not before specifying that Israel had killed “mainly militants.” It was 10 days before the BBC ran a story devoted to the killing of its employee’s infant son (11/26/12).
The death of a BBC journalist’s son did break through to U.S. news editors, even making the front page of the Washington Post (11/15/12) accompanied by a photograph of Masharawi sobbing as he cradled his baby boy’s body in his arms. Post ombud Patrick Pexton later reported (11/23/12) that “Jewish groups and American Jews in large numbers wrote to the ombudsman and to Post editors, protesting the photo as biased.” To his credit, Pexton fired back against critics, saying that the photo told “a telling and important part of the truth.”
Sadly, the same level of solidarity did not extend to journalists employed by non-Western outlets, at least three of whom were deliberately killed in repeated Israeli airstrikes on media facilities, with little to no objection from their American colleagues.
The New York Times (11/18/12) framed the targeting of media offices as “further indica[tion] that Israel was striking a wider range of targets,” an odd way to describe actions that are illegal under international law (Geneva Convention, Art. 79). The Associated Press (11/16/12) used similar language to legitimize increased attacks on Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, calling it “a widened scope of targets.”
For other mainstream reporters, using “Hamas” as an adjective helped to justify Israel’s questionable airstrikes as well as to discredit information coming out of Gaza. Government offices hit by Israel were labeled “Hamas buildings” (Reuters, 11/17/12). A police station became a “Hamas police station” (USA Today, 11/18/12), shifting blame to Palestinians for Israel killing a woman who lived nearby. And Gaza’s Health Ministry, the main source for casualty updates, was frequently referred to as the “Hamas-run Health Ministry” (e.g., New York Times, 11/15/12), particularly when Palestinian babies were among the reported casualties.
The Wall Street Journal’s Carl Bialik (11/24/12) took this a step further, calling Gaza’s death toll into question: “Both the number of people killed by Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip, and the proportion of those killed who were civilians, are shrouded in ambiguity.” Why? Because “the chief source of numbers is medical officials in Gaza, who some analysts say have an interest in inflating the totals.”
The analyst Bialik cited was Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which Bialik described as “a think tank.” But WINEP is also an off-shoot of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the U.S.’s largest and most influential pro-Israel lobbies.
Bialik’s one-sided suspicion of the Gazan authorities sends the message that Palestinians are liars with an agenda, whereas the Israeli government and its advocates can be taken at their word. This is ironic given Israel’s own questionable method of counting casualties. Israel includes among its wounded those who experience “shock” during rocket attacks from Gaza, encouraging the conflation of these with the physically wounded (Mondoweiss, 11/17/12).
While Israeli officials dominated the airwaves during the onslaught, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour (11/21/12) was one of the few mainstream journalists to interview a Hamas official. Unfortunately, she showed a stunning lack of knowledge or concern for international law during her interview with Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal. Amanpour insisted that “under the international agreements, every Palestinian who’s living in the diaspora is not going to be able to come back to Israel.” She proceeded to chide Meshal to give up the right of return, saying: “You know, everybody’s not going to be able to return to Israel. You know that.”
Meshal was clearly frustrated as he tried to cite United Nations resolution 194, which established the right of return for Palestinians who were driven from their homes in 1948, a resolution that Israel accepted as a condition for UN membership but has yet to fulfill. As CNN’s chief international correspondent, Amanpour should possess a basic understanding of international law regarding refugees.
Amanpour’s interview aired just hours after the Israel/Gaza ceasefire was announced, ending eight days of nonstop airstrikes and rocket fire.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel is prepared to take “more severe military action” in Gaza if the truce doesn’t hold (Reuters, 11/22/12). In which case we can expect the corporate media will once again fulfill its duty as Israel’s stenographer.
Rania Khalek (RaniaKhalek.com) is an independent journalist reporting on the underclass and marginalized whose work has been published by the Nation, Truthout, In These Times, Salon, Citizen Radio and more.