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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Root causes of media bias against Israel

Tonight, Dr. Richard Landes spoke at Rutgers University. He is the author of The Augean Stables blog, The Second Draft blog documenting media manipulation by Palestinian Arabs and their supporters, and the driving force behind the Understanding the Goldstone Report blog. Somehow, he also manages to be a professor of history at Boston University and the author of numerous books and articles on topics I cannot begin to understand.

His topics tonight were wide-ranging but centered on the media and the Middle East conflict. He brought up numerous videos showing how the media reported on Gaza and how they purposefully ignored facts that would make Hamas look bad. Landes also spent a bit of time on the Goldstone report and on the Mohammed al-Dura Pallywood case.

I hadn't told him one way or the other whether I would attend, and tried to keep a low profile, but when he mentioned my blog I admitted who I was. (I am not utterly without ego, but I am working on it.) So this was a rare public appearance by The Elder.

Landes ascribes much of the anti-Israel bias of the media to the media's fear of Hamas (and Hezbollah.) There is no doubt that this is a strong contributor - terrorists make no secret of the fact that if they are displeased with you, they will make your life unpleasant. And they watch the news. We saw it happen in Lebanon with Hezbollah, and we saw it in Gaza with Hamas and the other terror groups, especially a few years ago when journalists were regularly kidnapped.

After Western reporters all fled Gaza, all that were left were Palestinian reporters who have an inherent anti-Israel bias. But more importantly, they are scared witless of Hamas. Hamas has attacked press agencies numerous times.

Here is an incident last year when Hamas attacked a mosque, beat people there and trashed it before taking it over. Not one mainstream media outlet published this story. The reason is clearly because of Hamas' threats against Gaza reporters. (Hezbollah also carefully managed news media access to the Lebanon war in 2006, a lot more subtly than Hamas but very effectively.)

The New York Times did run a story once on how Gaza reporters censor themselves out of fear.

One can pinpoint the exact date that Gaza journalism died. It was mid-June, 2007, and it is detailed in this article from Ma'an - possibly the last objective article Ma'an has ever written about Hamas:
Local Palestinian radio stations in the Gaza Strip were launched in quick succession over recent years. As many as eleven radio stations were counted operating in Gaza Strip in a short space of time. Many of the stations had been closed and looted during the recent conflict in the strip.

Ash Sha'b station, affiliated to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was looted, whilst Al Hurriya and Ash Shabab, affiliated to Fatah, chose to cease transmission.

The spokesperson of the military wing of Hamas, the Qassam Brigades, Abu Ubayda, vehemently denied that the brigades had threatened any of the local stations.

Abu Ubayda told Ma'an that the radio stations halted transmission willingly because they were working within a certain framework and their coverage of events in Gaza was partial, rather than objective.

He added that the employees and owners of the radio stations closed them out of fear, rather than any direct threats from the Qassam Brigades.

Abu Ubayda also said that some of the radio stations were affiliated to well-known Fatah figures, or directly owned by Fatah.

Palestine radio stopped transmission from the Gaza Strip during the recent events. A statement was issued accusing the Al Qassam Brigades of torching the station's headquarters and a local transmission tower in Khan Younis.

Palestine satellite and terrestrial TV stopped transmission last Friday in Gaza City and began transmitting from Ramallah, in the central West Bank. The director of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, Basim Abu Sumayya, ascribed the stoppage to Hamas' seizure of the Gaza Strip, which prevented employees from accessing the company's buildings in order to work.

Abu Sumayya accused Hamas of taking control of every property that belongs to the PBC, in addition to the live transmission vehicle and the satellite frequency, which the PBC changed immediately.

...As for the radio stations, which stopped their transmission, Abu Zuhri said they did so voluntarily because they were involved in inciting and they committed criminal acts when they were fuelling disputes in the Palestinian arena. He asserted that the Al-Qassam Brigades and Executive Force never attacked or robbed any radio station.

The Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa satellite TV station, which many accuse of lacking professionalism and fuelling dispute, was the sole TV station that continued broadcasting during the conflict in the Gaza Strip. They transmitted special photos of the Al-Qassam Brigades and the Executive Force, while they were storming the security HQs. They also conducted exclusive interviews with Hamas leaders. The most criticism-provoking act of Al-Aqsa TV was the transmission of the execution of Samih Al-Madhoun.

The chief editor of Ma'an News Agency threatened to close the agency's Gaza office as a result of the pressure exerted on him and the agency's correspondents and photojournalists. The Al-Qassam Brigades visited the office, but did not harm any employee or property. Meanwhile, Hamas and their Fatah allies criticised Ma'an's reports and some issued threats.
Things only got worse after that.

I agree with Richard that fear is a factor in the loss of objectivity in journalism. He mentioned other factors as well, such as the fact that liberal reporters are (perhaps subconciously) advocates of the simplistic idea that the absence of war is always a desirable objective and that their role is to help that to happen. Therefore you will see a large number of stories about Israel's use of "disproportionate" force and of Arab civilian victims, but very few giving context of everything Israel tried to do over eight years to stop rocket attacks before resorting to the battlefield.

I think that a lot can be ascribed to ignorance. Arabs have hammered the West with consistent, simple-minded memes ("occupation," "intransigence," "illegal settlements," "Likud=far right hawks," "Fatah is moderate") that have become ingrained in the very psyche of the media personalities themselves. This is how we see situations like I mentioned today of Fox misrepresenting their own interview with Obama, after it was colored through the glass of Middle East conventional wisdom.

Another factor that I mentioned in the Q&A, and that Dr. Landes expanded on, is that Israeli self-criticism, which is part of what makes it strong, is perceived by the media as proof of its being immoral. As Richard noted, when the media interviews 100% of Arabs who say that Israel is completely wrong, and 50% of Israelis interviewed agree with the Arabs, then the impression one gets is that Israel is 75% wrong.

All in all, it was an interesting evening, and as you can imagine, Richard is a really nice fellow. The turnout might have been better had this not also been the night that Rutgers held a meeting to discuss contributing leftover meal-plan money to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, a charity that has uncomfortably close connections to terrorism.