Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Media "Bias" in Israel is Our Own Damn Fault


Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

Protests are legion and there are revolutions galore. There are a lot of good things happening in the Middle East these days.

And by "good" I mean, not "bad" on the face of it. We don't know if the nascent freedom movements in some countries will blossom into friendly, prosperous democratic societies or mad, oppressive, Islamic caliphates. Nor do we know if the protest movements in others will win out or be brutally crushed. All in all, it's a crazy time.

As you might imagine, the media has been working overtime to cover all of the happenings. At times they have shone brilliantly (like during the Libyan rebels' push into Tripoli) and at others then have been almost drowned out by social media's tidal wave of re-posted photos and videos from citizen journalists. (Think the confusion during Egypt's uprising.) And in some cases, there is little or no independent coverage because of journalist bans and media blackouts. (See: Syria)

All in all, though, I think that the coverage has been pretty good and as thorough as can be expected, especially by outlets like Al Jazeera, Sky One, the BBC and CNN. If nothing else, the sustained happenings in such an important part of the world have exposed the self-imposed deficiencies of American media as they have scrambled to keep up with events. More often than not their newscasts or cable affiliates' hourly updates are using footage and breaking news from their international competitors. Years and years of closing foreign bureaus and stripping the region of staff have resulted in a dearth of contacts and ability to react quickly to situations.

So why am I going on about the media? For one, I am very interested in the subject. (I majored in Journalism after all.) Also, I had a very interesting back-and-forth on Facebook last week with an old Frisbee buddy back in Boston.

He was upset that the media wasn't covering the hell out of Hamas' recent missile attacks from Gaza into Israel and the resulting escalation after an Israeli counter-attack ended with the deaths of some Egyptian soldiers. To a person who is a passionate supporter of Israel, who lives there or who is Israeli themselves, the sight of hordes of journalists flooding the streets of Cairo and Tripoli, and beating down doors trying to get into Syria, the utter lack of media boots on the ground in Gaza and Southern Israel has got to feel like neglect at best, or overt media bias at worst.

I didn’t like the sound of that. In today's fragmented landscape, consumers have more control than ever (some might say too much) over what gets coverage and what leads newscasts. I happen to think that a lack of media coverage/outrage over what's going on in Israel is because massive numbers of people simply tune out when it comes on in the West. Newspapers and other media outlets know exactly which headlines and stories garner the most interest these days. And while some events will always garner big headlines no matter what ratings/hit scores say, these days the seemingly-intractable dispute/conflict in Palestine no longer feels like "news".

Here's a copy of our exchange. I've omitted a few comments from people that didn’t speak to the topic and made a few edits for grammar and punctuation, but otherwise they are as-posted.

@Gideon: Why is the international press not uttering a word about the latest salvo of terrorist rocket fire out of Gaza today (let alone this week)? Oh wait I remember now... Israeli blood doesn't count.

@Joni: What even funnier is that Syria is murdering Al Falestina (ie Palestinians) by the truck load and no one is saying anything about how they're actually killing Palestinians! I guess it's only bad when the Jews are supposedly doing that (which they're not!). Syria is doing what Israel gets falsely accused of all the frikkin time!

ME: I'd go more with the fact that it's not really "news" that Hamas is attacking Israel, or that Israel is retaliating. Honestly, when faced with the choice, which would you rather pay attention to: Two children fighting incessantly and futilely over the same crap they've been fight over for ages, or the teenagers around the corner who seem to be growing up a bit and exhibiting some signs of maturity? I'm not saying that's the right attitude, (or even that the teenagers around the corner will be successful, or even that they are who we think they are) but you've got to at least admit that the desire to focus on something else is understandable. And not for nothing: Don't these Hamas attacks feel more than a little "Pay Attention to Us"-ish?

@Joni: I just think that's a bad analogy.

@Gideon: Well Mike, I totally get your perspective and would probably be merely disgruntled (rather then angry) with the media blackout if it was applied uniformly. Unfortunately it is not. This week alone the whackjob terrorists in Hamasastan have... lobbed scores of rockets at Israeli cities and sent "activists" with machine guns across the border who killed eight Israelis who were guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet the story is a flash in the pan. However, the moment Israel drops a bomb on a rocket squad and kills the would-be attackers, it's all across the headlines and the world explodes in furor. It's not the silence that I detest, it's the hypocrisy.

@Mike Kuznetsov: It's because Israel has a modern military that it uses to defend itself, while Hamas presents itself as a rag-tag group of "freedom fighters". I think it's similar to the propaganda from the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 80's. This makes the Palestinians seem like the underdogs.

ME: You'll get no truck from me on that score. I think that Mike is right about the air of "underdogs"-ness that can accompany coverage of Israel bombing Gaza. But it's the same kind of undercurrent that exists when we see footage of us bombing Iraq or raiding a home in Afghanistan. It's not sympathetic; it's just stark imagery.

I want to emphasize that I think that your frustrations are REALLY misguided. And by that I mean, they are focused on the wrong people. In the West, our media is almost 100% market-driven. This means that coverage is dictated in large part by what people want to see and are interested in. Should national newscasts/cable outlets curate their news more and emphasize some judgment about what people SHOULD know rather than what they WANT to know? Of course. But that's a very different thing to be mad about than anti-Israel bias. I'm by no means an apologist for the US media (hell, I've all but abandoned them since my move overseas, save for NPR- I'm an RTV, Al Jazeera & BBC guy now), but when you get pissed off at them, you're missing the real issue: People don't care as much about this stuff anymore.

Face it, we've got 2 major wars on, multiple countries in some stage of revolution in the Middle East, a near-depression in the US and the real danger of a breakup of the EU/Euro Zone and all that implies for the Western & World economies. Oh, and China's on the march in the developing world. Straight away, Israel is up against some serious competition for (even completely unbiased) mental and editorial bandwidth.

Israel's biggest problem in terms of coverage of events in Gaza (and the West bank) is that people in the West are, generally, just fed up with things there. I know that I am. Nobody cold ever convince me that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist, that it shouldn't be defended or that it doesn’t have the right to defend itself. But you know what? In the US (and even here in Beijing) Arabs and Israelis and Jews of all nationalities live, work and socialize together with no problems whatsoever. So why can’t they do that there? (Simplistic, I know, but this is the perspective of most Americans and Westerners.)

I'm pissed that the Palestinians don’t just accept Israelis' right to live in a state of their own in Palestine and then go the non-violent route in massive ways to address specific concerns within that context. (Think thousands standing in place in an area where the West bank wall is going up, people going on mass hunger strikes, scores laying down in front of bulldozers, etc.) They'd win a lot of their arguments in short order if they did that. And if a bunch of psychos REALLY wanted to martyr themselves, there'd be plenty of ways to satisfy them… I'm also pissed at Israel for not just telling Jordan that they can have the West Bank back and Egypt that they can have Gaza back, acknowledging that it's a different world now and that the current situation is deplorable and unsustainable. I'd also like them to adopt an idea that Alan Dershowitz had 10-15 years ago: After re-establishing the 1967 borders, they pledge to re-take -permanently- some measurable plot of land for every terrorist attack or missile fired.

These are just ideas. But the point is that neither side would be willing to consider them because the extreme whack-jobs on both ends control the debate. And after a while, the sight of both parties even refusing to agree to a process for talking about things makes people like me throw our hands up and say "to hell with these fucking children!" My gods, it's been 20 years since the 2nd Intafadah and every time there are "serious" talks, one side or the other pulls out/sabotages things when measurable progress starts. How long am I supposed to carry the fire in my belly? Even the Northern Irish got sick and tired of the violence after 20 years.

So don't get sucked into the trap of blaming the media for the lackluster/unenthusiastic coverage of Israel and its environs. Blame Israel and its environs.