March 11, 2006
The Other WarBy Alyssa A. Lappen
In The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy, veteran journalist Stephanie Gutmann provides careful documentation of the myriad ways in which the mainstream media coverage of the Middle East has been grossly compromised. Gutmann spent part of her teenage years in Israel and the disputed territories with her psychologist father, who studies 'cross--cultural features of aging.' On her return to the U.S., she was hardly a Zionist. On the contrary, throughout her college years in Ann Arbor, and later, she hung out with the solidly anti--Israel 'left.'
But in September 2000 when the current war against Israel began, Gutmann found herself glued to her television, and increasingly disturbed by the inaccurate portrayal of Israel as the next Tiananmen Square, where 'Large Mechanized Brutes' converged on 'Small Vulnerable Brown People.' Even in her leftist experiences, Israel was simply not a country that 'would countenance regular, systematic brutality against civilians, [or] produce soldiers capable of doing such a thing.'
Thus in October 2000, she followed the 'great herd of foreign press' and freelancers that decamped to Jerusalem to cover some action and pad their bank accounts. She found the press, then and during a return trip in 2002, almost universally pro--Palestinian and anti--Israel. Many foreign reporters, who habitually hang out in the American Colony Hotel, 'on the other side of the Green Line, in East Jerusalem,' cheerily announced this fact. Of course, this attitude does not make for unbiased, complete or factual news. But in general, whatever Palestinian officials say, reporters in Israel accept as unmitigated truth, without question or challenge. And whatever Israeli officials say, the same reporters consider suspect propaganda. The press rarely if ever applies equal skepticism to both sides.
Take the case of Mohammed Al Durrah, the Arab boy allegedly shot at Netzarim junction on Sept. 30, 2000. The media's job is 'to dig, to deploy skepticism, to ask difficult questions of both sides,' Gutmann writes. Here,
Thus an 'icon' was created, one that has been used by Arab and Muslim propagandists ever since. Even Osama bin Laden cited the case of Al Durrah.
Concerning this episode, Gutmann raises some excellent questions, but does not go far enough. She missed or neglected many details suggesting that this case was a fraud. As I discussed in a December 2004 article, there are many reasons for skepticism. One is the continued refusal of Charles Enderlin, the Jerusalem bureau chief of France 2, to release six minutes of videotape to Israeli investigators, despite receiving a formal request at a public hearing before 40 witnesses some years ago. Israeli General Yom Tov Samia asked Enderlin to provide the tape; Enderlin refused. Gutmann lets Enderlin off the hook. But in August 2004, reiterating a government stance held since 2002, Israel Government Press Office (GPO) director Daniel Seaman told me that the incident was a hoax, a staged forgery.
Gutmann does take excellent aim, however, at many other press oversights, negligence and bad faith. She painstakingly details, for example, how the mainstream media downplayed and excused the premeditated October 12, 2000 lynching of Israeli Sergeants Vadim Nourezitz and Yosef Avrahami, who made a wrong turn in Ramallah while driving back to their West Bank base.
'It has been another terrible day of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians,' Peter Jennings announced on ABC news before cutting to Gillian Findlay, who glossed over the lynching and focused on Israeli retaliation, without noting the IDF's exacting efforts to bomb only empty buildings in Ramallah. The BBC graphically recounted the horror show, but then seemed 'to justify the killings by implying the two soldiers could have been spies.' Worse, Ted Koppel of ABC's Nightline juxtaposed a journalist who had 'covered' Al Durrah with Nasser Atta, who witnessed the lynching in cold blood. Yet when Atta reported on air that Palestinians had beaten his cameraman for trying to film the murders----Koppel ignored the violation of journalistic principles and redirected the conversation to Palestinian 'suffering.'
Gutmann also documents official Palestinian Authority intimidation of reporters, noting that few dare to cover the subject at all. One exception is the outstanding Palestinian journalist, Khalid Abu Toameh, whom I interviewed in 2004. He told me of the same experience he had told Gutmann: witnessing a PA execution in August 2002, while waiting to see Arafat at the Mukata in Ramallah. Two men emerged dragging a third, whose face was 'badly swollen.' Many reporters were present, but Abu Toameh was the only one to write about the incident. In the August 8, 2002 Jerusalem Post, in 'Anatomy of an Execution,' he described the horror:
Gutmann also explains, as Abu Toameh did to me, Arafat's intimidation of all Palestinian reporters beginning in 1994, as soon as he took power following the Oslo Accords. Abu Toameh's work, a monograph by one other scholar and Freedom House reports, Gutmann writes,
The armed Fatah 'political wing' of the PLO
Arafat's henchmen shuttered five independent newspapers in the territories and quickly replaced them with the Voice of Palestine radio network and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation. As Abu Toameh told Gutmann, by 2002, the large Al Quds, Al--Ayam and Al--Hayat al--Jadeeda dailies were like 'the Palestinian version of the now defunct Pravda.'
In September 2002, Abu Toameh himself ran afoul of future Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, who was then a Palestinian Legislative Council speaker. He reported in passing that Qurei had requested a meeting with Israeli PM Ariel Sharon 'to discuss the IDF's siege of [PA] Chairman Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah.' Salah Elayan, a senior aide to Qurei, repeatedly called Toameh's cell phone and West Jerusalem home and threatened him. Abu Toameh in turn summoned the Jerusalem police to warn him off. Arab journalists working with foreign or Israeli media, Abu Toameh later explained, are expected to be 'obedient servants' or 'soldiers'
Abu Toameh has often reported the dangers facing Arab journalists who break these 'rules.'
Nevertheless, as Gutmann notes, to this day Toameh heroically risks his life to report truthfully on events within the PA government and Palestinian--controlled areas. Last September, he reported that Palestinian Muslims had ransacked a Christian village. In November, a former PA justice minister admitted to him that PA forces last summer failed to protect Gaza settlement infrastructures from tens of thousands of rampaging Palestinians after Israel pulled out. In December, Abu Toameh reported that Islamic Jihad had 'slammed' the PA for arresting terrorists.
Since 1993, Abu Toameh told Gutmann, he has seen the so--called peace process as 'just a contract between ten thousand or so Palestinians from the PLO and their families and businesses' and the Israeli government. In 2004, he put it to me more bluntly. 'How can Jews be so stupid,' he asked, while translating some of the hate--filled screed that fills PA TV broadcasts. 'An entire generation has been irretrievably destroyed.' Abu Toameh blames Israel for allowing an exiled group of pariah terrorists to 'return' and take power. But more than anyone else, he blames the foreign press for failing to report the truth.
In contrast to the straight, unemotional (and high--risk) work of Abu Toameh, Gutmann holds up partisan 'journalists' like former ABC reporter Gillian Findlay, the Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg and former Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief Lee Hockstader, whom GPO director Seaman boycotted in 2002 for 'florid dispatches' that sounded like they were written for the PA daily, Al--Hayat al--Jadeeda. (They had also coordinated reports with PA terrorist Marwan Barghouti, Seaman said.) All three editorial boards deny that Seaman had anything to do with it, but all three reporters were replaced, according to Gutmann. Findlay returned to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Goldenberg (winner of HonestReporting's 2001 award for Dishonest Reporting) went to Washington and Hockstader was recalled to the States.
Gutmann, who attended Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and formerly worked for the Los Angeles Times, observes that 'in a perfect world,' media outlets would themselves 'weed out people who were more activist than committed reporter.' In the Middle East, things do not work that way.
New York Times ethical guidelines for example prohibit reporters from doing anything that 'might raise questions about political neutrality.' Sadly, Gutmann notes, the Times appears not to enforce its own rules, since several Middle East stringers claiming to work for the paper also list themselves on amin.org. In one case, a Palestinian journalist lists as 'occupations' on his resume: both work for the Times and 'political activist.' Similarly, she reports that CBS and Reuters photographer Khaled Zighari links from amin.org to his webpage, featuring 'a controversial 'One Palestine' picture' and links to cartoons of Ariel Sharon eating Palestinian babies. When Zighari's GPO card expired, Israel did not renew it. CBS protested, but Israeli courts upheld the decision after learning of the photographer's ties to a terrorist organization that exploited his media position for their ends.
Furthermore in May 2001, BBC correspondent Fayad Abu Shamala told a crowded Hamas rally in Gaza that
journalists and media organizations [are] waging the campaign shoulder--to--shoulder together with the Palestinian people.
According to Gutmann, the BBC refused to take any disciplinary action. Then on April 30, 2002, Italian journalist Patrizia Viglino, operating on a GPO press card, ferried Asif Mohammed Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif from Gaza into Tel Aviv, where Hanif detonated himself at Mike's Place, a popular seaside bar, killing three and injuring 60. Viglino was swiftly deported.
Gutmann recounts a seemingly endless string of incidents involving activists posing as reporters and unprofessional reporters assuming the roles of activists. There are other cases, too, such as that of Ali Durehmeh, an Associated Press reporter who had previously spent two years as a 'field researcher' for the pro--Palestinian 'human rights' group, B'Tselem. When I tried to reach Durehmeh in August 2004, an AP spokeswoman curtly replied that AP reporters were 'not allowed to talk to the press.' Gutmann received similar replies to her inquiries.
Several lessons emerge from this finely wrought book.
One is that the press, if it changes at all, will be very slow to do so, despite public pressure and understandable impatience and restrictions imposed by the Israeli government. Quite simply, while Israel's free press and democratic rule have made the country the easiest place in the Middle East from which to report, it remains a place that reporters love to hate.
Another is that readers and news aficionado's should learn to question everything the mainstream media reports about the Middle East. Fortunately, Gutmann notes, the influence of Internet news services like this one and the blogosphere are growing. That can only help reporting on Israel, she writes, 'and everything else.'