Journalists crowd around an ambulance in Gaza. Photo via Flickr user Basel Alyazouri
The role of the press in the turbulent conflict playing out in the Gaza Strip is becoming more and more a part of the story, with journalists forced to defend themselves in an online flame war over media coverage of this latest Middle Eastern disaster.
One of the most remarkable salvos came courtesy of David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine and a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Frum took a shot at three of the world’s largest and most respected media organizations—Reuters, the Associated Press and the New York Times—when he tweeted his opinion that a widely circulated photo of a grief-stricken Palestinian man soaked in his own father’s blood was a “fake.”
Without getting stuck in the weeds about why Frum thought the photo was in some way staged (BagNews has a thorough breakdown here that pretty much crushes his argument), let’s just say that reaction to his comments has not been kind. On Tuesday, Poynter obliterated any remaining doubt, vetting the photographer’s work and determining that Frum was dead wrong. Reached via email, Frum declined to provide evidence for his initial charge. “Sounds like you’ve written the story already," he wrote back. When I pressed further, he said simply, "That *was* my comment." (UPDATE: Frum has issued an apology, but defended his initial skepticism, writing, "[As] anyone who follows news from the Middle East knows, there is a long history in the region of the use of faked or misattributed photographs as tools of propaganda.")
But Frum's tweets are indicative not just of his own position—he has been vocally supportive of the Israeli offensive, as well as his belief that last year’s peace talks eroded because of Palestinian stubbornness—but also of a growing trend. While the world is simply watching, those in the press are examining and scrutinizing every image, tweet, video, story and report coming out of the Gaza Strip for evidence of bias or favoritism toward one side or the other. And while reporters are dodging rockets (and, in the case of Palestinian journalist Khaled Hamad, being obliterated by one), their editors and ombudsmen are deflecting blows from readers and media observers alike.
In the process of reporting on Hamad’s killing, I came across an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal penned by Thane Rosenbaum, who made the following claim:
“There are now reports that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are transporting themselves throughout Gaza in ambulances packed with children. Believe it or not, a donkey laden with explosives detonated just the other day,” Rosenbaum wrote.
The author provided no source for his assertion that Hamas is cynically using children as pawns in what has become, on their part, a battle for sympathy from the global community (let alone a citation for the exploded animal). If the increasing amount of coverage of civilian deaths in Palestine has been a boon to Hamas, unattributed information like that supplied by Rosenbaum represents an irresponsible act on the part of a major news organization. That Hamas carries out such practices has long been the reason held up by Israel for what has historically been a disproportionate loss of life on the Palestinian side. Rosenbaum himself acknowledged part of the reason there is any debate at all as to the morality of Israel’s actions is due to the rapidly rising Palestinian body count.
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if the (loss of life) wasn’t disproportionate,” Rosenbaum told Mike Pesca, host of Slate’s The Gist podcast.
Credit a large media presence in the Gaza Strip not just to providing those numbers, but the haunting images, stories, videos and interviews that have amplified the cold hard stats.
Those statistics—the high number of Palestinian casualties compared to Israeli ones—come with a caveat, Rosenbaum claims. In his view, many of the dead are either complicit in Hamas’ attacks on Israel, supportive of their efforts, or themselves guilty of providing shelter and resources to the terrorist organization. (In response to Rosenbaum’s column, Vanity Fair noted that many of Gaza’s residents are under the age of 18, making them ineligible to have voted Hamas into power during the 2006 election.) But this assertion—that civilians are either intimately or peripherally involved with Hamas via voting or implicit support—was echoed by the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) in regard to journalists working in the region. In comments made to Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the GPO insisted that reporters “are working with Hamas.”
That’s a serious charge, and one that leads to a question being asked by media observers around the world: Is there too much coverage of the Palestinian side of this conflict? And is that coverage “pro-Palestinian,” as Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has argued? Apparently, the perception among some Israelis is that media coverage has been slanted to show the conflict too much from Palestinian eyes, to the point where journalists are facing hostility not only in Gaza, where the overwhelming majority of the violence has taken place, but in Israel. There, a man shoved a BBC Arabic correspondent during a live shot, knocking him out of frame. That’s in addition to the off-camera threats received by CNN correspondent Diana Magnay.
Many American elites have argued that the only reason there is so much focus on Israel’s invasion of Gaza is because people are more interested in hearing about Jews killing Arabs or Muslims than they are Arabs or Muslims killing off each other. Which, of course! Why wouldn’t there be massive interest in the most recent iteration of a conflict that has been boiling for centuries? No amount of reporting could possibly express the horrific nature of the situation in Syria, where one religion extends to both sides of the conflict. But expecting people to care more about that than what’s going on in Gaza is akin to wondering why more people watch a Yankees/Red Sox game than they do a contest between the Yankees and Blue Jays. Some fights are more interesting than others.
As an editor, Frum should understand this. And his job title makes his apparent belief that three of the world’s largest media organizations worked in collusion with a photographer to stage a photo that would benefit the Palestinian cause all the more baffling.
If the dangers on the ground in Gaza and the smearing of journalists online wasn’t enough, there’s more. Last week the Foreign Press Association (FPA) reported a disturbing string of events in which journalists were either intentionally or accidentally targeted by Israel. They included the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) apparently firing on Al Jazeera offices in Gaza City, and an attack on a CNN crew filming a protest in Hebron for Palestinian prisoners on a hunger strike. Undercover police at the protest eventually destroyed the camera, and accused the crew of “incitement,” according to the FPA.
Whether the artillery that struck Al Jazeera was intentionally fired or not doesn’t really matter when you consider Lieberman’s thoughts on the media organization. In a somewhat stunning declaration last week, he added fuel to the fire:
“Just as Great Britain would not permit Der Stürmer to establish a television channel to broadcast from London, and the United States would not permit an Al Qaeda channel to broadcast from New York, so must we act in order to prevent Al Jazeera from broadcasting from Israel.”
Set aside the chilling implications of such censorship on a free and open press and consider what it means for the shaping of views within Israel. Without contrasting voices, the conflict in Gaza would take on a head-in-the-sand tone.
While disconcerting for fans of a free press, Israel’s reaction to the media coverage of Operation Protective Edge is not surprising as condemnation for the attacks and calls for an immediate ceasefire grow.
Mansour of the Committee to Protect Journalists called the Gaza Strip a “deadly environment for journalists,” adding that the CPJ “expected an escalation of violence and the death of journalists from the beginning.”
Hamad may have been the first casualty, but as the conflict drags on, more journalists are being pulled into the far less deadly fight over framing. Regardless of your position on this mess, stories of the destruction and loss of human life in Palestine shouldn’t be labeled as propaganda. Documenting the carnage there has another name: journalism.
Justin Glawe is a freelance journalist based in Peoria, Illinois. He writes about crime there, and recently launched a reporting project that will address issues of child welfare on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.