During the Gaza war this summer, it became clear that one of the most important aspects of the media-saturated conflict between Jews and Arabs is also the least covered: the press itself. The Western press has become less an observer of this conflict than an actor in it, a role with consequences for the millions of people trying to comprehend current events, including policymakers who depend on journalistic accounts to understand a region where they consistently seek, and fail, to productively intervene.
An essay I wrote for Tablet on this topic in the aftermath of the war sparked intense interest. In the article, based on my experiences between 2006 and 2011 as a reporter and editor in the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press, one of the world’s largest news organizations, I pointed out the existence of a problem and discussed it in broad terms. Using staffing numbers, I illustrated the disproportionate media attention devoted to this conflict relative to other stories, and gave examples of editorial decisions that appeared to be driven by ideological considerations rather than journalistic ones. I suggested that the cumulative effect has been to create a grossly oversimplified story—a kind of modern morality play in which the Jews of Israel are displayed more than any other people on earth as examples of moral failure. This is a thought pattern with deep roots in Western civilization.
But how precisely does this thought pattern manifest itself in the day-to-day functioning, or malfunctioning, of the press corps? To answer this question, I want to explore the way Western press coverage is shaped by unique circumstances here in Israel and also by flaws affecting the media beyond the confines of this conflict. In doing so, I will draw on my own experiences and those of colleagues. These are obviously limited and yet, I believe, representative.
A rally in support of Islamic Jihad at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, in November 2013 (Courtesy of Matti Friedman)
I’ll begin with a simple illustration. The above photograph is of a student rally held last November at Al-Quds University, a mainstream Palestinian institution in East Jerusalem. The rally, in support of the armed fundamentalist group Islamic Jihad, featured actors playing dead Israeli soldiers and a row of masked men whose stiff-armed salute was returned by some of the hundreds of students in attendance. Similar rallies have been held periodically at the school.
I am not using this photograph to make the case that Palestinians are Nazis. Palestinians are not Nazis. They are, like Israelis, human beings dealing with a difficult present and past in ways that are occasionally ugly. I cite it now for a different reason.
Such an event at an institution like Al-Quds University, headed at the time by a well-known moderate professor, and with ties to sister institutions in America, indicates something about the winds now blowing in Palestinian society and across the Arab world. The rally is interesting for the visual connection it makes between radical Islam here and elsewhere in the region; a picture like this could help explain why many perfectly rational Israelis fear withdrawing their military from East Jerusalem or the West Bank, even if they loathe the occupation and wish to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors. The images from the demonstration were, as photo editors like to say, “strong.” The rally had, in other words, all the necessary elements of a powerful news story.
The event took place a short drive from the homes and offices of the hundreds of international journalists who are based in Jerusalem. Journalists were aware of it: The sizable Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press, for example, which can produce several stories on an average day, was in possession of photos of the event, including the one above, a day later. (The photographs were taken by someone I know who was on campus that day, and I sent them to the bureau myself.) Jerusalem editors decided that the images, and the rally, were not newsworthy, and the demonstration was only mentioned by the AP weeks later when the organization’s Boston bureau reported that Brandeis University had cut ties with Al-Quds over the incident. On the day that the AP decided to ignore the rally, November 6, 2013, the same bureau published a report about a pledge from the U.S. State Department to provide a minor funding increase for the Palestinian Authority; that was newsworthy. This is standard. To offer another illustration, the construction of 100 apartments in a Jewish settlement is always news; the smuggling of 100 rockets into Gaza by Hamas is, with rare exceptions, not news at all.