As the world confronts a variety of novel challenges—ecological destruction and mass species extinction, the rise of fascism in the Internet era, and the moral collapse of the United States of America—some things remain the same despite dramatic global transformations. The Israeli military is again pummeling the besieged people of Gaza (and again during Ramadan), and the mainstream US media is still covering this carnage in a decidedly unbalanced manner. Although American public opinion (including that of a growing segment of American Jews) is turning against Israel, its leadership, and policies, US newspaper headlines continue to depict the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a biased perspective that dehumanizes Palestinian victims. On the front page of the May 6th edition of the New York Times, a report entitled “Israel, militants, escalate clashes” blithely stated that “four Israelis were killed from rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and 23 Palestinians died.” One wonders how these 23 Palestinians met their demise—from the flu? Car accidents? Heart attacks? There’s little mention of the scale and brutality of the Israeli army’s aerial assaults or the gross disparity between Israeli and Palestinian military capabilities, let alone any hint of the horrific conditions under which Gazans live as a result of Israel’s siege and inhumane treatment of the nearly two million people struggling to remain alive there. Yesterday, US newspapers claimed uncritically that a ceasefire was in place, but it’s far more likely that the Israeli Army is simply taking a break from bombarding Gaza during the Eurovision program and its accompanying festivities.
In an Internet era that affords Palestinians and their advocates with numerous ways to present more accurate accounts of what’s happening in Gaza through Facebook pages, YouTube channels, Instagram accounts, blogs, and websites, it’s mind-boggling that America’s “respected” and established media, from the New York Times to National Public Radio (NPR) to CNN, still parrot Israeli government discourses. Three days ago, I heard an Associated Press reporter in Jerusalem giving an NPR interviewer the Israeli Government’s talking points about Gaza without any critical comment or clarification. Of course, Israel is famous for its “hasbara” efforts, which certainly surpass the Palestinian Authority’s meager attempts at media outreach, but any honest and conscientious journalist in today’s media environment ought to be able to click open an iPhone and do a web search for alternative perspectives and analyses.
Eighteen years ago, three colleagues and I co-founded a pioneering website, the Electronic Intifada (EI), in an effort to provide radio, television, and newspaper reporters and editors with a fine-grained and contextualized view of events on the ground in Occupied Palestine, in Palestinian refugee camps, and among Palestinian citizens of Israel. Initially designed as an information clearing house and resource for journalists, EI featured critical analyses of unfair and biased reporting during the Second Intifada, and urged its readers to send letters, faxes, and emails to key contacts at major news outlets correcting their reporting and critiquing their blatant lack of objectivity. We would include citations from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Fourth Geneva Convention, and even respected Israeli sources that contradicted the mainstream US media’s coverage of Gaza and the West Bank. Naively, we hoped this would eventually turn the tide of poor coverage, and although we did establish some good relationships with journalists at CNN and the BBC who appreciated our efforts, it quickly became clear that biased media coverage of Palestine stemmed not from journalists’ lack of accurate information, but rather, from an irrational and stubborn commitment to reporting in a manner sympathetic to the official Israeli perspective.
Within a year, EI shifted its approach. Instead of focusing our attention on critiquing the mainstream media, mobilizing our readers, and addressing journalists and their editors, we decided to be an alternative news source that, thanks to the Internet and new media platforms, would grant Palestinians “permission to narrate” their own stories directly to English-speaking audiences. EI was a pioneer in using blogging software to publish daily reports under the heading “Palestine Diaries,” which empowered Palestinians on the ground to upload their own eye-witness accounts, reflections, art work, and photographs. During the Israeli military’s Operation Defensive Shield in the spring of 2002, someone at the offices of the Palestine Authority redirected their official web browser to EI’s URL. As a result, links to the Palestine Authority’s website on the BBC and CNN International webpages brought readers directly to EI. Overnight, our readership increased exponentially, and a few media outlets took notice and even wrote favorably about EI’s professionalism and clarity, while news outlets like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Ireland, and CBS news contacted our team for interviews and commentary.
Nearly two decades later, EI is just one of hundreds of websites, YouTube channels, blogs, and Twitter and Instagram accounts presenting contextualized and fact-checked news from a Palestinian perspective. And now, it’s not just a handful of American, European, and Jordanian activists undertaking this work, but also countless Palestinian individuals and organizations, progressive Israeli organizations, and American groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, Mondoweiss, and Americans for Peace Now that offer excellent analyses and informed coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the grassroots level in the United States, increasing numbers of people are becoming skeptical of the official Israeli narrative and the pro-Israel lobby’s public relations efforts, and now actively seek out additional and alternative news sources. Yet the “professional” media, represented first and foremost by the New York Times (America’s “newspaper of record”) and National Public Radio, stubbornly persist in echoing Israeli officialdom’s talking points. Here in Washington, journalists from mainstream media outlets rely far too much on the pro-Israel lobby’s think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, when sourcing their articles and editorials. During a recent invitation-only event held at the Washington Institute, Jared Kushner, White House Special Advisor and the president’s son-in-law, briefed a select audience on the Trump Administration’s as-yet-unseen Middle East Peace plan. The attending journalists did not learn much—other than that the plan will not be unveiled until after Ramadan, and that the administration does not like to use the term “two state solution” any longer.
It’s not clear whether Kushner received any push back or serious questioning from the handful of journalists invited to the briefing, or if any of them challenged the administration’s aims. Perhaps the fact that the briefing was closed to the public, and thus, any journalists who might criticize Trump’s conceptions of “Middle East peace,” indicates that American practitioners and consumers of Israeli hasbara are feeling nervous about answering tough questions in public. But in a dark political era in which the US president daily attacks the US press as purveyors of “fake news” while constantly stirring up hatred of the Fourth Estate, it’s distressing that journalists and editors from America’s most respected media outlets don’t speak up, do proper journalistic research, and report critically by relying on a variety of sources about a conflict that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives for the last 70 years. If any aspect of American journalism deserves accusations of “fake,” or at the very least deficient, news, it’s definitely US coverage of the ongoing tragedy of Palestine, particularly the suffering of the people of Gaza. The US media can’t change Trump’s insane rantings against them, but they can and should examine and alter their own reporting.
(Read the Arabic version of this article here.)