Gaza, 20 July-2014(Indilens Web Team): At least 100 people have been killed in Gaza’s eastern district of Shujayea in the heaviest barrage of tank shells since #Israel launched its ground offensive, and as a two-hour humanitarian ceasefire was broken less than an hour after it was announced. At least 500+ civilian Palestinian killed and 5000+ injured including 200+ children.
The Listening Post has been monitoring the debate on media coverage of the current crisis in Gaza. Gloria Goodale of Christian Science Monitor offers this overview:
“Constant coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is keeping the escalating battles on the front burner of the global media diet… However, despite the widespread exposure, many say the media just aren’t getting it right.”
“Many Israelis say reports that emphasize the mounting Palestinian death toll create an emotional bias against Israel as well as themselves personally. At the same time, other supporters of a better understanding of Middle East politics say the Palestinian cause has been slighted and misrepresented by what they call a long-term Western media bias toward Israel.”
HonestReporting.com is a site dedicated to “defending Israel from media bias”. For CEO Joe Hyams, to state the contrast between the mounting Gaza body count and a single Israeli death is to obscure the motivations of the two sides:
“We emphasize that the casualty figures reported in the media do not represent the true intentions of the two parties. Israel has made and continues to make every possible effort to save the lives of civilians on both sides while the Hamas terrorist organization fires rockets indiscriminately at Israeli civilians and calls on its own people to act as human shields, even at the cost of their lives.”
But for many watching and reading Western coverage, a pro-Israel bias seems deeply institutionalised, compromising the most basic reporting.
Deanna Othman for Mondoweiss comments on ABC News anchor Dianne Sawyer’s misidentification of a Gazan family salvaging wreckage from the rubble of their bomb-devastated home, stating in a live broadcast that they were Israelis. Othman writes:
“the fact that Sawyer, a journalist with decades of experience, did not realize that there had been no destruction of that magnitude in Israel, nor has there ever been, and yet she still continued to describe the people in both images as Israeli is telling of both the level of ignorance of even the most seasoned of American reporters, and the natural tendency of American media to lead news on this issue with Israeli suffering.”
Russia Today’s Abby Martin addresses this media imbalance, pointing out that proportionality is sometimes lost in the attempt to report even-handedly:
“I denounce deadly force on both sides but it’s important to not frame this as a cycle of violence that’s equal. One is the coloniser oppressor, the other, the colonised oppressed.” [+]
That “cycle of violence” presents another problem for journalists: whose violence is a provocation and whose a retaliation? Al Jazeera English White House correspondent, Patty Culhane, reports what she sees as the general trend in US media:
“The formula is simple, and it applies to most of the print and broadcast journalism outlets. Always start your story with description of Hamas rockets and the fear they are striking into the heart of Israel. The first pictures are always of rockets fired from Gaza and Israel is targeting the “militants that rule Gaza”.
In cases where that order is reversed, the reactions are instantaneous. July 9, a story in the print edition of the International New York Times carries the headline:
“Israel presses air barrage and Hamas strikes back”
Tamar Sternthal, writing for the pro-Israeli, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) writes:
“Uninformed, casual readers would have no clue from this grossly skewed headline that the opposite is true.
According to the pro-Israel camp, Israel’s military action is retaliation against Hamas aggression. The New York Times comes in for scathing criticism from Clay Waters writing for Newsbusters, a US-based right-wing opinion site. Referring to a July 10 article, Waters says Times reporter, Steven Erlanger
“put the paper’s moral equivalency on display, making Palestinian “suicide bombs” in pizzerias and buses the equivalent to Israeli counterstrikes against the terrorists in the form of “military incursions” and airstrikes.” [+]
Israel’s government is an active player in this media battle. Al Jazeera’s Marwan Bishara draws attention to an Israeli government document, written after the 2008 Gaza war and leaked in 2009:
Five years ago, US-based “The Israel Project” asked a Zionist Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, to prepare a new updated media guide for “leaders who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel”. The project builds on some of the best examples of Israeli leaders’ own success at mystification, in order to devise a strategy that neutralises Israel’s critics and promotes and improves its media standing.
This heated exchange between the Israeli Prime Minister’s spokesman Mark Regev and Channel 4’s Jon Snow shows that this kind of preparation is becoming increasingly important.
Israel’s military, has a formidable online presence, which it leverages to manage the debate on the web. The IDF Twitter account tweets frequently about the danger presented by Hamas, often using infographics such as this:
IDF ✔ @IDFSpokesperson
The UN requested a humanitarian window in Gaza. We agreed, but Hamas took the opportunity to attack Israel.
Follow the conversation underneath, however, and it becomes clear that the social media battle for hearts and minds is far from won. Enlisted in this war of words are hundreds of student volunteers working in what, in English, is called an “Advocacy Room” but, as noted by Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada, in Hebrew is called the “‘hasbara’ war room”:
“‘Hasbara,’ literally ‘explaining,’ is the term used in Israel for government propaganda aimed at overseas audiences… Working in 30 languages, the students target online forums including so called “anti-Israel” pages on Facebook and comments sections of online media.”
Abunimah has covered Israel’s organized approach to social media before but as the New York Times reports, online ‘hasbara’ campaigns don’t seem to have tipped the balance in Israel’s favour:
“… the #IsraelUnderFire hashtag has been used in more than 36,200 tweets and 660 Facebook posts in the past week… Since July 7, the #GazaUnderAttack hashtag has been used 622,000 times and #FreePalestine has racked up more than 220,000 mentions.”
Part of the difficulty for Israel could well be that foreign reporters currently stationed in Gaza are as active on Twitter as they are in filing reports to their respective media organizations. Many of them gather at the beach-side Deira Hotel which, according to the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor, is popular for “its good food, consistent wi-fi connections, and, most importantly, the fact that it is open.”
“One more selling point, however, is its location. The hotel has a terrace that allows views of the beach and the Mediterranean Sea. Wednesday afternoon, unfortunately, it offered something different: A chance to witness the death of four children.” [+]
Tweets from journalists such as Channel 4’s Jonathan Miller, Peter Beaumont of the Guardian, Nick Casey of the Wall Street Journal and NBC’s Ayman Mohyeldin all made sure that this latest killing of Palestinian children shook the online debate.
Ayman Mohyeldin made his name, and his reputation, reporting from Gaza during the 2008 war; the sudden decision by his employers to remove him from Gaza has not gone unnoticed.
The fallout from NBC’s move to replace Mohyeldin in Gaza with Tel Aviv-based correspondent Richard Engel to report on the beach killings was first reported by MediaBistro-TVNewser:
“… the decision to have Engel report the story for “Nightly” instead of Mohyeldin angered some NBC News staffers. NBC News declined to comment to TVNewser on its editorial decision.”
Glenn Greenwald at the Intercept writes that NBC’s official explanation for Mohyeldin’s removal from Gaza — that it was for “security concerns” — was inconsistent with their decision to immediately send Engel and his producer into the coastal strip to replace him. Greenwald hints that the decision may have been editorial rather than operational:
“Over the last two weeks, Mohyeldin’s reporting has been far more balanced and even-handed than the standard pro-Israel coverage that dominates establishment American press coverage; his reports have provided context to the conflict that is missing from most American reports and he avoids adopting Israeli government talking points as truth. As a result, neocon and ‘pro-Israel’ websites have repeatedly attacked him as a ‘Hamas spokesman’ and spouting ‘pro-Hamas rants.’”
Philip Weiss, founder and co-editor of Mondoweiss was another who reported the Mohyeldin affair while also detecting signs of a possible shift in perspectives by US mainstream media. Weiss points to Jake Tapper’s question addressed to an Israeli official asking whether it is not in the “best interest of Israel” to lift the Gaza siege so that there are no longer “millions of Palestinians surrounding your country who see no other option but violence?” Weiss writes:
“No other option but violence. That shows some understanding. The tragic event on the beach yesterday is furthering that understanding in the U.S. mainstream, at tremendous cost to the people of Gaza.”
POSTSCRIPT 19 July
Since writing, NBC has reversed its decision to pull Ayman Mohyeldin from Gaza and the reporter is set to return to the region. The New York Times reports that NBC was being “accused the network of reacting to pressure from the Israeli side of the conflict” while Al Jazeera’s The Stream reported that #LetAymanSpeak trended on Twitter as news of the the decision spread.
NBC did not address the debate around its decision to pull Mohyeldin from Gaza, stating only that reporter deployments are “constantly reassesed”.