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With Gaza, Journalists Fail Again
Posted on Jan 26, 2009
By Chris Hedges
The assault on Gaza exposed not only Israel’s callous disregard for international law but the gutlessness of the American press. There were no major newspapers, television networks or radio stations that challenged Israel’s fabricated version of events that led to the Gaza attack or the daily lies Israel used to justify the unjustifiable. Nearly all reporters were, as during the buildup to the Iraq war, pliant stenographers and echo chambers. If we as journalists have a product to sell, it is credibility. Take that credibility away and we become little more than propagandists and advertisers. By refusing to expose lies we destroy, in the end, ourselves.
All governments lie in wartime. Israel is no exception. Israel waged an effective war of black propaganda. It lied craftily with its glib, well-rehearsed government spokespeople, its ban on all foreign press in Gaza and its confiscation of cell phones and cameras from its own soldiers lest the reality of the attack inadvertently seep out. It was the Arabic network al-Jazeera, along with a handful of local reporters in Gaza, which upheld the honor of our trade, that of giving a voice to those who without our presence would have no voice, that of countering the amplified lies of the powerful with the faint cries and pain of the oppressed. But these examples of journalistic integrity were too few and barely heard by us.
We retreated, as usual, into the moral void of American journalism, the void of balance and objectivity. The ridiculous notion of being unbiased, outside of the flow of human existence, impervious to grief or pain or anger or injustice, allows reporters to coolly give truth and lies equal space and airtime. Balance and objectivity are the antidote to facing unpleasant truths, a way of avoidance, a way to placate the powerful. We record the fury of a Palestinian who has lost his child in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza but make sure to mention Israel’s “security needs,” include statements by Israeli officials who insist there was firing from the home or the mosque or the school and of course note Israel’s right to defend itself. We do this throughout the Middle East. We record the human toll in Iraq, caused by our occupation, but remind everyone that “Saddam killed his own people.” We write about the deaths of families in Afghanistan during an airstrike but never forget to mention that the Taliban “oppresses women.” Their crimes cancel out our crimes. It becomes a moral void. And above all we never forget to mention the “war on terror.” We ask how and who but never, never do we ask why. As long as we speak in the cold, dead language of those in power, the language that says a lie is as valid as a fact, the language where one version of history is as good as another, we are part of the problem, not the solution.
“Bombs and rockets are flying between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza, and once again, The Times is caught in a familiar crossfire, accused from all sides of unfair and inaccurate coverage,” New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt breezily began in writing his assessment of the paper’s coverage, going on to conclude “though the most vociferous supporters of Israel and the Palestinians do not agree, I think The Times, largely barred from the battlefield and reporting amid the chaos of war, has tried its best to do a fair, balanced and complete job—and has largely succeeded.”
The cliché that Israel had a right to defend itself from Hamas rocket attacks—that bombs and rockets were “flying between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza”—was accepted in the press as an undisputed truth. It became the starting point for every hollow discussion of the Israeli attack. It left pundits and columnists chattering about “proportionality,” not legality. Israel was in open violation of international law, specifically Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which calls on an occupying power to respect the safety of occupied civilians. But you would not know this from the press reports. The use of attack aircraft and naval ships, part of the world’s fourth-largest military power, to level densely packed slums of people who were hungry, without power and often water, people surrounded on all sides by the Israeli army, was fatuously described as a war. The news coverage held up the absurd notion that a few Hamas fighters with light weapons and no organization were a counterforce to F-16 fighter jets, tank battalions, thousands of Israeli soldiers, armored personnel carriers, naval ships and Apache attack helicopters. It fit the Israeli narrative. It may have been balanced and objective. But it was not true.
The Hamas rockets are crude, often made from old pipes, and largely ineffectual. The first homemade Qassam rocket was fired across the Israeli border in October 2001. It was not until June 2004 that Israel suffered its first fatality. There are 24 Israelis who have been killed by Hamas rocket fire, compared with 5,000 Palestinian dead, more than half of them in Gaza, at least a third of them children. This does not absolve Hamas from firing rockets at civilian areas, which is a war crime, but it does raise questions about the story line swallowed without reflection by the press. I covered the Kosovo Albanians’ desperate attempts to resist the Serbs, which resulted in a handful of Serb casualties, but no one ever described the lopsided Serbian butchery in Kosovo as a war. It was called genocide, and it led to NATO intervention to halt it.
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