Thursday, October 29, 2009

Media Coverage of the Middle East: Just the facts versus context

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By Barry Rubin

One of the most perplexing paradoxes of the media is the battle of facts versus context. We want the media to be as objective as possible—“Just the facts, ma’am,” as police sergeant Joe Friday famously said on the Dragnet American television series of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet on the other hand we want some reasonable degree of context without which the “facts” are not only confusing but misleading.

Nowadays the problem is much more with the “context” than with the “facts.” Newspaper articles, and even more television news, are full of what is called “analysis,” which means the reporter’s own opinion. Since almost all the journalists seem to think along pretty similar lines this intensifies the problem.

And on top of that still another contemporary problem is the self-censorship of the journalists since they want to direct your thinking toward things they believe to be “good” and away from what they consider to be “bad.”

Aside from personal bias is the desire to be perceived by others as holding the “proper” opinions combined with the fact that journalists know they will no longer be punished for crossing the line in slanting stories—no matter how outrageous they do it as long as they stop short of provable plagiarism. (I was going to add outright fabrication, too, but even that is almost always successful.)

While total objectivity is impossible to obtain, if there was such a thing as a scientific Objectivity Meter its level in the Western media would have been going steadily downward.

The fact that bias has now become conscious and deliberate makes matters far worse.

Two of the most common examples I’ve seen—and I’ve actually heard journalists and academics admit that they lied “in a good cause” here—are the following. First, deliberately understating the misdeeds and extremism of Iraq and later of Iran “so as not to give [George W.] Bush an excuse to attack them.” Second, they have deliberately understating the misdeeds and extremism of the Palestinian leadership or groups so as to “help” the cause of peace. I call this: the Lying for Peace movement.

Yet sometimes stories, too, cry out for more context. True, these two reporters should be praised for doing their job in presenting the facts plus a limited reasonably accurate context and balance. Still, the reader must learn how to do his or her own analysis. So I have selected two relatively banal pieces to illustrate this point.

Philadelphia Inquirer, October 25: “Palestinian elections scheduled” by Ben Hubbard, Associated Press:

“”Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday that his government would hold presidential and parliamentary elections on January 24, regardless of whether it reaches a power-sharing deal with the extremist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.”

Really? On January 24 are we going to be watching the elections? Of course not. As long as the Palestinian Authority (PA) doesn’t control the Gaza Strip it will never hold elections. And the problem is that the way things are going it will never control the Gaza Strip which will remain in Hamas’s hands.

As an aside, it is truly amazing that the world seems set on consolidating Hamas’s control over that territory even though it is a Taliban-like, terrorist, and openly antisemitic regime whose policies will leads repeatedly to violence and block any hope of there being peace. Condemnations of Israel for defending itself, the appropriation of massive amounts of money for reconstruction, and other steps protect and preserve a regime which is up there with Libya and North Korea on the scale of repression.

“Hamas criticized the announcement, deepening the rift between the Islamic group and Abbas' secular Fatah movement, which have led dueling governments in Gaza and the West Bank for the last two years.” Later the article does say: “Hamas seized by force in 2007.”

Well, actually Hamas seized power by violence. You will hear over and over again that they won the elections. They did, made a government coalition, and then seized total power, wiping out all opposition. Consequently, the regime in Gaza did not come to power by elections.

The article correctly states—and this is perhaps the context most needed—that this is “a vote that many see as unlikely to happen, given Hamas opposition.”

Then, too, the article notes:

“The latest round of Egyptian-brokered reconciliation talks fell apart…when Hamas refused to sign a reconciliation agreement after Fatah accepted it.”

So the burden for the failure is put on Hamas. Yet is this something in the Palestinian Authority’s favor? As I have often noted—and as the PA continually demonstrates—the PA is far more interested in making a deal with Hamas than with Israel, and it is impossible to have both.

The second article is “Jerusalem rocked by clashes: Israeli police fought Palestinian protesters near the Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City,” by Richard Boudreaux, October 26, originally appearing in the Los Angeles Times:

“Israeli police stormed the grounds of Al-Aqsa mosque yesterday, using clubs and stun grenades to subdue stone-throwing Palestinians in the worst clashes in a month of unrest in and around Jerusalem's Old City.”

But then the article does, what happens so often, a false balance at the cost of misstating the facts by saying:

“The rioting…sprang from rising tensions stoked by Jewish and Islamic extremists that could keep Jerusalem and its contested holy sites on edge for weeks.”

In the history of the conflict—with its many riots in Jerusalem—there has never been one that has less to do with any Jewish action. The riots were called for by the PA’s ruling party, Fatah; Hamas, Hizb al-Tahrir, and the radical Islamic movement among Israeli Arabs. These statements were made publicly.

So what part did Jewish extremists play? Well, there was a group of French (not Israeli and probably not even Jewish) tourists who were taken on a tour of the Temple Mount. Radical groups spread the false story that these were Jewish extremists trying to pray there and this was used to trigger riots.

By the way, Fatah and the PA needed riots to “prove” their militant credentials after they committed the unforgivable sin, in the eyes of the radicals who dominate the Palestinian movement, of accepting President Barack Obama’s request to let others take the lead in pushing an anti-Israel report at the UN.

Oh, did I say that false rumors were spread by Fatah, Hamas, Hizb al-Tahrir, and the Islamic Movement? I should have added that false rumors are also being spread by the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In fact, it endorses the following slanders:

“It is also expected to keep Israel on the defensive against international criticism like that registered yesterday by Egypt, Jordan, and the Arab League over what they called Israeli provocations at Islam's third-holiest shrine.”

Well, sure Israel will be kept on the defensive if you join in the chorus of falsehoods.

Kindly, the article adds, “Israel denied starting yesterday's trouble.” Since you have no facts whatsoever to the contrary you perhaps should attest to the accuracy of that denial.

Again, these are small routine articles, but they are just a small part of the daily waterboarding of Israel in all too much of the Western media in all too many stories.

It’s no wonder that people in the West don’t understand the Middle East very well.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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