The MSM’s ‘parallel reality’

On my long journey home from Gaza, I whiled my time away at the Frankfurt airport, where I had a six-hour layover, by catching up on the news. I had left Gaza in the midst of the latest Israeli military assault, with a front row seat over the course of that first night in the home of relatives of one of my adopted families. The bombing sounded alarmingly close as we huddled in the bedroom, smoked shisha, talked and listened to the local news. 

And while I shouldn’t have been shocked at the contrast, I was. The news I was reading in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Salt Lake Tribune…on CNN and BBC….did not at all reflect the reality I saw and heard in Gaza. It was not just the selective use — and omission — of facts, although that is a glaring problem. It is also the use of language — of certain loaded words, a more subtle, but perhaps even more powerful shaper of Western discourse. 

This March 10 excerpt from the Associated Press, the news service that so many media vehicles in the United States use as a substitute for their own coverage, serves as a good example of the “slant” evident in almost all reporting emanating from or for the U.S.:

Israel Trades Fire With
Palestinian Militants
Israel pounded Gaza for the second day in a row Saturday, trading airstrikes and rocket fire with Palestinian militants and killing 15 of them as the deadliest Gaza violence in over a year showed no signs of abating.

Despite Egyptian efforts to mediate a cease-fire, Palestinians fired more than 100 rockets, some striking major cities in southern Israel and seriously wounding an Israeli civilian. The military responded with more than a dozen airstrikes and the targeted killings of Palestinian militants from various Gaza organizations.

The slanting of the story starts right away, in the headline. The headline is what attracts readers’ attention in the first place, and is often the only thing they read. So, it is critical in terms of shaping Western impressions. In this case, there are two phrases that play right to common stereotypes: “Trades Fire” and “Palestinian Militants.”  “Trading” implies a fight between players with comparable power. But this isn’t true; one side (Israel) is an occupier that controls all the levers of power (the opening and closing of the borders, the ban on sea and air travel, etc.), enjoys almost unconditional support from the world’s  other major governments, and has at its disposal enough military hardware to make it the third-largest arms exporter. The Hamas-led government in Gaza, in contrast, has been forced to rely on smuggled weaponry from the moment of its election in 2006 and has virtually none of the powers of sovereignty. 

That loaded word is immediately followed by another cue phrase, “Palestinian Militants.” This one is used by just about every Western media outlet. Although the technical definition is fairly benign — “a person who acts combatively and aggressively in support of a political or social cause” — it carries with it a strongly negative connotation, along the lines of “terrorist.” The term “militant” is used as shorthand for someone who illegitimately uses violence to oppose the legitimate, established authority in the region. (Think Black Panthers in the United States and Red Brigades in Italy.)  Or, to put it even more simply yet, use of the term is a quick way to signal who is at fault, and who is not. But the reality is that Israel is the illegitimate party in this case; the blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza to varying degrees since 2007 is a form of collective punishment — a violation of Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. 

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Likewise, although this is a fact studiously ignored or denied by virtually every Western media vehicle, in the case of military occupation by a foreign power, the right to resist using whatever means necessary is a basic tenet of human rights. In fact, it is enshrined in the principles that served as the foundation for the Nuremberg Tribunal. Yet, the atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers are rarely reported on the same par as the vastly lower level of violence caused by their Palestinian counterparts. According to Al Haq, In the round of attacks that began on Friday, March 9, 26 Palestinians were killed and more than 80 wounded, compared to four Israelis wounded and zero killed.

The AP article is also typical of Western coverage by going on to characterize all of the 15 Palestinian fatalities documented at the time as “militants” (those actively engaged in striking back). Yet, records from Al Haq show that as of the of the AP report, at least two of the Palestinian fatalities were civilians totally uninvolved in the fighting — two boys, 15 years and 18 months. Today, the updated information is that five of the 25 Palestinians killed are known to be civilians unengaged in the fighting. 

“Despite Egyptian efforts to mediate a cease-fire, Palestinians fired more than 100 rockets, some striking major cities in southern Israel and seriously wounding an Israeli civilian…” the AP piece continues. Note the absence of any total for Israeli missiles, bombing forays, etc. or reference to harm to Palestinian civilians. This is similar to a March 12 Washington Post article that said, “The fighting has killed 18 Gazans, all but two of them militants, and disrupted the lives of about 1 million Israelis living within range of rocket fire from Gaza.” No mention, of course, of the “disruption” to the lives of 1.6 million Palestinians in Gaza — a “disruption” that has been going on now, in one form or another, for more than five years.

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The AP excerpt concludes by saying, “The (Israeli) military responded with more than a dozen airstrikes and the targeted killings of Palestinian militants from various Gaza organizations…” The inference here is that Israel was only defending itself, firing back only when forced.. Activist Max Blumenthal responds to that myth in an excellent analysis on Al-Akhbar:

“The Israeli army claimed that it initiated the assault on Gaza in order to kill two alleged militants who supposedly ‘masterminded’ a brazen and deadly terror attack near the Israeli city of Eilat in August of last year. The army also claimed the two were planning a new operation… (But) as is so often the case, the Israeli army is lying through its teeth. According to the army’s own investigation of the Eliat attack last year, the attackers were not from Gaza as Israeli government spokespeople initially claimed; they were Egyptian. In November, Egyptian security forces arrested the suspected mastermind of the Eilat plot; however, by that time, Israeli forces had already killed 30 Gazans in retaliation for an attack they had absolutely nothing to do with.”

He goes on to observe that there is no evidence that the Israeli army had any proof that the men it assassinated in this latest attack were planning any military operations. Instead, Blumenthal speculates: (Benjamin Netanyahu) could not have his war on Iran — not yet, at least (because President Obama refused to go along) — but he could assault Palestinians in Gaza without fear of repercussions from Washington.

And repercussions there were not. CNN reported that U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland “condemned ‘in the strongest terms’ the rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel. ‘We call on those responsible to take immediate action to stop these cowardly acts.’” 

Even more amazing was Hillary Clinton’s statement regarding Syria to the UN Security Council: “We reject any equivalence between premeditated murders by a government’s military machine and the actions of civilians under siege driven to self-defense…”  Yet, she doesn’t think Palestinians have the same rights? The hypocrisy is breathtaking…  

Yousef Menayyer of The Jerusalem Fund has another theory about the true reasons behind the Israeli attack: “The greatest obstacle to Israeli public support for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran is the belief that the consequences of the attack from Iran, Hezbollah and other factions like Islamic Jihad, would be too high a cost to bear. What could the Israeli government do to change this perception? Well, a successful large scale live action test of the US funded Iron Dome would probably help, and assassinating a PRC militant would provoke the projectiles to trigger one.”

The moral of the story: If you want an accurate understanding of what is really happening on the ground in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and why, do not rely only on  “mainstream” American media. Read or watch Al-Jazeera English. Follow Ma’an News. Listen to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now in the mornings. Subscribe to Today in Palestine. There is another story behind those headlines that is not being told…

  • 16 March 2012