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Gaza: Of media wars and borderless journalism

Issue 7, Winter 2009

Zeina Awad reports from Gaza.   Image courtesy of Al Jazeera English under a Creative Commons license

Zeina Awad reports from Gaza. Image courtesy of Al Jazeera English under a Creative Commons license

Yet again, the disconnect.  Yet again, American and Arab viewers are seeing two vastly different conflicts play out on their television screens.  Yet again, the media has become a weapon of war.

Add Gaza to Afghanistan, Iraq, the sieges of Jenin and Ramallah, and Lebanon; another conflict that Arabs and Americans see through completely different lenses.  More fodder for the stereotypes.  More reason each side fails to understand the other.  More reason to hate.

As with the 2006 Israeli war with Hizbullah, I spent the first two weeks of this conflict on a family vacation in North America.  The domestic U.S. media was, once more, reporting from behind borders built of pre-conceived notions, simplistic explanations and an Americentric view of the world.

Put simply, Gaza was background noise.  Yes, it generally made the front page of the newspapers and the main newscasts, but – particularly on television – the humanity, the scale and the context of the conflict were AWOL.  Arabs and Israelis were at it again; now let’s get back to Obama, the economy and New Year’s Eve.

And the carefully-scripted talking points of the Israeli spokespeople who dominated the airwaves made it clear that, yet again, the Arabs deserved what they were getting.  Driving through Washington State, I listened to a fawning half-hour interview with an Israeli consul general on a Seattle talk show.  In San Francisco, I saw another Israeli official on TV fielding marshmallows from a local anchor.  On CNN, it was more of the same.  And for the most part, U.S. politicians were working from those same talking points, as a montage on Comedy Central’s Daily Show made so clear.  Arabs, or those presenting their perspective, were few and far between. 

All the retroactive journalistic soul-searching over official media manipulation, lack of balance in the selection of “expert” interviews in the lead-up to Iraq, self-censorship “because of concern about public reaction to graphic images” in the early phase of that war, and “misguided moral equivalence” in the 2006 Lebanon conflict was, yet again, forgotten.

As in 2006, I returned to the Middle East to find a very different conflict playing out on my television screen.  To find Arabs enraged; yet again.  To hear people asking how Americans could sit back and ignore the carnage; yet again.  More demonstrations against Israel and America, more name calling, more people shaking their heads asking, “Why don’t Americans understand?”

America’s public diplomacy chief offered part of the answer.  “Americans are big supporters of Israel, that’s just a fact,” he told a group of Egyptian bloggers in a briefing in the virtual world Second Life.  But the other half of the reason is that Americans were not seeing the same images that were bombarding Arabs 24/7; the kind of pictures that would melt the heart of the most diehard supporter of Israel.  Which was precisely why, according to the Jerusalem Post, the Israeli media weren’t showing them to the their own public either.

"Our media is systematically covering up the suffering in Gaza, and there's only one opinion present in the TV studios – the army's," liberal Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy told the German magazine Der Speigel.

The world’s television news organizations were all taking the same feed from the Palestinian video agency Ramattan TV; the difference came in how they edited the tape.

As in Afghanistan and Iraq and Lebanon, U.S. coverage leading up to the January 19 ceasefire mostly consisted of impersonal wide shots of bombs exploding, interspersed with the occasional fleeting images of bodies wrapped in burial shrouds.  Here in the Arab world, television was dominated by heart-wrenching close-ups of dead and horribly maimed infants and young children.

But Arab coverage was not monolithic.  Saudi Arabia and Egypt have sought to prevent Hamas from scoring political gains at the expense of the more secular Palestinian authority, while Qatar is leading a Gulf block that equates support for Hamas with support for the Palestinian people.  The fault lines have produced a media war in the Arab world.  “What journalism we have today!” a leading Saudi columnist declared in print, charging his colleagues with “marketing the idea that any anger at the Israeli bombardment is unjustified and that any support for resistance is incitement for terrorism.”

The rift is most evident on the broadcasts of the region’s bitter television rivals.  Al Jazeera, owned by the government of Qatar, has focused on vivid images of bloodshed accompanied by commentary thick with moral outrage. Rival Al Arabiya, owned by Saudi interests close to the royal family, has chosen to avoid the most graphic footage and take a more measured tone.  The contrasting approaches reflect both the very different perceptions of the role of Arab journalism in the two newsrooms and the political rift between their respective patrons.

“Our coverage was closer to the people,” Al Jazeera’s news chief Ahmed Sheikh told me.  While he said the channel was “impartial” in that it gave airtime to Israeli officials, “we are not neutral when it comes to innocent people being killed like this.  The camera picks up what happens in reality and reality cannot be neutral,” he said, adding that, as with U.S. network coverage of Vietnam, Al Jazeera showed graphic images to turn public opinion against the war.  “The goal of covering any war is to reveal the atrocities that are carried out.”

“We belong to two different schools of news television in the Arab world,” countered Al Arabiya news chief Nabil Khatib, the target of death threats on Islamist websites for refusing to allow the word shahid (martyr) to be used on the air to describe Palestinian dead.  

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