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Media Can Serve the Cause of Peace

With new suicide bombings reported in Israel, more violence threatens. Can this conflict be reported differently? Can the media play a more pro-peace role? I was asked to write about that possibility for the Palestine-Israel Journal, jointly edited by Israelis and Palestinians and published in East Jerusalem. Thanks to Common Ground, here's a summary of my piece from a just published issue that looks at Media and the Second Intifada. For more information, write pij@palnet.com.

Every time I see Jerrold Kessel I know what he's going to tell us. He is the "breaking news" bearer of bad tidings. He gets automatic face time on CNN every time there is a suicide bombing. You can close your eyes and hear him cite the body count, and then describe the retaliation already underway, as in "Israeli Defense Forces are already responding with tanks and planes and armed intervention."

The media focus on these incidents, on the bloodshed, just reinforces the sense of tragedy and futility of two peoples pictured only as hating each other.

The cumulative impression: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond redemption, beyond solution.

Around & Around

Every side in this conflict charges the media with bias. The Palestinians and the Israelis have media watch groups looking for signs of favoritism and distortion, and there is plenty to find as long as the story is covered only as the play by play of discrete events, atrocities, counter-atrocities.

Yes - the Palestinian media focus on the pain and grievances of its community, with little compassion for the victims of attacks that can always be easily rationalized as understandable or legitimate pay-back to crimes they have suffered, ditto for the Israelis who argue that they are besieged by journalists who fail to condemn terrorism or understand their legitimate security needs. Paranoia and hostility to the media follow.

What Could Be Done But Isn't

Few media outlets have created initiatives or sponsored programs to bring people together across the various divides, to promote tolerance, and give voiceless people a platform to explain their views in a way that Americans can understand.

Even media projects that were set up to do so are retrenching. After the Oslo agreement, Sesame Street began to do children's TV programs in Israel, Palestine and Jordan. The puppets from each community increasingly interacted. That's been stopped now. Israel's Sesame Street is for Israelis; the Palestinian version is for Palestinians. Children on all sides are today offered few examples of how peaceful co-existence could work.

I asked a Sesame Street producer if they were simply mirroring the conflict or seeking to transcend it. Were they leading as a force for change or following in a polarized climate? Her response was agonized. She admitted that leadership was no longer high on their agenda, and feared that the show would have its run ended if they took that risk. One initiative would be to challenge this type of censorship and suppression. Organizations like Seeds of Peace, the multinational youth group, are creating media. They need support from media companies to promote conflict resolution themes and ideas.

Separating Propaganda from News

Next, we need to do a better job of disentangling propaganda from news, and then discredit it when we see it. A media war is at the heart of the conflict, and it is no surprise that propaganda battles are sharpening.

In the past weeks I saw two examples. A pro-Palestine media watch documented what it claims was unbalanced coverage by the Associated Press and called for a letter and phone call campaign of protest. A pro-Israeli media watch exposed what it calls hate programming on government-run Palestinian Authority public television.

Overcoming the "Noise"

Israeli writer David Grossman calls all of this "noise," "a noise we are used to, and are strangely comforted by because it is familiar, predictable and no matter what side you are on, easy to indulge in."

"Few of us, Israelis or Palestinians, can be proud of what we have done during these past few years," he writes, "of what we have collaborated in whether actively or in passive acceptance of the noise (�). I often feel suffocated, claustrophobic, caught between the deceptive deceitful words that all interested parties - the governments, the army, the media - are constantly trying to impose on those of us who must live in this disaster area. Yet if we reformulate a situation that already seems beyond hope and set in stone, we are able to recall that there is in fact no divine decree that dooms us to be the helpless victims of apathy and paralysis."

And this goes for the media too. We have to stop promoting the conflict by only showing its violent side and never showing the work for peace that is underway. We need to examine the myths on both sides. We need to puncture the stereotypes. Our vocabulary has to change. The focus on violence has to stop. We need to shed light on the cultures of these two communities - seek and help to promote a sense of common ground. We have to report on fears and hopes.

Concrete Tips for Reporters

Here are some concrete tips from TV reporter Jake Lynch of the London-based organization Reporting the World about how reporters can promote peace instead of war:

1) AVOID portraying a conflict as consisting of only two parties contesting one goal. The logical outcome is for one to win and the other to lose. INSTEAD, a Peace Journalist would DISAGGREGATE the two parties into many smaller groups, pursuing many goals, opening up more creative potential for a range of outcomes.

2) AVOID accepting stark distinctions between "self" and "other." These can be used to build the sense that another party is a "threat" or "beyond the pale" of civilized behavior - both key justifications for violence. INSTEAD, seek the "other" in the "self" and vice versa. If a party is presenting itself as "the goodies," ask questions about how different its behavior really is to that it ascribes to "the baddies"?

3) AVOID blaming someone for starting it. INSTEAD, try looking at how shared problems and issues are leading to consequences that all the parties say they never intended.

4) AVOID waiting for leaders on "our" side to suggest solutions. INSTEAD, pick up and explore peace initiatives wherever they come from. Ask questions from ministers, for example, about ideas put forward by grassroots organizations. Assess peace perspectives concerning issues the parties are trying to address. Do not simply ignore them because they do not coincide with established positions." See Reportingtheworld.org for more.

These are concrete proposals from an outsider. I am sure media workers in the region have plenty of their own, as well as suggestions for how to improve coverage.

American news is becoming more superficial, more sensationalistic and more aligned with government policies and pressure from interest groups. If you want to influence how the conflict is perceived, you have to do more to educate the journalists who come to your countries, monitor what they write, and then press the press to live up to professional ethics and values.

About Danny Schechter

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