Much is infuriating about the last week’s coverage of Israel’s long-overdue incursion into the Gaza strip. Israel is seeking to destroy the rocket-launch sites that Hamas has used to terrorize the civilian population in the southern half of Israel, but a recent Yahoo news round-up contained an Associated Press story with the headline “Gaza civilians left exposed in Israeli invasion.”
The AP story begins with the now-familiar formula of a harrowing anecdote — this one about “10 members of Lubna Karam’s family [who] spent the night huddled in the hallway of their Gaza City home” — bracketed with an array of photos of wailing and bleeding Palestinian civilians. As usual, all civilian deaths are depicted purely as a result of Israeli militarism, disproportionate force, and brutality. There is no mention that while waging war on Israel, Hamas has never treated its own citizenry to anything approaching a respectable civil-defense network of shelters and warning sirens. Or that Hamas actually encourages civilian causalities; such casualties are its prime weapon in its public-relations war against Israel.
But that is the AP. Surveying other important media like CNN and the New York Times, there are many rays of light. Coverage has improved. Balance is being sought. It is an insipid, morally relativistic form of balance — but it is balance, unmistakably.
This is not the fall of 2000, when Yasser Arafat began a war with Israel, and when the mainstream media became a conduit for almost unadulterated PLO propaganda. These were the days when Tom Brokaw, on the NBC Nightly News, introduced a report with the words “Israeli riot police stormed the shrine, opening fire with rubber bullets and live ammunition on Palestinians who were throwing stones.” In fact, the confrontation in question began when worshippers poured out of the Al-Aqsa Mosque after an inflammatory sermon and tossed bottles, stones, and other deadly objects on worshippers at the Western Wall.
This is not even the summer of 2006, when Israel invaded Lebanon to stop a rocket barrage similar to the one the country is now getting from Hamas. Through the mainstream media, Hezbollah shut down the Israeli offensive with a carefully calculated stream of images of civilian casualties.
Of course, this is a war, and things can change on a dime — particularly as the conflict drags on and Hamas throws more of its civilians into the incinerator to provide fodder for “outreach” to the world community. But for the time being, one sees a rather dogged insistence on balance. This week on CNN, after the typical near-hysterical piece on mounting civilian casualties in the strip (again, no mention of the absence of a civil-defense system or of Hamas’s calculated use of civilians as human shields), a piece showing Israelis running for bomb shelters in Ashkelon and Beersheba aired. The segment included an interview with a Palestinian scholar who alleged that Israel had brought rockets, grads, kassems, et al., on herself with her continued “occupation” — but also clips of a powerful Israeli spokesman, who reminded viewers that Israel had tried to allow the Palestinians to develop their state for some time, but Hamas didn’t seem to want the party to end.
So what’s has happened between 2000 and the present? A number of factors have allowed Major Avital Leibovich, head of the foreign-press department in the IDF Spokesman’s Unit, to say, “I’m surprised for the better. The coverage has been balanced on most channels, even on some outlets not known for being pro-Israel.”
One big one is the creation and growth of web-based communities such as CAMERA, littlegreenfootballs.com, and honestreporting.com, which monitor coverage, share information with each other, and launch e-mail and phone-call campaigns in response to distortions. CAMERA (Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting of America), the oldest and best-funded of the bunch, tirelessly scans headlines and transcripts and demands retractions and corrections. It often gets them. It is probably the New York Times public editor’s worst nightmare.
Honestreporting.com started life in London, truly the Belly of the Beast when it comes to bad reporting on Israel. One of its early triumphs came during the spring of 2002 and what was widely being called “Israel’s incursion into the Jenin refugee camp.” As has often been the case, CNN was one of the worst offenders, so the website’s devotees sent up to 6,000 e-mails a day to the network’s executives, effectively paralyzing their internal e-mail system. Meetings with CNN execs followed, with representatives of honestreporing.com briefing the execs about the real facts on the ground.