Friday, September 05, 2014

05-Sep-14: How much does it really matter if the news reporting from here is done wrong?

Murdered journalist Steven Sotloff
Over at, Brian of London comments on the oddly unprofessional - and, in our view, morally bankrupt - journalistic practice of calling people who decapitate human prisoners "militants" and "fighters".

His anger is provoked by this past week's news coverage of the cold-blooded murder of a captive journalist, Steven J. Sotloff. If you pay close to attention to news reporting from the Middle East, you don't need much more persuading to see how the editors at Associated Press routinely engage in this idiotic "we wouldn't want to take sides" silliness, preferring to use pseudo-neutral names for people whose actions fully qualify them to be called terrorist savages.

But AP is far from alone in the practice, and it has some exceptionally shabby history. For instance (h/t Richard Landes - and please check out his most recent essay) some readers might remember an incident a decade ago involving one of the other global news syndication giants ["Reuters Asks a Chain to Remove Its Bylines", New York Times, September 20, 2004]:
...Reuters has asked Canada's largest newspaper chain to remove its writers' names from some articles. The dispute centers on a policy adopted earlier this year by CanWest Global Communications - the publisher of 13 daily newspapers including The National Post in Toronto and The Calgary Herald, which both use Reuters dispatches - to substitute the word "terrorist" in articles for terms like "insurgents" and "rebels."
This became an issue because Associated Press had just put out a report that spoke of several Palestinian Arabs killed by IDF action as "fugitives". At the Canadian papers, they had changed "fugitives" to "terrorists".

The NY Times piece at the time quoted a senior Reuters manager, David A. Schlesinger, saying there was a reason to prefer those soft-and-gushy descriptors so beloved by far-away editors:
"My goal is to protect our reporters and protect our editorial integrity..." [and] he was concerned that changes like those made at CanWest could lead to "confusion" about what Reuters is reporting and possibly endanger its reporters in volatile areas or situations... "If a paper wants to change our copy that way, we would be more comfortable if they remove the byline."
At CanWest, they had harsh words for the Reuters policy and its implications:
Reuters' rejection of his company's definition of terrorism undermined journalistic principles. "If you're couching language to protect people, are you telling the truth?" asked Mr. Anderson, who is also editor in chief of The Ottawa Citizen. "I understand their motives. But issues like this are why newspapers have editors." Mr. Anderson said the central definition in the policy was that "terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians in pursuit of a political goal."
The same NY Times piece gives the Associated Press view which is no less fatally flawed than that of Reuters:
"We do not endorse changes that make an A.P. story unbalanced, unfair or inaccurate."
Which prompted the Canadian editors to explain that calling terrorists by idiotically mild names and using other
"...euphemisms merely serves to apply a misleading gloss of political correctness. And we believe we owe it to our readers to remove it before they see their newspaper every morning."
The tragedy of Steven Sotloff is another reminder that journalism attracts courageous, risk-taking individuals who are ready to put everything they have on the line to ensure the truth of what is happening out there reaches consumers of the news.

The tragedy of the moral decay on display throughout the news reporting industry is that so few of us get to see or understand the issues for the simple reason that those causing it are the very same people as those responsible for being objective about it. And objective is certainly not what they are. Couple that with how Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (among others) routinely, with no evident compunctions, intimidate news reporters, photographers and their editors and the capacity for causing serious harm is clear. Members of the working media, lacking any string push-back from their editors and owners back home and far from the dangerous streets and villages, quicly learn how to get on, get by and stay safe.

Lynch mob exulting in the murder of two unarmed
Israeli men inside a Palestinian Arab police station
in Ramallah, October 2000
Here's another illustration - quite a famous one, though surprisingly not well known among ordinary consumers of the media's products - from the early weeks of the Arafat War, sometimes misleadingly called the Second Intifadeh.

In October 2000, a television news crew from Italy captured extremely graphic footage of a Palestinian Arab lynch mob dismembering and killing two Israeli reservists who had lost their way and driven into Ramallah, just on the northern edge of Jerusalem. The video goes to air, and its images travel quickly and widely, conveying a horrifying picture of mob barbarism. They also substantiate Israel's bitter complaints that the Palestinian police not only failed to protect the two men - who were murdered while in police custody in the PA's Ramallah police station - but also sought to prevent other journalists from filming the mob.

Comes along Ricardo Cristiano, deputy chief of the local media bureau of RAI, Italy's national media network and owned by the government. Evidently pursuing a corporate mission from his Rome-based masters, Cristiano writes an open letter of obsequious apology to Arafat [English version here] that is published in Al Hayat al Jadida, a PA house organ.

Writing in his network's name, he delivers a "Special Clarification" addressed to "My dear friends in Palestine"
We congratulate you and think that it is our duty to put you in the picture (of the events) of what happened on October 12 in Ramallah. One of the private Italian television stations which competes with us (and not the official Italian television station RAI) filmed the events; that station filmed the events. Afterwards Israeli Television broadcast the pictures, as taken from one of the Italian stations, and thus the public impression was created as if we (RAI) took these pictures. We emphasize to all of you that the events did not happen this way, because we always respect (will continue to respect) the journalistic procedures with the Palestinian Authority for (journalistic) work in Palestine and we are credible in our precise work. We thank you for your trust, and you can be sure that this is not our way of acting. We do not (will not) do such a thing. Please accept our dear blessings. [Source]
More offensive and frightening than the message itself by far is the equanimity with which it is greeted by RAI's colleagues and competitors in the news business. Apologize to the Palestinian Arabs for revealing some of the pathology that characterizes its life? Sure, no sweat, got to stay close to events and report the news, right? But (to remind us of the Canadian story above) is it the truth?

Fast forward now to the latest chapter of this ongoing war and the seven weeks of rocket attacks from Gaza and what's changed?

As Matti Friedman explains in a well-documented and compelling analysis "An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth | A former AP correspondent explains how and why reporters get Israel so wrong, and why it matters" [Tablet, August 256, 2014], not much. And certainly not enough.
The lasting importance of this summer’s war, I believe, doesn’t lie in the war itself. It lies instead in the way the war has been described and responded to abroad, and the way this has laid bare the resurgence of an old, twisted pattern of thought and its migration from the margins to the mainstream of Western discourse—namely, a hostile obsession with Jews. The key to understanding this resurgence is not to be found among jihadi webmasters, basement conspiracy theorists, or radical activists. It is instead to be found first among the educated and respectable people who populate the international news industry; decent people, many of them, and some of them my former colleagues. ["An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth"]
As the title says, Friedman spent some years working inside Associated Press. This is a long piece by magazine standards. But it's filled with the kind of well-framed nuggets that people sickened by media dishonesty and lethal journalism - the sort that leads to people having their heads cut off, for instance - find stunningly illuminating.

One small example of a nugget:
It is not coincidence that the few journalists who have documented Hamas fighters and rocket launches in civilian areas this summer were generally not, as you might expect, from the large news organizations with big and permanent Gaza operations. They were mostly scrappy, peripheral, and newly arrived players—a Finn, an Indian crew, a few others. 
Each of those is an instance that we covered here: the Indian news report, an Italian reporter and the Finnish reporter, and others. But Friedman offers much more. Then under the sub-heading "Who Cares If the World Gets the Israel Story Wrong?", he gets to an especially crucial point, and expresses what we have tried to do for some years now:
Understanding what happened in Gaza this summer means understanding Hezbollah in Lebanon, the rise of the Sunni jihadis in Syria and Iraq, and the long tentacles of Iran. It requires figuring out why countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia now see themselves as closer to Israel than to Hamas. Above all, it requires us to understand what is clear to nearly everyone in the Middle East: The ascendant force in our part of the world is not democracy or modernity. It is rather an empowered strain of Islam that assumes different and sometimes conflicting forms, and that is willing to employ extreme violence in a quest to unite the region under its control and confront the West. Those who grasp this fact will be able to look around and connect the dots. Israel is not an idea, a symbol of good or evil, or a litmus test for liberal opinion at dinner parties. It is a small country in a scary part of the world that is getting scarier. It should be reported as critically as any other place, and understood in context and in proportion. Israel is not one of the most important stories in the world, or even in the Middle East; whatever the outcome in this region in the next decade, it will have as much to do with Israel as World War II had to do with Spain. Israel is a speck on the map—a sideshow that happens to carry an unusual emotional charge.
And ends with this:
Journalists engage in these fantasies at the cost of their credibility and that of their profession. And, as Orwell would tell us, the world entertains fantasies at its peril.
Or in simpler terms: a large part of the damage caused in those conflicts in which the reporting is done by people with ideological concerns on their minds is not on the battlefields but in the editing suites and the media conference rooms, and in people's homes far from the rockets and the tunnels.

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