Friday, May 15, 2015

15-May-15: Fabricating the silence: Anonymous, selective, partial testimony and its deadly impact

Tending to the wounded: IDF infantry in Gaza during Operation Protective Shield, July 2014
[Image Source]
When an Israeli political activism group, generally identified as belonging to the far left in Israeli terms, published a report earlier this month based on what it claimed to be its research into how Israel's military conducted last summer's Operation Protective Edge battle against the rocket-rich Gaza Strip and the Hamas regime ensconced there, it made major headlines. 

The "Breaking the Silence" report - online here on the group's website - received significant coverage across a swathe of influential news channels including the Washington Post, Die Welt, New York Times, BBC, Telegraph UK, NPR, The Guardian, and Sydney Morning Herald.

We don't intend to take the report to pieces. Several excellent critiques of the BtS report have already been published by, among others, CAMERA, The Tower, and Matti Friedman on the Mosaic Magazine site.

What we do feel needs highlighting is the answer to two key questions:
  1. Given its obvious weaknesses and limitations, how did this BtS document get such extraordinary funding
  2. And how, despite their manifest flaws, did the BtS allegations get treated with such seriousness and why and how were they granted credibility of the highest order?
Matti Friedman, Canadian-born and now Israeli, is an articulate and seasoned journalist with years of experience reporting for Associated Press. We know of two compelling pieces he has recently published slicing through what BtS have just pulled off, and urge readers to read them now before going any further. The first was an untitled posting on his Facebook page [here] from ten days ago. The second is the Mosaic article ["The Latest "Breaking the Silence" Report Isn't Journalism. It's Propaganda."] that went up yesterday.

There's at least one more thought-provoking analysis of his that friends of Israel ought to absorb: "The ideological roots of media bias against Israel", published by BICOM's on-line Fathom journal this past winter.

Investigative journalism and exposés that aspire to making international headlines must first navigate their way through a minefield of preliminary credibility tests, editorial criticism and fact-checking. A non-trivial set of threshold requirements applies and for very good reason. The impact of a chorus of internationally-respected news outlets can be devastating to people's careers and to political opinion-making. Not every part of the worldwide news-reporting industry has the sort of clout that puts issues on the map and gets discussion going globally. But it's a certainty that the media we mentioned three paragraphs ago do.

So now to a small part of Matti Friedman's critical observations.
In analyzing trends in the press I have found it most helpful to keep an eye on the mainstream and avoid extreme cases. So let’s look again at the Washington Post, a good U.S. paper, to see how a report of this kind becomes major international news.
The Post receives a document about Israel’s conduct in the 2014 Gaza war that has been produced in English by a group of Israelis funded by European organizations and governments. The paper’s correspondent, recently arrived in Jerusalem from a posting in Mexico, takes at face value that this is an “Israeli” organization and also an organization of “veterans,” perhaps not grasping that, because Israel has a mandatory draft, the term is quite meaningless; most people can plausibly claim to be “veterans.”
The correspondent then selects some of the most egregious examples in the report, summarizes them, and presents them as representative not only of the report but of the entire Gaza operation. He takes the words of people whose identity is not known to him, who have been interviewed by people whose identity is similarly not known to him, the interviews edited and redacted in a process not known to him, and pastes them into his article.
If the mainstream media are asking the same kind of questions as Friedman does, we haven't seen them. And frankly, we don't think it's happening. Why? Well, again in Friedman's words
As a reporter, you wouldn’t be able to get away with publishing purely anonymous testimony that you have collected, but it is one of the peculiarities of Israel-related journalism that you are allowed to use anonymous material if it has been pre-packaged for you by a political NGO.
If there are authoritative voices from within the mainstream news media who think this is unfair and have answers, we wish they would speak up.

Then there's the matter of the money. Breaking the Silence says on its website that funding ["generous support"] for its work comes from these sources, as of March 2015:
  • Broederlijk Delen
  • CCFD - Terre Solidaire
  • Dan Church Aid
  • Die Schwelle
  • Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Secretariat
  • medico international
  • Moriah Fund
  • New Israel Fund
  • Open Society Foundations
  • Rockefeller Brothers Fund
  • Royal Norwegian Embassy to Tel Aviv
  • Sigrid Rausing Trust
  • Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECID)
  • Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs
  • Trócaire 
  • "and countless private individuals who have made contributions to our work."
Not all of the names are recorded accurately on the website. None of them includes hyperlinks.

Digging around a little ourselves, we came across certain aspects of this well-resourced club that ought, we think, to be better known. And there are funders who - for some reason - gave but were not listed. Wikipedia says the givers include these bodies, none of which appear to be listed by BtS as of today when we checked:
NGO-Monitor has carefully researched who funds BtS, as well as a host of other NGOs active in Israel. They add 
  • Foundation for Middle East Peace
to those above, and a lot of useful detail and analysis. (Unpaid promotion: People wanting to understand the troubling phenomenon of Israel-based organizations with Israel-bashing agendas energized by budgets provided by foreigners, including foreign governments, ought to be making frequent visits to the fact-rich, well-documented NGO-Monitor website.)

Despite the severe shortcomings of the content, the shoddy methodology, the unabashed absence of independence or objectivity, and the egregious partisan-political agenda of the BtS people and their Gaza 2014 report, their allegations - chiefly about a "broad ethical failure" by the IDF resulting in many dead Palestinian Arabs - have been and continue to be taken seriously. They are currently echoing through some of the most impactful parts of the news media. They have been granted credibility in a way that - were the context, the setting, the geographical location different - simply could never have happened. Neither foreign aid nor the thoughtful media do such things... except when they do.

Next month, to illustrate the point, an exhibition showcasing the BtS/Gaza "revelations" is due to take place at Zurich's Kulturhaus Helferei (here's their brochure). The sponsors include the government of Switzerland the Zurich municipal authority. We find that astonishing. We are as much in favour of free and open discussion of ideas as the next blogger. But you can only apply that view to the Breaking the Silence people and their work-product once you manage to close your eyes and ears (and frankly your nose as well), ignore the show-stopping problems with the report itself, and pretend that there is a silence and that these brave souls are somehow breaking it. In reality, they are inventing it.

We wish those Swiss officials and those directors of the Rockefeller fund and those leaders of that Danish church were honest enough with themselves to understand this. A small cell of political activists, hiding behind context-free "testimony" by nameless people, pretending to be oppressed and reviled and deprived of a spotlight and a microphone by cruel, monolithic Israeli society are in reality free to publicize documented and verifiable allegations all day long without the smallest danger of paying a legal or moral or any other price (other than perhaps the danger of seeing their lavish funding from foreign sources dry up). Pick up any edition of the daily newspaper Haaretz to confirm that.

To paraphrase what the editors of the Italian newspaper Il Foglio wrote (in Italian) back in 2010, in reality the largest risk taken by the Breaking the Silence heroes is of arriving late at their Tel Aviv café. 

1 comment:

Philip Witriol said...

The staff on "right wing" newspapers who select stories for their online edition and who decide how prominent they are, who choose accompanying photos and captions, who write headlines, subheads and standfirsts; these will overwhelmingly be young(ish) metropolitan types and hence fully imbibed with all the "liberal" tropes around Israel.