In recent weeks, a lot has been written about the problematic media coverage of the war between Hamas and Israel. Richard Landes mentions many of the relevant articles in a thorough overview published at The American Interest, where he focuses on “The Media’s Role in Hamas’ War Strategy” and argues that “Hamas shows full cognizance of the media’s importance.” As Landes rightly emphasizes, the terror group has even “issued detailed directions to Gazan ‘social media activists’” and it is hard to imagine that the local “fixers” on whom foreign journalists working in Gaza rely would feel free to ignore what Landes calls the “Hamas media protocols.”
The media coverage we have seen largely confirms that Hamas got what it wanted: lots of images and reports about the suffering of Gaza’s civilians; barely a sighting or a mention of Hamas fighters and their use of civilian neighborhoods – including UN facilities, hospitals and mosques – to launch rockets and conceal their weapons. Likewise, the media have largely ignored the hundreds of Hamas rockets that have fallen short and have obviously caused damage and casualties.
However, by now the Foreign Press Association has protested “the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month.” But it seems not everyone agrees that this protest is justified: Ha’aretz has published a lengthy report that cites several journalists claiming that Hamas “didn’t censor” the foreign media reporting from Gaza. Interestingly, most of the journalists interviewed by Ha’aretz “asked to remain anonymous.”
The views expressed by one of these anonymous journalists are arguably particularly interesting, because they show that even without any interference from Hamas, some reporters may have been all too willing to deliver what Hamas wanted. Ha’aretz cites a “reporter with 30 years experience in hot spots worldwide” who indignantly claimed that “Israel wants reporters to write about the conflict as it conceived it, as a security problem framed by the IDF,” whereas journalists generally prefer to focus on the “humanitarian impact of conflict.”
It may well be true that this is the general preference of most journalists, though it seems that most journalists also prefer to make an exception for Israel: whenever Israel is forced to defend itself against the terror groups on its borders, the foreign media devote very little attention to the toll these campaigns take on Israeli civilians, preferring instead to show heavily armed Israeli soldiers and tanks. Indeed, all too often, the price Israeli society pays for combatting the ever present threat of heavily armed terror groups that resemble well equipped and organized armies is belittled in the media where the “if it bleeds, it leads”-rule combines with the quest for a mindlessly mechanistic “balance” to produce ruminations about a “disproportionate” casualty count that shows too few dead Jews to warrant much empathy. And as Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has so preposterously demonstrated, Israel’s enormous investments in defensive measures can even be presented as putting Hamas at a most unfair disadvantage.
But the veteran journalist cited by Ha’aretz made the perhaps most revealing statement when s/he declared: “I personally chose not to speak to Hamas mouthpieces because I hold Hamas propaganda in as much contempt as that of Netanyahu.”
Debates raging on social networks illustrate that many would be inclined to consider this a “balanced” statement. On the one hand, there is a terrorist group that keeps reaffirming the genocidal goals spelled out in its fascist charter; on the other hand, there is the prime minister of a western-style democracy – but who can tell the difference??? And if the journalists who report about the democracy trying to defend its citizens from relentless attacks by murderous jihadi terrorists can’t tell the difference, who can blame their audiences?
As Jeffrey Herf rightly noted in an article on “Hamas’ Too-Little-Known Fascist Charter,” this “declaration of intent of a group now governing millions of people … goes unnoticed by reporters, editors, and pundits who race to comment on Hamas’ war with Israel.”
Instead it is fashionable and above all “politically correct” to emphasize that there are “extremists” on “both sides.” The problem with this statement is that “extremists” who enjoy considerable popular support are obviously not regarded as extremists by their own society. There are indeed extremists on the Israeli side who advocate outrageous ideas, but they are extremists first and foremost by the standards of Israeli society which repudiates these ideas. By this measure, there are actually no extremists on the Palestinian side: groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad enjoy the support of about one third of Palestinians, and their terror tactics are not only embraced by the vast majority of Palestinians, but the supposedly “moderate” Palestinian Authority also regularly honors and glorifies suicide bombers and perpetrators of terror attacks. In addition to the normative glorification of homegrown Palestinian terrorism, there is plenty of evidence for the prevalence of other extremist views in Palestinian society, whether it’s admiration for Osama bin Laden or support for Sharia-style intolerance and misogyny.
But the media are loathe to cover such politically undesirable facts which would ruin their sacrosanct balancing acts. Instead, papers like the New York Times prefer to offer their readers the illusion that the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel is best understood by pretending there is a moral equivalence between the two sides.
So the effort Hamas invested in formulating a media strategy was perhaps not even necessary, since there are plenty of reporters who are only too happy to get out a “balanced story” that claims there are extremists on both sides and there is not really any difference between what Hamas stands for and what Netanyahu stands for.
I know that many supporters of Israel are very alarmed because they feel that Israel has once again “lost” the “media war.” But I think there is actually more at stake, because the pursuit of a “balance” that blurs all distinctions ultimately serves to legitimize groups like Hamas – and this is not only bad news for Israel. In a blistering commentary on Obama’s Middle East policies, Walter Russell Mead not only castigated the incompetence of an administration that had only disdain for the war on terror and did little to stop the rise of the “most powerful and hostile jihadi movement of modern times” in Syria and Iraq, but he also highlighted the failure of “the liberal press,” which Mead accused of doing “its earnest best to ignore the real-time collapse of a foreign policy it once cheered to the rafters.”
When the media''s pursuit of political correctness results in coverage that largely ignores or whitewashes murderous jihadist fanatics, it’s not only Israel that pays the price.