Civil Fights: 'Between covering death and context, death wins'

January 14, 2009 23:02

When foreign reporters admit they have no interest in providing proper context in Gaza, new media strategy is needed.

Civil Fights: 'Between covering death and context, death wins'

reporters on the job 88. (photo credit: )

One surprising aspect of the current fighting has been the foreign press corps' unusual honesty - its open admission that it has no intention of doing what ordinary people naively consider its job. For years, print journalists have argued that print's big advantage over television is that television can only show pictures out of context, whereas newspapers provide the context that enables readers to make sense of these pictures. It is a good argument and, indeed, the only possible one: If all consumers want are gory pictures, print cannot possibly compete. However, it creates certain expectations: Anyone who reads a prestige publication like The New York Times or The Economist expects to finish an article with a better understanding of the subject. Israelis have long suspected that when it comes to this country, these expectations are misplaced. But until last week, I never saw foreign journalists openly admit it. VETERAN NEW YORK TIMES correspondent Ethan Bronner broke the silence last Wednesday, in a report on the government's refusal to let foreign journalists into Gaza. Buried in the 20th paragraph of a 22-paragraph story, he acknowledged: "Israel's diplomats know that if journalists are given a choice between covering death and covering context, death wins." The word "know" is the giveaway. When journalists want to imply that a statement may be false, they use verbs like "claim," "charge," "believe" or "assert," since claims, charges, beliefs and assertions are by definition unproven. But something "known" is a proven fact. And indeed, though Bronner denies an Israeli assertion earlier in the article that foreign journalists in Gaza are "subject to Hamas censorship or control," he does not deny that they prefer death to context. Like the diplomats, he knows this to be true. Then, the very next day, the same point was made by Gideon Lichfield, The Economist's Jerusalem bureau chief in 2005-08. Writing in Haaretz, he complained that Israelis keep trying to explain why their assault on Gaza is justified, but "nobody in the outside world is all that interested. From a foreign correspondent's point of view, it makes for boring journalism." In other words, foreign journalists have no interest in providing the context that would help readers understand why the operation was launched; that is "boring." When correspondents as senior as Bronner and Lichfield, representing publications as respected as the Times and the Economist, openly admit that they have no interest in providing context, one can readily understand why much of the world views the Gaza operation as an unprovoked killing spree. And that is especially true when one considers what "context" foreign correspondents do provide - such as Lichfield's blithe assertion that Israel "kills people because, at best, it simply doesn't have any better ideas, and at worst, because some Israeli leader is trying to get the upper hand on one of his or her rivals." He is absolutely right that "no amount of hasbara [public relations] can make that look good." After all, most of the world sees Israel only through the media's eyes. If foreign correspondents have no interest in explaining context to their readers, preferring to tell them that it simply likes killing people, there is little we can do about it. However, the country can and must radically rethink its media strategy. For decades, this strategy has been predicated on wooing the mainstream media, as the best way to reach large numbers of people at once. But if mainstream journalists have no interest in presenting our position, because that is "boring" when compared to blood and gore, then we need a different strategy. FIRST, AS Mitchell Barak correctly argued in Sunday's Jerusalem Post, the country urgently needs its own English-language television news station broadcasting 24/7. That would not only enable it to air its own view of events - that all-important "context" - during wartime; it would also provide a window onto the peacetime Israel that the mainstream media never shows: its vigorous democracy, diverse population, hi-tech innovation and all the other factors that make it an attractive, vibrant country despite its lousy neighborhood. Second, it needs to make much greater use of alternative media, such as Internet blogs. Israel is fortunate in having immigrants fluent in numerous foreign languages, and many have already joined the PR war on a volunteer basis. However, this effort should be formalized: Not only should the government maintain its own blogs, but it should hire effective bloggers in various languages, either part- or full-time, just as newspapers hire columnists. That would enable these bloggers to tell its story on a regular basis, during war and peace alike, rather than only when they happen to have time. Like newspaper columnists, paid bloggers must be allowed to express their views freely, regardless of the government's positions, and they must represent the full spectrum of Zionist (though obviously not non-Zionist) opinion. That is less effective than coordinated media messaging, but the nature of the Internet requires it: While mainstream newspapers are typically read by people with widely varying opinions, blogs are read mainly by people who agree with the blogger's views. Hence if Israel wants people of all political persuasions to have access to a Zionist viewpoint during wartime, it must provide blogs of all political persuasions. Third, mainstream journalists' needs and desires should be given lower priority. This country has always tried to provide maximum media accessibility because it needs the world to receive precisely what print journalists claim to provide: context. But if journalists admit that they have no intention of providing such context, there is no reason to sacrifice operational considerations to journalistic access. The government is already implementing that conclusion in Gaza, barring all journalists from the Strip on the grounds that the army's obligation to protect them would impede its freedom of action. And that should be standard practice for future military actions: Operational needs trump journalistic needs. Clearly, mainstream journalists cannot simply be ignored. But by their own admission, they cannot be trusted to provide readers with the context needed to understand Israel's actions. Finding alternatives ways of doing so must therefore be a priority for whatever government is elected next month.

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