Think again: What do Gaza and Ferguson have in common?

By ripping the Israeli-Palestinian dispute from the larger Middle East context, Israel’s position – dwelling on the slope of a volcano of Islamic fanaticism – is obscured.

Protesters call for a thorough investigation of the shooting death of teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on a street in front of the White House in Washington. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protesters call for a thorough investigation of the shooting death of teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on a street in front of the White House in Washington.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) was challenged last week about her support for an additional appropriation of $225 million for Iron Dome. Her town meeting questioner, John Bangert, asked incredulously how she could not see the connection between Ferguson and Gaza – i.e. guns being turned on innocent civilians.
Bangert is right about the connection between events in Gaza and those in Ferguson, Missouri – but it is not exactly the one he had in mind. Both represent examples of journalistic malfeasance, the manufacture of a false narrative based on emphasizing certain facts and eliding others.
In Ferguson, the narrative was that of an innocent black teenager gunned down by a white cop; in Gaza, one of Israel brutally bombing innocent Palestinian civilians.
The media described Michael Brown as a “gentle giant” who was on his way to his grandmother’s house, just a few days short of the start of college, when he was shot six times by Officer Darren Wilson despite being unarmed. Brown’s companion at the time of the shooting variously described him as fleeing or as having his hands up.
That particular version of events did not survive for long. The autopsy commissioned by Brown’s family showed he had been shot from the front, and the point of entry of the four bullets in his arm made clear that his arms were not up. Indeed, the autopsy was fully consistent with another witness’s testimony – that Brown was charging, head down, at Wilson when he was shot. The four bullets that struck the fleshy part of his arm would not have stopped a person of Brown’s size; only the sixth bullet through the top of the head would have done that.
Those findings, however, did not stop Missouri Gov.
Jay Nixon from demanding Wilson’s prosecution or aging race hucksters Jesse Jackson Jr. and Al Sharpton from descending on Ferguson to fan the flames.
The “gentle giant” turned out to not always be so gentle. A video camera from a nearby convenience store 10 minutes or so prior to the shooting caught Brown and his companion stealing a box of cheap cigars, and Brown roughly tossing aside the much smaller store clerk. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer labeled release of the video a “smear” totally irrelevant to the real issue. No doubt he felt the same about the finding that Brown had marijuana in his system at the time of his death, and the information that the cheap cigars he stole are frequently used for ingesting other drugs.
A New York Times reporter apologized on behalf of the paper for describing Brown as “burly,” on the grounds the word has racial connotations. In fact, it has none. The real apology was for calling attention to Brown’s size, since it would clarify why the much smaller Wilson feared for his life and required six shots to fell Brown. Reports that Wilson suffered a broken orbital bone under his eye in an initial physical confrontation with Brown, after he instructed him and his companion to stop walking down the center of the road, further explained why Wilson feared for his life.
THE REPORTING of the recently concluded fighting in Gaza involved a similarly constructed narrative, most egregiously by The New York Times, which summarized everything its readers needed to know in a simple chart of Israeli casualties versus Gazan casualties.
Photos of the damage to Gaza from Israel military action dominated The New York Times’s front pages, but the paper of record and the rest of the mainstream press were apparently unable to photograph Hamas firing rockets at Israel from schools, mosques, hospitals and private homes. Only TV crews from Finland and India managed to do that. Apparently, no one told them of the agreed-upon narrative – brutal Israel kills innocent Palestinians. Nor were they clued in on Hamas’s orders to journalists not to photograph its rocket fire.
In a must-read piece in the online magazine Tablet, Matti Friedman, who served in the Associated Press’s Jerusalem bureau from 2006 to 2011 as a reporter and editor, dissected the tropes of reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and showed how the Gazan reporting was part of a larger pattern.
In the dominant narrative, Israel is the only party with agency; the Palestinians are irrelevant. The media have decided the Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel, so it takes for granted that they do. In that narrative, Palestinians are always moderates and Israel the perpetually recalcitrant party. Anything that does not support that narrative is suppressed.
Thus, in 2009, when two AP reporters produced a major scoop, complete with maps, of then-prime minister Ehud Olmert’s generous peace offer and the Palestinian rejection, the top editors refused to print it.
When AP’s Jerusalem news editor submitted a story about Hamas intimidation of journalists, his higher- ups refused to publish it.
Friedman relates how he once excised from a story he was editing mention of the fact that Hamas fighters wear civilian clothing and are counted as civilian casualties so as not to endanger AP reporters in Gaza.
While AP relentlessly pursues every chink in Israeli society, Friedman was told that a proposed piece on Palestinian Authority corruption was “not the story.”
Coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict typically omits all regional context. The mere name Israeli-Palestinian, rather than the Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Muslim conflict, is a distortion, for it pits powerful Israel against weak Palestinians, rather than a beleaguered Israel surrounded by hostile neighbors on almost every border.
By ripping the Israeli-Palestinian dispute from the larger Middle East context, Israel’s position – dwelling on the slope of a volcano of Islamic fanaticism – is obscured. Thus, the media has largely ignored the emerging Israel-Egypt-Saudi alliance to combat some of the most volatile forms of Islamic fanaticism, and the extent to which Egypt was a silent partner in fighting Hamas.
WHY IS the media drawn to simplistic morality tales? One answer is the desire to avoid thinking about problems far more serious and intractable. The way Michael Brown died is rare, but young black lives are cut off prematurely every day. In 2012, Chicago experienced over 40 murders per month – almost all of it black-on-black killing. But that barely raises an eyebrow.
Increased policing can bring that rate down, as Chicago has done over the last two years, but we have no answer to the endemic violence and low regard for human life of America’s inner cities. So better not to think about it.
Unless one believes that Officer Wilson would have acted differently if a 6’4”, 135-kilo white man had been barreling at him, then his actions had nothing to do with racism. But saturation coverage of the shooting of Brown is more pleasant than contemplating the fact that blacks are 25 times as likely to commit crimes against whites as vice versa, and the ratio grows the more violent the crime.
Israel too receives obsessive news coverage. AP’s Israel bureau of 40 staffers is far larger than the China or Russia bureaus. Until the outbreak of civil war, AP had only one reporter in Syria. In 2013, the Israel-Palestinian conflict claimed 42 lives, while the Syrian civil war has claimed nearly 200,000 to date. Of the 11 million Muslims killed in Middle East wars since 1948, 0.3 percent have been killed by Israel. That sliver gets all the attention.
Decades of proclamations that solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the key to all Middle East deformities is now falling on deaf ears. Even former US special envoy to the Middle East, Martin Indyk, admitted in a Foreign Policy interview last week that America today has no “strategic interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” It has far more important matters at hand, like a self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate holding vast areas of Syria and Iraq while training thousands of Western jihadis, and with operatives reportedly operating on the other side of the US’s porous southern border. But who wants to think about that? Simple morality tales provide the purveyors with confirmation of their essential goodness. For the consciences of European nations, who either participated or were complicit in the Holocaust, the narrative of Israeli brutality and “genocide” against the Palestinians provides a different sort of salve: The Jews are no better. And for many Jewish liberals eager to proclaim their growing alienation from Israel, judging their Israeli brethren in the harshest possible light serves as a moral badge of courage.
And finally, there are the more malevolent explanations.
The New York Times headlined this week that a high black turnout is the key to Democrats’ hopes of retaining the Senate. And the subheading set out the means for doing so with remarkable frankness: “Move to channel anger.” No group has fallen further behind in the six years of the Obama presidency than blacks.
Nothing like a little faux racism to distract them. No wonder serial inciter Sharpton became the White House “go-to guy” on race relations.
As for Israel, Friedman sums it up well: “When the people responsible for explaining the world to the world, journalists cover the Jews’ war as more worthy of attention than any other, when they portray the Jews of Israel as the party obviously in the wrong, when they omit all possible justifications for the Jews’ actions and obscure the true face of their enemies, what they are saying to their readers... is that Jews are the worst people on earth.”
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.