Tony Sutton reads a new book by Greg Shupak that exposes the fake news at the heart of mainstream media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict
The Wrong story
Palestine, Israel, & The Media
Published by OR Books www.orbooks.com
We’ve been swamped by dire warnings about fake news and its threat to democracy over the past couple of years, the phenomenon being variously attributed to alternative web sites, Twitter feeds, and Facebook postings made by dastardly agents employed by Vladimir Putin. The mainstream media, half-destroyed by years of its own internet and business ineptitude, is delighted to build and sustain this blustering cold war narrative, gleefully – with the backing of Western governments and digital billionaires – relishing its mantle as Guardian of Journalistic Truth.
The alternative media, however, is proving to be mightily resilient, facing down the accusations that it is facilitating internet anarchy. Web sites such as the UK’s Medialens – www.medialens.org – and New York-based FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) – www.fair.org – have long exposed the failings and hypocrisies of the biggest and most powerful mainstream voices, Britain’s Times, Guardian Telegraph and BBC, and the USA’s New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Their message is: If you want to see fake news, just look at the lies, deceits and – especially – the distortions churned out by these Publishing Pillars of the Establishment.
Want an example of mainstream failure? Let’s start at the pinnacle of the journalistic firmament with the New York Times, proclaimed as the world’s greatest newspaper, its front page flaunting the slogan, All The News That’s Fit To Print. On the contrary: All The News That’s Fit To Distort is the message from Greg Shupak’s enlightening new book, The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel & The Media. Shupak, lecturer in media studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto and a frequent contributor to FAIR, takes a hard, critical look at media coverage of the decades-long Israel-Palestine conflict, using the NYT literally as a text-book example of how media bias is structured and maintained.
The book draws on the Times’s summer 2014 editorials published during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge invasion of Gaza. The focus on the Times is warranted, writes Shupak, because it is “the most influential print media source in the United States, if not the entire English-speaking world”. His aim, he adds, is to show readers that the story of Palestine-Israel “is not one of two sides who have wronged each other to comparable extents, or of a question that can be solved by isolating an extremist fringe and empowering moderates, or of an Israeli state defending itself that perhaps sometimes goes too far”.
Instead, he stresses, the conflict might best be regarded as one that Nahla Abdo, Professor of Sociology at Ottawa’s Carleton University, describes in her essay, Women, War and Peace: Reflections From the Intifada, as “two asymmetrical entities; one is coloniser and occupier and the other is colonised and occupied; one is a regional military superpower and the other is a largely demilitarised entity; one is independent with almost unlimited financial aid from the West … and the other is heavily dependent for its breathing, drinking and feeding, on the air, water, and land that Israel [controls]. … In this relationship of occupier and occupied, this asymmetrical relation between those who order and practice the destruction, and those who receive its wrath, one cannot equate between the victim and the victimiser, let alone, blame the victim for the violence.”
Shupak presents The Wrong Story in three parts, focusing on the distorting narratives that he finds the most pervasive in the coverage of the crisis:
1. Claims that both Palestine and Israel are both victims of, and equally at fault for, the ongoing violence;
2. The view that the conflict is one between “extremists and moderates”; and
3. Media outlets’ framing of the Palestine-Israel dispute in terms of Israel’s supposed “right to defend itself” against Palestinian violence.
Examining the Times editorials from the early days of Protective Edge, Shupak shows how the paper’s distortion of timelines enabled it to lay most of the blame on Hamas, while avoiding the fact that it was Israel that initiated the violence that led to the invasion. “The story of Protective Edge is told in a way that speciously implies that Israel is at fault for going too far at times, but that Palestinians are at fault for starting the fighting and that, therefore, both sides are in the wrong”. The Times’s editorials, says Shupak, “presented Operation Protective Edge as a war in which both Israelis and Palestinians were harmed to comparable degrees.” Not true, he claims, “Media coverage suggesting that Israelis and Palestinians have wronged each other to similar extents ignores that it is only one side that made millions of people refugees and that is responsible for them continuing to have that status.”
He also points out that suggesting equality in both belligerence and response encouraged readers to see the fight as one between similarly-sized forces, when the reality was that one side was armed with F-16 bombers, tanks and one of the strongest armies in the world, while the other was a rag-tag force with an arsenal essentially comprising short-range rockets and slingshots.
While his criticism is mainly of the New York Times’s coverage, Shupak also slams the reporting in other newspapers, including London’s “liberal” Guardian and Independent, where he finds columnists falling over themselves to find a nonexistent balance to what was a blatantly one-sided conflict.
Palestinian father cradles his child as they head for cover during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza during 2014
This narrative, Shupak points out, obscures the larger context of the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is that of occupier and occupied: “That only one side in Palestine-Israel ethnically cleansed the other demonstrates the folly of presenting Palestine-Israel as a story of two sides who have inflicted similar degrees of harm on each other and who are equally responsible for decades of violence … It is not both sides in Palestine-Israel who are keeping millions of refugees from returning to their homes”.
Shupak also illustrates other ways in which the distribution of blame is a fabrication, pointing out that, “During that half century occupation, only one side has subjected the other to dispossession, discrimination, and mass violence. Israel’s illegal separation wall cuts Palestinians off from their own land, which they can access only by passing through gates that Israel controls and that require permits issued by the military that are hard to secure”.
The second part of The Wrong Story examines the idea that the violence is between extremists and moderates on both sides, a stance that allows the media great latitude in portraying Hamas as a “violent”, “extremist”, “hateful”, and “terroristic”, organisation. “Israel is not described this way”, says Shupak, “although it has ethnically-cleansed, colonised, occupied, and erected a system of institutional discrimination against the Palestinians. In this regard, the discourse about ‘extremists and moderates’ in Palestine-Israel is a continuation of that of other colonial and imperial situations: When the oppressed use force it is ‘hateful violence and when the oppressor uses vastly more destructive force it is not”.
Shupak highlights a further problem the mainstream media often avoids in its often over-simplistic framing of the violence: “Palestinians, like any occupied or colonised people, have the right to armed resistance under international law.” Israel, the oppressor, has no such legal standing.
The book notes the Times’s tacit approval of Israel’s unrestrained state violence in a discussion of another editorial from July 2014, that blasted Hamas after Israel had killed many Palestinians and destroyed much infrastructure in aerial bombardment on built-up areas of Gaza. Shupak writes, “By suggesting that Hamas is to blame for the deaths of their own people, the paper contributes to the narrative that Hamas is an atavistic group committed to violence for its own sake who must therefore be dealt with violently”.
Finally, Shupak examines various dubious media narratives explaining how Israel has the right to defend itself against Palestinian attacks. However, he points out, they mislead readers, “by ignoring the permanent violence of Israel’s colonisation of Palestine and the aggressive pursuit of ethnic supremacy that this colonisation entails.” He illustrates this by showing how, in one editorial, “the Times describes Hamas’s ‘heavily armed militia’ as a barrier to resolving the Palestine-Israel question, but makes no similar comment about Israel’s vastly more powerful military arsenal, which includes nuclear weapons,” adding, “The legitimacy of the coloniser’s violence is unquestioned, whereas the violence of the colonised is presented as illegitimate”.
In The Wrong Story, Shupak unravels a web of sophisticated distortions and half truths that perfectly fit the criteria of manufactured – ie fake – news. Yes, Hamas does undertake acts of violence against Israel, but that violence is miniscule when compared to the scale of oppression that Israel employs against the people of Gaza – a combination of vast, sophisticated and carelessly-applied firepower, oppressive and illegal border “security”, and barefaced theft of Palestinian land, along with the expulsion of its inhabitants.
Concluding this important work, Shupak points to high degree of sophisticated capital-media collusion in the perpetuation of this Middle Eastern tragedy: “When coverage of Palestine-Israel is viewed in the context of commercial media, it is no surprise that narratives about the issue that are favourable to Israel are as prevalent as they are. The outlets covering Palestine-Israel are embedded in a system of global imperialist capitalism built around US hegemony, of which Israel is an important characteristic. The overall functioning of the international capitalist system of which the commercial media are a part is guaranteed by the US military, and American sponsorship of Israeli settler-colonial capitalism is a key part of US planners’ strategy for dominance of the Middle East. The millionaire and billionaire owners of media outlets and of the advertisers that fund them are unambiguously part of the ruling class”.
Yaser Murtaja was shot by an Israeli sniper during the Great March of Return on April 6, despite wearing a PRESS flak jacket and helmet.
We only have to look back a few weeks to confirm that collusion. The recent Great March of Return demonstrations in Gaza, marking the 70th anniversary of the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes during the creation of the state of Israel, were marked by the deliberate slaughter of doctors, nurses and children by Israeli snipers. Instead of howling with outrage and condemnation, the media seemed more concerned by the potential crop damage caused by flaming kites flitting over the border in the opposite direction.
If, as Shupak points out, we can’t rely on the mainstream media to tell the truth, “the task of bringing about the necessary shifts in consciousness therefore falls to independent news outlets and publishers as well as the activists working within and beyond them on campuses, in workplaces, in religious communities, and on the streets.”
This journalistic “call to arms” is timely. Fake news should not be seen as a new threat emanating solely from obscure web sites funded by our “enemies”; the mainstream media has long been guilty of blurring facts and distorting reality. Its messages, built around lies and half-truths, have created an Orwellian world of derangement in which Vladimir Putin is considered a dangerous warmonger while it is the US president who threatens to blow up half the world; countries such as Libya and Iraq are destroyed by brazen lies and Western bombs; British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is branded a racist and antisemite, despite decades of evidence to the contrary; and Israeli snipers can kill Palestinians with no fear of sanction.
The Wrong Story is an important book; it and others like it, penetrate the haze of political bombast and corporate bullshit, and help us understand that mainstream media distortion – not shady Facebook or Twitter feeds – is the most deliberate and destructive agent of fake news. We must all be on guard.
Tony Sutton – firstname.lastname@example.org – is the editor of ColdType magazine. This review was originally published in the August 2019 issue of ColdType athttp://coldtype.net/Assets18/pdf/ColdType165.August2018.pdf or at https://issuu.com/coldtype/docs/coldtype165.august2018