Two subjects of interest to many WORLD subscribers, press bias and the survival of Israel, come together in Stephanie Gutmann's The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Struggle for Media Supremacy (Encounter Books, 2005). Ms. Gutmann, a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism who has written for publications ranging from The New Republic to Cosmopolitan, readably but carefully covers the propaganda war against Israel from 2000 to 2004 and the complicity of leading U.S. media in it.
WORLD: The Other War has a great cover photo of a young Palestinian apparently throwing a rock on cue as two dozen photographers snapped pictures. Did the opportunity to be a star motivate staged action?
GUTMANN: It's very likely. West Bank demonstrators and photographers have a very co-dependent relationship. I feature excerpts from a memoir, Shutterbabe, written by photojournalist Deborah Kogan, in which she describes her daily routine while working in Israel and the territories. After breakfast Kogan and colleagues would "drive around the West Bank and wait for the Palestinian kids to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers, which we knew they would do only once a critical mass of journalists assembled." Media coverage propelled events, was used to justify events, and amplified events.
WORLD: You write about The New York Times running an AP photo of a bloodied man apparently beaten by a rage-filled soldier carrying a club. The Times caption was, "A Palestinian and an Israeli soldier on the Temple Mount," but the photo was actually of . . .
GUTMANN: A young Jewish man and an Israeli policeman who had come to his defense! A young American named Tuvia Grossman had been on his way to synagogue that evening in a cab in the Old City section of Jerusalem. Imams then were appearing nightly on Palestinian Authority--produced television shows telling the faithful that "the Jews" were planning to tear down their mosque in East Jerusalem.
Grossman's cab was idling in traffic when a bunch of Arab youths swarmed around it, dragged Grossman out of the car, and began to stab and kick him. Somehow Grossman managed to break away and run to a nearby Israeli police outpost. He had just arrived and collapsed on the ground in front, and a policeman had just run out roaring at the pursuing youths and waving his baton, when some Associated Press photographer popped up and snapped a shot.
Apparently the AP photog didn't bother to identify his photo subjects because he wrote the "Palestinian youth/Israeli soldier" caption which all the other newspapers went on to use. The caption was wrong in so many ways! Soldiers wear different uniforms than policemen and they carry different weaponry. The incident didn't even occur "on the Temple Mount": There are traffic signs and a car in the background of the shot, and since no cars are allowed on the ultra-holy Temple Mount (home to Al-Aqsa mosque among other places of worship), this should have been clear to any editor who perused the shot and the supplied caption. To me the whole incident personified the ignorance-and the knee-jerk prejudices-that inform media coverage of the area.
WORLD: According to CBS, The New York Times, and other outlets, Israeli soldiers shot to death a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammed al-Dura. What really happened?
GUTMANN: It is highly unlikely that the boy was shot by Israeli soldiers. Anyone who's shot as much as a pop gun can determine this by taking a hard look at the placement of the bullet holes. There was an awful lot of shooting by all sorts of people (Israeli troops, Palestinian security forces, sundry bystanders) from different angles and at different distances around the "crime scene." The speed at which the press decided that the boy had been "cut down by Israeli fire," as one publication put it, was truly breathtaking.
WORLD: If Palestinians have acted as brutally as you say, why haven't we seen more film or photos of their atrocities?
GUTMANN: The Palestinian brutality we don't hear much about comes in two types. There's Palestinian-on-Palestinian brutality-the Arafat regime was ruthless to its subjects and to dissidents. There's also the execution-style killing of women and children who happened to be (or were mistaken for) Jewish settlers living in communities sprinkled through the disputed territories.
The reason we didn't know more about this until very recently is what my book is about, but a couple of easy answers are (1) it's not easy to capture acts of terrorism on TV, because terrorism is by nature a surprise attack; and (2) until recently the Palestinian Authority government was able to keep a very tight lid on its own press so that scenes unflattering to the PA government (violence, disorder) did not appear. The foreign press tended overwhelmingly to cooperate with these "guidelines" as well.
Also, execution-style killings of mothers with their children did not receive much coverage because many press people adopted the PLO line on settlers, i.e., that they should be considered, as I heard a PLO spokeswoman put it, "legitimate combatants."
WORLD: You write that the citizen-soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force would be terrific subjects for human-interest stories, but U.S. reporters have shown little interest. Why?
GUTMANN: The foreign press people seemed deathly afraid of seeming to help the Israeli government with flattering or favorable coverage. Appearing to be a friend of Israel could get you in trouble with officials of the Palestinian Authority, with your colleagues, even with some of your editors. There was also the widely held belief that Israel didn't deserve favorable coverage, and that the Palestinians-stereotyped as uniformly poor, oppressed, and "developing world"-shouldn't be saddled with critical coverage on top of all their other problems.
WORLD: Surely you're not going to tell us that the infamous Jenin massacre wasn't one . . .
GUTMANN: Jenin was not a massacre in any way, shape, or form. It was an armed conflict, a battle, between two determined forces-Israeli Defense Force soldiers vs. terror militia members and fedayeen (sympathizers). The reason it was easy to portray it as a massacre is that once again, as in the Iraq conflict, as in Fallujah, et al., the terror militia stationed themselves in a densely populated town and in effect drew the IDF in, made them fight a kind of urban warfare among houses and on city streets. The IDF was very careful to warn the civilians of the impending attack and let them get out-and most did-but some civilians were left behind. Overall, UN investigators determined in the end that about 45 Palestinians died, mostly all men in the 18- to 45-year-old age range.
WORLD: You write that the advent of blogging has led to an improvement in Western press reporting in Israel. Why is that, and are you optimistic that coverage will improve?
GUTMANN: Yes, I absolutely love the blogosphere and websites like yours. This is a very hopeful time for journalism. The major media had become a standard monopoly-arrogant, unaccountable, and regimented in their thinking. Most members of the mainstream media-the MSM-simply can't see this because "fish can't see the water they swim in." But did you ever try to get a correction into a newspaper? It's like fighting the proverbial city hall. But the internet introduced competition and, well, we know the effect competition tends to have. The MSM are now running very scared as they see ratings decline and circulations slip and they're beginning-just beginning-to consider that maybe they lost touch with their base.
Coverage of Israel has improved somewhat because of events but mainly because of blogs and websites that made it their business to deconstruct MSM coverage, make people see the deficiencies in what they were seeing, and then organize action-from boycotts, to letter writing campaigns, to blitzes of calls and faxes which paralyzed MSM switchboards. So, yes, for the time being Mideast coverage in the U.S. and even Britain is better. And the blogosphere helped make it happen.