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How the Western press distorts the Mideast (Part 2); Israel’s news management

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The superb young Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk was in for some big surprises when he left Egypt after several years and started covering Israel during the second intifada. His reports from the Arab world had not prompted much of a response from readers and viewers. But his new assignment was different. “If I made a factual error about Israel, five letters would arrive saying, ‘Your correspondent is anti-Semitic.’”
The second half of his valuable new book, People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East, is an inside look at how the Israeli government and the Israel lobby try and manipulate news coverage overseas. He is astonished at his first visit to a plush Israeli government press center, set up in a 5-star hotel in Jerusalem: “Young Israeli men and women walked around in olive-green army uniforms handing out sheets of great quotes. In efficient, friendly, and fluent English, they told us about the forthcoming press conference and the briefing later that day to be given by a defense specialist.”
Everything was ready to help the pack of harried international journalists who show up in a crisis. “The world’s media were given everything they needed with practiced skill, and more,” he explains. “Rights-free archive material of Israeli soldiers giving first aid to Palestinians; the phone numbers of spokesmen who could explain the government’s perspective in any major language and in the required number of words. . .”
Luyendijk cannot hide his amazement: “A complete alphabet of ‘optimistic stories’ had been cooked up for the correspondents: Jewish, Christian, and Islamic children together in one school; olive branches from Israelis and Palestinians; joint musical performances. You had only to telephone the Palestinian or Israeli organizers of these hopeful projects. . . and the great quotes, checkable information, and striking visual details would be served to you on a plate.”
He exposes another Israeli news management tactic. “After enduring an attack that caused a high civilian death toll, the Israeli government would wait a standard twenty-four hours before retaliating. The world’s press was given time to pause and reflect on Israeli suffering because, as soon as Israel took revenge, that would dominate the headlines.”
He also watches the international Israel lobby in action. A Jewish-American businessman boasts in the Israeli media that “he’d managed to get rid of the critical correspondent of the Miami Herald by threatening to withdraw advertisements from it.” He goes on: “Israeli ambassadors and lobbyists also visited leading editors and producers at television networks, cable news television, and the main daily and weekly newspapers in many Western countries. Pro-Israeli Jewish and Christian fundamentalist clubs in America invited ‘good’ correspondents and commentators to give lectures, for attractively high fees.”

The Israeli government collects damaging facts for use at the right time: Palestinian television sermons in which Jews are compared to “monkeys and pigs,” for instance, or anti-Israel passages in Palestinian textbooks. But, he says, “the inverse didn’t happen.”
The world does not learn, for example, that: “Quite a few Israeli schoolbooks avoid mentioning the fact that Palestinians were living there before the foundation of Israel. Some rabbis want to burn down the Aqsa mosque; Israeli generals have called Palestine ‘a cancerous growth’; and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish party has pleaded for the ‘extermination of Arabs.’”
Luyendijk dissects the twisted language that has become so much a part of Mideast discourse that we all too often take it for granted. “Hamas is ‘anti-Israeli’; Jewish settlers are not ‘anti-Palestinian,’” he explains. “Palestinians who use violence against Israeli citizens are ‘terrorists’; Israelis who use violence against Palestinian citizens are ‘hawks’ or ‘hard-liners.’ Israeli politicians who seek a peaceful resolution are ‘doves’; their Palestinian equivalents are ‘moderates’ – implying that deep down all Palestinians are fanatics.”
He sums up, “You could see the double standards more clearly if you turned things around: ‘Moderate Jew Shimon Peres’s anti-Islamic speech has caused great unrest amongst Palestinian doves.’”
If the Israel propaganda effort could be reduced to a single line, Luyendijk says it would be, “They are killing innocent Jews.” He explains: “‘They’ means ‘All Palestinians are guilty’; ‘innocent’ means ‘The motive is hatred’; and ‘Jews’ means ‘It’s not about Israelis or Zionism; this is just one more slaughter of the Jews.’”
(Why were the Palestinian spokesmen who should have been responding so dull and inept? Luyendijk partly blames Yasser Arafat – for picking loyal cronies instead of the smart, articulate Palestinians who might have used their new prominence to challenge his own power.)
In Luyendijk’s final year, he went to live in East Jerusalem, where he came to understand the Israeli occupation for the first time. He emphasizes that “the occupation itself was never news, but each new [Palestinian] attack was.” The occupation was particularly hard to show on television: “it didn’t get any further than shots of tanks, soldiers checking papers, and long queues of civilians. How could correspondents portray the misery, repression, and injustice behind such scenes?”
He reminds us: “The Palestinian Authority had to continually explain whether it was ‘doing enough against terrorism.’ Israeli politicians never had to explain if they were ‘doing enough against the occupation.’”
Luyendijk’s tour of duty in the Mideast ended right after he covered the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, and was thoroughly disgusted by most of the other reports. “If the Western mass media had done their job during the war,” he writes, “viewers would have sat in front of their television sets crying and vomiting.” He channeled his anger into this book, which to his great surprise became a bestseller in Holland. He has added a useful afterword for the American translation, which includes some specific suggestions, (including an endorsement of independent websites).
As he summarizes, “Much of the glamour and posturing that war correspondents revel in suddenly become pretty ridiculous when you enlarge the frame and reveal how they really operate.”

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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