Monday, March 03, 2008

Pledges Not Made, Fairness Not Met

Barry Rubin
March 3, 2008

Keep repeating to yourself what the media institution's spokespeople tell us: Coverage is fair, coverage is fair, coverage is fair. But as you do so be sure not to look at the actual articles.Journalism has changed. It is a tool for advocacy. For a lot of reporters, writing articles is what they do instead of demonstrating or lobbying for a cause, and against another one. Behavior that twenty years ago would have been quickly condemned and resulted in either editorial changes or summary firings is accepted and defended routinely.

Just look at the texts. They are so skewed that even while being horrified one wants to laugh at the clumsy and obvious tricks employed.

People's Exhibit 1: Steve Weizman, "Israel Keeps Palestinian Offices Shut," AP, February 22, 2008. This is a long article by AP standards, counting over 20 paragraphs. And like "Seinfeld," though with considerably less entertainment or moral value, it is about nothing.

Why should Israel keeping shut "Palestinian Offices" be a story. After all, basically nothing happens? Because of the story's theme, that it is doing so "despite its pledge to reopen them under a recently revived peace plan...." Oh, I left out the rest of the sentence: "...Palestinian officials said Thursday."

Nowhere in the article is their any evidence that Israel has violated a pledge. It is only, because Palestinian officials say so.

A few days ago, the Australian Broadcasting Company ran a whole story accusing Israel of facilitating drug smuggling into the West Bank to undermine Palestinian society. There was no proof, only the assertions of Palestinians. Aside from resembling historic antisemitic blood libels, this story makes no sense, as any reporter should be able to ascertain in sixty seconds. After all, Israel is trying to keep the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) government in power, not destroy it. Israeli government officials never criticize Fatah or the PA; it is a matter of official policy. But who cares?

And you might remember the claim that some years back Israel committed massacres in Jenin. Even the UN eventually discounted that tale. But what people forget is that the original stories were based on one Palestinian being interviewed, not even an official but a man who no one had ever heard of and who afterward seems to have disappeared.

Most recently, Israel was falsely accused of cutting off almost all of the Gaza Strip's electrical power at a time when there were virtually no reductions. But an official of the Hamas regime was the only source needed to make this assertion.

So the reporters and editors can defend themselves: they did have a source after all. The problem is their wilful intention to believe sources that have every interest in lying, have a track record of doing so, and offer no proof or make illogical and unsupported claims.

Regarding the Weizman article, I have read it over and over and over again. There's one problem: there is no mention of any Israeli pledge to open the offices. Let me say that again: not only do the Palestinians (or the reporter) not prove there was any such pledge, it isn't even mentioned.

If the system operated properly, the article would be withdrawn, a correction would be issued, and how such things happen would be investigated.

This won't happen.

Here is what the article says:

"With the resumption of peace talks, the Palestinians say these places should reopen. The U.S.-backed ``road map' peace plan, the basis for negotiations, calls on Israel to "`reopen the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce and other Palestinian institutions in east Jerusalem.'"

And the road map also says that Palestinians should stop terrorism but we are not seeing long articles about that fact. Of course, the plan is in several stages and implementation has not really started. No pledge was made; no pledge has been violated. Oh yes, a few lines before the bottom, deeply buried under a headline and weighty paragraphs that state how terrible is Israel's violation the article sticks in a little sentence: "Neither side has met its obligations."

Why not bother to write an article saying both sides haven't met obligations. Let's see, Israel allows some settlement construction; the Palestinians incite and allow terrorist attacks, don't punish terrorists afterward, and incite in official media for killing Israelis and wiping Israel off the map. Yep, the problem is definitely Israel closing the east Jerusalem offices.

What the article also doesn't mention is that the Palestinian side promised in the 1993 Oslo agreement, the basis for everything that has happened since, that the PA would not engage in political activity in east Jerusalem. The Orient House, the most important office closed, was owned and run by Faisal Husseini who when he died was PA minister for Jerusalem affairs. In other words, the Palestinian commitment was openly violated. Readers are not at all told about this factor. Why? So that Israel's actions seem arbitrary and unreasonable.

Yet despite that violation, in order to help along the peace process Israel allowed the place to function most of the time in the 1990s. Only in 2001, when the PA went to war with Israel, was the office closed. Having an official office in your capital used by the party waging terror attacks on you to recruit people and gather intelligence doesn't seem a great idea. These points are alluded to generally but not explained in the article.

Thus, the article actually states, but does not analyze, this amazing paragraph:

"`As the PLO Headquarters in the occupied city, the Orient House aspires to develop Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of the emerging Palestinian state,'" the center's Web site says.

Note that the institution itself doesn't even call itself a PA but a PLO institution. But you have to read almost 20 paragraphs down to find that out.

So why should Israel reopen the offices? Here's where you need a sense of humor because the article is so blatant it doesn't even see the absurdity of its own language:

"When Orient House was shut down, Israel said it would only withdraw if the Palestinian Authority, today headed by Abbas, promised not to operate there. [Palestinian Legislative Council member Hatem] Abdel Khader said the Palestinians had given the necessary assurances."

So why should Israel reopen Orient House? Because Palestinian officials have promised they would not use it as an official PLO (then why haven't they changed the website?), PA, and Fatah headquarters. Oh, they promised. But they repeatedly promised and broke those promises in the past, though the article does not hint at this.

Is this article and issue important? No, but the same principles are being applied in writing dozens, nay, hundreds of articles. And they add up to slandering and demonizing Israel on a daily basis, as well as debasing the noble profession of journalism.

Let me just mention one more example very briefly to show how this process could continue at length. Mohammed Daraghmeh, "Palestinian Gunmen Swap Arms for Amnesty, February 25, 2008. While this is a pretty factual article, there is still at its analytical core an article in keeping with the usual narrative. While it cites a number of statistics, the key paragraph is this:

"....A skeptical Israel says gunmen from [Fatah's] Al Aqsa [Brigades] and other groups still pose a real threat. Dismantling armed groups is at the center of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' attempt to control the West Bank and gain credibility as a leader who can implement a future peace deal with Israel."

What the article doesn't say is something significant regarding each of these two points:

First, Israel has released specifics about many amnestied gunmen who have returned to terrorism. It isn't just skeptical, it has reason to be and the reader could have been told this.

Second, dismantling armed groups may be "at the center" of Abbas' claimed policy. He just never does it and this can easily be documented.

This kind of critique is not nit-picking. The same emphases are repeated over and over again, always pointed in one direction and always against the other. Generally, the media ignores such criticism. It must do so, assuming an abandonment of historic responsibility and ethics, because on examination of the evidence this case cannot be refuted.

By the way, didn't the media pledge to at least strive strenuously to be fair?

Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2007. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online at:

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