It is absurdly difficult to begin a discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian without situating it in its historical continuum or tracing its origin back to the accounts made in the Bible (not that I am saying that this holy book is infallible, it is) down to the accounts made by the different international media organizations that have been covering the event, almost to ad nauseaum since it broke out in the 1970s.
To add to the complicity are intervening factors such as the participation of the United States and the other Arab states who, admittedly have high stakes in the conflict—the US protecting and maintaining its interest in this oil-rich region and the Arabs smitten by the sense of pride, of being victimized in their own territory. The precariousness and complexity of the situation have escaped too many generalizations and simplifications because the issue is never simple and straight-cut. This post will avoid touching and mentioning this very sensitive aspect by leaving it to experts who specialize in studying this volatile region. Instead the post will problematize the role of American media, especially television, and how this powerful apparatus of the society shape how Americans and other nations in the world understand and synthesize the conflict.
The conflict has branched out into so many webs of discord that a graduate student of a university in third-world country will have a hard time grasping, much less making sense of the conflict (or war) occurring thousands of miles away from where he is. But if there is something that connects him and his parochial (relative to the conflict, that is) location, it’s the media that have bridge vast expanse of voids and situate him right at the very heart of the conflict. This perspective afforded to him, however, is limited by the frame he is using, this frame obviously American by definition whose objectivity is doubtful, the ability to tell unadulterated truth is suspect, and the side taken is biased, though sometimes elegantly hidden and subtly injected into the minds of the supposed ‘intelligent’ television viewer.
Let me point out here at the onset that I am incredulous of the believed huge impact media have on their consumers, and that if indeed they have then it’s only a matter of strengthening existing biases or skewing the opinion to a direction not very much divergent from the originally held belief.
Coming from a generally Catholic background, and being raised in the culture of Sunday schools held during summers led by missionaries of the Southern Baptists, I grew up believing that the Isrealites are God’s chosen people. (Let me preclude the fact that my current belief that denies the existence of any omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent supernatural being whose whim can bring me eternal damnation or salvation, was yet to be formed that time). We were told in Cebuano by our Sunday school teacher that the people of Israel, the chosen lot, suffered from different forms of subjugations that caused their diaspora and that someday they shall all be gathered together and live in the promised land. I thought it was a form of a rather convoluted fiction lifted by my teacher from the Bible and grossly modified to aid her in her rhetorical exercise. When I reached college in the early years of 2000, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was overshadowed by the more pressing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I graduated from university without fully understanding the conflict that arises from that narrow strip of land in Gaza, opting to leave only some barely perceptible scratches of comprehension on the surface of the issue.
Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land: Media & the Israel-Palestine Conflict (directed by Bathsheba Ratzkoff and Sut Jhally) is a documentary released in 2004 that succinctly mapped out this implicit agenda of Israel, with the willing aid of the American media, to disqualify the Palestinians’ claim on the land that have been theirs for centuries.
For its framework, the documentary made use of the economic model to explain why the American people, fed by American correspondents in the region who are financed by influential people biased for the Israeli position, are duped into believing the ‘victimization’ of Israel and the demoniacal attempt of the Palestinians to retain the promised land. It used a model characterized by a series of filters built upon institutional relationships —business interests of owners of US Media, political elites, Israel’s own public relations firms, American public relations firms, Israeli consulates, private organizations, and watchdog groups that pressure and/or harass journalists.
While war is being waged in the field, the bigger and more invasive war is waged in the million of TV sets in American homes where people spend more than four hours every day watching. Although I have the feeling that the documentary overestimated the role played by the American media in shaping public opinion, its claim on the importance of public relations and how this strategy has made impact in the direction taken by the talks between opposing sides is undeniable, PR being a highly significant method used by Israel in swaying the ebb of the tide toward their direction.
Most Palestinians intellectuals and even US intellectuals sympathetic to the displaced people in the much contested Gaza strip bewail the apparent absence of context in the reporting of American networks—CNN, Fox, etc—remaining quiet on the fact the what Israel is doing to these territories occupied by Palestinians is a blatant form of occupation. Israel also hides rather impeccably, its object of eventually annexing the area. This it does, though its PR strategists in Washington, by sanitizing the language. For instance, instead of using the word ‘colony’, the illegally built residential structures are referred to as ‘neighborhood’, the use of the word ‘defense’ to describe the action of Israel in the lands they occupy and ‘retaliation’ for the operations they conduct against demonstrators. By altering the lexicon, it successfully takes away the legitimacy from the claim of the Palestinians and gives a rationalization for Israel’s claim.
These television stations also help in keeping the political vacuum created by the conflict tightly in place. The American media portray the occupations as Israel’s response to the suicide bombings when in reality these acts tagged as terroristic by the Israeli governments are the Palestinian’s reactions to the frustrating situation they are forced in. In fact all the actions done by the Palestinians are uniformly called ‘acts of terrorism’ by American media.
Defining what is newsworthy is necessary in the coverage of events that compete for expensive air time in radio and TV or tight column inch in broadsheets. By surreptitiously tipping the balance toward one side, the Media set the agenda of the day, determining what is important and what is banal. Killed members of the Israeli army are victims of a ‘massacre’ while deaths among innocent Palestinians are ‘only a matter of few dozens’. Israeli who died in the conflicts are humanized, with the grieving family interviewed and these dead identified as brother, father, or a friend. On the other hand, Palestinians deaths remain unknown, unnamed, a mere number, a statistics.
Another interesting aspect tackled is the presumed neutrality of the US when in reality, the American government gave Israel USD 6 billion in the form of aid to buy American weapons in 2000; this excludes weapons given free by the US. In total, Israel received USD 100 billion from the US since the conflict started in 1949 until 2000. In fact, Israel is the 4th largest army in the world considering that its current population barely reaches 8 million. It is believed that Israel as a way for the US to maintain its hegemony versus the emerging power of the European Union and Russia in the region.
It is clear to me that the most damning critiques of the American media are their lack provision of an alternative view point, absence of serious examination, and the US journalism having a shameful symbiotic relationship with the powerful forces in the US government which critics describe as ‘incestuous’, the media becoming an apparatus that will ensure that some dissenting voices are not heard. This has led to a dangerous super-simplification, an either…or fallacy: Whoever expresses a divergent opinion is an Anti-Semite. And the debate ends here.
The media have become nothing but an instrument of the state; they have become expensive propaganda machines parroting if not rendering aseptic the pathological language of international politics and the content of the endless memos released to them by the state. This leads to a dangerous conspiracy that murders people in the other end of the world. If they have ceased to become platform for debates where policies are scrutinized, norms questioned, and beliefs examined, then they also lose their very reason for existing in the first place.
Martel, Ned. “Eager to Place the Blame for a Never-Ending Conflict”. The New York Times. 28 Jan 2005. http://movies.nytimes.com/2005/01/28/movies/28peac.html?_r=1
Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land: Media & the Israel-Palestine Conflict. Bathsheba Ratzkoff and Sut Jhally, director. 2004. Documentary. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-6604775898578139565#