Category Archives: Media

Why did the media collaborate with Hamas?

Hamas press conference?

Hamas press conference?

With the latest round of fighting in Gaza over, it’s time to take stock of what can be learned from the conflict. In Israel the military and diplomatic lessons will be examined. Abroad, where most people get their information about the conflict,  there is one key aspect of the information war that we need to confront: How did Hamas largely succeed in managing the media output from Gaza?

Hamas’s agendas

The Palestinian Arab branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (for that is what Hamas is) had two clear propaganda objectives in relation to the Western world:

  1. To portray itself as the righteous victim.
  2. To portray Israel as the powerful and merciless aggressor.

Why did the Western media collaborate with Hamas’s goals? To answer this question we have to know a little about how the media operates in Gaza.

The parachute brigade

Israel has a high number of resident correspondents, certainly more than any other nation in the region (the surrounding countries are not exactly havens of free press). But the number of resident reporters is dwarfed by the numbers who are “parachuted” in for brief periods to cover hot news like the recent fighting in Gaza. These journalists are usually ill informed on the regions they are covering, live and hunt in packs, and are consequently disproportionately dependent on local Arab “fixers” to provide access to the scene of news events. In Gaza the press corps were hosted by Hamas and their agents and funneled toward the scenes that the Islamists wanted covered.

Experienced journalists are used to this sort of manipulation. It is par for the course for reporters to be shown only what their hosts want them to see. They would, however, normally take such tableaux as the jumping off point for a more independent investigation. This almost never happened in Gaza, and it begs the question why hard-boiled reporters were not willing to strike out on their own to find the stories that were not being spoon-fed to them.

Brave journalists?

Widlake and  Mandela meet in secret in 1961

Widlake and Mandela meet in secret in 1961

In 1961, a reporter for the UK’s Independant Television News (ITN) in Johannesburg, Brian Widlake, risked his freedom and perhaps more by arranging a clandestine interview with Nelson Mandela. The man who would go on to become the first black president of South Africa was at that time a wanted fugitive. If caught, Widlake would have been imprisoned under the apartheid regime’s tough censorship laws for giving a platform to the African nationalist leader. Nonetheless, he braved the threat to get the story out.

One of the more dramatic pieces of news footage of the recent conflict in Gaza featured an Indian reporter speaking in hushed tones from the balcony of his hotel room while his cameraman cowered inside. The pair were daring to cover the erection of an Hamas rocket launcher right outside their hotel in the middle of a civilian residential area (a war crime in and of itself). They were among the very few foreign pressmen who risked the wrath of Hamas by showing such scenes. Isra Al-Mudallal, head of foreign relations in Hamas’s Information Ministry, admitted that those who recorded such scenes were expelled from Gaza. In words that would suit a Mafiosi, he stated, “The [Hamas] security agencies would go and have a chat with these people. They would give them some time to change their message, one way or another.”

The code of silence

Journalists often have to work under conditions of censorship. The BBC was forced to cover Zimbabwe from 2001–2009 from neighboring South Africa. Having been excluded from the country by the authoritarian regime of Robert Mugabe, the journalists’ abilities to report fully and accurately was severely curtailed. To their credit they covered what they could and concluded almost every report with a statement to the effect that the BBC was banned from Zimbabwe. At least the audience was then in a position to know that they were being denied information.

In contrast, Western journalists in Gaza overwhelmingly did not report the fact that they were being constrained and threatened by Hamas. The few who did report on it did so only after they were safely outside the Strip. On August 11th, the umbrella body for visiting journalists, the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Israel, took the unusual step of publicly condemning the “blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza.” Even when, having taken advantage of the anonymity offered by the FPA, the journalists protested Hamas’s strong-arm tactics, they still didn’t report it!

The bottom line is that the news from Gaza was inadequate and inaccurate because it was usually being reported by journalists who were ignorant of the context, and always by ones dependent on Hamas for access. All were subject to harassment and censorship.

And all of that, apparently, wasn’t newsworthy.



Filed under Background, Media

Beyond the Flotilla

Engineering a flop

Lost at sea?

For most of the three months from May to July 2011, the Jewish world was abuzz with the impending Gaza flotilla and its higher-end cousin, the “fly-in.” After Israel’s mixed success in dealing with the 2010 flotilla, there was obvious apprehension that things might be disastrous. In the end, Israel’s diplomatic efforts and security measures turned the flotilla into a non-event. Instead of an armada, a single overcrowded French-owned yacht staggered in the direction of Gaza and was intercepted in international waters – with no casualties on either side and next to no media attention.[1]

An ambitious plan to fly over a thousand anti-Israel activists to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv was largely preempted by Israeli liaison with foreign airlines, which prevented most of the agitators from even reaching the Jewish state. The minority who arrived were (briefly) detained and deported with little fanfare. A handful were even admitted to Israel.

I’d like to discuss what lessons we can learn from this whole episode: what we did well and what we can do even better.

Media events – the flotilla and fly-in

In a recent post ( I wrote of the ease with which the media can be manipulated. One of the simplest ways to achieve this objective is through media events: incidents contrived solely to generate coverage from the media.

The flotilla and the fly-in were conceived of as just such stunts, actions designed to manipulate the media into covering events a certain way to produce the story that the anti-Israel organizers wanted. Israel responded remarkably well to the flotilla of 2010, realizing that they did not have to be passive victims of media manipulation. The IDF found they could add their perspective to the media stream by shooting their own footage of events in the Mediterranean and releasing the video directly through YouTube. This use of the Internet allowed them to bypass mainstream media outlets that had already fallen into the conceptual frame of the anti-Israel activists.

In 2011 Israel went one step further. The Israeli government asked itself the old philosophical question: “If a tree falls in the forest and CNN doesn’t cover it, has it happened?” By ensuring that the media event never took place, the message it was intended to convey was lost.

Another media event – the GA ploy

Through diplomatic and other means, Israel was able to control events surrounding the would-be flotilla and fly-in. But Israel had no way to control actions in countries hostile to Israel. In September 2011, the Syrian government and Hizbollah organized mass marches on their borders with the Jewish state. Forced to act forcefully to defend her borders, it was the IDF who were manipulated into falling into the stereotype of “brutality.” Fortunately for Israel the story picked up little momentum, perhaps because it was such a transparent attempt to divert attention from the real brutality of the Syrian and Iranian regimes’ suppression of domestic dissent.

With the prospects of a reprise, the IDF is straining to develop new tactics to minimize the potential damage from even larger mass demonstrations likely to coincide with the threatened appeal to the UN General Assembly to acknowledge Palestinian Arab sovereignty in September 2011.

Israel has grasped that the GA ploy is another media event and is using diplomatic efforts to try and stymie this stunt as well. By the way, those who – like myself – are critical of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s advocacy efforts should take pause to congratulate the diplomats on their success when they do what they are supposed to do: exercise diplomacy. As I write these words, it’s too early to tell whether Israel’s envoys will succeed or not.)

What can we learn from the successes and failures of these attacks on Israel?

All politics are local

When Tip O’Neil coined that slogan in the 1930s, he was talking about the need to relate to the concerns of your local constituents. As local activists for Israel, we should apply the lessons of the flotilla successes and failures to campaigning for Israel on the local level. Local media is read, listened to, and watched much more than national and international outlets. If we are to define the parameters of debate we should learn the lessons of the crucial importance of media events, but translate them to a local level where we can have the biggest impact. To focus the attention of local media, we might try staging events such as the following:

  • Street theater dramatizing the plight of Gilad Shalit. Three volunteers (two dressed as Hamas terrorists and one as Gilad Shalit), a cage, a few people to hand out flyers, and a prime location (shopping mall, sports stadium, local legislature, or Iranian Airlines office) are all you need to get on the six o’clock news.
  • Placing anti-Israel terrorists on trial. Under Article III (c) of the 1948 “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” the “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” is a crime. That makes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call to “wipe Israel off the map” a crime under international law. Targeting Israeli civilians with rockets and mortars are war crimes. That makes the leaders of Hamas and Hizbollah criminals. Use local legal academics to set up a public tribunal to try any of the above on suitable charges. Take dramatic testimony from individuals who have suffered or are threatened by them. Invite the media. Repeat as necessary.
  • Celebrate your community’s links with Israel. When your community sends a mission to Israel, have local political leaders and/or celebrities welcome them back at the local airport. Get up a crowd with national and Israeli flags. Arrange some sort of award. Have the under-12 Jewish day school choir, dressed in white (always think about how to make an event photogenic) and holding candles, sing to greet them.

Generating our own stories gives us the edge. It’s much better to have Israel’s enemies loose sleep wondering how they are going to counter our campaigns than vice versa.

[1] If you are reading this blog you are probably well informed on the facts of what happened and I’ve no intention of reinventing the wheel. I would offer three links that didn’t get wide distribution in case you’d like to know more.

Melanie Phillips reveals the small Israeli NGO that lead the legal challenge to the flotilla. She also musters some compelling proof of the duplicity of the flotilla organizers in talking about the nonexistent “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza.

Left wing, post-Zionist activist and journalist Amira Hass (who identifies so strongly with Palestinian Arabs that she lived for several years in Gaza) essentially derides the handful of foreign agitators who were on the final yacht for being “useful idiots” in this breathtakingly honest article, where she also gives the lie to the “humanitarian crisis” canard.

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs offers one of its excellent analyses of the murky forces behind the flotilla.

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Filed under Advocacy techniques, Media

The Media and Israel: Biased or just dumb?

Is it newsworthy?If you are a supporter of Israel, you don’t need convincing that most of the mainstream media is (at best) suspicious of and (at worst) openly hostile to the Jewish state.

If you are not a supporter of Israel, it is very likely that you would dismiss such assertions as paranoia. Most media consumers suppose that the information they are given, though it may lean slightly to the right or the left, is more or less balanced.

There is a clear discrepancy between the way Israel’s supporters view the media and the way everyone else does. What is the reason for this? Part of the explanation is that much of what we supporters of Israel perceive as bias is only discernible if you know quite a lot about the Middle East.

A generally well-informed reader, viewer, or listener might find nothing problematic in, for example, the following extract from an overview of the history of the Middle East in the newspaper USA Tody. Describing the events of November 29, 1947, the journalist writes:

The United Nations votes to Partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem an International zone. The Palestinians reject the plan.[1]

One would have to be fairly well-informed to spot that although the Jewish residents did accept the UN partition plan, it was rejected not only by local Arabs, but all of the regional Arab powers (the term “Palestinians”  for Arabs wouldn’t emerge for another decade). The blanket rejection of Israel’s right to exist by the whole Arab world would be central to all further developments ― but it is absent from this account.[2]  With no obvious falsehoods, the description would pass muster as fair, unless you know that it is leaving out significant facts. Drawing attention to this sort of thing can look like nitpicking if you don’t understand the significance of the missing information, and you can only understand that if you are reasonably well informed.

This begs the question why the media consuming public are so ignorant of the background to the Arab-Israel conflict that they can’t spot this sort of thing. One of the answers is that the media doesn’t keep them better informed! (Someone once said that one of the advantages of circular arguments is that they are, at least, consistent!)

Some supporters of Israel will sniff a conspiracy here, and it’s easy to get the impression that the media people must hold a conference call every morning to decide what they can do to upset the Jews today.

However, the real causes of Israel’s problems with the media are both more, and less, sinister than an antisemitic plot.

Don’t Worry, Make Money

In a free-market, democratic society (like the United States) the production of news media is, overwhelmingly, a commercial activity. Whether print, broadcast, or Internet, almost everyone producing news for mainstream audiences is doing it to make money. They may have other objectives as well, including the well-worn journalistic ideals of informing and educating the public, but if they don’t make money, they will not stay in business long enough to fulfill their other aims.

Western reporting tends to be superficial, especially when it comes to the very influential electronic media, particularly TV. The reason it is superficial is that viewers, on the whole, don’t want much depth. There are instances of anti-Israel animus in the media, but most of the problems the Jewish state faces in reportage are due to superficiality not malice.

One can perhaps forgive the media for missing the founding of al Qaeda, in 1988. It was, then, only one of many obscure splinter groups, whose unique significance would only become apparent years later. Even its “re-launch” in 1998, as the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, might have reasonably gone unnoticed. Yet today, more than two decades after it began, and a decade after the September 11 attacks, how much have we learned from the media about Osama bin Laden’s organization? How many people can describe the Salafist ideology that animates it, or distinguish it from the Salafi ideology that preceded it? Who knows what influence it bears on mainstream Islam? Surely these are the key questions that would help form a public policy toward the Islamist threat to the West, so why doesn’t the media cover them?

The answer is as frightening as it is simple: people aren’t interested. If faced with a choice between a one-hour-long “talking heads” show about the first three generations of Islam and their significance on the world today, and a “reality” show, most normal people opt for news from the “Big Brother House.” The media is superficial because that is what most of its consumers want.

The pro-Israel media watcher who notices superficial and sloppy reports should bear in mind that this is also probably true of almost any other story that the media is covering. It’s just that we tend to notice it when the issue is Israel. Talk to some of your friends who are sensitive to other issues (feminists, members of racial minorities, believers in other religions) and you will often find that their concerns about media bias mirror ours. It leaves you wondering if the media can be wrong about everything?

I’ve come to the conclusion that, with the possible exception of sports reports and the closing prices, they can indeed.

(Don’t think that that means that I view the situation as hopeless. In a future blog I’ll write about possible strategies for dealing with this problem.)

[1] The Mideast Conflict: A look at the region’s history, as of August, 2004

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