Telling It Like It Isn't
December 28, 2005
I first realized the enormous pressures on American journalists
in the Middle East when I went some years ago to say goodbye to
a colleague from the Boston Globe. I expressed my sorrow
that he was leaving a region where he had obviously enjoyed reporting.
I could save my sorrows for someone else, he said. One of the joys
of leaving was that he would no longer have to alter the truth to
suit his paper's more vociferous readers.
"I used to call the Israeli Likud Party 'right wing,' "
he said. "But recently, my editors have been telling me not
to use the phrase. A lot of our readers objected." And so now,
I asked? "We just don't call it 'right wing' anymore."
Ouch. I knew at once that these "readers" were viewed
at his newspaper as Israel's friends, but I also knew that the Likud
under Benjamin Netanyahu was as right wing as it had ever been.
This is only the tip of the semantic iceberg that has crashed into
American journalism in the Middle East. Illegal Jewish settlements
for Jews and Jews only on Arab land are clearly "colonies,"
and we used to call them that. I cannot trace the moment when we
started using the word "settlements." But I can remember
the moment around two years ago when the word "settlements"
was replaced by "Jewish neighborhoods" - or even, in some
Similarly, "occupied" Palestinian land was softened in
many American media reports into "disputed" Palestinian
land - just after then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, in 2001,
instructed U.S. embassies in the Middle East to refer to the West
Bank as "disputed" rather than "occupied" territory.
Then there is the "wall," the massive concrete obstruction
whose purpose, according to the Israeli authorities, is to prevent
Palestinian suicide bombers from killing innocent Israelis. In this,
it seems to have had some success. But it does not follow the line
of Israel's 1967 border and cuts deeply into Arab land. And all
too often these days, journalists call it a "fence" rather
than a "wall." Or a "security barrier," which
is what Israel prefers them to say. For some of its length, we are
told, it is not a wall at all - so we cannot call it a "wall,"
even though the vast snake of concrete and steel that runs east
of Jerusalem is higher than the old Berlin Wall.
The semantic effect of this journalistic obfuscation is clear.
If Palestinian land is not occupied but merely part of a legal dispute
that might be resolved in law courts or discussions over tea, then
a Palestinian child who throws a stone at an Israeli soldier in
this territory is clearly acting insanely.
If a Jewish colony built illegally on Arab land is simply a nice
friendly "neighborhood," then any Palestinian who attacks
it must be carrying out a mindless terrorist act.
And surely there is no reason to protest a "fence" or
a "security barrier" - words that conjure up the fence
around a garden or the gate arm at the entrance to a private housing
For Palestinians to object violently to any of these phenomena
thus marks them as a generically vicious people. By our use of language,
we condemn them.
We follow these unwritten rules elsewhere in the region. American
journalists frequently used the words of U.S. officials in the early
days of the Iraqi insurgency - referring to those who attacked American
troops as "rebels" or "terrorists" or "remnants"
of the former regime. The language of the second U.S. pro-consul
in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, was taken up obediently - and grotesquely
- by American journalists.
American television, meanwhile, continues to present war as a bloodless
sandpit in which the horrors of conflict - the mutilated bodies
of the victims of aerial bombing, torn apart in the desert by wild
dogs - are kept off the screen. Editors in New York and London make
sure that viewers' "sensitivities" don't suffer, that
we don't indulge in the "pornography" of death (which
is exactly what war is) or "dishonor" the dead whom we
have just killed.
Our prudish video coverage makes war easier to support, and journalists
long ago became complicit with governments in making conflict and
death more acceptable to viewers. Television journalism has thus
become a lethal adjunct to war.
Back in the old days, we used to believe - did we not? - that journalists
should "tell it how it is." Read the great journalism
of World War II and you'll see what I mean. The Ed Murrows and Richard
Dimblebys, the Howard K. Smiths and Alan Moorheads didn't mince
their words or change their descriptions or run mealy-mouthed from
the truth because listeners or readers didn't want to know or preferred
a different version.
So let's call a colony a colony, let's call occupation what it
is, let's call a wall a wall. And maybe express the reality of war
by showing that it represents not, primarily, victory or defeat,
but the total failure of the human spirit.
is Middle East correspondent for the London Independent
and the author, most recently, of "The Great War for Civilisation:
The Conquest of the Middle East," published last month by Knopf.
journalists forget that murder is murder
propaganda war - By Henry Lowi
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