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Two Views on the US Media Coverage of the Gaza Conflict/1-Rashid Khalidi

January 15, 2009

Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York City. His research and teaching encompass the history of the modern Middle East with an emphasis on the emergence of national identity and the involvement of external powers in the region. He is particularly interested in the role of the press in the formation of new publics and new senses of community. An American of Palestinian descent, Professor Khalidi has often been an outspoken voice in the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this phone interview with Valentina Pasquali he expresses his criticism for the coverage of the ongoing Israel invasion of Gaza offered by the U.S. media, which he calls “one-sided” and “unbalanced.”

Valentina Pasquali: What is your opinion of the coverage of the ongoing Israeli invasion of Gaza provided by the U.S. media?

Rashid Khalidi: I find the coverage absolutely appalling, extremely one-sided and not meeting the lowest of journalistic standards. It consists of a mere repetition of Israeli talking points, without any attempt to determine whether they are accurate or inaccurate. There is also a lack of proper coverage of the Gaza side, despite the fact that the majority of the casualties are in Gaza.

The U.S. media has quietly submitted to the Israeli-mandated blockade of Gaza that has kept journalists out for well over a month before this invasion began. The American media has been systematically manipulated with the talking points that are being distributed by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which have become the backbone of the American coverage. This is actually one of the best examples of media manipulation I have ever seen. And it is all part of the Israeli planning for the offensive.

What is interesting is that the Israeli media has covered extensively this effort to ensure an Israeli spin to this operation. But nobody talks about it here in the U.S.

For example, in keeping with the recommendations of the Winograd Commission — this looked into the Israeli failure in Lebanon in 2006 and determined that Israel had failed to control the message — the Israeli Government set up the National Information Directorate, under the control of the Foreign Ministry, six months ago. This has been planning for the management of the invasion’s PR for months.

We are now seeing it put in practice. I have received, through my own sources, some of the daily briefings with bullet points sent out to the media by the Foreign Ministry and the game played by Israel is very clear. This is amply covered in the Israeli media, even in English, and yet the U.S. media chooses to look at things in the way the Israelis want them to. This interview is the first to date where anybody even asks me about this issue.

VP: Do you find any specific U.S. outlet being more of a victim of such manipulation or is this a general trend?

RK: It is a general trend. Television is particularly vulnerable, but I find it across the board, in commentary on television, in commentary on the newspapers and in the general daily news coverage. The bottom line is that you cannot cover a conflict if your journalists are not allowed to be on the ground. U.S. media are submitting to this ridiculous blockade since November and they are covering exactly what Israel wants them to cover. As a result there is an inherent built-in bias. You don’t have journalists on the frontline covering the deaths of over six hundred people. And the four or five Israelis that have been killed have been covered by hundreds of journalists. There are no western journalists, except one working for Al-Jazeera, in the whole of the Gaza Strip.

VP: Do you see any qualitative difference between opinion pieces and straight-out reporting?

RK: Some of the reporting has been better than average. I have actually not seen much in the way of opinion pieces on the American media that reflect anything but an Israeli point of view. There might have been, but I haven’t noticed. Instead, some of the reporting from stringers inside Gaza, for example in the New York Times, has been adequate.

VP: What do you think of Israeli media coverage of the invasion, of the English-language media especially?

RK: The media coverage is much better in Israel, especially when it comes to the print press. There is a greater variety of commentary in the Israeli media. I have read at least eight-twelve opinion pieces which are far more hard-hitting than anything I’ve seen in the American media. I’m currently writing an op-ed for the New York Times and, if they publish it, I think it will be the first piece in the U.S. media.

VP: What do you think is the effect of this kind of coverage on the American public and, as a result, on the political debate in the U.S.?

RK: It reinforces the universal pro-Israel bias of the American political class. We are at a point where you have to watch the Daily Show to get a sense of how unbalanced the American coverage is. On Monday they had a very amusing piece showing how one-sided the American coverage, on both the Republican and Democratic side, has been on this issue.

VP: Given the restrictions that the Israeli Government is trying to impose on foreign media, what would you say American media organizations should do that they are not doing?

RK: They should not cover any story unless they are allowed to go in. Any self-respecting journalist should demand that their editors and publishers insist on access to both sides, which is been denied only by Israel, as a condition for covering the side that dominates the battlefield, which is the Israelis.

VP: Would you want to add any other thought?

RK: I would want to add that images tent to trump words. And the images that Israel produces and that might engender sympathy are few and far between, whereas the images that come out of Gaza in spite of this systematic, and quite cynical, censorship have been heart rending and have balanced out to some degree the spin that has dominated the written media or the television. You can see in the front page of the New York Times the day it published the image of the dying Palestinian child. Even in the very limited coverage of the carnage in Gaza that is allowed in the American media, the images outweigh the words. Israel is suffering the same kind of problem it had in 2006, in 1982 during the invasion of Lebanon, and during the first couple of years of the intifada in 1987-1988, when the images outweighed all the lies and the spin and the manipulations. This might happen now again, it depends on how long this operation continues.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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