Every time I see Jerrold Kessel I know what he's going to tell us.
He is the "breaking news" bearer of bad tidings. He gets automatic
face time on CNN every time there is a suicide bombing. You can
close your eyes and hear him cite the body count, and then describe
the retaliation already underway, as in "Israeli Defense Forces are
already responding with tanks and planes and armed
He is a bear of a man, bearded, soft-spoken, clearly very informed
but always recycling the same storyline repeated hundreds of times,
live via satellite. There is rarely any other. All the news seems
to repeat itself. The subtext is always about ensuring security
even as insecurity spreads. Week after week, month after month,
there's the ever-earnest Jerrold in my living room, the spokesman
for the grim reaper.
It's cycle of violence time again. The images are as familiar as
the words. Bearded Israeli men out searching for body parts in the
streets and Israeli soldiers filling body bags in the
"territories." It is a familiar script of a predictable and
depressing scenario that seems to escalate whenever peace threatens
to break out, even on the smallest scale. The media focus on these
incidents, on the bloodshed, just reinforces the sense of tragedy
and futility of two peoples pictured only as hating each other. The
cumulative impression: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond
redemption, beyond solution.
Around and Around
Every side in this conflict charges the media with bias. The
Palestinians and the Israelis have media watch groups looking for
signs of favoritism and distortion, and there is plenty to find as
long as the story is covered only as the play by play of discrete
events, atrocities, counter-atrocities.
Yes - the Palestinian media focus on the pain and grievances of its
community, with little compassion for the victims of attacks that
can always be easily rationalized as understandable or legitimate
pay-back to crimes they have suffered. Ditto for the Israelis who
argue that they are besieged by journalists who fail to condemn
terrorism or understand their legitimate security needs. Paranoia
and hostility to the media follow.
Around and around we go as TV News attempts in a mechanistic way to
offer "balanced" reporting, two sides of a polyfaceted story.
Despite appearances, there is no parity in the objective positions
of the parties. One side has built a modern state and deploys an
advanced high-tech army; the other is an occupied nation, living in
cantonized and impoverished communities with wrecked
infrastructures built on an economy of total dependence.
The imbalances are obvious even if the populations are
approximately the same in size - it always comes back to the
occupied and the occupiers. One side has the backing of wealthy
supporters and the world's only superpower; the other, lip service
and some support from the European community and Arab States who
preach fidelity to their cause but seem unable to effectively
The reality of the daily experience of occupation is not understood
widely in the US because our media outlets rarely explain it,
rarely contextualize it, and rarely provide the background that
makes for meaning.Much of the news we do get is framed by an
understanding of the conflict heavily shaped by neo-conservatives
who uncritically support Israel. It is reinforced by effective
lobbying aided and abetted by media executives who preach balanced
coverage but cling to unbalanced views. These are not only Jews -
as conspiracy theorists believe - but also right-wing media mogols
like Rupert Murdoch and corporate collegues with conservative
If this were a boxing match, any referee would stop it before the
first round because it would be ruled a no contest. But no one is
intervening to stop this one, to disarm the parties as Iraq was
ordered to disarm, to impose peace. In other conflict situations,
media outlets provided leadership. In South Africa, many
journalists opposed apartheid, and argued for peace and
reconciliation. In the US, some TV outlets sponsored "space
bridges" during the cold war to facilitate dialogue and
détente. Many of our best journalists spotlight human rights
abuses worldwide, crusade for attention to Aids or demand an end to
censorship globally. This is never dismissed as "advocacy" or
tarnished with the label of agenda-driven journalism.
But when it comes to the Middle East, the media is trapped in a
paradigm, which it seems unwilling to break out of. Just look at
the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Acres of print were
devoted to still unproven charges of Iraqi arsenals; almost no
attention paid to Israel's far more advanced deadly weapons
program. Meanwhile, many media organizations have called for
investigations into the shooting of journalists by the Israeli
military, which has to stop.
What Could Be Done But Isn't
Few media outlets have created initiatives or sponsored programs to
bring people together across the various divides, to promote
tolerance, and give voiceless people a platform to explain their
views in a way that Americans can understand. Even media projects
that were set up to do so are retrenching. After the Oslo
agreement, Sesame Street began to do children's TV programs in
Israel, Palestine and Jordan. The puppets from each community
increasingly interacted. That's been stopped now. Israel's Sesame
Street is for Israelis; the Palestinian version is for
Palestinians. Children on all sides are today offered few examples
of how peaceful co-existence could work. I asked a Sesame Street
producer if they were simply mirroring the conflict or seeking to
transcend it. Were they leading as a force for change or following
in a polarized climate?
Her response was agonized. She admitted that leadership was no
longer high on their agenda, and feared that the show would have
its run ended if they took that risk. Contrast that attitude with
many of the TV shows in America that did integrate their casts to
offer positive role models of people of different colors working
together even when it was risky to do so.
Ironically, Sesame Street was working with Al Quds Television, a
voice of secular democracy whose studios were invaded and trashed
by the Israeli Defense Force during one of its operations, though
it was never linked with terrorism and even opposed it. A National
Lawyers Guild delegation from the US created a video that showed
that the soldiers defaced offices, even leaving feces and spraying
urine all over the walls. One initiative would be to challenge this
type of censorship and suppression. Organizations like Seeds of
Peace, the multinational youth group, are creating media. They need
support from media companies to promote conflict resolution themes
Separating Propaganda from News
Next, we need to do a better job of disentangling propaganda from
news, and then discredit it when we see it. A media war is at the
heart of the conflict, and it is no surprise that propaganda
battles are sharpening. In the last two weeks I saw two examples. A
pro-Palestine media watch documented what it claims was unbalanced
coverage by the Associated Press and called for a letter and phone
call campaign of protest. A pro-Israeli media watch exposed what it
calls hate programming on government-run Palestinian Authority
But beyond all of this is a more shadowy media campaign that
consciously promotes distorted news to score political points. A
media strategy document prepared for an Israeli public relations
campaign showed how skillful that lobby is in cultivating public
opinion. Commissioned by the Wexner Foundation, it offered a "do
and don't" list for use in media training. It is very instructive
on how slogans are built into message-oriented political
communications: "'Saddam Hussein' are the two words that tie Israel
to America and are most likely to deliver support in Congress. The
day we allow Saddam to take his eventual place in the trash heap of
history is the day we lose our strongest weapon in the linguistic
defense of Israel."
Essential Conclusions of the Report
1) Iraq colors all. Saddam is your best defense, even if he is
dead...You should be invoking the name of Saddam Hussein and how
Israel was always behind American efforts to rid the world of this
ruthless dictator and liberate the Iraqi people.
2) Stick to your message but don't say it the same way twice. If
they hear you repeating the exact same words over and over again,
they will come to distrust your message.
3) It does not help when you compliment President Bush. When you
identify with and align yourself with America, just say it. Don't
use George Bush as a synonym for the US.
4) "Security" sells. The settlements are our Achilles heel, and the
best response (which is still quite weak) is the need for security
that this buffer creates.
5) Find yourself a good female spokesperson.
6) Link Iraqi liberation with the plight of the Palestinian people.
If you express concern for the plight of the Palestinian people -
how it is unfair, unjust and immoral that they should be forced to
accept leaders who steal and kill in their name - you will be
building credibility for your
support of the average Palestinian while undermining the
credibility of their leadership.
7) A little humility goes a long way. You need to talk continually
about your understanding of "the plight of the Palestinians" and a
commitment to helping them.
8) Of course rhetorical questions work, don't they? Ask a question
to which there is only one answer.
When you read this document you realize how manipulated and
deceptive the discourse has become, how its very language skews
debate and freezes words in our mind - words like terrorist and
Zionist, preemptive strike and martyrdom, "those Jews" or "those
Arabs" that speak of peoples as a monolithic mass. Stereotyping,
labeling, and demonization follows.
Overcoming the "Noise"
Israeli writer David Grossman calls all of this "noise," "a noise
we are used to, and are strangely comforted by because it is
familiar, predictable and no matter what side you are on, easy to
"Few of us, Israelis or Palestinians, can be proud of what we have
done during these past few years," he writes, "of what we have
collaborated in whether actively or in passive acceptance of the
noise - the collaboration of turning away our eyes, of suspending
our souls, of anesthetizing ourselves. I often feel suffocated,
claustrophobic, caught between the deceptive deceitful words that
all interested parties - the governments, the army, the media - are
constantly trying to impose on those of us who must live in this
disaster area. Yet if we reformulate a situation that already seems
beyond hope and set in stone, we are able to recall that there is
in fact no divine decree that dooms us to be the helpless victims
of apathy and paralysis."
And this goes for the media too. We have to stop promoting the
conflict by only showing its violent side and never showing the
work for peace that is underway. We need to examine the myths on
both sides. We need to puncture the stereotypes. Our vocabulary has
to change. The focus on violence has to stop. We need to shed light
on the cultures of these two communities - seek and help to promote
a sense of common ground. We have to report on fears and hopes.
There is also no divine decree that commands media to genuflect in
front of the mighty Ariel Sharon or the legend of Yasser Arafat,
or, more importantly, to define the story the way they do.
Concrete Tips for Reporters
The media has to break away from the role it is playing in
promoting the conflict and try something new. Here are some
concrete tips from TV reporter Jake Lynch of the London-based
organization Reporting the World about how reporters can promote
peace instead of war:
1) Avoid portraying a conflict as consisting of only two parties
contesting one goal. The logical outcome is for one to win and the
other to lose. Instead, a Peace Journalist would disaggregate the
two parties into many smaller groups, pursuing many goals, opening
up more creative potential for a range of outcomes.
2) Avoid accepting stark distinctions between "self" and "other."
These can be used to build the sense that another party is a
"threat" or "beyond the pale" of civilized behavior - both key
justifications for violence. Instead, seek the "other" in the
"self" and vice versa. If a party is presenting itself as "the
goodies," ask questions about how different its behavior really is
to that it ascribes to "the baddies" - isn't it ashamed of
3) Avoid blaming someone for starting it. Instead, try looking at
how shared problems and issues are leading to consequences that all
the parties say they never intended.
4) Avoid waiting for leaders on "our" side to suggest or offer
solutions. Instead, pick up and explore peace initiatives wherever
they come from. Ask questions from ministers, for example, about
ideas put forward by grassroots organizations. Assess peace
perspectives concerning issues the parties are trying to address.
Do not simply ignore them because they do not coincide with
These are concrete proposals from an outsider. I am sure media
workers in the region have plenty of their own, and suggestions for
how to improve coverage interests. American news is becoming more
superficial, more sensationalistic and more aligned with government
policies and pressure from interest groups. If you want to
influence how the conflict is perceived, you have to do more to
educate the journalists who come to your countries, monitor what
they write, and then press the press to live up to professional
ethics and values.