There is a direct link between over-coming the imperatives of honor-shame cultures and freedom of the press. In a culture where it is not only expected, legitimate, even required to shed someone’s blood for the sake of one’s honor, it is incumbent on people in power to shed the blood of any commoner who has the nerve to publicly criticize him (or her). In such cultures, public criticism constitutes an assault on the authority, indeed, the very person, of the one criticized. Not to respond will clearly signal weakness, impotence, or lack of will to power, and hence bring on the jackals.
As James Scott points out repeatedly in Domination and the Arts of Resistance, the vast majority of the time, protests are either private or, if public, anonymous, lest there be necessary retaliation. Scott calls them “private transcripts” which are often diametrically opposed to the deferential public transcripts these same powerful figures demand. “When the great lord passes, the wise peasant bows low and silently farts.” Silently. Not on the pages of Ha-aretz, translated into English and pumped around the world via internet.
Of course, everyone feels the desire for honor and the fear of shame (even Gates and Crowley and Obama). Even Western countries have private transcripts, and no press is free; no one can say whatever they want without repercussion. Access journalism will always play a role in pressuring journalists to report what the informant wants. The key, however, is the tripswitch to violence: how rapidly do those whose face has been blackened by public criticism take out hits on imprudent journalists? After all, no one would be stupid enough to think that he can say whatever he wants — even if it’s all true — and not have people retaliate, at least by shunning them. What kind of reporting would we have if it did not take courage to criticize people?
Well, we’d get something resembling the coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not only in its grotesque daily disinformation, it’s stunning expressions of entitlement to a free ride by critics, and its stunning data manipulation that ranks the free-est press in the world as “potentially free.”
I have written extensively about the remarkable, and now more than occasionally pathological, tendency of Jews and Israelis to be self-critical. I will repeat my claim: no national culture is as self-critical as Israel; no country’s own citizens are as pervasively critical in the Mainstream News Media as the Israeli press; and no country tolerates criticism from abroad more than Israel. Ha-aretz may be the New York Times of Israel in terms of its status and its (often justified) intellectual pretensions, but when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict it has writers that would only find publication in the USA on the pages of the Nation, or Counterpunch, or the Guardian. And all this occurs under wartime conditions, when even the nations most dedicated to a free press, curtail those freedoms sharply.
And yet, an NGO that ranks press freedom around the world has recently ranked Israel below the cut-off point as a “free press” and, therefore, a nation with a “partially free press.” The contrast between my “seat of the pants,” honor-shame analysis and this NGO’s carefully callibrated and allegedly rigorous methodology suggests a problem.
Adi Schwartz, now freelance journalist, formerly a senior editor at Ha-aretz, the most virulently self-critical of Israeli newspapers, noticed the bizarrity of it all.
That was odd: if anything, the Israeli press might be blamed for over-aggressiveness, lack of respect for privacy matters and tendency towards sensationalism. Maybe much more so than many other Western media, the Israeli press is robust and boisterous, and far from not being free.
So he inquired how such the Freedom House arrived at such a remarkable conclusion. What he found was an appropriately bizarre, unthinking application of the “methodology” to the anomalous Israeli case. The result, a perfect black heart, a stunning mistake that undermines the whole paradigm that could not only produce this ranking, but not sound anyone’s alarms. As Schwartz puts it as a byline:
Here’s a story about how un-professional a pro-democracy organization becomes when dealing with the State of Israel.”
Indeed, the first thing that Schwartz discovered in tracking this anomaly down, was that he was the first to raise an eyebrow:
…to my great surprise, I discovered I was the first journalist (Israeli or non-Israeli) to do that. No one before asked Freedom house what was the reason for downgrading Israel to be only “partially free”.
In other words, no one had made the rough but overwhelmingly obvious big picture that both Schwartz and I had made, not the compiler of the report, nor his editors back home looking at all the data, nor the readership of this NGO whose constituency is those who treasure freedom and wish to see it spread, not even the Israelis who ran across this, not even the Israeli government.
The explanation, of course, is related to the recent war:
Israel’s status declined due to the heightened conflict in Gaza, which was reflected in increased travel restrictions on Israeli and foreign reporters; official attempts to influence media coverage within Israel of the conflict; and heightened self-censorship and biased reporting.
The very fact that this is a war zone should put Israel into a different category. How can you compare the tolerance for dissent and the intrusions of the media in martial conditions with, say, the problems in Finland, or Switzerland? Not surprisingly, the actual work is sloppy, as Schwartz shows in its misunderstanding of the relationship between the Supreme Court and the government over press freedom.
…[T]he report says that
“On December 31, the High Court ruled in favor of a Foreign Press Association petition that the Gaza ban be lifted, but the government ignored the court ruling”.
But that’s not what happened… [read the analysis at the source].
So – the court didn’t rule in favor of anyone and the government did not ignore anything.
Note here the extraordinay anecdotal data: There is an independent judiciary, willing to draw conclusions that the government does not like, in time of war when its soldier’s lives are in danger, and the government does what it can to live with and limit the perceived intrusions of this court and the journalists that they, in their legal decision, are imposing on them. None of this registers. Instead, the report brings forward an inaccurate reading that presents the government thumbing its nose at an impotent judiciary. I wonder where the researcher got that version?
But matter get still more bizarre. Israel is penalized for “heightened self-censorship and biased reporting.” As Schwartz points out,
Self-censorship is hard to prove: the only one who knows for sure if he was practicing self-censorship is the journalist himself. But you can’t ask him, because if he did, he would surely not admit it. So – who is to decide if “self-censorship has been growing in recent years in Israel?”
Let me go much further. Everyone practices self-censorship, and the more the threat of retaliation, the more self-censorship. The more touchy a culture is on matters of public honor, the more silent intimidation and therefore self-censorship. And the most touchy topic in the modern world, with its international communications network that permits such things as Freedom House’s report, is national pride.
Turkey’s refusal to admit genocide against the Armenians is about national pride; Egypt jailed a sociologist for publishing observations that damaged Egypt’s image. A Bangladeshi journalist faces the death penalty for, among other things, having in his possession: “materials… which hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims” [i.e., he was on his way to Israel and had pro-peace literature that promoted mutual understanding].
Even in the West, home of the free press, no American journalist who wants to make it into the mainstream news media, who wants a large audience, is going to espouse ideas that undermine the national image. (There are plenty who revel in such unpopular causes as, say, 9-11 conspiracy theory, and the margins wither they get pushed, but they have their own self-censorship within that community, which has much less tolerance for internal dissent.) Attack Bush, don’t attack the troops. And if it’s strong in America, you have no idea how bad it gets in places like France, or Japan, or, Germany. National pride is touchy, the world over.
Except Israel, where journalists are so aggressive, against the government, against the army, against even the culture which they do not hesitate to excoriate for racism and apartheid. No country in the world — not even the NYT — would beg the government of another country to force it to do what its duly elected government won’t do. Maybe the pages of the Nation… but not the NYT. But, as one student asked me after studying the al Durah case, “why does Ha-aretz sound like a Palestinian propaganda sheet?”
Indeed, one of the major themes of Israeli “journalism studies” is how the media tends to rally round the flag during times of conflict like the second Intifada and the latest war, presenting an Israelo-centric view of the conflict, with reporting that shores up support for the war effort at home. This is, of course, a rather exacting standard, something only the US press has ever engaged in, and then in a fight thousands of miles away that struck most Americans as futile and insignificant. No other nation on earth has had a hostile media so undermine home-support that it stopped that nation’s war effort. But this school of hyper-critics, want Israel to live up to an exacting standard of self-criticism.
It’s worth pausing for a moment on this phenomenon. Not only is it uniquely Israeli, but it’s riddled with the kinds of pathologies of self-criticism that strike many of us as self-destructive. The criticism of the Israeli narrative is matched only by the credulity to the Palestinian Narrative, a narrative that would not survive a minute under the kind of standard to which this group holds its own. And yet, they embrace it, use it for further self criticism. “We have killed 800 Muhammad al Durahs,” states Gideon Levy who aggressively defends the original story [that Israel shot the boy on purpose].
Not surprisingly, it is precisely to this circle of folks that the Freedom House turns for information about “press freedom.”
…many media outlets largely reflected and indeed fed popular sentiment and prioritized nationalistic themes.
Now what media in time of war doesn’t do that? What kind of a criticism is this? Patriotism is a violation of press freedom? Schwartz notes:
That’s again a problematic assertion: most Israelis felt exactly the opposite, that too many journalists were demoralizing the troops and actually were feeding defeatist sentiments. As in many other cases of social sciences, this kind of judgement is difficult to make, especially if you are going to pin it down with numbers and scores. Exactly because of this there should be clear and professional criteria, which are not derived from the author’s political views.
What I think we see here is an application of the Vietnam principle to Israel: In the late ’60s early 70s, the glory days of the New Left, the mainstream media joined a “peace movement,” and stopped a war. To this day, I think, the MSNM looks back on the early ’70s as their highpoint of power, a period that remained right up through the fall of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, even though that year marked perhaps the greatest moral failure of the MSNM in the post-war period, their (non)coverage of the Rwanda genocide.
As I have concluded from a study of the coverage of Operation Cast Lead, the MSNM seems to think that if they present a catastrophic humanitarian disaster to the public, the outcry will force Israel to back down and stop attacking, thus contributing to peace. Here’s Christiane Amanpour laying out some of the basic principles behind this thinking to Tony Blair.
The flaws in this logic are too legion to examine here, but one deserves mention. The Arab and Muslim media use the self-same techniques not to lead peace but to more hatred and more desire for revenge. That this logic escapes the Israeli academics who pursue the same “peace policy” in journals alongside a combination of mildly self-critical Palestinians (itself a surprise) and self-justifying Palestinian propagandists, should not, by now, surprise readers of this blog. If the Israeli can claim: “My country is so free I can attack its press for being too patriotic,” the Palestinian can respond, “So can I, and claim you’re not free in the process.”
Here’s a random example from an Israeli article dedicated to how the media should contribute to peace by criticizing stereotypes and encouraging understanding, something “both sides” are not doing:
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.
Nice and even-handed. But any self-respecting journalist whose society faced a genocidal enemy would take advantage of this opportunity to point out how the Palestinian Authority uses its own “Sesame-Street” style program, as part of a larger effort on TV to promote hatred and violence among its children. (It’s certainly a good example of warmongering “stereotyping”.
No such luck. The Israeli takes a ferocious turn against his own culture:
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 and ideas.
It’s incredibly generous to consider al Quds Television “a voice of secular democracy,” when it may have direct links to Hamas, and certainly engages in rhetoric reminiscent of those religious fanatics bent on genocide. But to then present his own government as engaged in vile acts against so innocent a target — invoking the National Laywer’s Guild video — as neutral sources of information, when its “subcommittee on the Middle East” engages in the crudest vitriol and stereotyping, beggars the imagination.
No one who did not do research and understand the dilemma of a hyper-self-critical Israeli media and academia and its opposite among the Palestinians would have a clue as to how out of kilter the image one gets from this kind of literature really is. And of course, no one consulting the MSNM would have a clue as to how bad the situation is in “Palestine.”
Which brings us to the fellow responsible for the Freedom House report, Adam Werner. Let’s be generous and call him a babe in the woods, who hangs with his progressive buddies. Adi Schwartz tracked him down.
Mr. Werner is not familiar to most Israelis: he is not a journalist (except for some articles he published for the Jerusalem Post), and this is the first year he works for Freedom house.
He said he worked alone on the report, and that his sources were reports of international media watchdogs, such as “Journalists Without Borders”.
That’s the organization that, in its first year, ranked Israel 92nd in press freedom, below the Palestinian Territories (82), Lebanon (56).
I asked him how he knew that there were cases of self-censorship. He said he based that on an interview with Mr. Yizhar Beer, former director of B’Tselem and the current director of Keshev, a watchdog group. Due to Beer’s well known political views, which are on the far left side of the Israeli spectrum, I asked Werner if he consulted anyone else. Jurists, for example, or specialists for communications law. Or, let’s say, journalists, or maybe ex editors-in-chief, or perhaps political scientists.
He said “no”.
The questionable assertion about heightened self-censorship (which actually led to Israel’s status decline) was based only on Mr. Beer. The problem of course is not of him being a leftist, but of him being the only source. Such a sensitive issue should have been dealt with much more prudence, and surely with many more interviews and sources.
Now the question here is, is this laziness? is it the comfortable world of “progressives” who only talk to each other, and believe each other implicitly? is it something nastier — an instinct for the negative which does not want contradiction? Given the significance of this point for Israel’s standing, I’d say any of the answers is inacceptable.
Is it better or worse to say that the fact that this “ranking” raised no flags of doubt at a foundation dedicated to democracy was out of ignorance rather than malevolence. In the latter case we can say, “oh, it’s another example of demopathic radicals like Sarah-Leah Whitson masquerading as liberals.” But in the former, it’s evidence that the smear of Israel has so succeeded that even engaged, informed liberals have lost any sense of direction.
I asked Mr. Werner about the High Court’s decisions. He said he didn’t know, and asked me to send him the rulings (rather late, I’d say). [Read Schwartz’s additional examples of tendentiousness and pervasive laziness not only in the case of Adam Werner but of the higher ups who neglected to send the draft to Israeli specialists for review.]
To sum it up: an un-experienced person, who is not an authority in his field, writes a report based on an interview with one interviewee with a very clear political agenda. Nobody checks it. Freedom House headquarters decide to downgrade Israel from “free” to “partially free”, even though they declare that when a country is being downgraded, an additional check is made. Such a review did not occur.
So – a professional report? A mockery? Decide for yourself.
This case illustrates too many important issues to be left at that. Adi Schwartz, longtime journalist and editor at Ha-aretz, and so, no stranger to self-critical Israeli journalism, represents a rare and valuable commodity. He recognizes and is grateful for the extraordinary press freedoms he has enjoyed his entire career. He’s not so wrapped up in his criticism of his own country that he loses any sense of proportion, and moves from moral equivalence to the kind of moral inversion one finds among so many.
Another example of such acknowledgment and gratitude for the privilege of operating in a free society came recently in an article by Carlo Strenger in, of all places, The Guardian (testimony to how politically correctly “left” he is). In it he describes the astonishing expectations of the self-entitled, self-critical Israeli.
A good example is Gal Wettstein’s recent article (also in the Guardian) in which he says that he doesn’t feel that there is true freedom of expression in Israel because, among other reasons, his superiors may re-evaluate their views on him. He says he has even lost some dates because of his political views. I’m sorry for his loss, but turning this into an indictment of Israel’s freedom of speech is, to put it mildly, preposterous.
To put it mildly. Wettstein’s demand is that, if his society — Israel — wants to claim to be free, there should be no consequences, not even social, to saying anything negative about it. Now think about that a moment. What extraordinary levels of non-retaliation has Israeli society reached for some of its internal critics to openly complain that not achieving such an impossible level of non-reprisal — certainly no “left-wing” community has anything remotely resembling this level of non-reprisal for critics — was a sign that it lacked press freedom.
(Don’t forget that the natural tendency for any revolutionary movement like Zionism, which seeks to create an egalitarian society in the midst of prime-divider authoritarian nations, is to get paranoid, not only about external threats, but about internal criticism as well. After the worst aristocrats, one of the main targets of the Revolutionary Terror was critical journalists.)
In its own way, such aggressive naivete re-enacts the bad joke of the Moebius Strip of Cognitive Egocentrism: my nation is at war with many surrounding ones. In mine, anyone must be allowed to say anything critical, including support for my enemies, without retaliation of any kind (including being able to date hot chicks), while the other side kills hundreds of its own people for the slightest hint of self-criticism that could be construed as collaborating with the enemy.
The result of the inversions involved, I have argued, make for a kind of cultural AIDS in which the West cannot identify enemies, but rather assaults the agents bringing news of enemies to the system. When Western sources accept (eagerly alas!) the demonization of Israel and white-washing of the Palestinians and their Jihadi comrades around the world, is a recipe for self-destruction. Strenger concludes:
The psychological mechanism behind applying SLES [Standard Left Explanatory System, somewhat akin to my PCP2 – rl] to Israel is rather simple: the Middle Eastern conflicts (there are a number, of which the Israeli-Palestinian is the most prominent) have been intractable for a long time. The autocratic and sometimes totalitarian structure of most of the regimes is a huge problem, and the west is stuck with its dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Europe is actually in a worse conundrum than the US: the population of all European states is shrinking, and their economies depend on immigration. So far most of these immigrants are Muslims, and Europe doesn’t have the faintest idea how to integrate them into its societies. Meanwhile the Muslim world is choking on a huge youth bulge along with stagnating economies and a tribal social system that almost completely blocks modernisation.
Nobody in Europe and the Middle East knows what to do about this, but SLES provides a wonderfully simple solution: why not say that Israel is the culprit, and that all problems would go away if Israel were to cease the occupation, or, even better, would disappear. I fight the occupation day by day, because it’s wrong, not because I have the slightest illusion that this would solve Europe’s geopolitical problems or those of the Middle East.
The self-righteous left should listen to the honest voices of a left that retains its moral and intellectual integrity, like Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut, who refuse to live in the simplistic world of SLES and believe that you actually need to tackle the complexity of our situation rather than enjoy the simple pleasure of self-righteousness that SLES shares with the right.
In the media world it plays out in the belief that if the MSNM (Western and Israeli) sufficiently emphasize the humanitarian catastrophe and pressure the Israeli government to cease the attacks, they are contributing to peace. The only problem is that in chasing after messianic conditions the wrong way, they fuel the very war they think they’re opposing. Not only do they give fuel the hate mongering among Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim ideologues, whose activity the MSNM systematically plays down, but also among an increasingly vocal Western public, completely deranged by this impossibly contorted situation.
Just go to the Guardian comment page on Strenger’s thoughtful remarks and see the vitriol. As Yaakov Losowick comments, he “proves his point. Easily.” Imagine how these same people would respond in disgust to the name-calling of Israeli patriots attacking their boy Wettstein.
How can any civilization hope to survive when it’s own information organizations so dramatically betray reality and feed the worst instincts of its citizenry? And given the sense of virtue these information professionals feel — peace, democracy, mutual understanding — how will it be possible to wake them up to the nightmare they set before us?
I am currently reading about the excellent and depressing research of David Collier into the Palestinian Solidarity Commission, England’s largest and most “prestigious” “pro-Palestinian” group with Read More »