Background: During Operation Pillar of Defense (Amud Anan) in November of 2012, one photo of the BBC’s operative in Gaza, Jihad Mishrawi crying to the heavens as he held his dead 5-month old son in his arms became iconic of the combat. TV News gave it ample space, newspaper headlines screamed “Israeli killed the infant.”
[For reasons beyond both Eli Stone's control and mine, this piece was held up for a while and forgotten. I post it now because of it's relevance to the theme of lethal journalism. Some of the links are broken, and we'll try and find them if they're still avaialable.]
The only problem was, not only did not evidence support the story of an Israeli rocket, the pictorial evidence suggested just the opposite: the rocket that killed the boy and several others, was a Hamas rocket that targeted Israeli civilians, but fell short and hit Gazans instead.
Several alert bloggers noted the anomalous evidence, but the mainstream news media clung to its narrative. Now, months later even the UNHRC reports that:
On 14 November, a woman, her 11-month-old infant [Omar Mishrawi], and an 18-year-old adult in Al-Zaitoun were killed by what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket that fell short of Israel.
This classic “lethal journalism,” in which the news media, following the lethal narratives produced by the Palestinians and their “friends” (“Human Rights” NGOs on the scene) rather than examining the evidence, presents (often) dishonest accusations as news. As a result, the world is exposed to the image of Israelis as (at best) indiscriminate killers of women, children and other innocent civilians, rather than the onus falling on the real indiscriminate killers of innocents – both among their sworn enemies but also among their own people – the Palestinian “militants” “resisting” Israeli aggression.
Below is an exchange between Eli Stone, one of the non-professional observers, who sent his criticism of the Washington Post’s coverage to their Ombudsman, Patrick Pexton. As you review it, you can see the way in which those allegedly responsible for the accuracy and ethical standards of the mainstream news media, run interference for the misbehavior of their own journalists. (Pexton was also extensively criticized by Scott Johnson at PowerLine.) The arguments Pexton uses to justify the Post’s actions also illustrate the way in which “lethal narratives” have the current “liberal” imagination in their talons: the alternative (Hamas kills its own indiscriminately if not intentionally) is literally unthinkable.
From: Elihu Stone [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Saturday, November 24, 2012 9:38 PM
Subject: When partial truth is a bad thing.
Dear Mr. Pexton:
I am writing you because I found the thrust your article entitled “Photo of dead baby in Gaza holds part of the ‘truth’.” immensely troubling, from beginning to end. You stated that [the fact that] “…the man is Palestinian — not a terrorist but a journalist — and that the bomb was dropped by Israelis, to my mind, is almostbeside the point. This photo depicted loss and pain, the horrific cost to innocents on both sides of the violence in the Middle East.” However, the picture did much more than that – and if you are not aware of that, you should be. As MaryAnne Golon, The Post’s director of photography, explained to you ”the purpose of any front-page photo, regardless of subject, is to move the reader, whether through its beauty, sentiment or drama”. You can be sure that the drama and sentiment that was conveyed by this picture was not the cost to both sides of the conflict, but the cost to one side, in particular. That in itself is not always wrong. What is wrong is pretending that the picture has no particular valence.
Now, whenever the truth, or the context of a particular picture, is declared to be ‘beside the point’ by a journalist, an editor or an ombudsman of a respected paper, all my antennae go up. In a court of law photographic evidence is regularly precluded from presentation when it is deemed more probative than prejudicial – because it will cause people to ignore the all important element of causation. In the court of public opinion, such ‘evidence’ can also wreak tremendous havoc. This is especially so, when a picture will almost assuredly be used to depict Israelis as cold-blooded murderers and incite or justify violence against Israelis and Jews.
Here, the evidence that “the bomb was dropped by the Israelis” (let alone under what circumstances) is hotly contested. You stated that “Post staff then authenticated and verified the facts behind the Associated Press photo. The dead baby was real. The bombing was real.” That is correct – as far as it goes; but, here precisely lies the problem with partial truth. The bombing may have been real (unlike the pictures of dead babies from Syria that Hamas tried to pass off as pictures of the Gaza conflict), but the Post staff did not establish whether the deadly ordinance was Israeli or Palestinian – and that makes a hell of a difference. Sometimes a partial truth is every bit as contemptible as a big lie. This is especially so in an atmosphere where Hamas -who has most cynically exploited the tragedy of dead Palestinian babies- has enlisted the well-intentioned press in its war on Israel.
Again, in an atmosphere as charged as this, the notion that “[t]his photo depicted loss and pain, the horrific cost to innocents on both sides of the violence in the Middle East” is just wrong. In fact you, yourself, discount the pain of Israeli citizens who have been living under fire for well over a decade. While you grant a nod to the fact Palestinian missile fire is “reprehensible and is aimed at terrorizing Israeli civilians” you then go on to declare that “[t}he overwhelming majority of rockets fired from Gaza are like bee stings on the Israeli bear’s behind." Clearly, the absurdity of this situation has escaped you. The people of Israel (the South in particular) are threatened by people who aim their rockets intentionally at civilians and celebrate death of civilians. Israeli civilians have been targeted by rocket and mortar fire for over a decade. Kindergartens have playground equipment that is fortified against rocket attacks. That some Israelis have learned to live with this bizarre situation has somehow inured everyone else to its abnormality. Clearly, you have not experienced the terror that innocent civilians -who are not bears, but people, like you and me, with children - regularly experience when a red alert is sounded and they have 15 seconds to find shelter. Whether or not people are killed is 'almost beside the point', as you put it. If Mexico launched 100 rockets at Texas (as Hamas did at Israel, the day before Israel initiated Operation Pillar of Cloud) you can bet the U.S. would have reacted with far less precision that Israel did.
The picture you published on the front page shows a particular sympathy to one side of the conflict. You have confirmed that isolated sympathy by your discounting of the effect that terror has on ordinary Israeli civilians. The picture serves well Hamas' goal to cast the conflict inaccurately as a battle between the state of Israel and Palestinian children. The fight is with Hamas which is hell-bent on killing Jews, utterly destroying Israel by force of arms.
It is more than possible that the child killed in this picture was killed by Hamas’ ordinance – not that Hamas cares. But you should. The truth – and not just parts of it – is of great importance. Only one side to this conflict -when speaking to its internal audience- revels in the loss of human life. Please reconsider the broader context of the pictures you publish and defend.
Hamas launches rockets at Israeli civilians – day after day, constantly upping the ante – and then with utter shamelessness casts Israel as the villain for targeting those who coordinate the rocket attacks and encourage children to martyrdom. No other nation has been so condemned for undertaking its obligation to defend its citizenry. Even building a wall becomes a ‘crime’. The kid are simply tools for Hamas – The children are nurtured on pure hate and put into deadly situations, specifically because ther handlers know the Israeli soldiers will do their utmost not to hurt them. But when the children throw grenades and are hurt, or killed in a strike against militants the children are then further exploited as propaganda tools. Nothing -absolutely nothing – justifies such behavior. And to then lay the blame for this behavior on Israel is to be complicit a hideous distortion of the truth.
Elihu D. Stone, JD
Three days later, Pexton responded:
From: Patrick Pexton [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org] On Behalf Of Ombudsman Internet DropBox
Sent: Tuesday, November 27, 2012 11:10 PM
To: Elihu Stone
Subject: RE: When partial truth is a bad thing.
Hello Elihu, thanks or writing. The Post did authenticate that the bomb was Israeli, and The Post did not run other photos of dead children that were in fact caused by errant Hamas rockets. They were careful to do so, as Max Fisher explained in his blog posts.
The facts are that Gaze is overwhelmingly urban and crowded. No matter how careful Israel is in its strikes, and I know that it is careful, it will kill civilians, and the cycle will continue. Hamas and more extreme guerillas in Gaza (Islamic Jihad and PFLP) hide where they can, in urban areas. If they shot from the very few open areas in Gaza, Israeli drones would spot them in seconds and destroy them.
This latest exchange began not with Gazan rocket fire, but with small arms fire against Israeli soldiers on the border of Gaza. That resulted in Israel’s retaliation against the Hamas military commander, and then the rocket fire began and the situation spiraled upward.
Netanyahu sells it to the U.S. as a response to rocket fire, but that’s just becasue that sales technique is easier. Internally he talks openly that this was about the cross border small arms fire that killed Israeli troops.
On the night this photo was published, as I said, there were no photos of Israeli deaths because no Israeli civilians had been killed for 14 months from Gaza rocket fire, and very very few injrued. Those are facts.
Patrick B. Pexton
Washington Post Ombudsman email@example.com
Can you tell me how did the Post authenticated definitively at the time that the bomb was Israeli? Please see this. I correspond with a Naval intelligence officer experienced in the effects of US-Israeli ordnance and in battle damage assessment who would be interested to hear what was involved in the authentication process.
Also, since many children’s deaths were, in fact, caused by Hamas rockets why didn’t the Post run such pictures – pointing out that these children were killed by Hamas fire. Isn’t that an important story, too, especially around the Day of the Child?
I’m sure you are not defending Hamas’ firing on Israeli civilians, from mosques, hospitals and private homes … Leaving aside that Hamas fires on civilians by and large – there are more than a few empty buildings in Gaza, which is crowded and urban – but there are still plenty of ways to minimize civilian casualties, which Hamas just isn’t interested in doing. Do you have a suggestion of how Israel should defend its civilians against Hamas’ fire – or fight back? Hamas is sworn to destroy Israel via military means. They have failed not for lack of trying, but because to this point they have just not been capable. Saying that Islamic Jihad and the PFLP are more extreme than Hamas is like saying that rattlesnakes are more reasonable than rabid dogs. Do you have realistic suggestion of what Israel’s response to Hamas should be?
I agree that the latest exchange could be interpreted to have begun with Hamas fire against Israeli soldiers – although Kornet missiles fired at a patrolling jeep is hardly ‘small arms fire’. Israel retaliated with a pinpoint strike against a murderous military commander – not civilians. and then Hamas launched a truly massive assault against Israeli civilians. Do you mean to equate the two latter events?
My original point was that pictures of dead Palestinian kids (first and foremost) -and Israeli kids ,for that matter- are exactly what Hamas wants. I submit that the press’, splashing pictures of dead Palestinian children (whose death is undeniably tragic) on the front page while scrupulously belittling the effect that the rocket fire targeting Israeli citizens has on them does Hamas a great service, at the expense of journalistic integrity. I would maintain Operation Pillar of Cloud was an absolutely appropriate response to Hamas’ upping the ante as it did. I tend to agree with the majority of people in the South that they Israel ended it too soon re-establish its deterrence. We are paying for years of allowing an ‘acceptable level’ of rocket fire. Nowhere else on the planet would such an notion. make any sense, let alone have currency. That the journalistic community accepts this situation as normal when suffered by Israeli citizens is striking to me.
Thank you again for responding. If you can answer the questions I posed above I’d be grateful.
Elihu D. Stone, JD
Another observation, if I may: The ‘bee sting’ analogy you used was particularly infuriating to me and many others, here. The Hamas rockets aren’t “bee stings”. (See the attached images- freely available with a quick Google search of damage by Hamas rockets) Characterizing them as such is inaccurate – and, to me, incredibly offensive. Here’s why:
Since 2009, alone, approximately 8,000 rockets have fallen on Israel. That’s more than twice the number of German rockets that fell on London during World War II. Individually, each rocket that targets a civilian population is a war crime and, collectively, the intentional launches on civilian areas are crimes against humanity, by all standards of International Law. No one has seriously argued anything to the contrary. A bullet, mortar or a missile fired at farmers, kindergartens, or busses doesn’t become a ‘bee sting’ or it’s firing less than crime just because the policeman tasked with protecting the targeted civilians is wearing a bullet-proof vest, or the civilians make it to a shelter in time and the criminal is shooting indiscriminately. Hamas’ long-standing strategy of enlisting child soldiers, (which is on proud display from minute 40 on in the video link I provided below – and again here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohSO_MGNw1Q&feature=related) is also a war crime.
The battle here is not between Hamas (which would, ironically, cast itself as an oh-so human David) against “Israel” (the dehumanized Goliath – and which you have characterized as a “bear”) .Hamas’ declared ideology and behavior is beyond despicable. Hamas cemented the result of its free and fair election to govern Gaza by throwing members of their opposition from rooftops. Although there has not been a single Jew in Gaza since 2005, Hamas spends its resources on weapons, munitions and proudly nurturing a culture of death. It intentionally targets non-combatant Israelis and glorifies the death of its own for the purpose of murdering others.
When a thoughtful spokesperson for a nationally respected newspaper can characterize attempted murder as a mere nuisance or misdemeanor – and justify the deliberate perpetration of such crimes from behind civilians as somehow necessary or understandable given the geography of Gaza (which has plenty of open space, judging from aerial photographs) something feels dreadfully wrong. Thank you for your consideration.
Pexton responded the next day.
From: Patrick Pexton [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org] On Behalf Of Ombudsman Internet DropBox Sent: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 10:57 PM To: Elihu Stone Subject: RE: When partial truth is a bad thing.
Hello Elihu. I take your points. According to the post’s photo editor, the normal way of verifying these explosions is to interview the photographer who took the photos, as well as other sources on the ground that The Post has, and then assessing those responses.
I just want to point out that no Israeli children were killed in the recent 8 day conflict by rocket fire (I’m not sure about the bus attack) Four Israeli civilians were killed by rocket fire, all adults. Two possibly, three Israeli children were injured in one of the rocket attacks,, but I have been unable to find information on the extent of their injuries.
Estimates of Palestinian children killed vary, but most estimates seem to say 25 or 30.
Thank you for continuing the dialogue, Mr. Pexton.
Are you at liberty to give more information about the qualifications that “other sources” on the ground have to make the pertinent assessments? From what you have shared with me, to date (and assuming that this explosion was verified in the ‘normal’ way you describe,) it appears that the type of weapon and its source were NOT verified by anyone with the technical knowledge necessary to actually make a definitive assessment. Nonetheless, the chilling pictures of its result were offered to the public as the result of an Israeli strike- and the blame for its consequences laid irrevocably upon Israel.
The tragedy remains quite real – but casting the blame for it upon the IDF, based upon questionable “verification” of the weapon and its source, can actually compound the tragedy – because it encourages its potential repetition. If Hamas pays no moral price for its misfires (of which there are many) and can handily pass the guilt for the resulting tragedies to Israel, using the media’s ready assistance, then a travesty has been perpetrated.
Now, I want to fully understand and address the second point you made, because that point reveals the crux of the moral issue behind much of this conflict. I’m not sure how to take your meaning. You pointed out that more Palestinian children than Israeli children were killed during the most recent phase of the conflict. Perhaps you are arguing that if 25 or 30 Palestinian children were killed in Israeli strikes that the IDF was, perforce, reckless and/or unconcerned about the death of Palestinian children? If the last point is the one you wished to make by citing the raw reported numbers, I want to unpack the argument fully, because the comparison of casualties is employed consistently to attribute relative ‘guilt’ to Israel in the conflict:
The logic of the argument for doing so seems to run as follows: ‘More Palestinians are killed by Israeli ordinance than Israeli civilians by Hamas rockets, therefore Israel must be acting disproportionately.’ In short, an apparently lop-sided casualty count is seen as conclusive evidence of disproportionate force by Israel. That’s attractive logic for a sound bite argument – but directly contradicts reality. The real story lies not in the raw number of casualties reported, but rather in the facts accounting for the numbers reported. Indeed, you noted yourself that Israel is very careful about hitting civilians. Given the number of sorties flown and the number and type of targets destroyed, the number of Palestinian civilians killed or injured by Israeli strikes actually reflects that the IDF did a remarkable job of avoiding Palestinian civilian casualties.
The notion that a raw comparison of the numbers killed on each side tells us something morally useful relies on assumptions that largely do not hold in this conflict. In this conflict casualty counts on one side are not directly indicative of intentional targeting by the other side. The terms “Children” and/or “civilian” do not always means the same thing when used by the various actor in the conflict, or reporters of the conflict and/or by various media organs around the world. Israeli and Palestinian civilians often behave very differently when in harm’s way. Also, many Palestinian casualties are directly caused by Palestinian ordinance – but they are still reported as Israeli- caused.
Some of the Palestinian children -especially between the ages of 10 and 17, are directly involved in the fighting, because Hamas enlists them as spotters and keep them in close proximity to the fighters during periods of conflict. In addition, Palestinian civilians are encouraged by Hamas to pointedly ignore specific IDF warnings issued to help Palestinians avoid marked targets and directing them to safe areas. Furthermore, Palestinian are often employed as human shields by Hamas fighters. Also, Hamas spends little, if any, resources on building shelters for their civilians. They spend enormous sums on all sorts of things – but no shelters or reinforced rooms. All of this contributes to high casualty figures in Gaza when conflict flares.
I would submit that Hamas’ moral turpitude should be measured by the number of times it tried to target Israeli population centers, (i.e the number of attacks) multiplied by the potential victims they reasonably expected to kill or maim during at each event – Hamas’ should not stand to gain any moral points by the fact that they missed, or that that their missiles were blocked by the Iron Dome system or that Israel simply managed to decimate Hamas’ store of Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 missiles before they could be deployed against Israeli cities. It makes no sense to argue that because Hamas managed to kill a “only” few Israeli children (and “only” four adult civilians (although they tried to kill many, many more), while Israeli strikes reportedly resulted in the death of 25 or 30 Palestinian children (while Israel went to great steps to minimize the deaths of civilians) that Israel and Hamas share the same moral standing.
Conversely, Israel, spends a lot of money building shelters for their citizens and educating them about how to respond to missile attacks. Israelis also does its utmost to remove civilians -especially children- from the theatre of battle and never engages teenagers below the age of military service to martyr themselves in the name of killing Palestinians. All of this- and advanced medical care in Israeli facilities with extensive experience in treating the victims of shock and battlefield trauma – keep Israeli civilian mortality figures low. That is not to say that there are no casualties of Hamas rocket fire , more than 40% of Israeli children living in the proximity of Gaza envelope suffer from bed-wetting and post traumatic stress, but they are not counted as “casualties”. When I ran for shelter and huddled with children in stairwells , when air raid sirens sounded twice in Jerusalem, I understood very well what Hamas’ goal was.
On the other hand, you might have simply been providing relative reported figures to explain that the Post didn’t put dead Israeli children on its front page because it didn’t find so many. My point was not that the Post should necessarily ‘balance’ things out by doing that. This is not – and should not be made to be- a ‘victimhood’ competition. My point was that journalists, like it or not, are liable to actually increase bloodshed unless they are especially circumspect when receiving information from certain sources and much more careful about pouring oil on a fire that Hamas is just thrilled to keep re-igniting. Publishing emotionally charged photographs that are highly liable to shed more heat than light is just dangerous in this context -and well serves the purposes of people demonstrably without conscience. To my mind, a balanced accounting of the story would simply tell the truth about Hamas’ frightful exploitation of children (both live and dead) in its war on Israel.
Pexton never responded, and the correspondence lay fallow until the recent report, at which time Stone wrote the following to Pexton (no longer with the WaPo):
Sent Sun 3/10/2013 12:27 AM -Dear Mr. Pexton,
I am writing you again following the release of The UN Human Rights Council’s advance report on human rights violations during ”the escalation between Israel, the de facto authorities in Gaza and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza” during November 14-21, 2012.”
The report noted that “.. several Palestinians were killed by rockets launched by the armed groups that fell short and landed in the Gaza Strip… More particularly, the report states that On 14 November, a woman, her 11-month-old infant, and an 18-year-old adult in Al-Zaitoun were killed by what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket that fell short of Israel.69
In light of our correspondence that specific example is important, because the Post’s text accompanying this photo unequivocally blamed Israel for these deaths.
The Human Rights Councils report confirms my information that Omar Mishrawi, the son of BBC reporter Jihad Mishrawi, was apparently killed by a Hamas rocket. Now, I still don’t know how the Post “authenticated” that the bomb was Israeli-. What I do know is that the pernicious narrative communicated by a dramatic front page photo and text insinuating that Israelis are -at best- reckless baby-killers is actually belied by the photographs the Post published. The death of every innocent is a tragedy. But the point I have made from the beginning of our dialogue concerns the summary attribution of causation – the Post’s improper assignment of blame – and journalistic responsibility. The post-modern notion of symbolic truth simply does not wash as an excuse for an ostensibly responsible media to smear Israel with an allegation of murder or reckless homicide in the court of public opinion.
As the Post article itself observed: “The story that these photos tell, of loss and confusion, may help inform the Palestinian reactions – and, as the photos continue to spread widely on social media, perhaps the reactions from beyond the Palestinian territories – to the violence between Israel and Gaza.” Indeed, splashing images like these across the front page does “inform” reactions – and has a well-documented history of fueling the violence in this region. No retraction, four months after the fact, could undo the damage caused by the misleading use of these photographs; but it would be a move in the right direction. Going forward, I think the media’s obligation to report actual truth – not symbolic truth- demands a serious re-think of just how it authenticates such reports before running them and some meaningful transparency regarding its verification process.
Elihu D. Stone, JD
If I were a betting man, I’d bet the Post will not review this.