The practice of lethal journalism participates in the larger category of passing off war propaganda as news. It has a long history, and a long future. Lethal journalists take the stories that belligerents create to demonize the enemy – especially the accusation of deliberately killing innocent civilians even children – and presenting them as news.
In the annals of the long history of running war propaganda as news, rarely if ever, have journalists consistently over an extended period of time, passed off enemy war propaganda as news. And yet that behavior, a kind of “own-goal journalism” marks the dominant school of journalism during the period of the opening years of the 21st century. And although it eventually spread far beyond the Middle East, that lethal reporting began and took shape in covering the conflict between Israel and her neighbors.
This peculiar combination of base war propaganda persistently repeated as news by a target of that propaganda – I’d like to call DuraJournalism. But throughout this essay, when I use the more generic “lethal journalism” I make reference to this eccentric Levantine phenomenon.
Identifying and redressing this problem seems like a high value goal, especially in the cause of strengthening a free (hence accurate) news media at a critical moment in the history of those modern nations, “so conceived and so dedicated.”
The key to this journalism is the delivery as news of an implicit (preferably explicit) accusation of deliberate killing – murdering children,targeting civilians, or, in the words of the Goldstone Report, deliberately “punishing” civilians with “disproportionate” response, possibly constituting “crimes against humanity.” Lethal narratives constitute the basest form of war propaganda, especially when the stories are largely invented. It seeks to arouse hatred and a desire for revenge by convincing the target audience (recruits, observers), that the designated enemy deserves the violence you wish to visit on him.
The term “lethal journalism” designates the practice of those journalists who take a systematically credulous stance towards Arab lethal narratives about Israel, which they then pass on to us, their readers and listeners, as “news,” or at least, as perfectly believable claims about what has happened. Maintaining such a discourse necessitates playing fast and loose with evidence, ignoring and dismissing anomalous details, playing up dubious ones. It leaves a distinct Augean trail where it passes.
Since all wars have their lethal narratives, and all war-makers want to enlist journalists in spreading theirs, examples of lethal journalism can be found throughout the history of the press in war. Indeed, it’s an obvious need for democracies founded on peaceful relations, to have a press that can accurately identify false evidence, especially in the service of lethal narratives, and report on that war propaganda, rather than become an instrument of that propaganda. The fact that Western media have done so badly for over fifteen years, suggests the extent of the media’s “credibility crisis.” The most trusted news source – Fox! – 29%. Democracies cannot survive such dysfunctional relations between the news media and their public.
Middle East lethal journalism targeting Israel did not begin with the al Durah affair, but it derives its name, DuraJournalism from that incident because, after that icon shocked the world – as “true” – the DurahJournalists seized hegemonic control of the conflict’s depiction. Al Durah provided the till-then missing proof of the constant Palestinian refrain about Israelis heartlessly killing Palestinian children. The overwhelming tone of the Second Intifada, nailed home with daily statistics on the dead supplied by Palestinian sources, was an Israeli assault on the innocent Palestinian civilians.
After that, for the next fifteen years and counting, this school of journalism has dominated the scene, either winning converts or silencing dissent. In the process, wittingly or unwittingly, journalists of this school, unimpeded by their colleagues, systematically pumped the information systems of the West with a steady diet of hate literature. Shorn by DuraJournalists of their dishonest, belligerent, genesis, these lethal narratives, now news, became all the more powerful on the global stage, because outsiders presumed this account accurate. To Palestinians, “le petit Mohamed” al Durah is the “martyr of the world,” because, thanks to France2 and everyone else who followed Enderlin’s lead, “the whole world saw it”.
But for all its shock value, the Al Durah tale, to become a lethal narrative, needs to attribute malevolent intent to the Israelis. As a picture of a boy caught in a cross-fire, provokes empathy, indeed deep compassion, but not to mobilize hatred. There is no way that the picture of a boy tragically dead in an unnecessary war could compete with, much less replace, the image of the boy in the Warsaw ghetto, which symbolizes a million children murdered by the Nazis.
Only a picture of a deliberate, cold-blooded child murder could do that. And Enderlin opened the door wide to that narrative with his carefully weighed “the target of fire coming from the Israeli position.” In so doing, he complied with instructions from Gaza.” The rest of the pack of lethal journalists leapt to the baitd immediately: The Israelis on purpose.
Major Characteristics of DurahJournalism:
Epistemological: 1) believe whatever the Palestinians claim until proven wrong; 2) doubt whatever the Israelis say in response until proven right; and 3) if that becomes the case, move on to the next as-yet-unproven lethal narrative. The pattern is consistent over time, from the accusation of the IDF poisoning schoolgirls in Jenin in 1983, to Jenin in 2002, to the Mavi Marmara in 2010, and shows few signs of abating in the second decade of the 21st century.
David-Goliath framing: the dogmatic frame of DuraJournalism is the Palestinian David vs. the Israeli Goliath. If necessary, DuraJournalists will re-label anomalous details to fit the procrustean morality tale. Thus Tuvia Grossman, nearly beaten to death by rioting Palestinians and saved by an Israeli border policeman becomes, at the hands of an AP caption writer, a Palestinian beaten by that same border guard. Since the Palestinians are by definition innocent, the story begins with Israel’s retaliation which must, by definition, be disproportionate. Pallywood footage is created to meet the demands of this framing narrative.
Subordinating the evidence to the narrative frame: edit stories and films in ways that exclude inconvenient, anomalous, or unhelpful evidence. Editors compile Pallywood footage for B-roll by cutting out the elements that reveal the staging, and stringing together the believable sight-bytes. Charles Enderlin cut the final 10 seconds of the minimal footage that Talal sent him (59 seconds), in order to eliminate the child’s deliberate movements coming after he, Charles, had declared him dead. Thus, a genocidal sermon broadcast on PATV appears in a NYT article on Palestinian incitement, without any reference to the genocidal content. In such a fashion, DuraJournalists manage to deny real hate speech, even as they are the distribution point for that hate-speech.
Pack journalism: Enderlin started a landslide. Even CNN came over to the tale. Dozens of major journalists have access to the unedited footage of this spectacular story, and not one chose to present to the public the final scene that Charles cut. Pack journalism dominated the ‘00s when it came to coverage. Reports that Hamas was refusing to allow aid into Gaza from Egypt during Operation Cast Lead (2008), did not inspire journalists to go to the Egyptian border and get the story. They sat on a hillside in Israel, complaining that the Israelis were keeping them from the action, even as they ran a steady stream of lethal narratives about how supplies were running low and a humanitarian disaster imminent.
Intimidation Denied: One of the major advantages that the “weak” side of an anti-democratic asymmetric war has over the stronger, democratic enemies in dealing with journalists is their willingness to use violence. Killings and kidnappings of journalists in such cognitive wars occur, if not repeatedly, often enough to make the message clear. Daniel Pearl’s execution as a Jew and as a journalist, served notice on a whole generation of journalists. Denial is an essential part of the process of intimidation: Journalists can’t report that they’ve been intimidated without calling into question the reliability of their reporting.. And yet the evidence for such intimidation, although periodic (like the aftermath of the Ramallah lynching), is powerful in its implications, and should alert the attentive observer to the remarkable overlap between the actual coverage of the conflict by mainstream journalists and what one might expect from pervasive intimidation from the Palestinians. (This includes the journalists’ efforts, whenever asked abou the subject, to change the subject to Israeli intimidation). The response to Alan Johnston’s kidnapping – “why would they kidnap him, he was their best friend” – speaks eloquently to the point.
Access Journalism: The most fundamental leverage exercised over journalists is access, and in some senses, that’ s a universal phenomenon: the White House plays it, everyone does. But in cases where intimidation is pervasive (Saddam’s Iraq, Arafat’s West Bank, Haniyah’s Gaza), access means having a handler who accompanies and translates and directs you gently toward what you can and can’t photograph. Access, then, is never “free” and “unsupervised.” And, correspondingly, loss of access is not merely that people won’t speak to you, but that your presence was no longer permitted. After the previously very pro-Palestinian photographer, Mark Seager, wrote about his experience at Ramallah the day of the savage lynching – “I’ll have nightmares all my life” – he was told by his Palestinian friends that he had better leave.
Advocacy journalism: The pronounced ideological sympathy of many journalists for the “weak side” of many conflicts is widespread, and often, as in Darfur, for example, justified. In other situations where the morality tale is less clear (Syria), difficulties accumulate for any honest reporter. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, the support for the Palestinian “underdog” not only ignores progressive values, but clings to the “Palestinian David-Israeli Goliath” framework with dogmatic insistence. It is perfectly reasonable that some journalists might look at this conflict and sympathize more with the Palestinians. But the pack mentality, the reluctance to publicize negative material about the Palestinians (genocidal preachers), the epistemological priority given to the Palestinian victim narrative, all attest to positions that reflect more than the sober assessment of the evidence. One can even wonder if the advocacy were a way for the journalist to handle the cognitive dissonance of intimidation: “I’m not scared, I’m brave, and I stand up for the little guy.”
Honor-Shame Journalism: Cover up mistakes. As Anne -Elisabeth Moutet put it,
In France, you can’t own up to a mistake. This is a country where the law of the Circus Maximus still applies: Vae victis, Woe to the vanquished. Slip, and it’s thumbs-down. Not for nothing was Brennus a Gaul. His modern French heirs don’t do apologies well, or at all if they can possibly help it. Why should they? That would be an admission of weakness. Blink, and you become the fall guy.
Thus, in case of an error, the honor-shame dynamic kicks in: do everything possible to avoid admitting so, thus preserving the journalist’s and the media outlet’s reputation. Every news provider wants to be known as the most trusted name in news. France2, in the case of the Karsenty affair, where they have spent huge sums of money attacking a civilian who has criticized them, rather than answer his challenge, takes this instinct for cover-up to some of the most absurd lengths.
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