Are the Media Reporting the Gaza War Fairly?

Are the media finally getting the Israeli-Palestinian story right? It's a difficult question to answer, particularly when it would be hard to agree on what "right" means. But it does look like we're seeing and hearing more about what's happening to Palestinian civilians than we have in previous flare-ups of this endless conflict. That's what Benjamin Wallace-Wells argues in a piece saying that Israel is losing the PR war in the American media:

Earlier this month, the IDF's twitter feed had been full of images of besieged Israelis. But by this weekend Israel was so clearly losing the public relations war that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained to reporters, tersely, that Hamas uses "telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause."

If Netanyahu is so bothered by how dead Palestinians look on television then he should stop killing so many of them. But his complaint is in itself a concession. The story of the conflict between Israel and Palestine looks a little bit different this time around. Social media have helped allow us to see more deeply inside war zones--in this case, inside Gaza, and allowed viewers much fuller access to the terror that grips a population under military attack. America's changing demographics (the country's Muslim population has skyrocketed in the past decade and is now as much as 50 percent larger than the US Jewish population) have meant both a more receptive audience for sympathetic stories about Palestinians and more Americans like Abu Khdeir, with connections back to Palestine. The sheer imbalance in the human toll, in the numbers of dead, has been impossible to elide or ignore.

I don't think the American Muslim population has much to do with it; the biggest factor is the situation on the ground. It isn't for lack of trying that Israel is having trouble getting its favored tone into U.S. coverage; as the New York Times reported yesterday, "Now, there are 40 people in the interactive unit of the Israel Defense Forces, including videographers, animators, graphic artists and computer programmers, pumping out missives in six languages, on many platforms, in a tone much punchier than the typical news release." And it's happening despite Hamas's best efforts to bring as much death and misery down upon the Palestinians as possible while making their cause as unsympathetic as it can be.

If Israel is losing the propaganda war, it's because propaganda can only take you so far when the facts are telling a story you'd rather people didn't hear. Social media has something to do with it, but it's still traditional media that show the largest numbers of people what's going on. And when you have a Palestinian death toll that now exceeds 500 and is going nowhere but up while the numbers of Israeli civilians who have died is still in the single digits, you just aren't going to be able to spin a story of equal suffering and blame. It's as though Hamas said, "I dare you to kill those people," and Israel replied, "You got it," then turned to the rest of the world and said, "Hey, what do you want — he dared me!"

Not that the American Likudniks aren't trying to offer their spin on the spin. Take this piece by Noah Pollack in the Weekly Standard:

It appears the Times is silently but happily complying with a Hamas demand that the only pictures from Gaza are of civilians and never of fighters. The most influential news organization in the world is thus manufacturing an utterly false portrait of the battle—precisely the portrait that Hamas finds most helpful: embattled, victimized Gaza civilians under attack by a cruel Israeli military.

A review of the Times's photography in Gaza reveals a stark contrast in how the two sides are portrayed. Nearly every picture from Israel depicts tanks, soldiers, or attack helicopters. And every picture of Gaza depicts either bloodied civilians, destroyed buildings, overflowing hospitals, or other images of civilian anguish. It is as one-sided and misleading a depiction of the Gaza battle as one can imagine.

Indeed—where are the pictures of hospitals overflowing with Israeli civilian casualties, or the pictures of Palestinian tanks rolling through Tel Aviv? OK, so maybe those things don't exist. But still! Pollack is advocating news coverage of a war that doesn't actually show the war.

Partisan complaints of media bias tend to be utterly divorced from the reality of newsgathering, either because the person making the complaint has no idea how the news works, or just doesn't care. For instance, Pollack is distressed that there are "no images of Hamas fighters" while there are plenty of images of wounded civilians in hospitals. But the trouble is that Hamas fighters aren't easy to find, because they're moving stealthily. If they were strolling down the streets of Gaza City waiting to be photographed, they'd be dead. News organizations would love to have images of those fighters engaged in battle, because that's kinetic and exciting and dramatic. If they had those images, they'd run them in a heartbeat. The victims, on the other hand, present an important part of the story that not only is also dramatic and compelling, but is easy to find. All you have to do is go to the hospital, and there they are. And if you wait a few minutes, more are probably going to arrive.

I suppose what Pollack and others like him would want is that for the sake of "balance," every image of a deal Palestinian child should be accompanied by an image of what Israelis are going through. But that wouldn't actually serve his end of making sure Americans have fulsome sympathy for Israelis and zero sympathy for Palestinians. What we'd see would be Israelis in bomb shelters and safe rooms—uncomfortable, inconvenienced, frightened—but next to civilian neighborhoods in Gaza reduced to rubble and children with their limbs blown off, not exactly a picture to win your propaganda war.

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