Guest Post: Interview With Prof. Richard Landes About His New Video Doc on Media Bias
Richard Landes, former professor of history at Boston University, blogger, and long-time commentator on Middle East affairs, has just published a twenty-minute video, “Everyone Knows,” about media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Andrew Pessin, professor of philosophy at Connecticut College, interviews him about the film.
Can you describe the project?
The idea behind the project was that the video news media regularly make serious errors with their coverage of the Middle East, especially of the Arab-Israeli conflict, where they systematically run what is really Palestinian war propaganda as news—a form of what I like to call “lethal journalism.” A prime example of this dates way back to the infamous Al Durah affair in 2000, when reports of the alleged killing of a young Palestinian boy by IDF troops spread around the world as if factual, doing untold damage to Israel, to Palestinians who wanted peace, and to Jews worldwide. But the problem is ongoing, and to really get a sense of how bad mainstream media coverage is in general, you need to look at the long-term overview as well as the occasional howler. To that end I’ve been recording CNN International and BBC Global, among other sources, for almost a decade now.
What motivated you to put this video together at this time?
I have been tinkering with it for years while working on various other projects, but the astonishing media coverage of the notorious 2016 U.N. Security Council resolution permitted by President Obama and the subsequent John Kerry speech criticizing Israel was finally an irresistible target—the perfect combination of mindless pack journalism repeating simplistic Palestinian propaganda talking points, combined with reckless negligence in handling bona fide Israeli claims, and a complete failure to report what Palestinians actually and regularly say quite openly to each other in Arabic. Granted, it wasn’t the kind of open lethal journalism of the early aughts (e.g. Al Durah or the coverage of the alleged “Jenin massacre” in 2002) where the media ran terrible and dishonest Palestinian accusations as news, but rather a more insidious kind, in which they repeatedly hammer away with Palestinian misinformation as if “the whole world” agreed.
Who are you hoping to reach with the film?
Unfortunately I think too few people appreciate just how far off the path of accuracy and integrity allegedly “respected” reporters and networks are capable of straying. Mainstream journalists sometimes boast about “bearing witness” to their times; I, and I hope many others will, criticize them when they (all too often) bear false witness. To that end, I’m hoping to reach a wide variety of people with this film:
- Those concerned about media integrity in general, including the phenomenon of “fake news”
- Students of journalism and teachers/professors willing to discuss, even teach, a serious critique of current Middle East journalism in particular
- Reading and discussion groups who want to deal honestly with the Middle East
- Students on Western campuses who feel great sympathy for the Palestinian cause but who, due to media failures, fail to grasp just how extreme the true Palestinian perspective is
- Those individuals who are pro-Israel but who may still not realize not merely how bad the media situation is but how dangerous it is (for example in promoting global antisemitism)
- Anyone concerned about the possibility that “lethal journalism” that targets Israel may also be what I like to call “own-goal war journalism” (i.e. reporting your own enemy war propaganda as news), that targets the West in general
- Savvy independents in cyberspace who appreciate revelations of foolish hypocrisy
The trigger event for this video took place at the end of the Obama administration. Does it remain relevant under the new administration?
Well of course, when the administration changes as sharply as it has both in tone and substance, the media shifts gears. Instead of the mindless repetition of administration talking points that we see in my video, you can now expect wall to wall criticism, a sudden renewed interest in investigative journalism, and an extra effort to give the Palestinians the voice the new administration denies them. So, for example, we can expect the media’s doomsday predictions whenever a President or Vice President goes off the “everyone knows” script and actually puts pressure on the Palestinians rather than the Israelis, and a steady supply of “outside experts” to bolster the Obama administration’s moves and bewail the self-destructive behavior of the new administration. We can expect the pack journalists to magnify the indignation of the Palestinians and explain it as the understandable reaction to being mistreated and victimized. And most of all, we can expect the news media to continue to obsess on the Israeli settlements and continue their code of silence about the vitriolic hatred expressed daily by all manner of Palestinians. In short, the administration may have changed, but it’s ultimately the same pack journalism in play. The change of administration only makes the problem more visible.
What should viewers be watching for when they see the presentation of future news related to the U. S. embassy move?
Good illustration of the points I made above: driven by their antagonism to Israel we can expect from the media various apocalyptic predictions, misjudgments of the overlap between Palestinian leaders and the “street,” efforts to make the protests bigger than they are, looking silly when more journalists showed up to the protest than protesters, hand-wringing and finger-pointing if anything goes wrong, with the occasional (too eager) prediction of a “third intifada.”
We saw this also in early 2011, when Al-Jazeera leaked the “Palestine Papers,” in which Palestinian negotiators were revealed to have discussed (but never made) concessions to Israelis, including giving up the right of return. The press went wild, predicting that these alleged concessions would outrage Palestinian public opinion. In the end, there were no street demonstrations, no riots, no condemnations of the treasonous negotiators. The response to the embassy move has already followed the same lethal journalism pattern—and the journalists have already moved on to the next item on their agenda, without a trace of self-criticism, once their predictions failed. The media’s learning curve here is astonishingly low.
Your video makes use of the work of Palestinian Media Watch (PMW). Can you tell us a little about them, including who funds them?
PMW does just what its name suggests: it monitors what goes out on Palestinian media all the time, from the highest government officials to its official media to its classrooms. Any reasonable person concerned about the Arab-Israeli conflict owes it to himself or herself to follow this material. And any reasonable person who does follow this material must be shocked by it—even if, as critics sometimes say, it’s “cherry picking.” The existence of PMW makes the failure of the mainstream media all the more egregious, as nearly every claim the media repeatedly makes about the Palestinian perspective—that they actually accept the two-state solution, for just one example—is demonstratively false, and the information is there for the easy accessing.
I don’t know who funds them, but I wish they’d fund me too.
What do you say to Palestinian claims that Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) is a hate site that incites hate against Pals?
That’s rich. Sometimes social media sites such as YouTube shut them down for this reason. But PMW isn’t perpetrating “hate speech,” it’s documenting it. All PMW does is expose what the Palestinians themselves actually say, in their own words. Charging PMW with incitement give new meaning to shameless effrontery—Palestinians teach hatred and then accuse others of promoting hatred for pointing it out! I personally think that promoting vicious lies about your enemy (as the Palestinians do) is not nice, and that when people find out what the Palestinian leadership (including the allegedly “moderate” Palestinian Authority) actually teach their children and preach to their faithful on a near daily basis, if those newly informed don’t like that leadership, that’s a perfectly legitimate response. Indeed, there are many Palestinians who don’t like their leadership for what they’ve done to their society. That, in my opinion, is a whole lot better response than that of the foolish progressive who sides with the Palestinian leadership no matter what they say because they’re allegedly the underdog.
Among the media “talking points” you document is the claim that “everyone knows the Israeli settlements are the obstacle to peace.” You do admit that settlements are a problem but then seem to dismiss the concern. Do you believe the conflict is entirely the fault of the Palestinians?
This is the nub of the problem, and the core of the video’s critique of the pack journalism that accepts unthinkingly that the settlements are “absolutely” the problem, as CNN’s Michael Holmes confidently asserts in the video. On one level, the position contains within it a “humanitarian racism,” in which there are no expectations whatever of a democratic Palestinian state, despite the U.N.’s wording of the goal of Resolution 2334: “two democratic states living side by side in peace.” Israel gets constantly accused of racism and apartheid for not treating its (often hostile) 20% Arab minority equally, but “everyone agrees” that a future Palestinian state will necessitate ethnically cleansing Jews (uproot 650,000 settlers, as P.L.O. official Abbas Zaki casually explains in the video) so that Palestinian “democracy” can be Judenrein. On another level, as I try to make clear, “occupation” and “settlements” mean radically different things to the Western journalists and NGO workers, who think the words mean “just” the West Bank (but of course every last inch of it), compared to the triumphalist Palestinians for whom every grain of sand must be under Muslim rule, including “occupied” Tel Aviv and Haifa.
At one point in the video, in response to a comment by Israeli spokesman David Keyes, CNN’s Hala Gorani dismissively responds, “I get that you think it’s all the Palestinians fault”— something she’d never say to P.A. spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi, who’s always blaming Israel for everything. It’s a telling reaction on Gorani’s part, and, meant to distract from the possibility that Keyes was right, and that it is, largely, Palestinian irredentism that’s the core of the conflict. One of the more destructive memes of the Western academic and media elite is “don’t blame the victim.” And I agree, it’s important not to blame innocent victims; but it’s equally important not to lump the real victims (Palestinian commoners, to use the medieval term) along with their victimizers (in this case the Palestinian elite who take the money and immiserate their people in order to get Western sympathy). Abbas’ $50+ million private jet is only the latest avatar of a pattern that Arafat established from the start. One of the great tragedies of the Palestinian people is that their public culture is so allergic to self-criticism, and so they blame everyone but themselves for their misery. Hence, they’ve received 10 times as much aid per-capita than the Germans or Japanese after World War II, and they’re still miserable and poor, while their leaders are rich and irredentist.
What’s overlooked in the regular finger-pointing efforts to assign responsibility for the perpetuation of the conflict, in fact, is the role played not by Israelis and Palestinians, but by lethal journalism media, the “Human Rights” NGOs (humanitarian racists obsessed with white guilt) and the “left” (post-colonial, crypto-Marxist ideologues). They’re the ones who repeat and amplify the war propaganda of the ugliest, most uncompromising elements of Palestinian society, assuming that they’re speaking for “the people.” They’re the ones who, by never criticizing the Palestinians and by encouraging them to blame Israel, contribute to their arrested development. Why should Palestinians ever make any compromises when the Western elite support their quest to have everything—every inch, whether up to the Green Line (now), or from the river and the sea (later)?
With that said, what mistakes or blame do you attribute to the Israelis?
Most of the time, that’s a trick question. You’re supposed to say the settlements, or the Israelis’ not making enough concessions, or their thinking that the Palestinians “only understand force,” or their being insensitive to Arafat’s or Abbas’ feelings (Deborah Sontag’s critique of Barak at Camp David). What I will absolutely say were Israeli mistakes, however, are:
- Not moving decisively—despite condemnation from the Arab world—to empty the “refugee camps” they captured in 1967, both giving the refugees a better life and draining the “Al Awda” movement, which currently dominates Palestinian discourse.
- Being so self-critical that they allowed the Palestinian narrative to colonize their own thinking, no better illustrated than in the Israeli crowd that booed Dr. David Zangen as a war criminal when he challenged Omar Bakri’s libelous movie Jenin, Jenin.
- Not challenging the media for particularly obvious violations of their own professional standards, and exacting a civic price—such as revocation of privileges—for their violations of journalistic integrity and their compliance with Palestinian media protocols.
- Not playing nice-cop tough-cop enough, so that when an Israeli says something harsh about either Palestinians or journalists, then other Israelis who disagree (it happens, on occasion), instead of saying, “Well, I may not agree, but you have to understand where s/he’s coming from…,” cry out in righteous indignation at how stupidly outrageous their fellow Israeli/Jew is.
- Falling prey to the “right-wing/left-wing” dichotomy and treating anyone to one’s (alleged) “right” (i.e. someone realistic about current Palestinian leadership) as a pariah. Israeli society is paralyzed right now by that discourse, nicely addressed recently by Micah Goodman in his book, Catch-‘67.
You strongly accuse the Palestinians of wishing to harm and even destroy Israel and Israelis—but really, given their long history on the receiving end of Israeli aggression, ethnic cleansing, and so on, and their so far unsuccessful effort to liberate themselves from occupation, what choice do they have? What else can they do?
“What choice do they have?” was a widespread meme on the “left” in the early aughts, when the Palestinians embarked on a vicious suicide terror campaign that killed or permanently crippled thousands of Israelis and destroyed any chance of normal relations between Palestinians and Israelis. That question has a special place in my list of “astoundingly stupid statements of the 21st century” because, on the one hand, it assumes the worst of both the Israelis (who are so cruel that they give the Palestinians no choice), and the Palestinians (who have no moral agency, no choices, but only “react” mechanically), and on the other hand, because when people mouthed this moral and empirical idiocy, others nodded sagely in agreement. In fact, there may well be many other choices that Palestinians have, but these can only become part of the conversation when Palestinians stop telling themselves lies about Israel’s “inhuman behavior… ethnic cleansing… and attempted genocide”—and when Western journalists stop amplifying and spreading those lies.
What’s your next project?
Shorter videos using my now extensive video archive tackling a range of topics on the theme of how not to be duped by pack media, including:
- The compliance of journalists with Palestinian demands, and the ways in which that compliance damages the understanding and interests of Westerners
- Profiles of particular journalists and their careers of advocacy/misinformation
- Asking the questions the journalists don’t ask, offering answers they won’t air
- Contrasting Palestinian vocabulary in Arabic and English (Occupation = Shoreline vs. Green Line)
- The contrasting ways journalists treat Israeli spokespeople vs Palestinian ones. (For example, interviewers often cut off Israeli spokespeople just at the point they’re making a particularly telling point.)
- The choice of experts that mainstream media bring on to elaborate their own analyses; I’d like to try to bring in other experts who are in some cases explicitly excluded from the mainstream media: Gerald Steinberg, Itamar Marcus, Adam Levick, Jonathan Spyer, Martin Kramer, and many more
- Ultimately I’d like to do a That Was the Week that Was on Middle East Media Madness
Andrew Pessin is professor of philosophy at Connecticut College and Campus Bureau Editor at The Algemeiner. Most recently he has published a novel, The Irrationalist, an historical murder mystery based closely on the tragic life and mysterious death of the famous philosopher, René Descartes. For more information, visit www.andrewpessin.com.