If you want to understand why in the past four decades the Middle East has experienced one brutal conflict after another, despite repeated United States-led efforts to “mediate” and “make peace” between the Arabs and Israel, here’s a free tip for you: watch American television coverage of a moment of crisis or high drama in the region, and then compare what you saw with Arab or even European coverage of the same event.
That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past few days – watching the coverage of the fragile Gaza ceasefire and the exchange of detainees between Israel and Hamas on a variety of American TV networks (mainly CNN, ABC and NBC) as well as on BBC and Al Jazeera.
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Never in the half-a-century that I’ve been following international news have I witnessed journalism as poor, biased and shallow as that of these US television channels in the past week. In fact, what I saw was less journalism aimed at informing audiences on current affairs across the world, and more reality television carefully designed and performed to entertain them. In contrast, Al Jazeera and, to a certain extent, the BBC, clearly aspired to achieve greater balance, provide in-depth analysis, include historical context, and humanise all those affected by the conflict. Their efforts to provide quality journalism for their audiences only accentuated the shockingly poor performance of the US networks.
No wonder the American public is so poorly informed on Middle Eastern issues, and the American government keeps failing at its “peace-making” efforts and instead regularly sends military battalions and flotillas to the region.
So, here is what struck me about the American television coverage of the Gaza ceasefire. Please keep in mind that this is not a scientific study, but a list of impressions and observations:
An overwhelming majority of American journalists covering the events “on the ground” were based in either Tel Aviv or Israeli West Jerusalem, and had no direct contact with Palestinians in Gaza.
The dominant theme of the American coverage was the release of Israelis who were detained in Gaza (I’ll refer to them and the thousands of Palestinians currently in Israeli jails both as “detainees” to avoid, for now, the debate about who gets to be called “hostage” or “prisoner”). American TV channels made little effort to convey to their audiences Palestinian points of view and sentiments. It is understandable for Israeli television to focus squarely on the Israeli detainees, but American television should at least try to present the complete story and create space for the sentiments and perspectives of both societies.
The tremendous time and effort American hosts and correspondents committed to sharing with their audiences the powerful emotions of the families of Israeli detainees was impressive by any standard. There were repeated interviews, photo collages, video testimonies and countless emotive stories about the ordeals of the Israeli detainees and their worried families. Yet there was no similar intensity or extent of coverage of the sentiments of the Palestinian detainees and their families, who make up half of the story. Israeli detainees and their families were presented as real people, with names, ages and powerful human emotions, gripped by fear and hope, doing everything possible to save their family members detained in Gaza. We got to know them and feel their pain, which we were largely denied for the Palestinians.
Anyone watching American news quickly learned the names of all the Israeli children detained in Gaza. Their stories, accompanied by photos and videos provided by their families, touched the hearts of all those who have been watching. I was particularly moved, for example, by the report on one little girl whose father brought her dog to greet her upon her return to Israel.
All in all, the US coverage of the stories of Israeli detainees in Gaza and their families represented journalism – and humanity – at its emotional and narrative best. Yet in covering perhaps the second most significant political/military event in the century-long conflict between Zionism/Israel and Arabism/Palestine (after 1947/48), one would have expected American news networks to offer their audiences facts, personalities, emotions and social realities from both sides. One-sided coverage, however technically proficient and emotionally grabbing, is not news reporting, it’s cheerleading.
The words US anchors, hosts and correspondents used while covering these events also betrayed their biases. Israelis under the age of 16 or so were always called “children”, while jailed young Palestinians from the same age group were overwhelmingly referred to as “minors”. The female Israeli detainees were usually identified as “mothers” or “daughters” or “grandmothers” – and rightly so. The female Palestinian detainees, however, were mostly called just “females” or “women” – thus the audiences were not encouraged to see them as mothers, aunts, grandmothers and form emotional bonds with them.
Hamas personnel were almost universally referred to as “terrorists” – perhaps an understandable nomenclature when describing those who participated in an attack against unarmed civilians, but not a useful or adequate one to describe all members of an organisation that performs political, military and social roles in society – and represents the latest manifestation of militant political resistance against Israel and Zionism’s century of aggression against and subjugation of Palestinians.
In some cases, networks followed minute-by-minute Israeli detainees’ journeys from Gaza to their homes in Israel – flashing back to interviews with the families and forward to the preparations to greet them. In contrast, with very few exceptions, there was no serious attempt to provide similar coverage of the journeys of the Palestinian detainees or their families – even though access to many of these families in the West Bank was possible.
Coverage of Palestinians welcoming their returning detainees was scattered and slightly formulaic, while coverage of the equivalent Israeli story was repetitive, tear-jerking and passionate.
The analysts/commentators interviewed in the US by American networks provided extra layers of orientalist stereotyping of Palestinians and Arabs that offered little or no news value but pandered mainly to audiences’ natural entertainment instincts, or the networks’ jingoistic support of US policies in the region.
So we heard former hostage negotiators in the US explain (assume, actually) what difficulties Israelis would face in freeing their detained nationals, including “Arab street” pressures. We even heard that FBI agents were in Israel to investigate possible Palestinian crimes against American citizens – of course, no attempt was made by the networks to question whether similar efforts were under way to investigate the many Israeli crimes against the Palestinians, including the killing of more than 14,000 people, some of whom also happen to be American citizens.
The most glaring shortcoming in the American television coverage of the recent events in Israel-Palestine was the almost total lack of any historical context that would have helped audiences make sense of the October 7 attack on Israel and everything that followed. This context was needed not to justify Hamas’s attack, but merely to help people understand why it happened in this century-old conflict.
Indeed, the attack on Israel cannot be fully understood and analysed without considering the half dozen other clashes between Israel and Hamas in the last 35 years since Hamas was born. Palestinians, and most of the international community, insist that the historical context of this conflict must be appreciated if the wars are to end and a route to coexistence is to be forged. Israel, on the other hand, is determined to shut down any historical analysis that could explain how a land that was 96 percent Palestinian a century ago is 80 percent Jewish Israeli now. When American television does not present any historical context, it explicitly sides with Israel on this central issue. It can do this as much as it wants in its opinion offerings, but not in news coverage.
These quick observations are not a comprehensive analysis of the US television coverage of recent events in Israel-Palestine. I am aware that the US television networks have also provided a few moments of balanced coverage, during which Israelis and Palestinians were treated as equally human. Most of the coverage I saw, however, did not acknowledge the humanity of the Palestinians and instead reflected the dominant Israeli view that Palestinians are less than human and thus their suffering, emotions and aspirations could be ignored, minimised or presented superficially in media coverage.
All media organisations, including the TV networks attempting to cover this century of conflict for American audiences, should aspire to practise better journalism and avoid as much as possible presenting entertainment and propaganda in their news broadcasts.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.