This year, a four-letter word dominated coverage of Israel on a near-daily basis.
The war — which began at the end of December in response to increased Palestinian rocket fire — ended on the 20th day of the year.
The media war was dizzying. A prominent Greek weekly called Jews “Christ killers.” Hamas terror leaders got soapboxes in prominent US and British papers. BBC Arabic hosted a wonk who justified the death of Israeli kids. Canadian and Aussie reporters had close calls with Qassams; Israel restricted media access to Gaza in large part because of the Hamas “CNN strategy.” Al-Aqsa TV writers killed off Assud the Rabbit. And when Hamas fired a rocket from a foreign press building, an Al-Arabiya journalist’s delighted reaction was caught on camera for YouTube posterity.
Perhaps the most definitive example of the spin games Israel confronted in the mainstream media was from South African editor Mondli Makhanya and his pernicious portrayal of Israel:
Israel’s response to the “provocation” amounted to a steroid-pumped heavyweight boxer arriving to fight an anaemic midget armed with steel-lined boxing gloves.
All that was just January.
The rest of the year dealt with war crimes allegations, the Strip’s closure, Hamastan, Gilad Shalit, issues surrounding human rights organizations (most notably Human Rights Watch and its staffer Marc Garlasco), the Goldstone Report, and, last but not least, floundering Palestinian unity efforts – which were impacted by the war.
As the first anniversary of Operation Cast Lead approaches, Israel and the Palestinians continue fighting over the very facts of the war. Most news outlets report that more than 1,000 civilians died in the war, but Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi was the first to indicate that the casualty count was far smaller than what Palestinian sources present. Later in the year, Simona Weinglass dug deeper, finding that Israelis and Palestinians even differ on the definition of a civilian casualty.
Lest we forget, there was more to Israel than Gaza. Israeli voters elected Benyamin Netanyahu to lead the country. Ben Gurion University Professor Neve Gordon’s call for a boycott of his own country sparked outrage among academics inside and outside of Israel. Neither was sports sacred: Al-Jazeera tried to bury Israeli soccer success.
Meanwhile, the financial pressures of the journalism industry continued hitting the foreign press corps. In April, McClatchy News correspondent Dion Nissenbaum poignantly noted how Beit Agron, which once bustled with foreign news bureaus, has become a ghost town. Now, in a sign of the times, Nissenbaum himself leaves for Afghanistan. Other reporters will cover Israel for McClatchy, but it will no longer maintain a full-time bureau.
Such is the state of journalism in microcosm.
Citizen journalism – the idea that anyone capable of posting text, photos or video online is a news source – emerged in 2009 as a force to be reckoned with. In Iran, ordinary people managed to supplant traditional journalism when the government banned press coverage of massive post-election protests. According to Mashable, in a 24-hour period, a staggering 3,000 videos were uploaded to YouTube and 2,250,000 blog posts were published – just about the Iranian protests.
HonestReporting on Facebook stirred international controversy when we organized a special Facebook group calling on Facebook to allow Golan residents to identify themselves as Israeli. Facebook changed its settings, prompting a Syrian boycott. President Bashar Assad’s overreaction attracted welcome media interest in HonestReporting.
We thank our readers for sharing their feedback on the year’s worst Mideast coverage. On with the “awards.”
Poison Pen Award: Pat Oliphant
For outright demonization of Israel, Pat Oliphant, one of the world’s most widely-syndicated cartoonists, wins hands down. The headless, jackbooted, goose-stepping figure holding an outstretched sword pushing a Star of David — baring its fangs at a Gaza mother and baby — appeals to the worst Nazi stereotypes.
My complaint was that Israel, the Israeli state, was behaving very much like their former tormentors were behaving back in the 30s and 40s, and insinuating that they were, they had a somewhat Nazi side to the way they were behaving. And I feel somebody should say it. And I did. And the s**t hit the fan. And I’m still hearing about it.
As Barry Rubin wrote in a widely quoted response to Oliphant:
This is, then, a loathsome cartoon. But to dismiss it by the single word “anti-Semitism” will foreclose thought as to why it is a loathsome cartoon. It will allow its defenders to avoid facing the real problems with this cartoon and the worldview it represents. And worst of all: that argument implies that the only problem was using the ambiguous Mogen David, that it would have been acceptable if he had just written the word “Israel” on the Nazi monster he created to represent the Jewish state.
Lousiest Journalist Wannabe: Ken Livingstone, The New Statesman
During the year, a few papers began inviting various personalities to be guest editors, overseeing content for a day. This growing trend included comedian Stephen Colbert getting top job at Newsweek, and Ha’aretz letting prominent Israeli poets and writers run the paper. Guest editors are even a Christmas tradition at BBC Radio 4‘s flagship Today program.
The New Statesman jumped on the bandwagon by inviting ex-London mayor Ken Livingstone to be guest editor for the magazine’s Sept. 17 issue. Unfortunately, the edition included “Red Ken’s” fawning interview with Hamas boss Khaled Mashaal. An open-mic opportunity would be a more apt description: the Q&A’s length came in at exactly 4,000 words.
Livingstone’s entitled to talk to whomever he wants. Had he posted the interview on a blog of his own, nobody would have cared.
But The New Statesman is a mainstream magazine; it has a responsibility to publish news, not propaganda, irrespective of citizen journalists, celebrity editors, or media veterans. Too bad they didn’t solicit Colbert’s take on Hamas.
Most Insane Moral Equivalence: Max Blumenthal, Huffington Post
Thanks to the power of bloggers and online video, Iranian protesters made Neda Soltan an international icon after a graphic video of her murder by government forces went viral on YouTube. Unfortunately, Huffington Post blogger Max Blumenthal drew a despicable moral equivalence between her killers and the Israeli army.
As HonestReporting pointed out, there’s a big difference between Basij militiamen firing live ammunition at peaceful protesters and IDF soldiers using rubber-coated bullets and tear gas at weekly fence protests.
Blumenthal is the same person who filmed drunken Jewish students talking about President Obama on the eve of his widely anticipated Cairo speech. Huffington Post, to its credit, removed the video from the web site, saying it “had no news value.” (YouTube removed the video too.)
Worst Headline: The Evening Standard
Shortly before Israelis went to the polls in February to choose a Prime Minister, London’s Evening Standard featured a headline so outrageous that no further comment is necessary.
In March, Ha’aretz broke a story of IDF soldiers’ testimonies exposing war crimes and human rights violations. For Israel’s critics, it was perfect: a sweeping indictment based on testimony from Israeli soldiers, first broken by a mainstream Israeli newspaper. The soldiers’ testimonies spread like wildfire around the world with sensational headlines:
But when the news cycle ran its course, it emerged that Ha’aretz’s sources were based on nine soldiers describing incidents they heard about from others – hearsay. The head of the military academy where the discussions took place, Col. Danny Zamir, slammed the media’s reaction to the affair. He wrote in the Jerusalem Post:
It was as if the media were altogether so eager to find reason to criticize the IDF that they pounced on one discussion by nine soldiers who met after returning from the battlefield to share their experiences and subjective feelings with each other, using that one episode to draw conclusions that felt more like an indictment.
And in a separate interview, Zamir singled out the NY Times:
Zamir said that what disturbed him the most was an article in The New York Times under the headline “A Religious War in Israel’s Army,” which left the impression that a veritable kulturkampf between religious and secular soldiers was under way.
Unfortunately, the hearsay element and Col. Zamir’s response didn’t get equal billing to the sensational headlines Ha’aretz set in motion.
Biggest Train Wreck of Palestinian Sources: The Guardian
Shortly after Haaretz’s bungled soldier’s testimonies, The Guardian published a package of news, video, commentary and a staff editorial about Israeli war crimes in Gaza it claimed to have uncovered. The so-called expose suffered from three primary problems, which HonestReporting elaborated on.
The Guardian’s videos were presented as fact with out any supporting evidence.
The package lacked any verifiable information or any mention of the measures taken by the IDF to avoid civilian casualties while Hamas actively used human shields.
A reliance on dubious Palestinian sources. Palestinians aren’t brave enough — or stupid enough – to risk the wrath of Hamas by telling journalists (or human rights personnel or UN officials) about the homes used as cover for rocket fire, the mosques used as weapons dumps, or the hospitals and ambulances commandeered by Hamas leaders.
. . . add weight to calls this week for a full inquiry into the events surrounding Operation Cast Lead, which was aimed at Hamas, but which left over 1400 Palestinians dead – around 300 known to be children.
Biggest Train Wreck of Anonymous Sources: NY Times
When the White House sought to press Israel on settlements in June, anonymous “administration officials” told NY Times reporter Helene Cooper the US would take symbolic steps to show its protest.
It indicated a significant policy shift – a real scoop for Cooper. But Cooper and the Times were used to simply convey a threat to Israel and raise the stakes of a policy disagreement. The anonymous officials, whoever they were, chose the right paper. The threats, appearing in a paper as prominent as the Gray Lady, could neither be overlooked nor ignored, and were perfectly deniable.
If nothing else, the fallout was instructive. The dustup reminded everyone that Israel indeed had an understanding with the US allowing for some settlement activity in already-existing communities, and that Israel was indeed honoring that understanding. Elliott Abrams, who was involved in US-Israeli settlement discussions, wrote:
For the past five years, Israel’s government has largely adhered to guidelines that were discussed with the United States but never formally adopted . . .
A look at an exchange of letters between President George Bush Jr. and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shows that Israel might not have disengaged from Gaza without the understandings.
While the Obama administration ultimately took a hit, the NY Times was never called onto the carpet over how the way it was used.
Worst Conspiracy Mongering: Channel 4 Dispatches
In November, Channel 4′s flagship investigative TV show, Dispatches, aired a look “Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby.” Hosted by Peter Oborne (watch parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) the show accused several UK-Jewish organizations of having divided loyalties to Israel, lacking transparency, and engaging in shady pressure tactics with the media, among other things.
No proof was ever offered that Jewish organizations lobbied the government or media differently than any other organized interest groups.
HonestReporting and managing editor Simon Plosker were targeted as well. Oborne’s investigation of HonestReporting was shoddy enough (details here, here and here) that it calls into question the rest of his investigation.
If nothing else, the broadcast boosted Plosker’s status in the Zionist media conspiracy.
Most Problematic Peer Review: British Medical Journal
Medical journals in South Africa and Canada unfairly took Israel to task over Operation Cast Lead. But when the British Medical Journal went even further, claiming HonestReporting stifled debate, Dr. Simon Fishman took a closer look and found the BMJ’s interest in Israel, uh, disproportionate.
Does anyone remember when getting an article through the rigors of peer review to publishing in these medical journals was considered prestigious?
Most Senseless Talking Head: Michael White
Michael White, an associate editor at The Guardian, was a guest on BBC Radio London’s Breakfast Show discussing an attack on Italian PM Sylvio Berlusconi when he made the following statement:
In Israel they murder each other a great deal. The Israeli Defense Forces murder people because they don’t like their political style and what they’ve got to say and it only means that people more extreme come in and take their place.
A sharp interviewer with a little chutzpah could’ve stopped White in his tracks and followed up on his silly accusation. But it didn’t occur to the Breakfast Show hosts to do that because White’s language is now mainstream in the UK media. But even more troubling is the ease of White’s lie coupled with his