Barry Rubin: Propaganda, Lies, and Wire Service Articles

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Today, journalism students, in our course, “Absolutely Introductory Basic Rules of Journalism, we will discuss the absolutely introductory basic rules of journalism.
I don’t think I’m an old fogey but in my hazy memories of the good old days I think there was a time when reporters were supposed to represent both sides of the story. I hear some gasps of amazement in the classroom. Yes, it is true. Nowadays we are more enlightened and the process goes something like this:
  1. Decide which side is the good guys. This can be based on your ethnic-communal background (unless you are Jewish since then you must lean over backward to prove yourself fair by supporting the other side), political ideology, or–if all else fails–which ever side is weaker. (The word “underdog” might not be PC any more so I will avoid it.)
  2. Slant your article completely in favor of the “good guys” because they are after all the good guys. Writing an advocacy article for them is thus a good and moral deed. There can be no compromise with evil and since the bad guys lie all the time why even bother to listen to their arguments.
Incidentally, questions of past credibility are irrelevant. If one side can be shown to have lied repeatedly that doesn’t count. Pointing this out could get you accused of racism or imperialism, while the “good guys,” once so designated, are allowed to lie because they are pursuing a “good cause.” Governments are held to lie always, especially if they are democratic ones.
While the above is written to be humorous and is no doubt somewhat exaggerated it does give a pretty good idea about the genesis of all too many newspaper articles nowadays.
Consider, for example, Dalia Nammari, “Israel curbs Palestinian building on disputed land ,” AP. The article has 1,107 words long which by contemporary standards is quite long. Number of words used to explain Israel’s position: 76. Number of words used to advocate the Palestinian cause? You do the math.
Basically, as so often happens, the reporter serves as the mouthpiece for one side (it always seems to be the same side) in language calculated to tug at the readers’ heart-strings. Here’s the lead:
“AQABEH, West Bank – The elders of this West Bank village hold their meetings under a carob tree, sitting on boulders arranged in a circle. It looks idyllic, but is born of necessity, the council doesn’t have a meeting hall.”
“Aqabeh, home to 299 people, has never received Israeli construction permits despite many requests, its mayor says. After losing a battle in Israel’s Supreme Court in April, the village now lives with the threat of seeing 37 of its 47 structures demolished, according to a U.N. count. That includes 27 homes, a clinic, a mosque and a kindergarten that was co-financed by a U.S. charity, the Building Alliance. All were built illegally, Israel says.”
Let’s stop here a moment and rest under the shade of that carob tree. Israel’s Supreme Court has often ruled against the Israeli government. For example, in response to Palestinian suits, the route of the security fence has often been altered at great expense to the Israeli taxpayer so as to make the lives of Palestinians easier. (Occupying powers usually don’t let people from the side carrying out terrorist attacks against them to sue and win in court. Why, that might even be a good topic for a 1,107 word article some day!)
Why, then, did these villagers lose in court? The reporter might be expected to tell us, but that could ruin this touching story.
The article continues:
“Aqabeh’s plight is similar to scores of Palestinian villages in `Area C,’ the nearly two-thirds of the West Bank that remained under full Israeli control following a 1990s interim agreement with the Palestinian leadership.”
Very cute. But wait a minute. Perhaps the reporter could tell us what percentage of the West Bank villagers live under Israeli rule in Area C. If we are talking about villages (not the town of Hebron) I would suspect the answer would not be much above 1 percent.
But wait, the article continues:
“On that land are Israel’s 121 West Bank settlements, as well as military bases. But so are 150 Palestinian villages, home to tens of thousands of people.”
So which is it? The answer is that even if villages are located in Area C, local control in most cases belongs to the PA, not Israel.
Note the deliberate dishonesty: yes, lots of land is in Area C but by the Oslo agreement’s design Israel has full control over unpopulated land. Virtually all the villages are under Palestinian Authority (PA) rule.
And by the way, what is the housing situation for 99 percent of the West Bank villages? I would bet that they either have to pay off PA officials or just do what they want without regard to regulations.
But in one of the two sentences in which Israeli officials are allowed to speak, we get an interesting hint about that:
“Maj. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said demolition orders are usually issued early in cases of illegal construction, but are often ignored by residents.”
So in fact Israel does not try to enforce these orders most of the time.
Why would Israeli authorities try to stop buildings from being constructed? The article tells us it is pure meanness or because it wants to take lands in future. But the overwhelming main reason for such denials is that the buildings would be close to roads or in other strategic locations where they could be used for ambushes. We aren’t told this, in fact there is no mention of the fact that the Palestinian side is carrying out a war on Israel involving terrorism, which makes conditions significantly different than in a peaceful environment.
To a large extent, this article is merely an extended version of an interview with the village’s mayor who is allowed to say whatever he wants, no matter how fantastic. For example, he says:
“Since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 eight villagers have been killed by stray bullets or by picking up unexploded munitions, and 42 have been wounded. The Israeli military could not confirm those numbers.”
Now there are 299 people in the village. We are to believe that 50 of them–which would in practice mean one person in each family–has been killed or wounded by Israeli bullets. Is there any documentation for this? Are there any newspaper clippings, reports to humanitarian organizations, etc? And if so why aren’t these cited.
I feel confident in suggesting that the mayor is lying and that the reporter is going along with the lies. As an Arab proverb goes: “How do you know it is a lie? Because it is so big.”
Or this one:
“Aqabeh Mayor Sami Sadiq says Israeli officials told residents in 2004 that only buildings in the center, on 3 percent of the village’s land area, would be safe from demolition. If all demolitions are carried out, two-thirds of the village’s residents would be left homeless, he said.”
Well, did they or is this a propaganda fantasy? The important thing to remember here is the test of logic. The village must be many decades, even centuries, old. So does this mean that 97 percent of the village dates from the last few years? It appears to be nonsense.
The article states, “Sadiq has been confined to a wheelchair since being hit by three stray bullets while cultivating his family’s land in 1971, he said.” Well, it should have been easy for the reporter to check this out since he would have filed compensation claims with the Israeli government. There would be documentation.
Sadiq’s credibility doesn’t strike me as being too good:
“In the past four decades, some 700 residents have left Aqabeh because of the many troubles, he said, mostly moving to neighboring villages outside of Area C that have approved zoning plans and where it is easier to build.”
So there were 1,000 residents and now there are 300 but–let’s use our brains, people–if that were true the village wouldn’t need to be expanding, would it? Seventy percent of its housing would be empty. It would look like a ghost town. So why didn’t the reporter mention this?
Why go on with more examples? This is nonsense on the face of it. In a world where professional standards applied, AP would be humiliated at making mistakes unacceptable in a high school newspaper. The reporter would be immediately fired and a stern memo sent to all staff members on avoiding such stupidities in future.
I must be an old fogey because I keep expecting things like this to happen.
And what really scares me is that I didn’t even have to go hunting to find such propaganda masquerading as journalism–it was the first article I read in a 25-page compilation of AP stories.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal . His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism , with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Prof. Rubin’s columns can be read online .Barry Rubin is on the Board of Directors for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

Barry Rubin: Propaganda, Lies, and Wire Service Articles

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