Boston University and SPME Board of Directors Member, History Professor Richard Landes discusses his new media watch-dog project, the performance of the press, the rise of anti-Semitism, Pallywood, and more
“I’ve got to tell you about the dream I had last night…”
I’m in the passenger seat of Richard Landes’ car. We’re running a quick errand before we
sit down for our interview.
“I’m driving along in my car and I pull into a parking garage where I don’t have a
permit…suddenly I notice there’s something moving all over the floor…It’s rats! The floor
is covered with rats. And suddenly, I realize I’m not in my car, I’m on a motorcycle.
They’re all around me, climbing on me and when I try and pull them off I can’t.”
He’s clearly been giving his new project, in which, he, a medieval historian, is parking in
the media’s garage, a lot of thought.
We’re heading over to an office to deliver a video tape of a debate the professor has just
participated in. He leans over to me, this self-described Man of the Left, and says in a
confiding tone, “Of the three participants…I was the right-winger.” He rolls his eyes.
That’s the state of things in 2005, where a guy who simply wants the truth to be told, who
wants a little fairness — fairness for the Jews, for Israel, for America…and for the
Palestinians, too — can be considered “right wing.”
“I’m not about truth per se,” he’s quick to correct me. “I’m for honesty — that’s something
different. Look, the post-modern argument is that there is no such thing as objective truth.
Right? Everybody’s got a story. Ultimately in a sense they’re right, because if you’re only
going to say things that are objectively true, that are not contested, that are not dependent
on people’s perceptions, then you’re only going to say, for instance, ‘the man died.’ You
can’t even say, ‘that man killed him,’ much less, ‘he murdered him.’ OK? You could say,
‘he killed him,’ if, say, you got a picture of him slicing the other guy’s head off. If you say,
‘he killed him,’ we’re still in the realm of objective truth. Everyone’s going to agree. But
murder? That’s motive, and motive is a judgment call.
So ‘objective truth’ means we pass no judgments. Now I personally think that if you can’t
pass judgments, you’re not going to last long. It doesn’t say much about you as a moral
“I had a student who came to me the other day during office hours. He’s doing a paper on the Nazis. He’s writing a bibliographical essay and there’s a book he’s describing, and his summary says something along the lines of, ‘This was a very interesting book, but it’s pretty biased and I don’t know how much I can rely on it, but there are still some facts I can use even though most of it is biased.’
What’s its bias, I ask him? ‘Well, it’s very critical of the Nazis.'” Landes laughs and shakes his head.
“Where did we go wrong?”
“The point is that objectivity is a trap. There have to be judgments. We have to pay attention to different narratives and so-on, yes. I’m post-modern in that sense, but I don’t think that because there’s no objectivity, there can’t be any honesty.
And honesty is what’s gone out. The radical-relativists say, ‘Hey, the Palestinians have their story.’ Well I say, sure they have their story, and by all means listen to it. But how accurate is it? Just because you need to listen to it, doesn’t force you to believe it.”
We stop the car to drop off the video tape. We’re in the elevator and he asks me, “Did you ever think it would get this bad? The anti-Semitism?” I shake my head.
“I think it’s amazing the kind of explosion of anti-Semitism you’ve been seeing,” he continues, “and not just in the Arab World. I mean, you know, everyone knew it was there. Everyone knew belief in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the like was wide-spread, but the outpouring and the hysteria that’s been happening, and the resonance they’ve gotten in Europe has been really…” He trails off.
“You know you can date things that way. Before the year 2000, Alan Dershowitz was writing about the disappearance of the American Jew partly because anti-Semitism was over — people were saying that anti-Semitism was fading. In 1998 or 1999 very few Jews would say that our existence was threatened…but since 2000…it’s different.
Suddenly it’s hitting home to a lot people who never thought about it before. No, it’s not just hitting home, it’s hitting! Most people had no idea there was this much resentment, that the Brits and the French were only waiting for an excuse…”
Our errand run, we park over on Harvard Street in Brookline to sit down and start a more formal interview. Starbuck’s is too loud for my recorder, so we find a quieter bagel shop. Coffee and muffin in hand, we pull up at a small table and I hit record.
Solomon: Tell me a little about your new web project, 21st Century Media Group.
Landes: We hope to be a media oversight venue for discussing how the media processes the information they gather and how they present it to the public as news. We’ll take significant news events and present them as dossiers to the public for discussion, using for grist as much primary source material as possible, starting with the Pallywood discussion.
S: What is Pallywood?
L: It’s a play on the expression Bollywood, the designation of India’s film industry, based in Bombay. It identifies a practice among Palestinian journalists to turn staged drama into news. This fictional news industry then feeds Western news reporting, who don’t seem to suspect they’re being duped.
The expression acknowledges that the active, if still young, film industry of Palestinian culture, especially since the advent of cultural autonomy with the Oslo Accords in 1993, has already made a distinctive contribution to global culture.
S: Isn’t the expression disrespectful…mocking?
L: On one level, not at all. Most national film industries would love to have the success in the larger world media that Pallywood has achieved. Pallywood is a distinctive and powerful national product. But on the other hand, because it identifies Pallywood as part of a campaign of disinformation and propaganda, why should we respect that, rather than criticize it? As for mocking, at a basic level Pallywood is a joke played by the Palestinians on the West, and one can see it in the smiles on the faces of by-standers as they walk away from these staged scenes.
S: So you’ll be posting raw footage for visitors to view for themselves? Visitors to the site can see the “rushes” from which their news was prepared?
L: Yes. We’ll post the raw footage from Palestinian cameramen working for major Western news agencies at Netzarim Junction on Sept. 30, 2000 and possibly the next day. The visitor can view these videos for themselves and start to form their own impressions, then they can hop in and start reading our analysis and participating in the ongoing discussion. They’ll have the chance to form their own impressions first.
It’ll be like having a look behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.
[The rest of this interview is contained in the extended entry. If you’re accessing this entry from the main blog index, click the link below this line to continue reading.]
S: When is the site going up?
L: Early September. Starting at the end of September, we’d like to follow the Intifada in real time five years later. Ideally, we’d present the raw material, then show you how that was reported in the media’s product — in the headlines. For example, the footage from September 30th was supposedly taken on a day when the Gaza strip exploded in violence over Sharon’s visit to the Haram al Sharif (Temple Mount) and the casualties on the West Bank from the previous day. Nothing of the sort is visible in the crowds milling around right in front of the Israelis, smoking, talking on cell phones, laughing, while others put “wounded victims of Israeli gunfire” into ambulances. We’ll also try to include material from various web logs and online diaries that were being kept at the time. So once you understand Pallywood, once you understand how the media was systematically duped by a propaganda machine…
S: Were they duped, or did they play along with it? Were they willing participants?
L: We want the web site to raise these questions and let people make their own judgments. Now, we think we have some answers, but we’re post-modern enough to think there isn’t only one answer. So for instance, in answer to your question, if we were to take a pie and slice it up, there would be a slice of journalists just out to make their living by providing their bosses in the West with action footage, another slice of people harboring some sort of bad faith or resentment — some kind of strong anti-Jewish feelings — then you’ve got another chunk of it who are people who really believe they are helping the Palestinians by recycling their propaganda. There’s this great line by Bob Simon [of 60 Minutes], ‘In the Middle East, one image can be worth 1000 weapons.’ I think that there’s a prevalent view in the press that since the Israelis have most of the weapons, the media can “level the playing field” by giving the Palestinians the media victory.
In fact what they’re doing is they’re prolonging everyone’s misery. They’re prolonging the conflict. It’s not pro-Palestinian to run this propaganda, it’s pro-Palestinian leadership which is systematically exploiting its own people’s suffering to pursue a vendetta and the media is essentially backing the nastiest people in the conflict and telling themselves that they’re somehow siding with ‘the Palestinians.’ It’s as if the press in the US were willingly to run material about WMDs in Iraq in the thought that by supporting an American government bent on war they were somehow helping the American people. Now no one on the Left would support that — that’s the point of Michael Moore’s movie — but when it comes to perceived victims not only is this kind of misinformation okay, but let me help. Our “liberal” and “progressives” seem to have a curiously hard time identifying the Arab and Palestinian leadership — secular and religious — as victimizers of their people.
Strange — it’s a standard Marxist perspective that elites exploit their masses, but somehow our “radicals” have dropped the ball here.
Now, again on your question as to whether it’s on purpose, or are they really duped — to some extent the web site will act as a litmus test. If you’re being duped and you come to the web site and you walk away and say, ‘I don’t want to hear it,’ then I’d say at some level you’ve shown that you’re just not equipped to confront your own darker side. But if you come to the web site and you say, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea, I really have to re-think this,’ then you’re one of the people who’s been honestly duped.
S: Just thinking…while there are many critical voices on the Israeli side — critical of their own people — the Palestinian side is bereft of critical voices. My point being that even a well-meaning Western news person has no one to wrap a story around on that side.
L: I don’t know about that. I mean, if you talk to a guy named Khaled Abu Toameh who writes for the Jerusalem Post, he will tell you he can’t get the press to listen to him. He wants to talk to them about corruption in the Arafat regime and he can’t get the press to listen. And then when you talk to other people in the press, and you say, ‘What do you think of Khaled Abu Toameh,’ they either say they never heard of him, or they say, ‘Oh, he writes for that right-wing paper The Jerusalem Post.’
S: They dismiss him.
L: Yeah. So there’s this attitude like, if an Arab says things that the Israelis want to hear, you’re the equivalent of an Oreo, a coconut, brown on the outside white on the inside There’s a bizarre kind of self-destructiveness at work here, particularly for the press.
Part of the purpose of the web site is to examine a free media’s role in giving us reliable and relevant information — in other words that doesn’t obsess over stuff going on in one corner of the world while ignoring devastating things that happen in the rest of the world
– that’s the question of relevance, and reliable in the sense of accurate and honest. That’s a major pillar of civil society. Y’know, that’s what I was trying to tell these students at Vassar [where Landes participated in a recent debate] — if you think that the United States is as much of a theocracy as Libya, or more, which was what one of my fellow panelists was basically saying, if you listen to this rhetoric and believe it, you have no idea what you have. You have no appreciation, and not only don’t you appreciate what you have, you definitely don’t appreciate how hard it was to get here. Civil society is a miracle, and one of the pillars of civil society is an accurate and relevant media. And right now, I’d say we’re in terrible shape.
S: They’re arrogant?
L: Yeah, well that’s one of the points of this book I’m reading by Renata Adler, Canaries in the Mineshaft — the idea that the New York Times has a Corrections Section where you correct the way you spell people’s names, but you don’t correct the major, major mistakes that you made…
S: For instance, in the blogosphere we have this expression “Dowdifying,” which is derived from Maureen Dowd’s name because she wrote a column in which she used an ellipsis to remove a portion of a George Bush quote in order to completely reverse its meaning and make her snarky point. Thus a new verb was born for the creative use of ellipsis to dishonestly change the meaning of a quotation.
L: Yeah! So you’ve got this phenomenon where you’re pitching to a certain kind of audience. Apparently Maureen Dowd is pitching to the blues and she feels completely justified in messing with the stuff because she knows that her audience is sitting there eager to lap up every nasty thing they can… Same phenomena on the right.
S: So it’s almost a business decision?
L: I wouldn’t say it’s a business decision. It’s ideological. This is another thing we want to explore with the web site. It’s been one of the great revelations of the 21st century that, y’know, Orwell thought that you needed a Big Brother in order to be brainwashed, but in fact, people will brainwash themselves. They will go just to the sites that tell them the things they want to hear. It’s true all around.
I’m on some of these mailing lists for pro-Palestinian groups, and they just pile it on. It’s like Holocaust denial, it’s one thing after another, they all use the same language, it’s all about ‘Apartheid Wall,’ and every week I get a list of Israeli war-crimes and stuff. Not a mention of what the Palestinians do. No self-criticism whatsoever.
So you get a guy like Massad at Columbia saying things like the Israelis are shooting without warning, and a student stands up to challenge this and Massad threatens to kick him out of the classroom. Now how does he feel empowered to do that? Well partly because he comes from a society where that kind of authoritarian bullying goes on all the time, but he’s also been able to transplant it into a Western University and get away with it because he’s got a bunch of colleagues who believe that…well, it’s like Leonard Bernstein having Black Panthers and ex-cons come to his cocktail parties…what’s it called…oh yeah, it’s a kind of radical chic.
S: Back to the web site. What kind of visitor do you hope to appeal to?
L: Above all I want the CSI audience. I want people who like to think forensically, who have We Won’t Get Fooled Again playing in the backs of their minds. We want them to come, look, at the footage, make up their own minds, and then we’ll walk through together what the implications of this footage is. Now I have some ideas, but I have no doubt that there are lots of people that are going to have all sorts of interesting ideas about this. I also have no doubt that there are a lot of people that are going to have a lot of nasty ideas about this. And I’ll listen to them all, as long as they are dealing with the evidence fairly.
S: How will you handle that? Will you have a moderated discussion board where people will email in their comments and they’ll be considered for posting?
L: Yeah, that’s right. We’ll have about 40 minutes of rushes which you can download — that’s the whole thing, but we’ll also have them broken down into units for discussion about what you think is going on there. We’ll have a map showing you where the cameraman is taking his photograph from, questions to answer about the footage and so on. Then we’ll have larger discussions about media problems and solutions…
…My guess is that we’re going to see that things really started to kick off back in ’82 in Lebanon. I think when the Palestinians and the Arabs in general saw the eagerness of the press to stand in front of Beirut and say it’s like Warsaw and the Israelis were like Nazis they realized the media was a natural ally for their demonizing narrative about the Israelis. Six months later they staged a “poisoning of schoolgirls” in Jenin (at that time a “moderate” town). The Western media ate it up as long as it looked like it was the Israelis. When it turned out to be a fake, they lost interest, leaving Israel between libel and silence.
And then certainly during the first Intifada when there were points when the Israelis wouldn’t let the press in, so the media would give cameras to the Palestinians while the Western reporters sat back at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem drinking their drinks and getting their story that way. Middle East reporters are under tremendous pressure for a story a day — that’s enormous. They weren’t very well going to turn around and say, ‘No, I can’t use this.’ They made do. That’s one of the ways standards started to slip.
We’ll also be talking about issues involving ‘access journalism,’ where you couldn’t get your material unless you played by the Palestinians’ rules. Now, you can’t just say ‘no more access journalism,’ because then you’re going to just shut down. It’s not so simple. I certainly think that what the media should do is that any time the media is showing a Palestinian cameraman’s work, the name of the cameraman should be there. People should know where their news is coming from. People assume that footage from BBC or CBS is from an English or American cameraman, not an unsupervised Palestinian playing “stage the ambulance evacuation” or “streetfighting scene” with the help of the “street” and often a director. People should know the identity of the cameraman. Now the Palestinians can scream bloody murder, but you can say that it’s just policy. During the Lebanese incursion by the Israelis, the military censored certain things, and when the Western media showed the video, they had a text stream at the bottom, ‘Censored by Israeli military.’ What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
Now you can do almost whatever you want and the Israelis will let you keep playing, but you pull something on the Palestinians that they don’t like and you’re out. Pierre Rehov tells of how whenever you film something in the Palestinian areas, they insist on seeing your footage before they’ll let you go. People aren’t getting what they think they’re getting.
S: And we’re all losers in this?
L: The Palestinians are the biggest losers in this because it’s their exploitative elites who are the winners. When you think of it, it’s kind of amazing that the Palestinians have this much world support and they’re still in such wretched shape, and it’s never occurred to the Left that their support is the kiss of death to the Palestinian people…
S: You consider yourself a Leftist!
L: Absolutely! It’s occurred to me. [laughs] But it never occurs to most of the people I talk to on the Left that their support for the Palestinians has kept them in these camps…anyway…when I look at the Pallywood footage and I look at the way the press behaves, in the same way that I can’t believe that the Palestinians just did this on this on this day, I also can’t believe the press was only stupid in the case of the Palestinians, and only arrogant in the case of the Palestinians.
S: So 21st Century Media Group is going to be about more than that, more than Pallywood isn’t it?
L: Yes. It’s about the press and civil society the world over. We’re going to say that we don’t believe this is just happening to Israel. Rwanda will be another good case. It’s an opposite case. It’s a case of neglect. For 100 days Hutus were slaughtering Tutsis with machetes. Somewhere between about 900,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsis were killed and the press barely reported on it, and in particular the French played a significant role in trying to get the press not to deal with this, and in particular not to use the word ‘genocide.’ If Sharon’s a butcher for looking the other way at Sabra and Shatila, what does that make the French, who supplied the weapons and kept the press and diplomats at bay?
S: Here’s a problem though. They say that if there’s no video, there’s no story. How are you going to deal with that?
L: Sure, so why weren’t they sending people in there? Where’s Christiane Amanpour who does ads about how she sees herself as a heroic figure helping make the world a better place? Where was CNN? Couldn’t make it to Rwanda in 100 days? Why was there a genocide in Southern Sudan for 10 years, with over a million dead, women and children sold into slavery, and not a peep from the press?
Anyway, there are a number of documentaries on Rwanda, we’ll also certainly have pictures. We can’t always have videos.
I’m a medievalist. I deal with documentation. Getting back to the Pallywood issue, this raw footage is documentation. It’s primary source material. We’re going back to that. We’re going to go back to the primary sources and then we’re going to go back and read the journalists who have been interpreting it for us and we’ll do that in real time through the Intifada with the climax, of course, being Jenin.
So we’ll build up like that so when it comes time to cover Durban, you’ll see how distorted things had already become by that point – before 9-11.
This is the monster that in many ways the media has created.
S: There’s a strong element of group-think with the press, a need to belong…
L: Yeah, it’s very powerful. Dershowitz points this out. Israeli academics, in order to show they’re ‘world class’ have to get invited elsewhere. Well, if you’re a ‘right wing,’ prosettler movement Israeli, you’re not gonna get invited elsewhere because what the world likes to hear is these guys who refuse to serve in the territories, not the ones who refuse to evacuate Israelis from Gaza. When those who refuse to serve on the West Bank come to America they get invited to churches and they get to speak to thousands of people who are all eager to hear about how bad the Israelis are, but you get a guy who served in Jenin and survived and he’ll speak only to Synagogues and only to small groups. Nobody wants to hear that. So there’s a very powerful drive to ‘pitch.’
Now I think some journalists go farther, getting pretty close to ‘anti-Zionist.’ They’ve gone native in the sense that they are really a propaganda medium. One reporter, after 9/11 refused to show pictures of Palestinians celebrating because he said they were actually not photographs of Palestinians that day but were from another occasion. But when Arafat died the same reporter showed a picture of Sharon smiling and laughing and when people pointed out to him that that was footage from two weeks earlier, he said ‘I’m sure he laughed that day.’ And then he showed these pictures of Israelis dancing in the streets, and it was actually these Bratslavers [Chasidim] who do it every day.
S: Somewhat related question…You believe at that level there’s very little difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism?
L: Let me put it to you this way, if you do one of those Venn diagrams between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, there’s a 90-98% overlap. It’s a ludicrous distinction. It’s a fig-leaf to say you’re anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic. Show me an anti-Semite who’s not also an anti-Zionist.
S: Let me play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. Isn’t there a good aspect to some of what the press does? For instance, say they had shown those pictures of the Palestinians celebrating, or they had told the whole truth about what Saddam Hussein was doing all those years. Wouldn’t they have brought war closer? Aren’t they really saving us from ourselves?
L: Absolutely. I think that’s one of the things that happened after 9/11. For instance, why didn’t the press cover the briefly reported Arab-American celebrations more widely? Now I think it was to damp-down a tendency to vigilantism, to go beat the hell out of these people. Now, as a medievalist who studies the kind of honor-shame, vendetta society that produced those bombings, I say, they probably should have had the hell FIGURATIVELY beaten out of them. Verbally, OK? Serious verbal confrontations in which American Muslims need to tell us what their position is on Islam and Dar al Islam, Dar al Harb. Because to those who celebrated 9-11, our restraint was not a sign of civility, but of weakness, something to be exploited, not admired or emulated. So instead, because we were so nice and we didn’t say a word, they’ve become incredibly aggressive and all we hear from the Arab-American community, from groups like CAIR and stuff is ‘Oh, look at all the prejudice against us since 9/11.’ Connections to Jihadi groups by people like Sami al Arian? You American fascists persecute anyone just because they don’t agree with you. Some of these guys are preaching the most unbelievable hate and violence in their Mosques and we’re supposed to treat them as if they’re just like anybody else in civil society. So there’s a real problem here.
So in a sense you’re right. On the one hand as an American I’m proud that my country didn’t go kill a bunch of A-rabs after 9/11. I mean the Dutch reaction to Theo Van Gogh’s death and the Brits after 7-7 was much more violent than the American reaction to 9/11, and that’s only one guy or 60 people and we lost 3000 in a really revolting affair. I’m proud of that. Interestingly enough, if I try to tell that to Europeans they get annoyed at me. They say How dare you defend America! There was a Sikh that got killed on a train! Yes, that’s terrible, but it was only one…Oh! Only one! They start doing the same thing that they do with Israel.
On another level, though, that can become a kind of cultural AIDS where you start to suppress your ability to protect yourself and you leave yourself completely open to some really hostile forces that are determined to bring you down and you cannot recognize them as such.
To a significant extent, the rise of some of these right-wing political parties in Europe is a product of this. People are looking around at the problems in their neighborhoods, the crime, the rapes, the issues with immigration…the press isn’t covering it satisfactorily and they go to their mainstream political parties and they’re told, ‘Oh, don’t be Fascist.’
We’re in uncharted territory here. Civil Society is still learning to recognize its enemies and what to do about them.
One of the issues we’re going to explore at the web site is this concept of cognitive egocentrism which is to project your mentality and motivation onto others. What you have in the Middle East in particular is what I call the ‘Moebius Strip’ of cognitive egocentrism where we project our good intentions onto them, and they project their bad intentions onto us. So if you listen to the Palestinians and the Arabs talk about America and Israel, everything we do is done in bad faith, everything is for empire, dominion and exploitation, everything is a fascist conspiracy (sound like the radical Left?). You listen to Arafat talk about Camp David he says, ‘I was being trapped.’ Trapped into what? Putting an end to the conflict? Essentially, yes. Listen to the Left talk about Arafat — “oh he really wanted to make peace, but the Israelis didn’t offer him enough and Clinton and Barak didn’t show the proper respect, and if only we, or if only Israel, had done enough, then!”
This is the makings of a dysfunctional relationship where one spouse beats the other, and that spouse keeps saying, ‘It’s my fault, it’s my fault.’ We can’t survive a dysfunctional relationship with a billion people. And I’m certainly not saying that a billion people are all committed to Jihad, but Jihad resonates. It’s got a very powerful resonance.
The press sees itself as a defender of civil society and they see peaceful, positive sum negotiated ends as the stuff of civil society and they’re right, but in this case they’ve got it exactly wrong and they don’t know what to do. None of us knows what to do.
The site won’t be there to say, ‘This is right and this is wrong.’ It will be there to say ‘Something’s wrong, now let’s explore what the issues are.’
S: People say the European press is more sophisticated. Do you agree?
L: I hear that all the time and I always ask what makes you think they’re more sophisticated? They cover more international news? Well I would hope the Belgians would cover more than just the Belgian news! [laughs] And OK, what about the way they cover it? I mean, Le Monde doesn’t know the difference between a news story and an editorial. They’re all editorials. Every time you read a story you’re getting this guy’s take on it. America is so much better off than France. There is so much more press freedom here, and accordingly so much more diversity of opinion. Maybe the Europeans can’t handle more press freedom because with a public better informed about the world, they’re afraid they’ll end up with elected governments of war-mongering fascists. To be honest, I think Americans are, on the whole, a far more tolerant and capacious people than most Europeans.
S: What was the triggering event that brought you, a Medievalist, into this realm of media criticism? Was it the 2nd Intifada?
L: Yeah, it was that. I could see that the Muhamed al Dura affair [the young Palestinian boy who’s death has become a matter of great controversy] was operating in the Arab World as a Blood Libel. After 2000 the entire global system got an injection of poison via the Arab World, but with virtually no resistance, particularly in Europe. First it was Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, then European Muslim attacks on Jews and Synagogues. Then it was suicide bombings. The Europeans should have slammed the brakes on and said, ‘That’s it! You don’t get our support. We know this poison!’ But their press was so uniformly anti-Israel, so eager to run whatever demonizing narrative the Palestinians had to offer, that instead they were out there in demonstrations with models wearing suicide bomber belts. Then I realized how terrifyingly stupid and self-destructive the media was behaving.
S: So it’s almost…as a historian…this is helping to write tomorrow’s history today.
L: Look, everybody says that journalism is the first draft of history, but in this case, the first draft is so wrong that as a historian I feel like I need to step in and say Hey, wait a minute you guys. Even as a first draft, this stinks! [laughs] As a professor of history, I’ve got to say that if a graduate student wrote a first draft that was as credulous in its use of sources as the media has been in the case of the “second intifada,” then I’d say he wouldn’t make it through the first semester of grad school.
S: And you’re screwing it up for my colleagues of the future.
L: You’re screwing it up for everybody! You’re screwing it up for the world, you’re screwing it up for the Palestinians!
Y’know, part of what I want to get across to some of the people who are sucking hard on this anti-Zionist stuff, that clearly makes them feel good, is that they’re losing in this one. The Europeans went on an anti-Semitism diet for fifty years after the Holocaust, and did quite well, particularly in comparison with the Arabs who kicked out all their Jews and are the biggest economic failures – despite their trillions in petrodollars – of the 20th century. Why on earth would the West want to adopt their addictions, it’s like they’re going binge-drinking. It’s like a man who’s got a 350 cholesterol count out who can’t stop eating cheeseburgers. It may taste good, but good grief, what are you doing to yourself?
S: People are going to say you’re a conservative. This is just a conservative issue.
L: No, it’s a liberal issue! Look it’s…the thing people don’t understand is that ‘our’ conservatives – the people like George Bush and Ariel Sharon – are so far to the left when you place them in the framework of say Arab politics that it’s a joke…OK? There’s no Arab leader that would tolerate the kinds of attacks that George Bush has tolerated without making sure that the people who did it were severely punished for their effrontery. The Arab Michael Moore who exposed the lies told by the Palestinian media that Arafat used to dupe the Palestinians into a losing war would never have survived long enough to show it.
Look, I’m committed to what I consider the classic progressive principles of positive sum interactions (win-win), of empathy for other people, of fairness, equality before the law, of the idea that if everybody doesn’t win then nobody wins…straight along the line. I think that what’s happened is that the liberals, the progressives, have become dysfunctional and part of the reason for it is that the media is systematically feeding them misinformation that’s pitching to their worst instincts. As a result, want to or not, they end up making the world less likely to move in the progressive directions they hope for. Actually to get blunt about it, I think that the progressive indulgence of Islamism and Palestinian irredentism is making a bloodbath more rather than less likely, much as the pacifism of the 1930s made WWII so costly when it eventually broke out.
I teach the history of communications revolutions. I know the impact that the printing press had on the sort of imbedded manuscript culture that came before it. The internet will be in the 21st century to print media what the print media was to manuscript in the 16th. That’s why I’m going to the web, to the blogosphere. In the mainstream media, busy covering its naked ass, I can’t get the time of day. As one guy at ABC who admitted he was convinced by my material put it — “I’m not sure how much appetite there is for this stuff here.”
S: You’re going to piss off a lot of people in the press by doing this. You’re calling their stories into question, and their credibility into question…
L:…and their judgment…
S:…and their judgment…so are you hoping members of the press will sign on to this? That if they increase their transparency and improve their methods, they’ll have some benefit?
L: I see this issue as a portal to modernity for both the Palestinians and our supposedly already modern press. If you can self-criticize you can learn and you can grow. If you can’t self-criticize and all you can do when you’re criticized is turn and attack the critic, even when you win you lose because there’s no learning curve.
To a great extent this will be driven by the public, especially by the blogosphere. If the public say ‘Oh my God, how could you do this to us?’ then the press will change — and, I predict, so will the Arabs, for whom public image is very important. If the press can say, ‘Don’t listen to them, they’re just a bunch of nuts,’ then they don’t have to change and everybody loses.
The press is the eyes and ears of a functioning civil society, and no creature who’s eyes and ears deceived it has ever survived for long.
Professor Landes’ new web site, Second Draft, a project of 21st Century Media Group, will open to the public in early September. The URL would be released at that time.
A note on method: I assembled this interview from my recorded notes with a small amount of fill-in from a sneak-peak I got at the FAQ page from the upcoming web site. The order of some of the quotes was changed and they were also edited for readability, grammar and length. I also allowed Professor Landes a look at the interview before distribution to ensure I reflected our conversation fairly, and we have made several edits to the text between the time the interview was conducted and the time it was posted.