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2006-08-03

Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land: Documentary Examines US Media Coverage of the Israeli Palestinian Conflict

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How has the US media covered the conflict in the Middle East? We play an excerpt of the documentary "Peace Propaganda and the Promised Land: U.S. Media & the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict." The film was directed by Bathsheba Ratzkoff and Sut Jhally of the Media Education Foundation. [includes rush transcript]

We continue our coverage of the situation in the Middle East by examining how the U.S. press has been reporting on Lebanon, Israel and Gaza. Some have suggested that America is watching a different war than much of the world. The British journalist Julian Borger came to that conclusion after watching the news in Washington and London.

The British press, he said, overwhelmingly emphasized the civilian casualties in Lebanon. Meanwhile the U.S. media has focused on the situation in Israeli cities like Haifa. Some journalists from the Middle East are now refusing to work with American news outlets.

Earlier this week, two producers working for Fox News in Amman Jordan resigned in protest. In their resignation letter, Serene Sabbagh and Jomana Karadsheh wrote "We can no longer work with a news organization that claims to be fair and balanced when you are so far from that. Not only are you an instrument of the Bush White House, and Israeli propaganda, you are war mongers with no sense of decency, nor professionalism."

We air an excerpt from the documentary "Peace Propaganda and the Promised Land: U.S. Media & the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict." The film was directed by Bathsheba Ratzkoff and Sut Jhally of the Media Education Foundation.

  • Peace Propaganda and the Promised Land: U.S. Media & the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Film directed by Bathsheba Ratzkoff and Sut Jhally of the Media Education Foundation. More info on the documentary online at www.pppl.org

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a few minutes, we’re going to speak with a panel of media analysts and journalists here in New York, in Beirut and in Tel Aviv. But first, an excerpt from the documentary, Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land: U.S. Media & the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The film was directed by Bathsheba Ratzkoff and Sut Jhally of the Media Education Foundation.

NARRATOR: Americans rely on the news media for information about events occurring around the world. News, especially television news, exerts a powerful influence on our perceptions, telling us which events are important and shaping our understanding of the issues. Given the central role played by the United States in the Middle East conflict and thus the vital role played by American voters, influencing U.S. media coverage of the conflict is crucial. Controlling the images and words used to explain the conflict has become an important extension of the struggle.

PROF. ROBERT JENSEN: Israel is really fighting a war on two fronts. The first is a military campaign being waged in the Occupied Territories against the Palestinian people. And the second is a PR campaign being waged here in the U.S. through the American media to ensure continued support for Israel’s occupation. Alon Pinkas, Consul General for Israel in New York and the coordinator of Israel’s PR efforts, was recently quoted as saying, "We are currently in a conflict with the Palestinians, and engaging in a successful PR campaign is part of winning the conflict." So you could say that in addition to the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel is also involved in an attempt to ideologically occupy the American media.

NARRATOR: The roots of Israel’s public relations campaign go back to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon that earned it worldwide criticism, in particular the massacre of Palestinian civilians at the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila. To the Israeli government, the problem was not the deaths of thousands of civilians. Rather, it was the damage to Israel’s public image, a public relations disaster in need of damage control.

ROBERT FISK: They surrounded Beirut. In three months, 17,500 people, almost all of them civilians, were killed. I saw many thousands of their bodies. Then came the massacre of Sabra and Chatila by Israel’s own allies, as the camp was surrounded by Israeli troops. And they desperately said, "What went wrong?" It was concluded that the problem was, it wasn’t good enough public relations.

PROF. ROBERT JENSEN: After the public relations disaster of Lebanon, Israel decided to set up permanent institutional structures to control how Americans would think about the Middle East. In 1983, Israel launched the Hasbara Project, the aim of which was to ensure good press in the U.S. media. The goal was to train Israeli diplomats in communications and public relations. For example, they trained press officers in Israeli consulates in the U.S. to ensure that American journalists would write stories favorable to Israel. As one of these press officers said in the 1980s, he had breakfast, lunch and dinner with journalists and that a typical day would involve conversations with producers at leading news and TV talk shows about the content of the program. He described it as, in fact, quote, a "joint formulation of ideas." This targeting of the American media goes on in the present day.

ALISA SOLOMON: The Israeli press office is spitting out press releases, statements, information all the time. So you could sit in a bureau in Jerusalem and file stories from there all the time, without really having to have much imagination or have much energy or have much drive. The Palestine Authority press office is almost useless, and they certainly aren’t providing you with readymade stories the way the Israeli press office is.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Because of the lack of access to Palestinian officials in the West Bank and the sophistication of Israel’s PR techniques inside Israel, a lot of times the stories are already tilted in Israel’s favor, before they ever leave American journalists sitting in the area.

ALISA SOLOMON: When you’re talking about how the story’s covered from the U.S., the propaganda machine is even more effective than it is in Israel.

NARRATOR: American news coverage is influenced by a complex set of institutional relationships. These influences can be thought of as a series of filters through which the news must travel before it emerges in the voices of news anchors. To understand how American news media report on the Middle East conflict, we need to understand how these institutional filters operate.

Among the most important of these filters are the business interests of the corporations that own the mass media, interests that extend beyond the United States and across the globe to the Middle East. The economic interests of media owners are shared by political elites, politicians and policymakers who form a second filter. These political elites have the power to access and influence mainstream media and are themselves part of a system dominated by corporate money and interests. The strategic importance of the Middle East to these two groups is reflected in media coverage of the region and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A third filter, Israel’s own public relations efforts, further affects the coverage. The government of Israel employs some of the largest American public relations firms as image consultants to coordinate its political and media campaigns. Nine Israeli consulates helped implement these PR campaigns by developing relationships with journalists and monitoring media outlets.

Scores of private American organizations, both Christian and Jewish, reiterate the official line and organize grassroots opposition to any coverage deemed unfavorable to Israel. The most important of these is AIPAC, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, widely regarded as the most powerful foreign lobby in Washington. This institutional framework of American business and political interests in combination with Israeli public relations shapes media coverage of the Middle East.

At the same time, those progressive organizations opposing Israeli government policy, such as Jews Against the Occupation and Americans for Peace Now, rarely make it through these filters. Finally, if any news stories critical of Israeli policy do surface, there are a host of media watchdog groups that monitor and pressure journalists and media outlets, the most important of which is CAMERA.

ALISA SOLOMON: You have activist organizations from the right, the pro-Israeli right, that very effectively, they say monitor, I would say harass, journalists and their editors and try to make sure that the coverage is objective, by which they mean pro-Israel.

SETH ACKERMAN: You can see all of the kind of pressure groups who write campaigns of letters to the editor against news outlets and ask for — demand that stories be changed or that reporters be fired.

ROBERT FISK: The abuse against the journalists is something you just have to take into account. Both literally and metaphorically, if you work in the Middle East, you’ve got to take the sticks and stones. What I object to is that my American colleagues don’t seem to be prepared to do that.

SETH ACKERMAN: And even in Israel itself, you know, you can find the main daily newspapers, like Ha’aretz, for example, provides coverage on the ground and analysis, some of which has views on the conflict that you would never — that would be almost beyond the pail for an American journalist at the New York Times to write.

ROBERT FISK: The main major television news networks and newspapers in the United States have long ago got their fear to be supreme over their duties as journalists. They are not monitoring the centers of power when it comes to the relationship between America and the Middle East, Israel and America, and America and the Arabs and the Palestinians. They will not ask the right questions. They will not report it using the correct words. They will not confront the reality. And they’ve given up. And I think once you acquire fear, it’s very difficult to get rid of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, war correspondent of the Independent, in the documentary, Peace, Propaganda & the Promised Land: U.S. Media & the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, produced by the Media Education Foundation. You can go to their website at pppl.org.

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