Three weeks into Israel’s military campaign against Gaza, media and observers are turning the lens inward on the coverage itself. NBC was the focus of the conversation after the network recalled its correspondent in Gaza, Ayman Mohyeldin, shortly after he filed a powerful report on the killing of four boys playing on a Gaza beach. A barrage of criticism on social media spurred network executives to return Mohyeldin to his post, but MSNBC’s Rula Jabreal was not so lucky. Jabreal lost her contract with the network after she criticized its bias and that of American media on the whole. Even Jon Stewart — comedic paragon of mainstream liberal thinking — mocked the media’s “both sides are to blame” mantra, which equates Hamas’ homegrown rockets with Israel’s sophisticated war machinery. Yet the next day his bit, dubbed “Jon Learns What Happens When You Criticize Israel,” undermined the original segment. It poked fun at how both sides attack no matter what the media says on Israel or Palestine, thus reinforcing the “both sides do it” trope he criticized in the first place and suggesting a moral equivalency between the two sides.
Horrifying footage and reports captured by journalists on the ground in Gaza have been so damning that the usual filters applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the American media have become more apparent. But the sea change some American progressives see in media coverage of this most recent assault on Gaza is probably wishful thinking.
Graphic images of more than 1,000 dead and many more injured pose a challenge for Israeli public relations personnel. “Public opinion has a certain patience limit,” explained Avital Leibovich, a former Israeli military spokeswoman. “There is a certain point where legitimacy begins to be undermined by difficult images.” Before news of the assault on Shuja‘iyya hit the airwaves on July 21, a CNN/ORC poll found that almost 60 percent of Americans supported Israel’s assault, but a Gallup poll from July 22-23 showed public opinion more evenly split, with sympathy for Israel at similar levels to where it was after Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009, when a Pew survey found that 49 percent of Americans sympathized more strongly with Israel. How long the PR damage will last is another question. Sympathy for Israel (sympathy is the metric Gallup uses) has been steadily increasing over the past two decades, while sympathy for the Palestinians has remained more or less steady. Moreover, declines in sympathy for Israel are rarely accompanied by increased sympathy for the Palestinians.
And, of course, even the most graphic images of dead children are still subject to being put in “context.” Anne Barnard’s July 21 report for the New York Times from Gaza was so wrenching that the next day’s paper offered an editorial corrective dressed up as front-page news. An above-the-fold story, “Hamas Gambled on War as Woes Grew in Gaza,” explained how a desperate and marginalized Hamas instigated the war for political gain. The barrage of news stories detailing the “battles” and tit-for-tat offensives between rockets and missiles rewrite civilian deaths as the collateral damage of a war between two equally responsible, intractable and powerful parties.
The 24-hour news cycle’s dependence on talking heads and government spokespeople — instead of dispatches from professional journalists — to fill airtime also helps to promote the Israeli agenda. The idea that posing hard-hitting questions to pundits will somehow uncover the truth has not been borne out. Instead it provides opportunity for talented PR officers to sell their policies and shape the very parameters in which the conflict is discussed. Israel supporters need only make unsubstantiated claims to shift the discussion and place Palestinians on the defensive. Thus Israel’s claim that Hamas uses civilians as human shields is repeated despite the absence of evidence. On the more polemical programs, like Fox News’ “Hannity,” guests offering a Palestinian perspective are used as punching bags and allowed one-word “yes” or “no” answers. Never do we see an American reporter take an Israeli spokesperson to task for Israel’s crimes, as Jon Snow did on Britain’s Channel 4 News.
Social media provides some indication of where public opinion lies outside the world of corporate media. But in the auto-referential world of Twitter, it is easy for some voices to seem “louder” or more wide-reaching than they are. However many more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli hashtags there are on Twitter, it remains a narrow universe. Only 19 percent of online adults use Twitter, and half of those users are under 34. With over three quarters of all Twitter user accounts based outside of the United States, it is difficult to gauge American public opinion on the basis of Twitter hashtag numbers.
If the media and American public opinion have become more favorable toward Palestinians, that shift has had no perceptible impact on policy. In the immediate term, not even the on-camera assault of an American teenager by masked Israeli soldiers could prod the boy’s congresswoman, Rep. Kathy Castor, to intervene on his behalf. Moreover, John Kerry’s “hot mic” remark about Israel’s so-called pinpoint strikes suggests that it is not enough to know what is going on to affect change in an institution that is stalwartly pro-Israel. Asked about his off-the-air comment on Fox News, Kerry insisted upon Israel’s right to defend itself: “War is tough…. We support Israel’s right to do what it is doing.”
Eternal optimism is important for activists. Without it they would be paralyzed. Certainly, there have been some important gains over time. We have come a long way since the 1960s and 1970s when the words “Palestine” or “Palestinian” were rarely seen or heard in the media. Efforts to divest from Israel have been making gains, like the latest move by the Presbyterian Church to divest from companies that profit from Israeli occupation. These small victories should be celebrated — cheerleading helps build morale.
But, on the ground, the Palestinian predicament has become decidedly worse over the past few decades. Settlement expansion in the West Bank continues unabated while Israeli politics turn increasingly right-wing. The Palestinian leadership is divided and an unaccountable Palestinian Authority acts as Israel’s police force in the West Bank. Whether the crippling blockade of Gaza — now in its seventh year — receives coverage or not, it continuously suffocates the coastal strip.
There may be a glimmer of hope in the fact that younger Americans tend to be more critical of Israel than older ones. Unfortunately, this shift has not automatically translated into a rise in support for Palestinians or their cause. It seems, indeed, that people become apathetic before they become sympathetic to the Palestinians.