Shift in the media balance of power has been greatly exaggerated
Despite optimistic claims that “Israel is losing the social media war over Gaza”, the mediating influence of the news industry remains dominant in our cognitive understanding of the conflict; contorting information through both bureaucratic and institutional parameters; determining what is sayable and unsayable, what is visible and what remains hidden.
However, there is certainly a sense that this power is beginning to be eroded. Whereas television was said to bring war into our living rooms, social media realises the uncensored sights and sounds of war in realtime. Paul Mason’s recent essay on the role of social media in informing a new generation of hyper-connected news readers makes a strong case for a shift in power. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence this has translated into a broader media shift.
According to Gallup US public opinion remains unchanged. A recent survey found that while there is disagreement over whether Israel’s actions are ‘justified’ or not, Hamas’ actions are overwhelming found to be ‘unjustified’.
On a more general level, according to a March, 2013 survey, Gallup found “Americans’ Sympathies for Israel Match All-Time High”, with 64% of American’s identifying as “sympathetic to Israel”.
As far as the UK goes, according to YouGov, sympathies for Palestinians have actually decreased steadily since 2010, while those for Israel have increased.
But Mason is right, new networks of communication have indeed formed, and they do, to some extent, side step the traditional channels of news distribution. At the same time, internal technological disruption is changing how news organisations mediate the space between what is experienced and what is reported.
On some level it’s hard to believe the change in tenor of coverage of the latest assault on Gaza between now and previous assaults on Gaza. It seemed improbable only weeks ago that the voice of the victim, that is so audible in coverage of the Syrian conflict and before it in Libya, would appear in Gaza.
It’s not clear to what degree Israel’s miscalculation in allowing journalists to experience first hand it’s bombing of Gaza (in contrast to 2008’s ‘Operation Cast Lead’ where foreign journalists were restricted from entering Gaza) is responsible for this shift in tone, or whether the shift would have occurred if we were completely reliant on Palestinians to tell their own story.
Certainly those journalists reporting primarily from Tel Aviv appear to continue to reflect the tone of previous conflicts, with equal focus on Hamas’ ineffective rockets and Israel’s ‘precision’ strikes.
For the social media reader, the shift is undeniable. Journalists across the major Western networks are expressing the emotional anguish of the victim over that of the aggressor. All the more surprising in a conflict where one side receives billions in military aid from the West and the other is predominantly inhabited by people who have been demonised in news and popular fiction for decades.
Which makes you wonder what kind of a narrative we would have heard from Iraq if it had been invaded a decade later?
But it would be naive to declare that this social shift is reflected in reporting on the whole. The gulf between the tweet and the nightly news report is, for the most part, clearly visible.
Where institutional control is more tightly structured, for instance at the BBC, the gap between what is reported socially and what appears in the nightly news is more noticeable. Consider the re-tweet below, where the BBC’s Jon Donnison expresses a macro view of the conflict which would never appear in a BBC news report:
Social media has also broken the professional taboo of expressing human emotion in reporting. Channel 4’s Jonathan Miller gave his followers an insight into his experience of the conflict, that we would, in previous decades, have had to wait for his memoirs to read.
On his return from Gaza, Miller’s colleague, Jon Snow, recorded an earnest call for action to end the killing he witnessed first hand.
Like Syria and Libya before it, journalists are not only experiencing conflict first hand (the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont even delivered first aid to victims of bombings), they are enabling us to live it through them. And, in contrast to Iraq and Afghanistan, they are shunning (with notable exceptions) the embed culture that twisted so much of the reporting during those wars.
But have we really seen a sea change in reporting arising from this social shift?
Certainly that is a potential some in the press were cognisant of. NBC News’ David Folkenflik commented in the aftermath of the killing of four children on a Gaza beach , that having journalists witness death first hand might “affect [the] tenor of coverage”:
Which seems prescient in retrospect, given that later NBC would withdraw (and, following much criticism, reinstate) a reporter “who personally witnessed [the] killing”.
Broadly speaking though, the evidence is sparse.
In a recent BBC Newsnight interview with Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev, following an attack on a UN run school killing 13, the interviewer Emily Maitlis asked:
“If after the fog of war has past this does turn out to be the fault of Israel, will you pause, will you reset your rules of engagement?”
Implicit in this is Israel’s right to attack Gaza – the question is whether they will concede to learn from these controversial ‘engagements’.
Elsewhere, state broadcaster RTE happily defended itself of stripping video and audio of context, depicting victims as violent, and all the while declaring that it “did not misinterpret or misrepresent”.
NBC is of course the same network who’s host David Gregory urged UN Relief & Works Agency spokesperson, Chris Gunness to comment on an IDF supplied video he had not seen, which purported to show Hamas firing rockets from a UN school, and which later turned out to be fake.
So in the face of these unmediated social accounts there remains constructed frames which determine how we collate and understand these images and words. These frameworks ensure that despite what is witnessed, what is captured in tweets and photos, the conflict and how we respond to it remain understood in terms of greater narratives.
The most dominant of these frames is the concept of “defense”. While Gaza is inarguably suffering the greater losses in this conflict, it is Israel, we are told, that is defending itself. And Gaza is where we are led to believe the “threat” originates. Israel in turn simple “responds” to that threat:
“Israel responds to rocket attacks” [ABC News, 8/7/14]
“The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, blamed on Hamas, sparked this conflict” [BBC’s News at Ten, 23/7/14]
“Israel responds to the killing of three teenagers” [New Stateman, 1/7/14]
“…it is hard to think of another word to describe a death toll of more than 600 Palestinians…in response to rocket fire that to date has killed two Israelis” [Financial Times, 22/7/14]
“Israel resumes Gaza offensive after Hamas rockets” [BBC News, 27/7/14]
Israel, we are routinely told, has an inviolable “right to defend itself”. According to Haaretz writer Amira Hass this is “one of Israel’s tremendous propaganda victories”:
“One of Israel’s tremendous propaganda victories is that it has been accepted as a victim of the Palestinians, both in the view of the Israeli public and that of Western leaders who hasten to speak of Israel’s right to defend itself.”
Concepts such as “Iron Dome” and, despite it’s well meaning intentions, “[Gaza’s] open prison” feed into the picture of Israel as a country under attack.
Arising logically from the idea of defense is the concept of “response”. How should Israel respond to this threat? And from that the question comes the next, what is a “proportionate” response?
These are the principle questions our press concerns itself with, even when faced with hundreds of dead children.
Consider the following question, re-tweeted by New York Times Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard:
It’s almost unheard of to read in the press any discussion of how Palestinians should respond to Israeli aggression, and whether that response could be other than peaceful acquiescence. It is part of the unsayable.
Palestine has no right to armed resistance*, unlike Syria’s rebels, who continue to receive Western support (whether directly or through proxies) and remain entrenched in a protracted civil war. Or Benghazi’s rebels, who with air support from NATO, uprooted an oppressive state in a bloody but brief conflict, only to continue battling for power years later.
Equally, there is no question of how the ‘international community’ should respond to Israeli aggression. There are no intense EU debates about possible sanctions to curb violence or restrict the supply of arms. These too are unsayable.
Until these broader narratives are tackled Israel will continue to win the media war, and it remains more likely it will continue to be free to pursue it’s military ambitions.
* This is not to suggest armed resistance is an effective or ethical response to violence, but to highlight the imbalance of the dominant narratives governing reporting on this conflict [Clarification, 30/07/14]
** Title image via @ANimer, a Palestinian, Anarcho-Syndicalist!, shared on Twitter and accompanied by the following text: “Foreign Journalist, embraces her Palestinian news assistant who cried when he found his family home destroyed n #Gaza”
*** This post is cross-posted at Medium
“It was supposed to be a routine job, police say. Move 69 prisoners from an outlying town to a jail in southern Baghdad.” [Reuters, 27 Jun ‘14]
But those 69 prisoners never reached their destination, they were instead gunned down during a fire fight between the Iraqi army and the insurgent force of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), according to army spokespeople that is. This is the second such mass killing of army prisoners in the last weeks.
Just 9 days ago Reuters reported that 52 prisoners were found in Baquba, a regional capital north of Baghdad, with “execution-style wounds to the head and chest”. Again, according to the government, the prisoners were said to have been killed by crossfire.
However, according to anonymous sources cited by Reuters, these prisoners were not the victims of stray bullets, but were instead summarily executed by their captors.
In Baquba, the New York Times reported that a source at the morgue said that “many of the victims had been shot to death at close range”.
While in Hilla, a police officer and a senior local official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters, “no attack took place, and the police had executed the 69 men”.
But, in contrast to the claims of mass killings made by ISIL earlier this month, these massacres have yet to be widely reported. This is despite reports by Amnesty International and tweets by Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth.
In the immediate aftermath of the killings there was some media interest, at the time when responsibility was attributed to ISIL. However, since the blame shifted, the interest has quickly waned – save for less than a handful of reports, the first by Reuters (republished by several other news organisations) and then by the New York Times.
Quietly at least, it seems the Iraqi government is sending a message to ISIL that it does not have a monopoly over mass killings.
The New York Times cited these two events as evidence of the return to a “familiar cycle of violence” between Sunni and Shia. At the very same time, evidence of deaths in Baghdad neighbourhoods are said to “fit the pattern of Shiite death squads during the sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007”.
Yet these aren’t the kind of events that form part of the broader narrative.
ISIL are still the only “extremists” in this conflict, while the Iraqi government and military, and the various Shia militias, are constantly said to be engaged in “counteroffensive”, responding to violence, and only engaging in it after their “patience had run out”. These executions, where they are referred to, are branded of a lesser evil than those of the ISIL led insurgency, unhindered by “a raw, sectarian quality“, despite being directed predominantly towards the Sunni minority.
RT presenter Sophie Shevardnadze posing enthusiastically with Russian FM Sergey Lavrov for a ‘selfie’.
You would have thought the very public resignation of RT’s Liz Wahl would have nurtured a certain reluctance to display overt partiality, but clearly that’s not what has transpired.
Luckily, the western press is undistractible and can usually be relied on to step into this void of journalistic independence.
Unluckily for us, a juicy bone has been waved in front of these metaphorical dogs, in the shape of a photo.
The Washington Post asked: “Could this be the selfie to end all selfies?”
TIME marveled: “Biden’s First Selfie Is Just Awesome”
Talking Points Memo reported: “Biden kills the selfie game with Obama”
CNN surmised summarised: “‘Pals': Biden, Obama make selfie time”
The Huffington Post claimed: “none of us can ever compete”
The Telegraph said: “The pair perfect their toothy grins“
Judge for yourself, I guess:
It’s not always metaphorical dogs mind you, as CBS News’ Margaret Brennan can testify:
Blast from the past: In 2008 we organised a public meeting to discuss the reporting of the Iraq war in the Irish press. Several hundred people came along to watch a panel of experienced reporters, from both corporate and independent institutions, debate the topic (with more following the event live online at RTE.ie and the RealNews.com).
The following day the Irish Independent ran an inaccuracy filled (and predictably ill-willed) hit piece by columnist Kevin Myers. After a protracted exchange with the paper’s editor we submitted the following letter as response:
We write in response to Kevin Myers’s article ‘My narrow escape from an ambush by the liberal left’ (Irish Independent, April 10) which attacks MediaBite and alleges all manner of fiendish plotting and ulterior motives behind our invitation to him to participate in the debate entitled ‘Reporting War’, which took place at DIT Aungier Street the night before Mr Myers’s article appeared.
Mr Myers’s excitement about our debate is as mystifying to us as it is inaccurate: names are spelled incorrectly, he skews the sequence of events he describes and misstates the context and nature of the exchanges we had with him prior to inviting him to participate in the debate.
Most Irish newspaper readers will be accustomed to Mr Myers’s indignation in the pages of the national media.
It is, arguably, generally understood that it is Kevin’s job to be continually working himself up about one thing or another and he has been doing splendid work in that regard for a long time now. What appears to be new in this article, however, is an element of what looks to us like paranoia.
We also believe, perhaps mistakenly, that the article was likely filed for publication before the debate had even begun.
Mr Myers clearly didn’t watch it at any rate — which would have been an advisable thing to do.
The consequences of that omission are sadly apparent in almost every line of the article.
As with most things in life, the explanation for all of this is the obvious one
MediaBite had a polite exchange of opinions with Kevin Myers about an item he had published in relation to the Iraq war.
As a media monitoring project, that is the nature of what we do. We posted this exchange to our website message board, where it can be seen for what it is.
A week and a half later we invited Mr Myers to participate in our debate — both as a journalist who has written frequently about war and out of a concern to represent as fair and full a range of opinion and news media providers as possible
Having placed himself front and centre in his imaginary scheme, Kevin Myers can only, it seems, conceive of the debate itself, its audience, MediaBite, the DIT, RTE.ie.
The Real News Network, the six debate panellists and its moderator (most of whom he takes sideswipes at, and three of whom had flown from the UK, Toronto and California to be present) — as all being mere props and/or dupes to aid us in our alleged objective: to “ambush” Kevin Myers.
He alone was to be the sole and true object of the entire plot.
The idea is made all the more absurd given that Mr Myers was not mentioned once in the course of the debate.
There is not even a particle of truth in Kevin Myers’s allegations about MediaBite, as we hope this letter makes evident.
We can only ask that readers of the Irish Independent take the time to watch the debate, which is available as a webcast on RTE.ie and linked to from MediaBite.org — and make up their own minds as to whether it was a devilish plot against Mr Myers by MediaBite or a worthwhile discussion about media coverage of an issue of serious concern to most Irish people.
[This piece is cross-posted at Medium]
Western journalists and media outlets have been outraged for some time now by strong hints of a Russian crack down on freedom of the press. A “wave of consolidation” has enabled Putin to construct a “virtual “ring of steel” surrounding the media”, according to the Economist.
More recently, promoted by RT America’s Liz Wahl’s on-air resignation, Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray revealed claims that Russia Today employees operate in an environment of “frequent censorship” and cited charges made by former employees that management had told them “we work for the Kremlin”.
This widespread attention implies genuine concern for press freedom in Russia, specifically the ability of journalists to ask difficult questions of those in power.
With that in mind, it’s worth looking at the events of the last few days. In particular, Edward Snowden’s appearance on Russian television.
Snowden has been in and out of the press since then – from being awarded the Sam Adams prize for integrity in intelligence to “delivering testimony to a European Parliament inquiry” into surveillance – but it was his actions on Thursday that stepped over the line as far as “many” in the Western press were concerned.
The Washington Post’s Stephen Stromberg, decried Snowden’s “cowardice” in appearing on Russian TV to question Putin about whether the Russian government or agencies carry out mass surveillance, saying:
The Edward Snowden leaks were not wholly contemptible. Unlike, it’s now thoroughly clear, Edward Snowden himself.
“if he wasn’t [The Kremlin’s] then he is now”
The ‘crime’ Snowden had committed was appearing on a televised question and answer session to question Putin on Russia’s surveillance apparatus. Snowden asked:
“I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance, so I’d like to ask you, does Russia intercept or store or analyse in any way the communication of millions of individuals?”
“[My] question was intended to mirror the now infamous exchange in US Senate intelligence committee hearings between senator Ron Wyden and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, about whether the NSA collected records on millions of Americans, and to invite either an important concession or a clear evasion.”
Snowden went on to challenge Putin’s “evasive response” citing comments made by Andrei Soldatov (an authoritative source on Russia’s security services according to the New York Times) suggesting the public challenge “could lift a de facto ban on public conversations about state eavesdropping”.
Yet when Snowden, someone with a precarious citizenship status, challenges the president of country which has temporarily granted him asylum publicly – first on an admittedly canned television programme, and then in a foreign newspaper (which, it so happens, was recently awarded one of the coveted US journalism prizes, the Pulitzer) – he is reflexively mocked by numerous professional journalists as little more than a ‘pawn’ in a ‘propaganda show’.
Editor-in-chief at Think Progress Judd Legum, wrote, “[t]he problem with Snowden’s response is that you can’t actually ask a question at a propaganda event”. Fox News’ Howard Kurtz, surmised, “[i]n a few moments, Snowden became part of a Soviet-style propaganda machine”. Washington Post and Slate columnist Anne Applebaum responded, “maybe he thought he was clever, but no one watching got the joke”.
Julian Hatten, of The Hill, asked rhetorically, “[i]s Snowden Putin’s puppet?”. Dylan Byers Politico blog writer Hadas Gold referred to the appearance as “a move that many described as a clear propaganda effort by the Russians, with Snowden as their pawn”. Where ‘many’ is apparently used as shorthand for ‘my ideological contemporaries’.
Foreign Policy columnist Michael Weiss commented, “So now Snowden is asking pre-scripted questions of Putin, who welcomes him as a fellow spy”. New York Magazine’s Joe Coscarelli’s headline read, “Russia Deploys Edward Snowden Cameo at Vladimir Putin Propaganda Show”, while below Coscarelli argued that “Snowden served up a chance for Putin to tell the world that Russia doesn’t spy on its citizens like the big bad U.S. does”.
Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce said Snowden “ought to be embarrassed for helping to catapult” Putin’s “hilariously arrant bullshit…into the dialogue” in a “publicly chummy” encounter. While the Slate simply exclaimed: “Putin made a friend!”
More worrying though was an argument made by former freelancer (for the the New York Times and The Washington Post among others) Joshua Foust, who took the position that in asking the question Snowden had, at best inadvertently, conspired to deceive the Russian public:
A dangerous argument for the journalism profession, should it take hold, positioning all (alleged) soft ball questions by journalists as tantamount to complicity. And what is much of what is referred to as journalism, other than the asking of questions, to which we can safely predict the answers, of powerful people?
If there’s a problem with scripted questions and compliant journalism, the Washington press need look no further than the Washington press, where President Obama doesn’t even need to preapprove press conferences to feel safe in the knowledge he won’t be caught off guard.
For example, in April last year Obama interrupted a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan to take questions from the waiting press. Obama asked, almost incredulously:
“hold hold hold on, you guys all have the same question?”
To which those the reporters responded:
The question related to the (at that time) alleged use of chemical weapons by a yet to be identified party in the Syrian conflict, and was prompted by comments made by the US president in August the previous year. Obama had, “to the surprise of some of the advisers”, put in place a so called ‘red line’, past which the US could be expected to intervene in the conflict.
The White House had specifically warned the Assad regime that the movement or use of chemical weapons would not be countenanced. And those officials responsible for any use would be “held accountable for their actions”. This statement would from then on shape international coverage of the Syrian conflict, in many ways rubber stamping the criteria for intervention, without the need for a firm basis in international law.
Another fascinating example was provided by the BBC’s Washington correspondent and the presenter of BBC World News America, Matt Frei.
In a video piece reporting on the killing of Osama bin Laden. Frei, backed by a soothing piano soundtrack, asked viewers to admire Obama’s chin. Upon which evidence could be found, Frei claimed, of a “warrior president”.
And if you are still looking for further examples of a docile press, the BBC has a whole back catalogue of examples.
Take for instance the Jon Sopel’s recent interview, sorry, “road trip” with Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, a veritable lesson in subservient interrogation, including difficult questions such as, “do you like Twitter?”:
When former foreign editor of BBC News journalist Jon Williams, now with ABC News, addressed criticisms of impartiality against BBC reporting in it’s description of the North Korean regime and it’s leader, he didn’t even go to the trouble of looking through the BBC archive.
The answer of course was pretty straightforward. At the BBC, when Williams was editor there, totalitarian or dictatorial rulers could be found referred to as “Crown Prince” or simply the “King”, if they are of Saudi origin anyway.
In the last few days we’ve also seen the fascinating spectacle of serious news organisations (unlike, say Buzzfeed, who wear’s it’s traffic-journalism on it’s sleeve) excitement at the ‘news’ Hillary Clinton’s daughter is pregnant. Evidencing enthusiasm for embryonic gestation second only to that of the UK press’s fawning over Kate Middleton.
Politico, the BBC, Mashable, to name but a few, all have begun what will no doubt become a series of stories on the subject. As an MSNBC panelist forewarned, “an entire nation is going to watch a family have a child”.
But I’ll leave you with a piece of journalism from CNN’s military sounding ‘political unit’ that has to be seen to be believed.
Commenting only yesterday, in a post and a tweet, on a photo shared by Vice President Joe Biden, they wrote:
‘Pals’: Biden, Obama make selfie time
Duncan Stewart of Eco Eye and About the House fame had a professional breakdown on Shane Coleman’s Newstalk show earlier today, or so you’d be led to believe if you read the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Irish Mirror or Journal.ie. All four of which jumped at an opportunity to produce a ‘famous person loses it live on air‘ headline, following a fairly inconsequential, if uncommon, argument about air time and radio convention.
And for good reason too, the stories were No.1 in the ‘Most Read’ stats for both the Times and the Indo. While the more discerning readers of the Mirror and Journal appeared more interested in other affairs (a ‘giant rat’ and a fatal traffic accident respectively).
The “environmentalist” (if there’s an ‘ist’ at the end of someone’s title that typically means they’re an ideologue and thus unreceptive to reason) was said to have had a “meltdown” live on air. Caught in a “bizarre rant” or “fraught encounter”, depending on whether you prefer tabloid or broadsheet size, while discussing climate change.
Ironically, the thrust of Coleman and Stewart’s 18 minute discussion (of which 1.5 mins were taken up by the aforementioned argument) evolved around the Irish media’s, in Stewart’s words, “irresponsible” reporting of climate change:
“Everybody seems to avoid climate change because it’s not popular, it doesn’t bring in ratings, it’s not good for advertising, and that’s a fundamental issue with all media, including press”
And the Irish media’s response to Stewart’s criticism is to forefront the trivial, at the expense of the substantive points raised. Yet even in the course of the interview Stewart’s criticisms of RTE were discounted as little more than a ‘row with RTE’, reflecting succinctly the majority view of media criticism in the Irish news industry. Critical media analysis has only one value, the party political.
RTE’s reporting of climate change is a topic we covered back in 2008 in response to a Primetime segment titled ‘Questions raised over global warming’ and earlier in 2007 in relation to the Corrib gas project. In the first case, RTE fabricated one of those media ‘debates’ where a scientist is pitched against a ‘skeptic’ (in that instance, a documentary maker who’s documentary was funded by a mining company) to argue over decades of scientific research in a four minute window between ad breaks and serious sounding video segments fronted by one or more of RTE’s roving reporters.
More recently, two pieces by John Gibbons and the Irish Examiner’s Victoria White went over the same ground. Gibbons, whose climate change column in the Irish Times was cancelled four years ago (and who we interviewed at the time), pointed to a Sunday Times report which had identified clear deficiencies in RTE’s environment coverage:
“Sunday Times report pointed out, “30 major climate-related stories carried by other media between January 2012 and April 2013 were ‘entirely absent’ from Six One News, Prime Time and RTE News online”
Gibbons’ account suggests that RTE’s stubborn attachment to the “Is the climate change man made?” format is causing actual experts in on the subject to spurn requests to appear on the channel. Raising the question, what quality of information are we getting about the climate at all?
White’s Examiner piece echoed many of the same points:
“On RTÉ news climate change was almost always presented as an international news story so that the Irish farm fodder crisis, for instance, was never linked to climate change. Even as an international issue, coverage has collapsed to the point that the recent UN climate talks in Warsaw were not covered at all.”
Stewart later apologised to his Twitter followers, saying, “I honestly hope that with all that happened today that the seriousness of
#climatechange is not lost. Its too important an issue”, to which I responded, “you raised plenty of serious issues, the fact that Irish news orgs chose to forefront the ‘meltdown’ story proved your point”.
[You can listen to the interview here]
Morgan Kelly, one of the few economists who was proved right about the 2008 crash, talks about the future.