Digging Beneath the Surface in the Middle East Conflict

Hanoch Marmari
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Hanoch Marmari

Following is the text of a lecture delivered by the Ha'aretz editor-in-chief on May 27 as part of the 9th World Editors' Forum in Bruges, Belgium.

First, the good news: Abu Ali's nine children are alive and well - as well as children can be among the ruins of the Jenin refugee camp. Please deliver this news to all of your friends who may have read, a few weeks ago, Abu Ali's mournful declaration: "All my nine children are buried beneath the ruins." Abu Ali's photograph was spread across a double page in a very distinguished and influential European magazine, under the title: "The survivors tell their story."

Israeli tanks and bulldozers had entered the camp, Abu Ali recalled. He went out to fill his car, telling his nine children to meet him at a nearby intersection. But the Israeli forces blocked his way back, and it was a week, he told the reporter, before he could return to the ruins of what had been his home. "It smells of death here," he is quoted as saying. "I am sure all my children are buried beneath the rubble. Come back in a week and you will see their corpses."

The reporter and his editors did not wait a week and published the tentative story as is. They were not satisfied with the extent of the tragedy that they could see with their eyes and legitimately depict in their copy. The desire to hype the story blunted their healthy journalistic instincts to doubt and double-check any story before publishing it.

While preparing this address, I made some inquiries about Abu Ali's case. First, final numbers indicate that three children and four women were killed during the fighting in the Jenin refugee camp. Second, Abu Ali's children were not among them. And third, the magazine did not bother to tell its readers of this relatively happy end to its story. Perhaps because they are tired of writing editor's notes on Middle East stories.

l l l

The past 20 months of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have created a real crisis of values for journalism. I believe I can compress the enormous volume of coverage and comment into four fundamental sins: obsessiveness, prejudice, condescension and ignorance. The story of Abu Ali conveniently exemplifies all four.

It is impossible to cover an ancient dispute in post-modern idiom, using 21st century technology - without recognizing the inherent dissonance. But such recognition is not always there. That is perhaps why the intensive media coverage of the conflict is often so self-absorbed and so harmful to the region. Sometimes it is a disgrace to our profession. I wonder whether the disseminators of the Abu Ali story were conscious of the impact they may have had on readers, from the back streets of Jakarta to the universities of Boston, from the Muslim neighborhoods in Marseille to the Jewish community in Toronto. Were they conscious, one wonders, of the effect of their story on the parties themselves?

One day, historians examining this period of crisis will have to consider the circular process by which the media were transformed from observers to participants. From covering the story to playing a major part in it, to stimulating and sometimes agitating the environment for their own media purposes. The media in this cruel Israeli-Palestinian conflict are like a very rich junkie, who parks his Mercedes on the high street of a slum. You can be sure that in no time at all, everyone will be out there, pushing a whole variety of merchandise.

l l l

The worldwide resonance of the conflict has meant that there is a greatly intensified response to the work of Ha'aretz, the newspaper I am representing here today. All of us at the paper, reporters and editors alike, find ourselves dealing with consequences of our work that we never experienced in the past, and frankly never expected to experience.

The months of violence have forced our venerable, 84-year-old newspaper to play its part in the collective national ethos, though our critics claim we do not show sufficient enthusiasm for this role. Daily, we feel the impact of our work in our contacts with Israeli public opinion, and we can trace our impact, though less measurable, on world public opinion.

That does not mean, though, that we are free of those four cardinal sins I referred to. Oh yes, we are often obsessed. Sometimes we do prejudge. Hopefully we are not ignorant. As to the fourth sin, condescension, many of our readers think we are condescending toward them.

Recently, a best-selling Israeli author, politically middle-of-the-road, canceled her subscription to Ha'aretz. She wrote (and I quote): "... I have reached the conclusion that you and I don't live in the same place. A large and growing proportion of the reports and articles in your newspaper stink of the foreign press, which regards the State of Israel as a different, distant and repulsive territory."

Immediately after her letter ran through the Internet, on-line forums, talk-back sections, and discussion groups were swamped with many hundreds of reactions, including rude comments from people who probably never read Ha'aretz, but for whom the newspaper symbolizes a lack of patriotism and serves as a ready target for jingoistic attacks. Every radio broadcast that raises the purported question of Ha'aretz's loyalty results immediately in canceled subscriptions.

Ha'aretz's attitude to the conflict has outraged some of our paying subscribers, who are well-informed, opinionated and sometimes tempestuous in their response to our work. For these readers, Ha'aretz is part of a broader range of media options to which they are exposed, and when they get angry, some are ready to give up the paper and make do with softer journalism.

l l l

The difference, then, as I see it, between the situation of Ha'aretz and that of the international press covering the region is, I hope, now clearly emerging. Unlike those who report the conflict as a grand adventure, we live the consequences of our reporting, with every inch of our being.

Ha'aretz is a small paper in a small country. Our paid daily circulation, Hebrew and English - the English edition is a joint venture with the International Herald Tribune - reaches 100,000 copies. This is less than 10 percent of the Israeli newspaper market. Nonetheless, in the past 15 months since we launched our on-line edition, our Hebrew-language Web site is now logging half-a-million page-views a day, and our English-language site, another 700,000, mainly from outside Israel. But if I were speaking in the [55th World Newspaper] Congress next door, describing our business model, I would have to say that despite all the enormous global interest in our Internet product, we have yet to earn a single penny from it.

Very quickly, we were forced to recognize that despite our modest pretensions, we had been chosen by many on the Net as producers, suppliers and packagers of information from the Middle East. We are servicing individuals, media groups, communities and organizations all around the world. We had become a global brand, with all the challenges and difficulties that result from that status.

Are we one of the dealers that hang around the Mercedes parked on our high street? We certainly are not, but we constantly need to persuade others in our neighborhood that we aren't.

l l l

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict may lack mystery, but it is deceptive. Practically, nothing obstructs acquiring information from the region, but it is no simple task to assess to what extent that information reflects reality. On the day-to-day level, it is hard to argue with what the eyes see, though it is preferable to put the visual images into context. What the ears hear, particularly in the Middle East, can be seriously misleading, if it isn't backed up with additional information - or carefully attributed to its source. It can be difficult to distinguish between a solid source providing an accurate account and someone lying through his teeth in the service of his nation, or someone else pushing an elaborate but baseless conspiracy theory. Exaggeration, disinformation and provocation are the region's stock-in-trade.

At the most basic level of sight and sound, the conflict is easy to cover. But that is also the greatest stumbling block. Nothing is what it appears to be. For example, one day last August, while on a family vacation in a peaceful seaside town in Brittany, France, I couldn't miss the front-page headline of the regional newspaper shouting from every kiosk: "Israel assassinated Palestinian political leader." The non-credited story told how an Israeli helicopter fired a missile through the office window of Abu Ali Mustafa, the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in Ramallah, killing him instantly. Now, the PLFP is indeed a political movement, but it is also an active terrorist organization.

I could not help but wonder how this news report, as it appeared in the paper, enriched a local reader's perception of the conflict, and what made the local editor turn it into the lead story of the day. Did he draw his conclusions about the event by making an analogy to European politics?

Obviously, the editor who wrote the headline was not aware of definite information concerning Mustafa's involvement in coordinating a terrorist attack on an Israeli school that took place the following week, on September 1st. To know that in real time, the editor would have needed deep, reliable sources inside the secret service. If he had had that knowledge, would he have phrased the headline differently, or would he just make out of it a short foreign-news, back-page story?

As you see, even simple, neutral coverage is often loaded; in many cases, there is no real distinction between peaceful civilian and underground militant, between a decent politician and an active terrorist. So is the use of contradictory terminology that often reflects the two sides' conflicting narratives. "Shaheed" (martyr) or "suicide bomber"? "Resistance fighter" or "terrorist"? These are all different expressions for the same person. By choosing to use one of them, you expose your own take on the conflict. In the Middle East, naivete is an intolerable professional failing, especially when it comes to terminology.

No one in the region uses the present tense to describe the actual moment. There is only past or future. Retaliation for what happened, or prevention of what is yet to happen. As our children tell us: "Everything started when she hit me back ..."

And yet, the story as depicted in the media is sometimes so painfully present tense, lacking in context and lacking in consequence. For example, the image of the Palestinian suspects, stripped to their underpants, with the Israeli soldier aiming his rifle at them, is inevitably shocking to anyone who does not know how much blood has been spilled by people wearing explosive belts under their clothes, who managed to slip through the checkpoints in the age of innocence.

l l l

The phenomenon of journalists obsessed by a personal sense of mission is very common in our region and has not passed us by at Ha'aretz. Quite a few of our reporters are driven by an ambition to improve society, and their writing often overflows with idealistic passions. After all, this is one of the motivations for a person to choose journalism. But faced with such reporting, editors must make a constant, careful effort to remove the "over-enthusiasm" from news reports. In our own case, since both editors and local readers are intimately familiar with the local scene, these instances can usually be handled with a certain degree of success. But when a correspondent serves a distant, uninformed audience, his editors can often fail to filter out the distortions.

Some correspondents might have been obsessive in their determination to unearth a massacre in a refugee camp. Prejudice and ignorance were at work here, too. A more professional approach would have factored in the five million cellular phones in Israel, and half-million more in the Palestinian areas, which would make a cover-up impossible. Even before the first reporters were on the scene in the Jenin camp, it was obvious that there had been no massacre there. Hundreds of soldiers who were involved in the operation are reservists, meaning reasonable and opinionated civilians, many of them are among our readers, and each one had a cellular phone in his pocket that he used constantly.

l l l

Four years ago, in June 1998, at the World Editors' Forum in Kobe, Japan, I made a case which I called: "Sometimes you have to stand up to your readers." At the time, I described the pressure on Ha'aretz from readers who objected to our exhaustive coverage of the Palestinian side. These readers found it obsessive, and saw us as condescending toward them and their desires. A number of them canceled their subscriptions. That was during the first Palestinian intifada. In recent months, we have been going through the same experience, but even more intensively.

As the current Palestinian intifada goes on, Ha'aretz finds itself in a crisis of confidence with some of its readers who want to regard the newspaper as a source of solidarity and consolation, and not only as a mirror, reflecting and exposing reality. The newspaper has a strong network of readers and advertisers, and can absorb the shocks, but the ongoing public storm about our coverage is worrying, forcing us to constantly and thoroughly re-examine our approach.

As Israel has gradually disengaged from the Palestinian territories over recent years, our coverage of those territories has become more like foreign correspondency in some respects than like domestic reporting. Yet, at the same time, we remain intimately familiar with the territories and with the Palestinian community - as though they were parts of our domestic beat. Over the years, our coverage has spanned most areas of Palestinian society. Our reporters have acquired a deep knowledge of its mores and culture, and deep relationships with their sources of information.

Ha'aretz today has nine reporters covering various aspects of the Palestinian side of the story, and many others who take on special assignments. And we enjoy a special advantage because a senior member of our editorial staff, Amira Hass, has lived in the territories since 1993, first in Gaza and later, after the Palestinian Authority was established, in Ramallah, reporting full-time from inside the Palestinian areas. This is unique for an Israeli.

Part of the special skills required by a Ha'aretz reporter covering these beats, is the ability to critically examine manipulative information of all kinds and to filter it. Only someone deeply informed and intimately connected can, sometimes within a few hours, scotch a rumor or reduce an exaggerated report to its natural proportions.

Thus, thanks to Amira Hass' presence in Jenin as soon as the camp was opened, and thanks to the credibility of her reports from the chaotic scene, Ha'aretz was able to quickly and reliably report that there was no massacre in Jenin during or after the fighting.

Because of Ha'aretz's years of readiness to listen to the Palestinian side, and because of the natural inclination of the newspaper to regard our mission to be the exposure of wrongdoing, there are reporters at Ha'aretz who have specialized in documenting the humanitarian cases on the Palestinian side. This is not new for us. During the periods of diplomatic dialogue with the Palestinians, the reports did not arouse any special antagonism. But as the relationship between the sides grew ever more extreme, and Palestinian violence intensified against Israelis, some of our readers have found it difficult to accept an Israeli reporter who shows sympathy or even compassion for Palestinian casualties of the situation. As attacks proliferated and more and more innocent Israelis fell, antipathy has grown toward those reporters who continue to describe the suffering on the other side, and they are now the main target of criticism leveled against the newspaper, and are cited as the main reason for canceled subscriptions.

l l l

Trying to be conclusive about the basic question "what actually happened there?" is not always fruitful, especially as we try to sift and match Israeli and Palestinian sources. We make a huge effort to give our reader a clear picture, but nevertheless some of the stories seem equivocal. They cite two or more conflicting versions, but sometimes make no final judgment. And that, of course, can leave your reader frustrated and angry.

Over the past year, there has been a dramatic change in the demographics of the Ha'aretz reader. That is a direct result of our 24/7, free-access on-line editions, both in English and Hebrew. The newspaper's content is now exposed through the Internet to two new communities we never knew before: the non-subscribing Israeli who browses for the latest news, using several sources of media for his information, and the foreign reader. Both these communities actively respond to the newspaper and its products. The Internet edition has ended the exclusive, intimate relationship between the print edition and its readers, with the newspaper now judged by a much larger range of users.

The English Internet edition has meant that Ha'aretz is now quoted in unprecedented numbers of articles and reports. While this gives us tremendous satisfaction and pride, it can also cause concern. Sometimes, we discover that material that ran in Ha'aretz is taken out of context and used to serve various political or media purposes - sometimes deliberately distorting the intentions of our writers and editors. Sometimes we find ourselves being overly cautious because of our ongoing direct discourse with the Palestinians, with the Arab world, and with world public opinion. The newspaper's reputation is sometimes exploited in order to legitimize anti-Israeli propaganda, and we are worried about that.

If the paper exposes cases of vandalism by soldiers during the recent massive military operation on the West Bank, we do so in good faith, trusting that our work helps to clean the system. Then, when the story is quoted widely, under our brand name, as proof of Israel's profound and pervasive evil, I find myself thinking that perhaps there is a fifth major sin in running a paper in this region: The sin of naivete.

Thank you.