Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Stephanie Gutmann, the author of the new book The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy. She has been a journalist for about sixteen years, as a staffer and a freelancer, writing for publications ranging from the New Republic and the New York Times to Cosmopolitan and Playboy. She was the New York Post's education reporter for the year 1993-94. She is the author of The Kinder, Gentler Military (Scribner, 2000) which was on the New York Times' list of notable non-fiction for 2000. In 2001, the book was published in paperback by Encounter with the subtitle "How Political Correctness Affects Our Ability to Win Wars."
FP: Stephanie Guttmann, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Gutmann: Thank you.
FP: I want to talk to you today about your expertise: the media’s lies about Israel. Let’s begin, briefly, with what your book, The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy, is about.
Gutmann: The book is two pronged--it is about Israel (about the second intifada and about the Israeli government's growing awareness that it needed to engage in the media war as well as on the ground) but it is also about the hazards of modern journalism.
By modern journalism I mean information collection and presentation assisted by the satellite disc and satellite phone, by the TV camera, the digital camera, and particularly the internet (including Nexis and the photo image banks.)
These new tools have the power to send bad information--usually deceptive images--not so much words, rocketing around the globe. In less than an hour the news consumer can be blanketed in bad information, and an individual or a country libelled and slandered at truly breathtaking speed.
What the new electronic tools do is remove the need for reporters to actually report, i.e. to go somewhere and look for themselves. That was no guarantee with the old shoe leather methods that they'd do their utmost to present what they believed to be the truth to their audience--but it helped. As a retired CBS producer I quote in my book put it, " a lot of journalism [these days is] construction. An editor in New York decides what the story is [my italics], sends the word out to bureaus that we need a sound bite from this or that type of person saying this or that, gathers up picture coverage supplied by freelancers or agencies, and writes a script that is narrated by a 'reporter' who hasn't been within 500 miles of the story."
The crucial thing about construction (of a print story as well as a TV segment) is that it makes journalism a series of choices, even more than it has always been. The finished piece that emerges on the page or the screen, in other words, has not been dictated by the reality on the ground, as much as by a reporters' or producers' series of decisions about what they believe is important for their audience to know. They have cut and pared and discarded and ordered up and bit of this or a bit of that (one of this flavor of expert, and one of those sorts of quotes.) Of course that process is going to be biased in one way or another -- how can it not be? This is a product shaped by human hands. News consumers can restore some equilibrium by noting that this story is from say Fox which has one leaning and that one is from the New York Times which leans another way, except that immediacy of satellite and digital et al tends to make people think they are getting the straight dope, unadulterated. When in fact what they are getting is simply a better facsimile of reality.
FP: Ok, so connect this to Israel for us.
Gutmann: In the early days of what we call the "second intifada" (a term I do not like, by the way, but must use for brevity) Israel was getting mugged on the world stage by the PLO/PA regime's skilful manipulation of imagery. One of the PLO/PA's most effective tools, of course, was the child who was willing to bleed for the cameras--and they were able to produce a steady stream of these with indoctrination training that being a shaheed (a martyr) was the best sort of "life" one could have. It was working.
I was struck by the passion and conviction of people I'd meet on the street--this conviction that they knew exactly what was going on. A social worker I know said that "Israel must not want peace, because all I see is them killing children." A Manhattan stockbroker told me that Palestinians were rioting because "they have nothing: no schools, no hospitals, nothing." I assured him that I knew from direct observation that all these things exist in the territories and he snapped "Well, I have never seen them." A woman at my gym on the Upper West Side told me she'd never considering visiting Israel because of its barbarity to the Palestinians. "They brutalize them and take their land; Are you telling me the cameras don't lie."
FP: Tell us where you think your interest in media distortion began and how you ended up getting involved in the Israeli issue in this context.
Gutmann: Press distortion is a subject I've found myself always circling back to in my writing. My master's project for Columbia University Journalism School dissected, debunked and deconstructed one of the media's crisis du jour, that of an epidemic of something they dubbed date rape which was supposedly ravaging campuses. It was fascinating to sort of untangle that one, like tracking down the origination of a rumor.
My first book--the Kinder, Gentler Military, about the collusion between a traditional military culture and the new politically correct, feminist civilian one, was indirectly about media distortion. Here again the US military was mugged by distorted coverage. I spend a chapter for instance looking at the misreporting of the Tailhook convention of 1991 which has been encased in amber as an event in which hundreds of innocent women were raped and abused by drunken sailors and Marines.
So, in early 2000 at the outbreak of the second intifada, I saw this odd process working again. The tide to really take the subject on was finally turned in October of 2000 when an odd little story appeared on, like, page A 9 of the New York Times. It was about an Italian TV producer named Roberto Christiano who had written a letter which ended up published on the front page of Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, a PA-run daily newspaper for the West Bank. The writer seemed to be trying to dissociate himself and state-run Italian station from the news clips of Israeli soldiers being lynched in Ramallah (images that briefly turned the tide of public opinion in Israel's favor.) The letter was addressed to "my friends in the Palestinian community" He regretted that a "public impression had been created that we took the pictures" while in fact it had been another station, a "commercial station" he pointed out, one "that competes with us." "You can be sure that this is not our way of acting and that we would never do such a thing….We always respect the journalistic rules of the Palestinian Authority when we work in Palestine."
Were there journalistic rules for working in Palestine and were they affecting what one saw and read? Six years ago this was not so obvious as it is now. So I went to Israel to look at rules of engagement, as it were, for covering the intifada. Eventually I realized there was enough there for a book and I came back again for five months in 2002.
FP: What methods did you use in your research?
Gutmann: I used the only reliable journalistic method--which I call heavy hanging out, going to a place and living there as much as possible, without looking like a journalist. You just sort of have to become part of the landscape. The minute you begin to scurry around waving a note pad you change the thing you've come to write about. You don’t really need to do so much of those journalisty things like interviews anyway. Behavior tells volumes more than words, so it's better to sit back and watch--preferably as the proverbial "fly on the wall."
I know all this sounds like pretty basic stuff, but one simple reason reporting of the Middle East is so bad is that--out of fear--reporters feel the need to identify themselves--with armored cars, with bullet proof vests, with signs saying "press" and "TV" plastered all over themselves. In many cases this is what keeps them from getting shot, on the other hand, they change the environment; people quite literally perform and stage things for cameras. Everyone knows that during the second intifada a lot of the rock throwing demonstrations wouldn't start until an appropriately large audience of press arrived. And the infamous al-Dura incident looks more and more like it was actually an elaborate set up.
What one sees and hears is also very dependent in the territories on the fixer one inevitably hires. There is a whole of flotilla of Palestinian pros who have been trained for the express purpose of squiring foreign press around and, as they put it, "making sure they get the Palestinian story"--which essentially always meant the PLO/P.A. Arafat regime story. I couldn't afford a pro so I drafted a complete neophyte into service. He was very bright, multi-lingual and had grown up in Ramallah but he was not schooled in the art of taking foreign journalists on Potemkin tours so he just said what he thought.
Instead of visiting officials and pundits we went broke up our long drives with visits to his family and friends who were scattered all over the West Bank. I think I got a far more nuanced view this way. The one thing I got earfuls of was the rage on "the Arab street" at Yasser Arafat. The PA leadership were crooks, Mafiosi. One restaurant owner even demanded that I tell him why the US had not "taken out Arafat" (who he called a crook.) "You take out Sadaam; why not Arafat!," he said in an injured tone.
It was a bizarre experience because the mainstream media was still (this was fall of 2002) calling Arafat "the voice of the Palestinian people", "the symbol of their aspirations" and so on. What a joke! Mostly I heard rage. Anyone who spent significant time away from the smooth talkers of Fatah and the P.A.--was not surprised by the Hamas win and also not all that distressed by it.
FP: You are not distressed by the Hamas victory? You think Hamas is not that bad?
Gutmann: Oh they are that bad. If you want to see evil personified watch the otherwise-pretty obnoxious-documentary directed by Death in Gaza. The director is Afghani which makes her look Arab and so she was able to gain the trust of a Hamas cell which let her in to film what amounts to a recruiting session of boys about age nine. They use every repulsive indoctrination technique in the book--they hug them, chuck them under the chin, let them play with automatic rifles and then send them out to be used to do advance work for attacks.
But I do not think the Palestinian rank and file, by and large, are on the same page as Hamas. They had a huge desire to punish Fatah/the PA, they wanted just distribution of aid money. If there had been a viable alternative to Hamas, they would have voted for it. I do not believe that ordinary Palestinians voted for Hamas for the most anti-Zionist part of its platform.
In the end Hamas will do them no good and another one of the tragedies of the area is that if the international press corps had done its duty and exposed the corruption of the PA (I don't mean just a story here and a story there) but really hammered it the way they hammered, say, Abu Gharib, the Palestinians wouldn't have been stuck with this terrible choice.
FP: So in some ways, the victory of Islamo-Fascists in the Palestinian parliamentary elections is the child of the media?
Gutmann: Yes, in a way, the foreign press used the Palestinian rank and file for their own ends--to appear as stock figures in their passion play--just as the governments of other Arab states have.
FP: In general, why do you think anti-Semitism and Israel-Hatred has become such a chic and cutting-edge thing for the Left and the mainstream media?
Gutmann: This is complicated question--because the motivations of left wing media and mainstream media are different. Anti-Zionism has been a standard part of the leftist platform since at least the early seventies But there is a sort of more banal evil operating in the MSM. I can't go into all of it here (you will have to read my book.)
But one of the reasons that Israel is routinely crucified is that journalists take the path of least resistance in the quest for a "good story"--defined as one with blood, human conflict, striking visuals and an extractable up/down, bad/good story line. The dirty little secret of the media war is that Israel is an extremely easy place to place bureaus so you can get a steady pipeline of that kind of story. Here's an example: Ted Koppel had a big success in the 80s with a Nightline series on South African apartheid. Naturally after he'd fixed South Africa--as he seems to be suggesting in the memoir where he explains all this--he began looking around for "the next South Africa", "another conflict with international relevance, with complexities…and with parties willing to debate" "I suppose theoretically we could have done something with the Iranians and the Iraqis," he muses, "but that would have been such a huge problem in terms of language and such a huge problem in terms of getting permission to travel around the country and shoot." (Not to mention the problem of having your reporters kidnapped and shot and so on.)
One day while watching rioting Palestinians facing IDF soldiers on TV he had an A-ha! Moment: He decided he had "found South Africa II…It was Israel. The equivalent of Bishop Tutu versus Foreign Minister Botha would be the Palestinians versus the Israelis."
A writer in the Columbia Journalism Review rhapsodized that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict "is a beat that commands world attention and …offers reporters unparalleled exposure" with the added advantage that war correspondents "don't need to travel far…the West Bank city of Bethlehem is only a ten minute drive from Jerusalem" (And the Santa Monica-like, tree-lined streets of its German Quarter where so many foreign press live.) His friend Jennifer Griffin of Fox News, for example, the CJR writer crows, "has managed a feat that would be impossible anywhere else, to be a war correspondent and a new mother." "It's a nine to five war you can cover and still be home in time for dinner at night, said Griffith. "I've gone out the door with a flak jacket and a breast pump."
FP: Stephanie Gutmann, thank you for joining us today.
Gutmann: Thank you Jamie.
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