The problem with mainstream media’s reporting on the Middle East is exemplified by an interesting article that appeared in the “Week in Review” in Sunday’s New York Times by their Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner. Bronner, an old hand at reporting from the region- he has been on the beat off and on for twenty-five years-has now suffered the slings and arrows of hostile reader reactions to his coverage of the Gaza war.
Bronner claims that as a skilled reporter, he attempts only to tell the story, and to inform readers how the fight appears to all those who live in the region. That means that he seeks to be objective. As he writes, his attempt has resulted only in vicious attacks and e-mails from those who support Israel and those who support Hamas. He doesn’t say it, but clearly he thinks that “if both sides are angry at me, I must be doing something right.”
Thus, he writes, the problem is that there are two narratives about the Middle East- one Israeli, the other Arab. If his reports appear to give ammunition to one side or the other, one party to the conflict will find him to be anathema. “Trying to tell the story so that both sides can hear it,” he writes, “…feels more and more like a Greek tragedy in which I play the despised chorus.” The voices of each partisan side become so loud, Bronner says, “that it drowns everything else out.”
Bronner’s complaint is that if he writes about what Israelis feel and think, and does not condemn Israel’s attack on Hamas as a massacre, he is pro-Israel. And if he reports on the suffering on innocent Gaza residents, those who support Israel see him as putting forth Hamas propaganda. Bronner’s answer to his critics is simple. He will tell the “whole story,” not just parts of it that serve either Palestinians or Israelis. His problem is that he knows “it doesn’t matter,” because whatever he writes, anything that contradicts one or another of the two narratives will lead someone to attack him for his objectivity.
He does have a quandary. And he seems to have dealt with it by writing two kinds of stories, one that can be interpreted by some as pro-Palestinian, the other as pro-Israel. Thus, he penned one story on Israel’s use of white phosphorous, “a weapon that militaries use widely to obscure the battlefield but that is also limited under an international convention that bans targeting civilians with it.” Hamas claims that the phosphorous was intentionally used, and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among other groups, condemned Israel for war crimes.
Bonner’s report reads as if Hamas and its Gaza sympathizers are right in their outrage, and that the suffering from the phosphorous is typical of Israel’s use of extreme military measures meant to harm civilians and that cannot be justified in any way. He did not in the article, or later, print the many reports exonerating Israel of the charge of committing war crimes. Times readers did not learn of this report from The Jerusalem Post, for example, that showed the International Red Cross concluded that its use “was legitimate under international law” and that it was “not consciously putting civilians at risk” by its use. Without access to articles like this, Israeli supporters understandably would be angry that Bonner’s piece helped the campaign to depict Israel as a violator of human rights and a perpetrator of war crimes. His article certainly fits in with the narrative of the Palestinian side.
After reporting in a way that inflamed Israel’s supporters, he wrote a column that appeared more sympathetic to Israel’s plight, and that conveyed the way most Israelis saw the war. He quoted one peace activist who told him “in this case, the entire Israeli public is angry at the immoral behavior of Hamas.” In his own words, he wrote: “Because Hamas booby-traps schools, apartment buildings and the zoo, and its fighters hide among civilians, it is Hamas that is viewed here as responsible for the civilian toll. Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction and gets help and inspiration from Iran, so that what looks to the world like a disproportionate war of choice is seen by many here as an obligatory war for existence.”
In trying to be even handed his reporting has become almost schizophrenic. To deal with his evident need to appear even-handed, he has obviously dealt with the problem by writing one report that is appreciated by the Hamas supporters, and then another that is welcomed by Israel’s supporters.
The fact is simple: one of the narratives is right; the other one is wrong. One side seeks to live in peace aside a Palestinian nation that accepts Israel’s existence. Indeed, Israel is willing to give substantial economic aid to rebuild the Palestinian’s new state once peace is attained, as well as using its own armed force to remove its own extremist settlers from land deemed to be part of the new Palestinian state- as it did to settlers in Gaza when Israel gave it up in 2005.
The other side operates by a charter dedicated to destroying Israel. When one side refuses to accept the others right to exist, looking for moral equivalence is ridiculous. Mr. Bronner has a quandary only because he is on a fool’s errand.