Chicago and national media consistently failed readers in their coverage of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss’ decision to drop Chicago city council member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa from his ticket.
This is an example of a wider problem: as political battles rage over the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, media are failing to inform audiences what is at stake for Palestinians.
The move by Biss in Illinois earlier this month was correctly chalked up to a disagreement between the two politicians about BDS.
Yet in the various mainstream articles I read about the ostensibly progressive Biss dropping Ramirez-Rosa, there was not one description of the demands of the BDS movement for Palestinian self-determination and Israeli compliance with international law.
There was no reference to ending 50 years of Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza or “dismantling the wall.”
There was no reference to securing equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, who live under a regime of formal and informal inequality that includes dozens of discriminatory laws.
There was no reference to the right of return for Palestinian refugees who were ethnically cleansed when Israel was founded on their land, and who are not allowed by Israel to return to their homes and properties solely because they are not Jews.
And there was no mention that the BDS movement takes inspiration from the successful international boycott of apartheid South Africa, and follows a long US tradition of using boycott pressure for positive social change, especially during the civil rights movement.
This is like analyzing the damage from hurricanes Harvey and Irma without mentioning the scientific reality of rising temperatures.
Scott Pruitt, director of the US Environmental Protection Agency, might call talking about climate change “insensitive,” but most readers prefer facts and context over soft-serve propaganda.
Yet readers got a considerable dose of fact-avoidance in the aftermath of Biss’ decision to dismiss Ramirez-Rosa.
Tina Sfondeles in the Chicago Sun-Times described BDS as a “Palestinian-led movement” which “encourages boycotts of companies that do business with Israel.” There was no mention of why people might be inclined to participate.
The omission of any reference to the goals of the movement was particularly striking when late in the piece Sfondeles quoted Richard Goldberg, former chief of staff to Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, as labeling the movement “at its core … a political manifestation of anti-Semitism.”
Goldberg isn’t forced to reckon with his own anti-Palestinian sentiment at all. Instead, he’s provided space to declare that advocates for equal rights for Palestinians are engaged in bigotry.
Rick Pearson in The Chicago Tribune noted that Biss expressed support for a two-state solution and what Biss termed “political and economic freedom for Palestinians.” Pearson, however, did not note for readers the three major goals of the nonviolent movement.
Pearson did not respond when asked to comment on the omission by The Electronic Intifada.
The Associated Press perhaps came closest to describing BDS with a brief mention of Israel’s “treatment” of Palestinians, but it too fell well short.
The AP article stated BDS “seeks to ostracize Israel over its treatment of Palestinians by lobbying corporations and others to cut ties with the Jewish state.”
The reference to “the Jewish state” sends an implicit signal that anti-Semitism, rather than the pursuit of civil, political and human rights, might be the motivation for the Palestinian BDS campaign.
Describing Israel with this term also obscures the reality that 20 percent of Israeli citizens are non-Jewish Palestinians subjected to unequal conditions, and millions more Palestinians live under Israeli military rule without citizenship or fundamental rights.
While also failing to mention the goals of BDS, David Weigel in The Washington Post did, at least, quote Ramirez-Rosa at length.
“You know, for too long the US government has subsidized the oppression of the Palestinian people, and it’s time that that’s stopped,” he quoted Ramirez-Rosa as telling The Real News Network in 2016. “And we have seen a shift internationally in favor of justice for the Palestinian people. You know, people stand with Israel, but they also want to make sure the Palestinian people have [justice].”
But the details of justice envisioned by the BDS movement – ending occupation, securing equal rights for Palestinians in Israel, achieving the right of return – were omitted.
It’s as though the most fundamental demands of Palestinians are not worth describing. It’s worse than watching a 1980s Chuck Norris film where anonymous Arabs – understood as “terrorists” – shoot at the brave American protagonist “just because.”
It’s troublesome enough to see propaganda/entertainment films for young American teens stirring hate, but major publications have a responsibility to provide complete – and basic – information necessary to understand a story.
The public should hear that a supposedly progressive candidate is kicking out his running mate for having the temerity to support a nonviolent movement for freedom and equal rights.
Politico also failed to touch on the goals of BDS. It did, however, make clear how much say Republicans, as well as Democratic congressman Brad Schneider, had in pushing Biss to cave in to Israel’s unbending supporters.
Schneider, according to Politico, “fighting his own reelection battle in a district where support of Israel has traditionally been a dominant issue, had been lambasted by a potential Republican challenger over Biss’ choice” of Ramirez-Rosa.
“Flipped out” over Palestine
The Hill, which is published in Washington, DC, also failed readers by not providing a basic explanation of the goals of BDS.
Notably, an editor there once told me – in an unprecedented journalistic conversation for me – that the newspaper’s owner and chairman, James Finkelstein, is “flipped out” by Israel and Palestine.
BDS, he said, “pisses” Finkelstein off. There were “reins” placed on this editor around the BDS issue.
Notwithstanding Finkelstein’s bias, his publication did run numerous pieces with strongly pro-Palestinian perspectives starting in roughly 2010.
For years, such op-eds were extraordinarily difficult to get into mainstream US newspapers.
This changed briefly in 2014 when a spate of BDS op-eds ran early that year, including in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Times Union of Albany, New York, and The Albuquerque Journal.
Newspapers such as The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post only published op-eds supportive of BDS after running several critical pieces.
More recently, as state and federal anti-BDS legislation has gained traction – and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have weighed in to warn that such laws violate First Amendment rights – there have been important op-eds by Katherine Franke in The Boston Globe and Roger Waters in The New York Times.
Yet news reporters have not kept pace and have shortchanged readers by not exposing them to the principal demands of the movement.
For a fair fight about the ideas and principles at stake that must change.