Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah is our first guest as we examine visibility in the media and the preconceptions and stereotyping that tag some people as less than desirable and see others ignored altogether.
Antony Funnell: Today’s program deals with presence and visibility in the media, and the way in which people are portrayed. Not all people of course. Those with power and money can actively craft or influence their media persona. But those with neither, well It’s a different story altogether.
Our first guest today is a journalist and commentator who’s written articles for such publications as The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and The Christian Science Monitor. And he has a degree from Princeton University.
Before I introduce him, I’d like you to try and get a picture of him in your head.
OK, what if I were to tell you that he’s a Palestinian journalist and that he’s the co-founder of a website called The Electronic Intifada?
Now, did that change the picture? Without knowing any more about him, or his work, is he suddenly a different person?
Well Ali Abunimah is his name. He’s a proponent of a peaceful solution to the troubles in Israel and the occupied territories, and he’s in Australia at the moment speaking about the media and the Palestinian cause. I caught up with him earlier this week.
Ali Abunimah: The basic narrative of the Palestinians is always subordinated to Israel, as if the Palestinians are just sort of bit players in Israel’s drama. And one of the things that we’ve been trying to say is that actually Palestinians have their own history and their own experience, which deserves telling in and of itself. That’s sort of, I think, the overarching theme.
But there’s also sort of very specific things. I think a very strong perception people get from the media is to do with violence, the perception that Palestinians are responsible for most of the violence in the region. The reality of course is that the vast majority of victims of violence are Palestinian civilians. And the vast majority of the violence is perpetrated by Israel, by Israelis. And so things get turned on their head, and we try to sort of bring some perspective to that.
AF: Now we’re not just talking about people, reporters, journalists, being conditioned to think about the Palestinians in a certain way, it’s also the language that’s used, isn’t it, according to, I know, what you’ve written on The Electronic Intifada.
AA: Yes. I mean there’s some specific things that really sort of struck us over the years. One is for example we found a lot of media reports, and this was not just in the United States, the English language media is very global, so they would talked about “a relative calm” in terms of violence, and then when we would go and study, actually look at what was happening during a so-called “relative calm,” and we’d find that few or no Israelis were being killed during the “relative calm,” but lots and lots of Palestinians were being killed and injured. So that in effect, if it wasn’t happening to Israelis it wasn’t happening at all.
AF: And in terms of language we’re not just talking about say Fox News are we, the sort of lower end of the quality scale, we’re talking about quality broadsheets, The New York Times I know you were critical of quite recently.
AA: Yes. I think it’s across the board. And I think in a sense it’s more of a problem with the quality or the sort of more establishment media because they speak with the voice of authority, and there’s this phrase which Americans use often, that the news or journalism is the “first draft of history,” and newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, are newspapers of record, so what they report tends to get picked up and repeated and echoed throughout sort of down the media chain. So it’s very important they are providing accurate and complete coverage. And you know, I just say we’re not trying to — it’s not a question of trying to get our viewpoints or our perspective reported as the news, but to have the whole diversity of views and experience reflected, and that’s been somewhat of a struggle I would say.
AF: If there is an imbalance in the way we view and talk about the Israeli side as opposed to the Palestinian side, is part of that the fact that we have stronger political connections with the Israeli government, both in Australia and from the perspective of the United States, that Israel is an ally, is a political ally, and therefore they’re seen in a different light, and does that permeate down to the way journalists talk?
AA: I think it does, and I think that’s a problem because the role of the news media is not to reflect government preferences or government policies or alliances, but to take a critical and independent look at any given story. And I think one of the problems now is the invisibility of what Palestinians are going through. So in Gaza you have a million-and-a-half people who are being deliberately deprived of basic necessities by the Israeli government. Their story is almost unreflected in the mainstream media.
[Former US] President Jimmy Carter called it “one of the major human rights crimes going on at the moment,” and yet it barely makes the headlines. Whereas if a Palestinian rocket falls on an Israeli town, it’s reported as significant news. So the other thing that we’ve been trying to do at The Electronic Intifada is not simply being reactive to problems we see in the mainstream media, but doing our own reporting. So we actually have a correspondent in Gaza who’s filing original reports, and we think making up some of the gap in terms of what the media coverage should be.
AF: And who’s the key audience for The Electronic Intifada? Who are you most trying to influence?
AA: Well who we are actually reaching is 60 percent of our readership, and we have between 60,000 and 120,000 unique visitors a month. So a quite significant audience for an effort like ours. Sixty percent are in North America, 25 percent are in Europe, about 10 percent are in the Middle East, and we do have a significant readership in Australia as well. And we did a survey last year of our readership of over 500 respondents, and we found that it’s a quite educated and well-connected audience, in the sense that a lot of educators, students, diplomats, journalists, human rights workers and so on. So we think we’re reaching an audience where there’s a multiplier effect. But we’re also — the feedback we get from our readers is lots of people who say, “You know, I stumbled across your site, or I heard something about it on the radio, and it was eye-opening for me because I was getting news and perspectives that I hadn’t seen before.” So it’s very gratifying when that happens.
AF: I’d like to put a proposition to you and get your response. And that proposition is that the conflict between the Israeli state and the Palestinians is as much a media and public relations (PR) war as it is a conflict of, say, guns and bombs, and that the war that the Israeli State has waged, they’ve simply been more effective in terms of that PR war, that PR offensive. What would you say to that?
AA: Well I think you’re right, it is a PR war. All political issues are also questions of perception and trying to persuade the largest number of people to see the world the way you do. And Israel has invested enormous resources in trying to do that, in trying to burnish its image with Australians, with Americans, with people around the world. And Israel has the resources of a state at its disposal. And the Palestinians never have. Despite that, I think it’s remarkable that all the efforts of the Israeli state have not succeeded in suppressing the Palestinian narrative, or suppressing the Palestinian viewpoint. So I do think that it is in many ways a battle of perception, and the Palestinians have not done too badly, given the lack of resources, though not everyone gets it right all the time, that’s certain.
AF: And there is in Australia, a very strong Jewish lobby which tracks the Australian media, and then they move immediately to try and significantly influence debate on issues relating to Israel and the Palestinians. What is the situation like in the United States? I presume you would say it’s pretty much the same.
AA: I wouldn’t characterize it necessarily as a Jewish lobby. It is a pro-Israel lobby, and it may include a lot of Jewish people, but it’s important to remember that there are dissident Jewish voices here in Australia. I know that the author and journalist, Antony Lowenstein has been a prominent dissident voice, and the same is true in the United States, where there are large pro-Israel organizations, many of them identifying as Jewish, that do try to let’s say influence the media or to make sure their perspective is represented. But just as vigorously, they do attack some of these dissident Jewish voices, which are an important part of the diversity of opinion that ought to be represented in the mainstream media. One of the stereotypes I think that we should challenge is that all Palestinians think the same way, or that all Jewish people or Israelis think the same way. I think one of the valuable things we can do is to expose the full diversity of opinion on all sides of the issue.
AF: But looking at that pro-Israel lobby, and Lowenstein of course himself has been criticized by the pro-Israel lobby —
AA: Exactly, that’s my point.
AF: But because they are so good at engaging in debate, in labeling if you like, in labeling people who have a different view to them in a certain way, as “self-hating Jews,” or as “terrorists,” that kind of thing, or as “activists,” does that frighten many journalists in the West? Do they simply see it as too hard to look at the Palestinian-Israel issue in a more inclusive way? In a more encompassing way?
AA: A lot of journalists I’ve talked to in the US, in the UK, less so in Australia, have told me that reporting anything about Palestine, Israel, is a big headache, because they will be bombarded with dozens or hundreds or sometimes thousands of calls. Many of them organized and orchestrated by pro-Israel groups. And many of the callers have never even seen or heard of the particular report that they’re complaining about, they’re just doing it in response to action alerts. And so that it can be a real headache to discuss this issue. So yes, there is some shying away from doing it.
They also often tell me that they hear very little from people perhaps with a more sympathetic view of Palestinians. So that it can be a very unrewarding enterprise, and so one of the things I’ve always tried to encourage people to do is to talk to journalists, is to make their views known, and not only when they’re unhappy about something, that it’s just as valuable to pick up the phone or send an email when you see a report you like, because what I’ve heard from journalists is that they value that greatly, and that particularly with this issue, they tend to get only negative feedback. That certainly can’t encourage people to look at the story thoughtfully and with the kind of depth and consideration that we’d like to see.
AF: Palestinian-American journalist, Ali Abunimah. And his speaking tour of Australia is being organized by the Sydney branch of the Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine.