Book review: “Cycles of violence,” US media and Palestine

In a brilliant new book, Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Marda Dunsky analyzes the politics, culture and theory of coverage of the conflict in the United States. Dunsky, a former Arab affairs reporter for The Jerusalem Post and editor at the national/foreign desk of The Chicago Tribune, examines a wide array of news reports from television and print media, focusing on the recent history of the conflict from the Camp David peace talks in the summer of 2000 to the April 2004 meeting between then US President George W. Bush and then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The time frame was chosen because it allows an opportunity to examine what could be a typical pattern in the conflict — beginning with intensive negotiations between the parties, followed by an escalation of violence, and then initial efforts to renew diplomacy.

Pens and Swords argues that “mainstream reporting of the conflict itself rarely goes much beyond superficial details of failed diplomatic initiatives and intercommunal violence in the field — leaving the American public without important contextual information about why the conflict remains so intractable.” Dunsky presents a detailed content analysis of media reports in order to demonstrate “how, time and again, the media bypass important contextual aspects of organic issues, such as the US role in the peace process, the Palestinian refugee question, and Israeli settlements.” The study is driven by the central conviction “that if Americans had a fuller contextual understanding of the key issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via the mainstream media, they would be better equipped to challenge US Mideast policy.”

Dunsky begins the analysis by examining the contradiction of the US often being portrayed as an “honest broker” in much of the reporting with the regular updates on shuttle diplomacy missions and negotiations aimed at crisis management, while in practical terms US foreign policy itself is overwhelmingly tilted toward Israel. The US has provided more than 100 billion dollars in military and foreign aid to Israel since 1949 — and significant diplomatic cover at the United Nations, vetoing 31 UN Security Council Resolutions critical of Israel between 1970 and 2006. However, Dunsky contends that the mainstream coverage does not account for the extent of the US bias nor does it examine how the US bias affects the trajectory of the conflict over time.

A recurring theme throughout the book is the absence of nonpartisan experts, particularly those from outside the beltway, in the coverage. Dunsky maintains that specialists on the conflict are needed to independently assess the claims of the parties and evaluate issues such as the links between US aid to Israel and the peace process as a whole. Instead, the reporting is more likely to reflect “without challenge” the typical explanations emanating from Washington which downplay the lack of progress and the US role in the conflict as a whole.

These axioms are known as the “Washington consensus” and they include the following: “Israel and the Palestinians are responsible each in their own way — for the sustained failure of the peace process; it is up to the parties themselves to reach a comprehensive solution to the conflict; and while the United States has vital interests in Middle East peace, it is not a direct party to the conflict.”

Dunsky’s content analysis highlights positive examples of reporting as well as the problematic reporting — often interjecting with a key question not asked in the reporting which puts the issues in clearer focus: “Why should Israel freeze its settlement activity if there are no political and economic costs in the form of the US withholding aid or diplomatic support at the UN — for not doing so?” Other questions are asked about the nature and extent of US aid for Israel — is the amount appropriate given the end of the Cold War? Are there geostrategic aims in the region which contradict the stated US goal of a two-state solution?

In the chapter “Reporting the Refugee Story,” Dunsky shows how the portrayal of the Palestinian right of return is similarly distorted. In one scenario, the right is “largely the stuff of dreams and myth” with Palestinian refugees making highly emotional appeals regarding their personal circumstances. Alternatively, reporting on the refugee issue will consider “the refugees themselves as an obstacle to peace” rather than focusing on their displacement and the failure of the international community to restore the right.

Little attention is paid to relevant historical or political aspects of the right of return, nor does the legality of the right of return receive any serious consideration. When the right is mentioned in the reporting, it is typically done by the refugees or by Arab leaders; independent, nonpartisan experts are not called in to evaluate the claims and there is no acknowledgement of the international consensus of the right.

Dunsky cites a number of factors for the failure to bring the full story of Palestinian refugees to light. Most prominently, the fact that US mainstream reporting reflects US policy which favors Israel, and by extension promotes a historical narrative favorable to Israel. The fact that the “new historians” have refuted much of the traditional Israeli historical narrative is not likely to be considered.

In “Reporting on Settlements,” Dunsky takes aim at the mainstream media coverage of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. One problem that immediately becomes apparent in the content analysis is the virtual omission of international law from the coverage of the settlement issue, and the international consensus position that Israeli settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention and numerous UN Security Council resolutions.

Beyond the legal status of settlements, Dunsky makes the case that one of the key failures of the coverage of settlements is the lack of reporting on the relationship between the Israeli settlements and US foreign policy. Dunsky provides a detailed history of the settlement issue and US financial aid over the years, before asserting that “Without exception, US mainstream reporting on settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has failed to address the key question of how, directly or indirectly, American aid has contributed to Israel’s ability to absorb the cost of building, enlarging, and defending the settlements.” There are currently around 200 illegal settlements and 450,000 settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

The development and expansion of settlements together with the billions in US aid each year, effectively underwriting the Israeli occupation, are easily observable to anyone following the conflict and regular reports continue to document the issue — but it is an issue that the coverage fails to explain to the American public in any serious or comprehensive manner. Dunsky maintains that this phenomenon can only be explained by a mainstream media that, by and large, has “willingly opted to limit their discourse to the confines of the policy mirror and the Washington consensus.”

On a larger structural level, Dunsky argues that mainstream coverage also understates the impact of settlements on the peace process as a whole. As Dunsky explains, “The body of reporting on settlements during and immediately after Camp David, as well as in subsequent years, has essentially missed the story of the degree to which the settlements have inhibited prospects for peace, and the role that American compliance has played in the process.” According to one estimate, the Camp David proposal to resolve the conflict in 2000 would have kept 80 percent of the settlers in the West Bank and left Palestinians “with chunks of territory totaling not more than 65 percent of the entire West Bank land area.”

Some of the problems with the coverage emanate from the tendency of reporters to use description and anecdote over critical analysis. In this regard, the coverage of the settlement issues tends to be dominated by a he-said-she-said debate where Israeli voices predominate, for example, supporters of Israeli settlements debating other Israelis that oppose the settlements. Palestinians themselves are largely missing from the debate, along with any serious explanation of the impact of settlements on the daily lives of Palestinians. This would entail everything from the economy to the quality of life to the issues of violence and resistance. Independent experts are not consulted to evaluate the impact of settlements with regard to their legality, economic impact, or in terms of public policy implications.

Failing to provide the public with a political and legal context for understanding the settlement issue leaves readers with the sense that the conflict is a hopeless and unstoppable spiral. It becomes even more confusing when meaningless semantic issues mislead the public about the real concerns posed by settlements. These include the debates about illegal outposts versus settlements, natural growth versus unauthorized expansion, the removal of outposts, or whether illegal settlements can credibly be called a neighborhood, for example.

In the chapter entitled “War at Home,” Dunsky addresses the perceptions of bias from both the pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian camps, and how these groups influence the media coverage. She also discusses the findings of four different academic studies on media coverage of the conflict. These studies largely confirm the claims of bias against Palestinians.

Perhaps some criticism could be directed at the lengthy chapter “In the Field,” which focuses on the first-hand observations of journalists covering the conflict over the years. Rather than using the chapter as an opportunity to engage these professionals on the deficiencies of mainstream reporting which Dunsky describes in painstaking detail over the previous chapters — indeed the book’s focus — the reporters simply relate their own experiences in an unchallenged narrative format that tends to become repetitive at times.

Pens and Swords closes with important lessons to be learned for reporting on the conflict. The recommendations include first and foremost, acknowledging the impact of US policy on the conflict as a whole. Dunsky also suggests expanding the pool of sources used to analyze the conflict as previously mentioned. Another issue would be for the mainstream media to reconsider the role of audience reaction so that pressure groups will be less influential in the reporting of sensitive but factual information. Finally, Dunsky offers a paradigm for “rethinking journalistic objectivity” which can be found, at least in part, in the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, which among other important criteria, urges journalists to “give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid,” “tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so,” and most importantly, the code emphasizes journalists should “examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.”

Overall, Pens and Swords contains a wealth of information on the historical and political dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an excellent content analysis of recent media coverage. It is also a worthwhile contribution to the literature on media studies.

Shervan Sardar is a Washington, DC-based lawyer. He holds a MA in International Affairs from American University and can be reached at ssardar_23 A T comcast D O T net.

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