Painting a false picture

Cover of The Wrong Story book

The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media by Greg Shupak, OR Books (2018)

Why is it that the mainstream media in the US and other Western countries consistently frame the Palestinian liberation struggle as a “conflict” in which “both sides” share the blame, particularly because “extremists” undermine “moderates”? Why does this media unfailingly assert Israel’s “right to self-defense” even in the face of unarmed protests such as the recent Great March of Return in Gaza that in some instances pitted rocks and burning kites against modern weaponry?

Greg Shupak, who teaches media studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Canada, probes these framing narratives and other questions in his new book The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media.

Shupak takes a novel approach. Rather than examine the bias in news accounts, he focuses on editorials in The New York Times with the aim of revealing the mainstream media’s underlying ideological support for a state closely aligned with US foreign policy objectives in the Middle East.

Shupak shows that framing narratives revealed in editorials rely on selecting only certain aspects of reality, which are then echoed in news accounts. Those selections reinforce already held beliefs and cultural assumptions.

Once this dominant narrative is established, no other aspects of reality are presented that might undermine the framing.

As Shupak puts it: “In the West, narratives about Palestine-Israel activate the ‘well-established knowledge structures’ that exist in a broader cultural context that is colonial, imperialist, Orientalist or some combination of these, wherein Israel is widely regarded as an outpost of Western civilization in a struggle with backward, savage Arabs.”

Blocking out the blockade

The three frameworks that Shupak identifies as most common in Western news media presentations are the “both sides” or “false equivalence” narrative, the “moderates vs. extremists” narrative, and the “right to self-defense” narrative.

On close examination, Shupak finds, the information selected to support these frameworks favors Israeli government propaganda and systematically conceals the information needed to understand the Palestinian narrative.

Take the habitual claim that “both sides” are to blame for the conflict. This narrative “identifies a small portion of the injustice done to Palestinians while proportionately inflating the harm done to Israelis,” Shupak writes, thereby “advancing a false equivalency between the rights and responsibilities of the colonizers and the colonized.”

To give just one example, Shupak points out that of five Times editorials written during and immediately prior to Israel’s 2008-2009 bombings and land invasion of Gaza, only one mentioned Israel’s siege and blockade of the territory. The only way the Times could posit a “both sides” narrative was by omitting the fact that only one side – Israel – was conducting a siege.

Israel was not under siege from the Palestinians; Palestinians were resisting the Israeli blockade. The Palestinians could not possibly impose a blockade on Israel given the asymmetry of power between the two sides.

Nor, Shupak points out, have Palestinians ever militarily occupied Israel or subjected Israelis to land dispossession, discriminatory laws, checkpoints, administrative detention, restrictions on free speech and assembly, bans on family unification, deportations, or prohibitions against nonviolent forms of resistance.

What ought to be obvious when all facts are selected is that the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is one between the oppressor and the oppressed. Therefore, only one side is to blame for the conflict.

The corporate media is not just failing to tell both sides of the story; it is, in effect, telling only one side and in doing so conveys the wrong story.

Moderate?

Shupak’s most incisive and in many ways groundbreaking critique of the dominant media narrative comes when he examines the “moderate vs. extremist” framework used to explain why the “conflict” has become so protracted.

In this media framework, the Israeli extremists are the fanatic religious settlers who oppose giving up land and carry out acts of violence, while the Israeli moderates are the government officials who claim to favor a land-for-peace, two-state solution.

Hamas, of course, represents the Palestinian extremists because of its use of violence. And the Palestinian Authority represents the moderates willing to renounce violence and negotiate a peaceful settlement with Israel.

What’s wrong with this scenario? Besides the fact that successive so-called “moderate” governments originated and expanded Israel’s illegal settlements, Israeli “moderates” have also been far greater purveyors of violence than fanatic settlers, Shupak points out.

The Israeli military has killed thousands more Palestinians than settlers ever have and with far more powerful weapons than the settlers possess.

Meanwhile, Palestinian “moderates,” in the form of the PA, have not played a resistance role, but rather have been incorporated into the Israeli security apparatus and the neoliberal economic policies imposed as part of the Oslo peace process. International donors have ensured that the PA’s economic planning conforms to those policies.

Shupak maintains that the “PA has been from the beginning, at least partially, a conduit for global capitalist interests at the center of which is the American ruling class.”

Hence, when Western media hold up the PA as the “moderate” Palestinians, it essentially imposes a false narrative in which a client group is portrayed as part of an eventual peaceful solution when in fact it is part of the ongoing problem.

The “right to self-defense” narrative can also be found in The New York Times’ editorials, which essentially denies Palestinians the right to self-defense. The “legitimacy of the colonizer’s violence is unquestioned,” Shupak observes, “whereas the violence of the colonized is presented as illegitimate.”

In brief, Israel has the right to use violence to impose its blockade of Gaza, but Palestinians have no right to use violence to resist the siege. Furthermore, he notes, since the state of Israel acted as the aggressor and initiated the violent expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948, “the idea of ‘Israeli self-defense’ is a logical impossibility.”

The right to self-defense properly belongs only to the Palestinians.

Shupak concludes his study with the observation that Western mainstream media coverage is unlikely to change until “mass pressure” in the form of public opinion forces Western countries to cease backing Israel.

The task of achieving the “necessary shifts in consciousness,” he writes, falls to independent news outlets, as well as to ordinary people who educate about Palestine “on campuses, in workplaces, in religious communities and on the streets.”

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.

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Comments

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I understand the plight of the Palestinian people.

Please understand, this is America. Most people have no clue PLUS we elected Donald Trump president.

We have no more excuses left.

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If you are interested in this topic please also read Sean McMahon's 2010 book The Discourse of Palestinian-Israeli Relations. (Routledge, London) The 'parity' fallacy highlighted here by Ron Such - there are two sides fighting it out, more or less equal in terms of both power and ethics - is one of three themes McMahon finds in the mainstream narrative. (The other two are that Israel is conciliatory while Palestinians are refuseniks, and that Israel sincerely wants to see a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.) Fantastic book, if in somewhat academic style.

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