The biased reporting that makes killing acceptableBy Robert Fisk, 14 November 2000
When CNN's Cairo bureau chief, Ben Wedeman, was shot in a gun battle in Gaza last month, I waited to hear how his employers would handle the story. Having visited the spot where Wedeman was hit in the back, I realised that the bullet must have been fired by Israeli soldiers at a location on the other side of the nearest crossroads. So, what happened? CNN reported that "most of the bullets" fired came from the Israelis, but - according to a pathetic response from a company spokesman in London - CNN was not going to suggest who was to blame "at this time". Indeed not. The American Associated Press news agency later reported - a real killer, this one - that Wedeman had been "caught up in crossfire".
So much, I thought, for the 150 or so Palestinians shot dead by Israeli troops over the past six weeks. If CNN didn't have the courage to tell the truth about the shooting of its own reporter, what chance did the Palestinians have? The latest shocking piece of American journalism promises to be an "exclusive" on the American CBS network, whose 60 Minutes team has been given access to an Israeli army "re-enactment" of the killing - by Israeli troops - of 12-year-old Mohamed al-Dura. The picture of him cowering in the arms of his father and then collapsing dead beside him has become an iconic image of the current conflict in the Middle East.
The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, whose reporting of the battles outshines anything appearing in the supine American press, has already quoted an Israeli member of the Knesset, Ophir Pines-Paz, who complains that the reconstruction sounds "fictitious" and like an attempt to "cover up the incident by means of an inquiry with foregone conclusions... the sole purpose of which is to clear the IDF of responsibility for Al-Dura's death". Lobby groups in the United States, including a few brave American Jews, are demanding to know why the CBS network is filming a partial inquiry that is intended to prove that those who killed a little boy didn't kill him - without, apparently, even asking the Palestinians for their version of events.
It is all part of a familiar, weary pattern of biased reporting, which, over the past few weeks, has started to become dangerous as well as deeply misleading. The Israeli line - that Palestinians are essentially responsible for "violence", responsible for the killing of their own children by Israeli soldiers, responsible for refusing to make concessions for peace - has been accepted almost totally by the media. Only yesterday, a BBC World Service anchorman allowed an Israeli diplomat in Washington, Tara Herzl, to excuse the shooting of stone-throwers - almost 200 of them - by Israeli soldiers on the grounds that "they are there with people who are shooting". If that was the case - which it usually is not - then why were the Israelis shooting the stone-throwers rather than the gunmen?
The murder of Israelis rightly receives much coverage. The killing of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah police station was filmed only through the courage of one camera crew. The Palestinians did their best to seize all picture coverage of the atrocity. Yet when an Israeli helicopter pilot fired an air-to-ground missile at a low-ranking Palestinian militiaman on Friday, it also killed two totally innocent middle-aged Palestinian women. In its initial reports, BBC World Service Television reported that. Yet by yesterday morning, the BBC was able to refer to the "assassination" of the Palestinian without mentioning the two innocent women - 58-year-old Azizi Gubran and 55-year-old Arachme Shaheen - blown to pieces by the same Israeli missile. They had been airbrushed from the story.
Then we have that old bugbear the "clash". Palestinians die "in clashes" - as if they are accidentally shot rather than targets for Israeli snipers. The use of that word - and the opportunity it affords journalists of not stating that Israelis killed them - is little short of a scandal. Take Reuters' report from Jerusalem on 30 October by Howard Goller, which referred to five Palestinians "wounded in stone-throwing clashes" and the funerals of Palestinians "killed in earlier clashes". Yet, in a report on the same day, Goller wrote of an Israeli shot dead by a "suspected Palestinian gunman", while his colleague on Reuters, Sergei Shargorodsky, referred to "Palestinian shooting attacks on Jewish settlements" and an Israeli man stabbed to death, "presumably by Palestinians". Funny, isn't it, how the responsibility for the killing of Israelis tends to be so explicitly - and rightly - apportioned, while blame for the killing of Palestinians is not?
But on we go, reporting the Middle East tragedy with all our own little uncontroversial clichés and amnesia and avoidance of "controversial" subjects. Such journalism is already leading - despite the extraordinary casualty figures - to a public view that the Palestinians are solely responsible for the bloodbath, that they are generically violent, untrustworthy murderers. I think this kind of reporting helps to condone the taking of human life.