Number 558 August 2, 2014

This Week: Gaza

Seeing Systems, Asking Questions


There's only one article this week, and no "Quote" of the Week. Unusual for the Notes. I actually had this issue, almost two issues actually, entirely written. But I can't stop thinking about Gaza. And then I saw the headlines last Wednesday, and my response to them became Nygaard Notes #558.

Welcome to all the new readers this month! Happy to have you. Let me know what you like, or don't like, or just send a note with whatever response you may have to what you read here. I count on your feedback. Nygaard Notes readers are not shy!

I just got stung by a bee. Must be summer.



Covering Friends, Covering Enemies: Media Propaganda in Times of Conflict

Two front-page stories that appeared in the nation's top two newspapers on the same day this past week give a textbook illustration of how the media performs a propaganda function in the information system of the U.S. And all without even trying!

Both stories appeared on Wednesday, July 30th. One was on the front page of the New York Times, and one on the front page of the Washington Post.

The case can be made that these two newspapers are the two most influential newspapers—if not the most influential news organizations of any type—in the United States. Not only do they have huge circulations, but their readerships include the most powerful people in the world and, in addition, their reporting is syndicated and is thus reprinted in smaller newspapers throughout the country. For example, the Washington Post story that I will be citing in this article appeared in my local paper on the same day. In addition, due to their size and power, their editorial decisions shape the agenda of innumerable TV and radio stations and Internet blogs.

The headline on the Washington Post Front page was "Gaza War Hugely Popular in Israel." In my local paper the headline was "Israelis Deeply Embrace the War."

Leave aside for the moment the use of the term "war" to describe what is happening in Gaza, rather than the more accurate "invasion," or even "massacre." Focus instead on the second front-page headline, this one in the New York Times: "As Sanctions Pile Up, Russians' Alarm Grows Over Putin Tactics."

Consider the subjects of the two stories. Both are very powerful countries (Russia 2nd most powerful military in the world; Israel #10; U.S., of course, is #1.) Both are involved in disputes with much smaller, much weaker entities on their borders (I say "entities" as Gaza is not a nation.) Both countries have very popular leaders. Yet the subjects are treated very, very differently in the two articles. One article focuses on the "alarm" in Russia in regard to policies pursued by the head of the Russian state, while the other focuses on the "huge" support in Israel for the current policy of the head of the Israeli state. As we'll see in a moment, it's not at all clear that there's much "alarm" in Russia at the moment, and the invasion of Gaza is not as popular inside Israel as the Post would have us believe.

Polling the Enemy

In the case of Russia, despite the emphasis on "growing alarm" in the country, the fact is that President Putin is very popular. Remarkably popular, in fact. Here's a headline that appeared on July 20th: "Putin's Approval Rating Highest in Years, U.S. Gallup Poll Finds." The lead paragraph tells us that "President Vladimir Putin's approval rating is currently at 83 percent, the highest it has been since he left office for the first time in 2008, according to a recent survey of Russians by the respected U.S. pollster Gallup. The new poll reveals a 29 percent increase in Putin's popularity since 2013."

Gallup is, of course, a well-known US company, headquartered in Washington DC, yet the article cited here appeared in the July 20th Moscow Times. I found no mention in the US press of the Gallup results, although it's easy enough to find the Gallup report, the press release for which is headlined "Russian Approval of Putin Soars to Highest Level in Years." Google the headline to see the report.

The same Gallup poll asked Russians "Do you have confidence in the national government, or not?" 64 percent said they did have such confidence. For perspective, the Gallup people recently (2010) asked USAmericans, "How much of the time do you think you can trust government in Washington to do what is right?" The answer: only 19 percent said "just about always" or "most of the time."

There is never a unanimous consensus on national leadership in any country, as every reporter knows. So if a reporter wishes to make the case that the current leadership's popularity is not universal, it is always possible to find any number of "critics" to quote, or sources that will express "alarm" about current leadership or policies. All of which reminds me of the old journalism riddle: What's the difference between a news article and an editorial? Answer: Quotation marks.

The Times used quotation marks effectively in its article on Russia. After citing a Russian polling organization whose surveys show that "Mr. Putin remains hugely popular" in that country, the Times then found a Russian pollster to quote. Despite the fact that his own organization's polls also show that Putin is amazingly popular, the comment the Times chose to highlight was this one: "In my opinion, we face a critical situation today. But our society does not realize it against a backdrop of patriotic and chauvinistic euphoria."

So there we have it: The polls show that the Russian leader is "hugely popular," but it's only because the Russian people are deluded and out of touch with reality. But, speaking of patriotic and chauvinistic euphoria, let's have a look at the other July 30th front-page article about public opinion in a foreign country. But this time the foreign country is a friend of Washington.

Polling The Friend

On the same day that Putin's popularity was being cast into doubt, the headline on the front page of the Washington Post was "Gaza War Hugely Popular in Israel." It started out like this: "The airwaves are filled with images of death and destruction in the Gaza Strip. President Obama is pressing for an immediate cease-fire. More than 50 Israeli soldiers have been killed. But at home, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is riding a massive wave of popularity." (Kind of like the Russian president, except there the focus is on "growing alarm.")

The interpretation seems to reflect the data in the survey (as reported; I can't read the actual poll since it only appears in what I guess is Hebrew). Here's how the Post phrases it:

"Domestic support for the Israeli leader's prosecution of the war in Gaza, which has left more than 1,200 Palestinians dead, has only grown over the past three weeks, as the Israeli public and political class rally behind an aggressive, definitive campaign against Hamas and its rockets and tunnels. The deep support among Israelis, from left to right, for the military's Gaza offensive and Netanyahu's leadership is almost unprecedented, political analysts say."

It's not so easy to spot the propaganda in that paragraph, unless you know something about Israel. The very next paragraph gives a hint as to the nature of the propaganda. Read closely:

"A poll this week for Israel's Channel 10 news, conducted by the Sarid Institute, found that 87 percent of Jewish Israelis support continuing the Gaza operation. A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 95 percent of Israeli Jews think the operation in Gaza is just, and 4 of 5 oppose a unilateral withdrawal. Just 4 percent said the Israeli military has used excessive force. And in another survey this week, by the University of Haifa, 85 percent of Jewish Israelis said they are 'very satisfied' or 'satisfied' with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's leadership."

Did you notice that the polls themselves appear to reference only "Jewish Israelis" and "Israeli Jews"? Yet the Post translates this as reports on attitudes among "the Israeli public" or simply "Israelis." And this is no accident, as similar references are sprinkled throughout the article, with the Post referring to "strong domestic support" and "A sweeping majority of Israelis,"and "a national consensus." The Post tells us that "these days Netanyahu's rivals on both ends of the political spectrum are supporting him."

And (here come the quotation marks) the Post quotes a member of "a Jewish think tank in Jerusalem" saying that "Netanyahu has always been the leader of the right wing, but now he is leading the consensus." The consensus among "Israelis," that is.

Here's where it helps to know something about Israel. Note the references to "the Israeli public" and "Israelis." How many readers of the Post are aware that 25 percent of the population of Israel are not Jewish? The assumption here appears to be that the views of "Jewish Israelis" are the views of "the Israeli public." In fact, for the Post's interpretation to make sense, one would have to imagine that "the Israeli public" is made up only of "Jewish Israelis." That's not the case.

Almost one quarter of citizens of Israel are non-Jewish, and 21 percent are "Arab." There are people who call themselves "Arab Jews," but the Jewish Virtual Library (from where I draw these figures) is no doubt largely accurate in making the distinction within Israel between "Jews" and "Arabs." Ten percent of the 120-member Israeli legislature—the Knesset—is Arab, and it's instructive to look at their response, and the response of other non-Jewish Israelis, to the invasion of Gaza.

Non-Jews Not Part of the "Consensus"

On July 29th the McClatchy News service reported that "Arab citizens of Israel have staged demonstrations in Nazareth, Haifa, Umm el Fahem and Sakhnin. They've declared a general strike." The Mossawa Center, based in Haifa, Israel, reports "These actions were a move to publicly mourn the increasing death toll in Gaza and voice opposition to the [Israeli Defense Force] military operation." The general strike was organized by an organization of Arab Israelis called "The High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel." Al Jazeera reported that "Thousands of businesses across Israel and the West Bank joined the strike," and "Several thousand demonstrators [in Nazareth] held posters with the photos of children killed during the offensive."

"So far, protests in Israel have met a stiff response," says McClatchy, quoting a police spokesperson saying that "Nationwide, nearly 1,000 people have been arrested on suspicion of such disturbances, almost all of them Arabs." An Arab member of the Knesset, Mohammad Barakeh, notes that "Besides marching in the streets, Arab citizens of Israel are collecting clothing and medication to send to Gaza, Barakeh said. They're also volunteering to visit wounded children from Gaza who are undergoing treatment in Israeli hospitals."

Vijay Prashad writes in the Indian newspaper The Hindu that "On July 9, the second day of the Israeli assault on Gaza, the deputy speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, had three Palestinian Members of Parliament removed from the room: Ahmed Tibi of the Arab Movement for Change as well as Ibrahim Sarsour and Masud Ghnaim of the United Arab List. Their crime: being critical of the Israeli attack on Gaza, which has by now claimed close to 200 Palestinian lives and injured almost a 1,000 Palestinians. Mr. Feiglin, who has said that Arabs are 'a gang of bandits,' then offered his own military strategy. The Israeli government, he said, should cut off electricity to Gaza so that its hospitals would be paralysed. 'The blood of a dialysis patient in Gaza,' he said, 'is not redder than the blood of our IDF soldiers who will, God forbid, need to enter [Gaza].'"

(Update: The death toll is now approaching 1,500 Palestinians, with 8,400 wounded. Sixty-one Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians have been killed.)

Is it a Conspiracy? No.

I said at the beginning of this article that the U.S. media performs a propaganda function within the information system of the U.S. "without even trying." What I'm saying is that it is highly unlikely that anyone at either the Washington Post or the New York Times received orders to write their articles the way that they did. At the same time, the fact that media coverage so often conforms nicely to the needs of the State is not due simply to luck.

It is clear that Russia is seen as an adversary, if not an enemy, by most of the political establishment in Washington. And it is even more clear that Israel is seen as "a friend indeed" as the Governor of Minnesota stated this week to a standing ovation. And, as U.S. News and World Report put it on July 22nd, there is a "truth in politics today: You can never be too supportive of Israel on Capitol Hill."

If we had a State Media in the United States—that is, a media system that was run by and took editorial direction from federal officials—it would be difficult to produce reporting more in line with the interests of the State than the reporting we see in this example. If an "enemy" head of state is indisputably popular, then state-run media would be asked to produce articles calling into question the legitimacy of his or her popularity, to look under every rock to find people who are "alarmed" at the policies and intentions of the seemingly-popular leadership. After all, "we" don't like him, so if he is popular there must be something wrong with either the polling or the people responding to the poll. And that's exactly the type of reporting we are seeing about Russia in our "free press."

In contrast, the policies and actions of a head of state seen to be a "friend"—and Israel is perhaps the best "friend" the United States has in the world—must be of the "good news" variety when at all possible. Thus we get two things: Front-page headlines about high popularity ratings, and
virtually no reporting of any evidence of dissent or "alarm" among the domestic population.

There's another, very important, propaganda effect that can be seen in the U.S. reporting from Israel. For many people in this country, the takeaway from news reports on the fighting in Gaza boils down to "Israel against the Arabs." When the media reports on "Israel" or "the Israeli public" as if it included only Jewish people, that false construction is reinforced, making it even more difficult for people in the United States to understand the source of the conflict in that part of the world, and our role in it.

Back in 2006 The High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel produced a paper called "The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel," and it helps explain how dangerous this denial of Arabs in Israel can be. They said "Defining the Israeli State as a Jewish State and exploiting democracy in the service of its Jewishness excludes us, and creates tension between us and the nature and essence of the State."

What is "the nature and essence of the State of Israel"? Is it a state that has a place for its indigenous non-Jewish inhabitants? If not, what is the United States supporting, exactly, with the $3 billion, mostly in military aid, that it gives to Israel each year? This is the debate we should be having in the United States, a debate that needs to include the voices of all concerned, including the Israeli voices being ignored by our media.

The fact that the U.S. media consistently gives us the "good news" about official friends of the State and the "bad news" about official enemies is not evidence of a vast conspiracy on the part of media workers to do the bidding of the State. Such conspiracy thinking can only lead us down a dangerous path, a path where we look for "good guys" to love and "bad guys" to hate. It's only when we get past that type of thinking that we can begin to analyze the real nature of the information system of our culture, which is the first step toward building a media system that focuses on education instead of propaganda.