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American Journalism — to What Depth?

by Ahmed Bouzid Monday, Jul. 14, 2003 at 5:25 PM

IF YOU want to measure the extent to which the standards of American journalism have sunk, your best barometer is no doubt the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. There you will find not only the usual lack of investigative backbone that now prevails across the American journalism landscape, or the remarkable self-censorship with which the American media go about “covering the news,” but, at times, also encounter what can only be described as an astonishing and breathtaking open refusal to live up to even the most basic responsibilities of being a journalist or running a newspaper.

The latest example of such total professional failure came in the form of an editor at the international desk of The Charlotte Observer, who was not only willing to publish a map that showed the Golan Heights as part of Israel, Jerusalem as its capital (depicted with a star, while other cities with a round dot), and occupied Palestinian territories highlighted as territories under “Palestinian control,” but had no shame pointing out that the paper published the map because both the Associated Press and National Geographic had done the same!

According to Tracy Yochum, Assistant National Editor of The Charlotte Observer, the map they published on June 12, 2003, was perfectly legitimate because — and I am quoting her verbatim: “1. Though Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights is disputed, National Geographic shows the Golan Heights as part of Israeli territory; 2. Both National Geographic and AP list Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; 3. The West Bank and Gaza Strip are shown by National Geographic as shaded areas, described in an editor's note as having `limited Palestinian autonomy' under the 1993 Oslo accords.”

Aside the basic reality that the entire world (including the United States), except Israel, does not recognise the annexation by Israel of the Golan Heights, does not accept the annexation of Jerusalem (East or West) and considers the West Bank and Gaza occupied territories, there is also something truly shocking reading an editor explain why they published something by pointing out that they did so because someone else did as well: since National Geographic and AP did it, the editor is saying, then it must be OK!

Is this really what American journalism has come to? To the point where editors don't even think that it is problematic to say that they won't bother to independently settle the most basic facts about the most explosive and enduring conflict of the last half century?

Or take the way Ariel Sharon has toyed — the way a big, experienced cat would leisurely toy with a mouse paralysed with confusion — with the American media the last three weeks, first by using the “O” word (occupation), then with his statement that he believes that the Palestinians should have a “state” of their own, then with his assertion that such a state should have “territorial contiguity,” and, for the coup the grace, his promise to dismantle “illegal outposts.”

Such “breakthroughs” were gingerly and immediately declared as monumental watershed moments, with many hailing Sharon as the new de Gaulle, the one leader who could force “painful concessions” on the right-wing settlers, his core constituency. Then, not more than a few days later, Sharon swept his big paw the other way and issued “clarifications,” making it clear for those interested in listening that he was not using the word “occupation” in its regular sense (he explained that he was not talking about occupation of land but occupation of people!), that when he said “Palestinian state” he did not mean a “sovereign Palestinian state” as we would normally think, but a “state” that was one only by name (e.g., no air sovereignty, no control over water, no standing army, no clear-cut and inviolable borders), and that when he said “territorial contiguity” he meant contiguity for 40 per cent of the West Bank, connected by a highway to Gaza, with the remaining 60 per cent conveniently swallowed by a wall that no one in the media feels is important enough to talk about!

And for the second coup the grace, we are now getting yet one more clarification: it appears that when Sharon said that Israel would dismantle “illegal outposts,” he really meant that Israel would continue with expanding”! settlements, but quietly and “without celebrations'!

As we all well know, the backbone of Israel's plan is the “fact on the ground” strategy: make (or make up) facts and count on time to do the rest. In American journalism, Israel counts on a lack of professional commitment by journalists to simply do the right thing. It is up to us to make that call, to write that letter, and to rock the boat by spreading the news around and shame our media into doing the right thing, so that such “facts on the ground” never take root and such obfuscations are shown for what they are.

The writer is president of Palestine Media Watch and author of `Framing the struggle'. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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