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09 January 2009
If national media help make a nation, then we all need to stop reading and listening to conventional Canadian media if we want to make a decent Canada. Benedict Anderson, perhaps the leading scholar of nationalism, wrote that the daily newspaper (along with other innovations like novels, maps, censuses, museums) played a key role in creating national consciousness. People in a country like Canada use their own media – public (CBC) and private (CanWest, TorStar, CTVglobemedia) – to know what is happening in their own country. Media are also an important part of forging a national identity. They are supposed to represent the broad spectrum of Canadian opinion. When they present information on the rest of the world, they do so from a Canadian perspective and have the Canadian audience in mind.
And today, if you want to have the first idea what is happening in Israel/Palestine (or most of the rest of the world), the best thing to do would be to turn them off completely.
In the face of a major ongoing crime like that of Israel’s siege and assault on Gaza, Canadians turn to the Canadian media in good faith to try to learn and understand what is happening, who is to blame, and what they might be able to do to help the victims. On each of these counts, the Canadian media fails. But the days when Canadians would be stuck listening to local radio, picking up the local print newspaper, or watching local television packaged by Canadian media corporations for their consumption are over. There is, for the time being, media choice. And given the choice, on Israel/Palestine, it would be foolish to turn to the Canadian media.
These days I actually don’t have the stomach to do an exhaustive survey of Canadian coverage of these massacres. I have done such surveys in the past (see my letter to the Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter from a few years back), and I spent a lot of time and energy thinking about how to democratize the mainstream Canadian media and pressure it to be more open. These days, though, I mainly follow my own advice. A friend of mine, Brooks Kind, spent some time going through the least biased of the Canadian media, CBC radio, over the past two weeks. He found that the CBC suppressed crucial facts, presented an unrepresentative spectrum of opinion, and falsified the historical record. The suppressions and omissions are in the service of the perspective of the US and Israeli governments (and Canadian politicians), but they are no less false for that. With the reminder that I am picking on the CBC not because it is the worst, but because it is by far the best, here are just a few examples.
First, remember that the pretext for Israel’s attack is that Hamas refused to renew the June 19/08 ceasefire and started rocket attacks in December/08. But Israel violated the ceasefire in two ways. First, by continuing to starve Gaza (as Israeli officials openly admit and have done for years), and second, by attacking Gaza on November 4/08 and killing six Hamas people. Why is this important? There is a pattern here: Israel has repeatedly broken truces, ceasefires, and peace talks with spectacular assassinations that involve killing large numbers of people. This has been a pattern for many years, and has included the assassinations of many of Hamas’s leaders (Abd-el-Aziz Rantisi, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, and many, many others). It is an explicit part of Israel’s strategy to provoke its opponents and get pretexts for further attacks. But this timeline, and the November 4/08 attack by Israel, is not part of the ‘boilerplate’ provided when the attack on Gaza is reported in the Canadian media.
Second, Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, has been making very strong statements about Gaza in recent months. Falk is an acclaimed scholar and a highly credible source. He works for the United Nations, which Canadians supposedly have special respect for. When Falk traveled to Israel, he was detained, strip searched, and deported. Israel’s contempt for the United Nations could hardly have been more starkly revealed. Except, perhaps, when the Israelis killed a Canadian UN observer (Paeta Derek Hess-von Kruedener) in Lebanon in 2006, along with 3 others (Du Zhaoyu of China, Jarno Makinen of Finland, and Hans-Peter Lang of Austria). Or, perhaps, when the Israelis bombed the UNRWA school in Jabaliya on Jan 3/09, killing 43 Palestinians and wounding 100. Unlike much of the UN, whose main response to these killings might as well be to apologize for getting in the way of the bombs, Falk has provided urgent warnings to the world about the seriousness of the situation. But Falk’s story is not given any prominence in any Canadian media. An entire story on the UN aspects of the situation quotes Israel’s envoy to the UN and Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and others, but not the important and strong voice of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Territories.
And then, of course, there are the cliches, the horrible cliches of this conflict. Like this story about how “World leaders call for Mideast ceasefire as more civilians die.” They just “die”, these civilians. The lead reads “World leaders called for a ceasefire in the fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas as civilian casualties climbed in the Gaza Strip.” The “casualties climbed”, the “civilians died”, of their own accord, with no help from the Israelis. Israeli officials are allowed the grace of their titles (“Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak”) but Mahmoud Zahar from the elected Hamas government is called “Gaza’s Hamas strongman” (there are no Western strongmen).
Just before the current massacres, on December 8/08, Radio Canada’s ombudsman found that the CBC had erred in running a very factual documentary called “Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land” (3PL). The ombudsman Radio Canada erred in broadcasting because “militant pro-Palestinian groups were involved in researching” it. Who were these groups? FAIR (www.fair.org), or Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, whose principal activity is to act more or less as Radio Canada’s ombudsman should, pointing out inaccuracies and unfairness in US media coverage of critical topics. “Factual errors” pointed out by the ombudsman include that the film “speaks of the occupation as being illegal, but Miville-Dechene points out that this has never been clarified by the courts”. This merely suggests that the ombudsman lacks the most cursory understanding of international law. And possibly, an understanding of what constitutes a factual error. In any case, the Quebec Israel Committee (QIC) said that, by changing its policies to prevent documentaries like these from being seen by Canadians, “Radio-Canada has strengthened its credibility and has become a better news organization.” The more “credible” a media outlet is to an outfit like the QIC, the better off Canadians would be in turning it off altogether. What is good about this situation is that all Radio-Canada can really do is prevent Canadians from seeing 3PL on Radio-Canada. They can’t prevent Canadians from seeing it altogether (in fact, you can watch it at the Media Education Foundation site or on Google Video). The natural response is the right one: turn off Radio-Canada.
A last example. The rally against the Gaza massacres that happened in Toronto (as well as many cities in the world) on January 3, 2009. I was at the rally. I have been to a lot of rallies over the years. Many of these, I must admit, have been very small. Activists learn how to assess (and yes, unfortunately, sometimes to inflate) numbers at demonstrations. But to say that the January 3, 2009 rally had “more than 1000 people”, as CBC did, is simply preposterous. They may as well have said “more than one”. There were easily 10,000 people there – unless someone can show me how you can fill Yonge Street between Bloor Street and College Street in Toronto with a thousand people. And no, at no point was the march single file.
In the past, when I, and others like me, have made points like these to Canadian journalists, they reply that we are leftists and biased and merely want them to be biased the way we are. But the above are mostly matters of fact and of professionalism, not of analysis or opinion.
I am willing to declare my biases. I write for ZNet (www.zcommunications.org/znet) and work as an editor for it. I wouldn’t do either if I didn’t think people should read it, and I wouldn’t criticize the mainstream media if I thought it did a good job. ZNet is a site for analysis. It features analysts who write on other sites, like the Electronic Intifada‘s (www.electronicintifada.net) Ali Abunimah, Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies (http://www.ips-dc.org/staff/phyllis), Jonathan Cook, Ha’aretz’s own Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, other Israelis like Neve Gorden and Jeff Halper, as well as folks who write mainly for ZNet. If you’re distrustful of the “alternative media” and fear that folks from the region will be biased, try the mainstream (liberal) UK papers, whose openness to diverse analysis puts the Canadian press to shame. Guardian’s Comment is Free (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree) section has had Leila el-Haddad, Nir Rosen, Seamus Milne, and plenty of others that don’t see the light of day in the Canadian press. Reading these analysts reveals the incredible mediocrity of the Canadian punditry when it addresses international affairs.
But analysis is not news, and people do need news. Not only do they need news, but they need a variety of perspectives, and the Israeli perspective is a very important one. There is, however, a difference between what the public relations line of a state at war and the actual perspective and debates in that state. In other words, if you want the Israeli perspective, you can get it directly, in the Israeli press: read Haaretz (www.haaretz.com) and the Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com). They are available in English, and they are much more frank about Israel’s aims and practices than the Canadian media are. Why read what the Israeli military wants Canadians to read, when you can read what they want Israelis to read?
If you want news about how Israeli destruction looks to its victims, there is nothing better than the IMEMC (www.imemc.org), which is a genuine news outlet run by Palestinians, in the Occupied Territories, with as high professional standards as you could want. These are journalistic heroes, and the first place I go.
If you want news that is actually balanced, with “supporters of Israel” and “pro-Palestinian” voices represented, as well as actual reporting from the ground, use al-Jazeera (www.aljazeera.net/en).
[Aside: I can’t use the phrase “supporters of Israel” without reminding readers of Chomsky’s note in Fateful Triangle, where he said “supporters of Israel” should more aptly be called “supporters of the moral degradation and eventual destruction of Israel”. “Pro-Palestinian” is another strange term, since it seems that thinking that a group of human beings are, in fact, human beings, makes you “pro-Palestinian”, rather like how agreeing with the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change makes you an “environmentalist”.]
If you want to make your own decision about how many people were at a demonstration or what its message was, you might as well go directly to the people involved: they all have their own websites. The Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (www.caiaweb.org) has one, the Canadian Arab Federation (www.caf.ca) has one, and so on.
Let me rephrase my point here. Modern Western armies, like those of Israel, the US, and Canada, think of information as part of warfare. They expend tremendous time and resources mobilizing support for their violence. They do this by controlling information, disallowing independent journalists (as Israel is doing), using embedded journalists, and running a massive public relations machinery designed specifically to deliver arguments and propaganda for the foreign press and for foreign consumption. There is a special machinery just for Canadians, and a special strategy to sell war in Canada. There was one for the Iraq war, there is one for the Afghanistan war, and one for Israel’s wars as well. What is so unusual about the media environment today is that all this expense, all this media machinery, can be circumvented by anyone in its target audience by the simple click of a mouse. So click away.
The Canadian media are a biased little niche of pro-Israeli spin, and should be seen that way. There are times when the Canadian media are useful for news about Canada, if read critically. Even for Canada, there are reasonably good alternatives for analysis, commentary, and features (dominionpaper.ca, rabble.ca, briarpatchmagazine.com), and plenty of direct information from politicians (the political parties have their own sites, as do many individual polticians, activist groups, and so on). Still, read critically, the Canadian media can be a good source on goings on in the country.
But on Israel/Palestine, please, find more serious sources.
Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. His blog is www.killingtrain.com