Lights, Camera, Action: Pallywood Is At It Again

CNN objective news art by Tom White

Charles J. Glasser, Jr., Esq. Professor, Media Ethics and Law, NYU
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As a young journalist in the 1970s, I pitched a story to a magazine, specifically a photo essay on “The Children of Northern Ireland.” Given the violence of the time it seemed like an important and visually striking theme.

“Forget it, kid,” the seasoned editor responded, “It’s all a set up. The kids throwing rocks and the adults encouraging them will ask you if your shot is ready or how you’d like them to pose.”

If only news editors today showed such clarity and skepticism, we might get a more honest picture of what’s going on today in Gaza. Sadly, such is not the case. Many of the scenes propagated by mainstream media range from selective editing to outright falsity. It seems to me that the real question is whether such deception is a function of inherent bias, a conspiracy of sorts, or instead, the attention-grabbing motive best described as “if it bleeds, it leads.

Whatever the motive, the narrative at work is ruthlessly effective and instantly visceral. Simply put, mainstream media is painting a picture of Big Evil Israel “slaughtering” innocent and “peaceful” protesters, including women and infants. Even the more moderate shade of this narrative pays lip service to Israel’s right to self-defense but chides the IDF for “disproportionate responses.”

To be sure, as an aggrieved people the Palestinians have been abused en masse by many entities and governments, most particularly by especially their own Palestinian Authority. As in all conflicts, there are legitimate issues that ought to be raised. But as the old saying goes, “truth is the first casualty of war” and intelligent (not to mention peaceful) dialogue and resolution seems impossible. This is so because first, the manufactured and romanticized image of the Palestinians as “brave freedom fighters” does not wholly stand up to scrutiny. Second, the attention-grabbing images overpower an undeniable political fact: as New York Post columnist Frank Fleming wrote: “I think you’re always going to have tension in the Middle East when there’s people who want to kill the Jews and Jews who don’t want to be killed and neither side is willing to compromise.

History of Pallywood

Pallywood” is the pejorative phrase used to describe the well-orchestrated and documented manipulation of media by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Hezbollah and their sponsors and sympathizers. They’ve found widespread support on college campuses, left-leaning media and in political organizations such as Britain’s Labour Party and a considerable segment of the nebulous “Black Lives Matter” movement.

It’s hard to tell exactly when Pallywood first broke through to mainstream media. As far back as the late 1970s, CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired a clip of a gleeful Vanessa Redgrave dancing at a PLO training camp and waving a Kalashnikov rifle above her head in joy. (That clip has been conveniently scrubbed from the internet and is only referred to in other stories). It’s a rather remarkable public relations feat given that only a few years earlier, a shocked world watched Palestinian terrorists murder Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In 1968, there was almost no discussion of the Palestinian background and motives of Sirhan Sirhan, the man who assassinated Bobby Kennedy: we had not yet been sold the idea of “brave” Palestinians fighting off “brutal” Israel. But then again, Israel had only a year earlier won the admiration of most of the free world by prevailing in the Six Day War, in which Israel was simultaneously attacked by Egypt, Jordan and Syria from all sides but the sea.

Pallywood then and now

Putting aside the motive force behind the flaws in reportage, the coverage of conflict in the Middle East has been heavily salted with outright forgeries, fakeries, and frauds. Reuters was caught red-handed distributing manipulated photographs that exaggerated destruction, and published others that purported to show Israeli aircraft launching missiles against Palestinian civilians. The photographs turned out to be complete frauds, and Reuters was forced to issue a rare “kill order”, which is the visual equivalent of a retraction.

Similarly, news organizations around the world naïvely and without fact-checking touted the heroic “Green Helmet Guy” who claimed to rescue child victims of Israeli bombing. The photos and video turned out to be staged: oddly, the same man mysteriously appeared in multiple pictures of rubble miles apart. Then of course, there is the “Unluckiest Woman in the World,” an elderly weeping Arab woman pictured in front of several different destroyed houses weeks apart, face distorted in grief as if to say “why, Allah, why?” None of the press asked themselves how one single woman could have so many different family members in so many different locations killed by Israeli bombs or missiles.

For years now, staged images of alleged Israeli brutality have circled the world, and were it not for the overall tragedy of the larger context, they’d be comical. One video shows Palestinians covered with sheets posing as cadavers, but they forgot that cadavers don’t move. A video from the recent riots in Gaza has been dubbed “The Miracle” after footage was uncovered of a man on crutches and allegedly injured by the IDF suddenly breaking into a full-tilt sprint.

More serious falsehoods and lazy reporting have been prominent in the recent riots. CNN aired without any skepticism a report of a nine-month-old infant being killed by Israeli tear gas. It was later reported by the Associated Press that: “Gaza health officials are casting doubt on initial claims that a nine-month-old baby died from Israeli tear gas fired during mass protests on the Gaza border with Israel. A medical doctor said Tuesday that the baby had a pre-existing medical condition and that he did not believe her death was caused by tear gas.”

Whatever the facts in that episode, the real question is “why in the world would any sane person bring an infant to a riot where tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds were being used?” Critics of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas say that using “human shields” (especially children) is a favored PR jiu-jitsu move. Hamas admitted that of the 62 people recently killed, 50 were Hamas fighters and Islamic Jihad claimed three more, meaning that more than 80 percent of the people who were killed while trying to breach the border were soldiers for terrorist organisations whose direct aim is to bring death and suffering into Israel. As one reporter put it:

“Shoot at those charging at you and Hamas would have its martyrs. Fail to shoot and Hamas would break through the barrier and bring suffering and death – its stated aim – to Israelis living only a few hundred meters away from that barrier.”

Bias and confusion

Judith Miller, an expert on the Middle East and shared recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for her reporting on global terrorism knows Gaza and its politics well. In an interview, Miller told me that she’s not convinced that there is an organized conspiracy to skew the coverage as badly as it is. “I agree that the coverage of the current Gaza situation is biased towards sympathy for the Palestinians,” Miller said, “but the problem is complicated. There is an element of bias because most celebrities and journalists are liberals sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people. And it’s important to remember that there are legitimate issues in play.”

Miller explains the complication as follows: “The complete story of what’s going on there is almost never told. The rush to publish and be first means that the complete truth might come out, but not for several days.” By then, the tragedy or outrage has been lapsed by a newer one. Interestingly, Miller blames the prevalent inaccuracies not solely on bias, but the difficulty in getting any clean reporting done from Gaza. “It’s an extremely dangerous place and a reporter who just shows up is more likely than not to be killed or kidnapped. You really need permission from Israel to get into Gaza, and then you need permission from the Palestinian Authority to report there.” As a result, says Miller, reporters are under a close watch by both sides, each of which can exact varying degrees of retribution on reporters who publish information disliked by one side or the other.

Journalistically, this creates a more polarized pool of information: reporters are forced to either rely upon the questionable and often fraudulent claims and images made by Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, or by contrast, slickly produced press releases and images distributed by the Israeli government. Between those two extremes sit the unfortunate citizens of Gaza who are literally caught in a prison-like middle.

Miller is not ambiguous about the suffering of the people in Gaza. “70% of them have no water and 30% are unemployed” Miller says. “The destruction of the economic infrastructure in Gaza is a result of the power struggles between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.” Despite reports to the contrary, her sources tell her that the IDF is actually in favor of loosening economic restrictions and bringing more food and more jobs to Gaza. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs released footage on social media showing that Hamas – not Israel – is purposefully blocking humanitarian aid from entering Gaza. It seems that the more Gazans suffer, the happier Hamas is with the ensuing publicity and the misguided sympathy that the suffering engenders. Again, human shields.

Miller is far from naïve about other influences on the way this most recent conflict is being covered. “This is the first time we’ve seen a ‘split-screen’ story, where one side of the screen has images of burning tires and teargas canisters, and the other side shows US emissaries, including Ivanka Trump, smiling and applauding the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem.”

Playing on anti-Trump sentiment

The deeply rooted and fairly maniacal anti-Trump sentiment in the world media is also shaping coverage of the Gaza riots. Unfairly, the juxtaposition of the two images implies a connection of which Hamas is all too eager to take advantage. If anyone sides with Trump – no matter how well-founded, no matter what issue — they are the enemy. Thus, we are seeing major news outlets give Hamas a sympathy and credibility never before seen.

Imagine this: If any other group or government openly made religion-based declarations of war, frequently targeted civilians with murderous intent, vowed in their Charter the destruction of another race and used human shields as PR and cannon fodder, you can bet that CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and others would treat them like pariahs. But by being opposed to Trump, Hamas and other Islamic terrorist groups have bought their way into the good graces of many newsrooms.

The words matter

So, who and what to believe? Given the militants’ longstanding vow to destroy Israel and kill as many Jews as possible, blaming the US embassy move to Jerusalem is a paper-thin excuse. It helps the anti-Trump narrative of course, but the commitment to destroy Israel is still part of the Palestinian Charter.

I’ve coined a word – “spindicator” – that might help us read coverage more skeptically. For example, you may have noticed by now that I use the word “riot”, not “protest.” That ought to tell you that my take (or “spin”) on Gaza today is that when tens of thousands gather not to “be heard” but instead declared their intentions to breach a border using grenades, burning tires and firearms, that’s a “riot,” not a “protest.” It certainly isn’t speech” covered by any human rights convention of which I’m aware. And given the massive numbers involved, the word “invasion” (admittedly a spindicator) may be just as accurate. Similarly, the use of words like “slaughter” and “massacre” ought to be spindicators for the discerning reader.

Be wary of absolutes in reporting. Calling the rioters (or if you insist on using the word “protesters”) “peaceful” is a spindicator, belied by the plumes of smoke from Molotov cocktails and burning tires. At best, “mostly” peaceful is more accurate. My advice is to take heed of Miller’s description of the difficulties of reporting a complete story and consider the history of fraudulent claims and images along with Hamas’ willingness to sacrifice their own suffering people to generate sympathy. In short, “read everything, but believe nothing.”

Charles Glasser (@MediaEthicsGuy) was a journalist in the 1980s and later studied at New York University School of Law. After several years as a First Amendment litigator, he became Bloomberg News’ first global media counsel. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook”, teaches media ethics and law at New York University and also lectures globally and writes frequently about media and free speech issues for Instapundit and other outlets.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.