Telling it like it isn't
By Robert Fisk
Angeles Times" -- -- I FIRST REALIZED the enormous
pressures on American journalists in the Middle East when I went
some years ago to say goodbye to a colleague from the Boston Globe.
I expressed my sorrow that he was leaving a region where he had
obviously enjoyed reporting. I could save my sorrows for someone
else, he said. One of the joys of leaving was that he would no
longer have to alter the truth to suit his paper's more vociferous
"I used to call the Israeli Likud Party 'right wing,' " he said.
"But recently, my editors have been telling me not to use the
phrase. A lot of our readers objected." And so now, I asked? "We
just don't call it 'right wing' anymore."
Ouch. I knew at once that these "readers" were viewed at his
newspaper as Israel's friends, but I also knew that the Likud under
Benjamin Netanyahu was as right wing as it had ever been.
This is only the tip of the semantic iceberg that has crashed into
American journalism in the Middle East. Illegal Jewish settlements
for Jews and Jews only on Arab land are clearly "colonies," and we
used to call them that. I cannot trace the moment when we started
using the word "settlements." But I can remember the moment around
two years ago when the word "settlements" was replaced by "Jewish
neighborhoods" — or even, in some cases, "outposts."
Similarly, "occupied" Palestinian land was softened in many American
media reports into "disputed" Palestinian land — just after
then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, in 2001, instructed U.S.
embassies in the Middle East to refer to the West Bank as "disputed"
rather than "occupied" territory.
Then there is the "wall," the massive concrete obstruction whose
purpose, according to the Israeli authorities, is to prevent
Palestinian suicide bombers from killing innocent Israelis. In this,
it seems to have had some success. But it does not follow the line
of Israel's 1967 border and cuts deeply into Arab land. And all too
often these days, journalists call it a "fence" rather than a
"wall." Or a "security barrier," which is what Israel prefers them
to say. For some of its length, we are told, it is not a wall at all
— so we cannot call it a "wall," even though the vast snake of
concrete and steel that runs east of Jerusalem is higher than the
old Berlin Wall.
The semantic effect of this journalistic obfuscation is clear. If
Palestinian land is not occupied but merely part of a legal dispute
that might be resolved in law courts or discussions over tea, then a
Palestinian child who throws a stone at an Israeli soldier in this
territory is clearly acting insanely.
If a Jewish colony built illegally on Arab land is simply a nice
friendly "neighborhood," then any Palestinian who attacks it must be
carrying out a mindless terrorist act.
And surely there is no reason to protest a "fence" or a "security
barrier" — words that conjure up the fence around a garden or the
gate arm at the entrance to a private housing complex.
For Palestinians to object violently to any of these phenomena thus
marks them as a generically vicious people. By our use of language,
we condemn them.
We follow these unwritten rules elsewhere in the region. American
journalists frequently used the words of U.S. officials in the early
days of the Iraqi insurgency — referring to those who attacked
American troops as "rebels" or "terrorists" or "remnants" of the
former regime. The language of the second U.S. pro-consul in Iraq,
L. Paul Bremer III, was taken up obediently — and grotesquely — by
American television, meanwhile, continues to present war as a
bloodless sandpit in which the horrors of conflict — the mutilated
bodies of the victims of aerial bombing, torn apart in the desert by
wild dogs — are kept off the screen. Editors in New York and London
make sure that viewers' "sensitivities" don't suffer, that we don't
indulge in the "pornography" of death (which is exactly what war is)
or "dishonor" the dead whom we have just killed.
Our prudish video coverage makes war easier to support, and
journalists long ago became complicit with governments in making
conflict and death more acceptable to viewers. Television journalism
has thus become a lethal adjunct to war.
Back in the old days, we used to believe — did we not? — that
journalists should "tell it how it is." Read the great journalism of
World War II and you'll see what I mean. The Ed Murrows and Richard
Dimblebys, the Howard K. Smiths and Alan Moorheads didn't mince
their words or change their descriptions or run mealy-mouthed from
the truth because listeners or readers didn't want to know or
preferred a different version.
So let's call a colony a colony, let's call occupation what it is,
let's call a wall a wall. And maybe express the reality of war by
showing that it represents not, primarily, victory or defeat, but
the total failure of the human spirit.
ROBERT FISK is Middle East correspondent for the London Independent
and the author, most recently, of "The Great War for Civilisation:
The Conquest of the Middle East," published last month by Knopf.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times
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