This article is adapted from a talk given via video conference on September 20, 2016, at the second in a series of conferences titled “100 Global Thinkers in Palestine” organized by the Witness Center for Citizen Rights and Social Development. It draws on material from the author’s book Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
There’s a perception of the US mainstream media as being passive observers objectively reporting on events, and this is certainly the proper role of the media; but in practice, there is a demonstrable institutionalized bias. The nature of the media’s reporting on the Palestine conflict is an important reason why it persists. Far from being passive observers, the media are active participants in the outcome of events by helping to shape public opinion.
The function of the mainstream media is to manufacture consent for US policy. This is a phrase I’m borrowing from the book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, who in turn were borrowing it from Walter Lippmann, who in his 1921 book Public Opinion used the phrase “the manufacture of consent” to describe how government officials through the media brought the public on board with their policies by manipulating the facts through propaganda. Lippmann also observed that “The creation of consent is not a new art. It is a very old one which was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy. But it has not died out.”
The nephew of famed founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, Edward L. Bernays, who helped reinvent the public relations industry in the 1920s, in 1947 wrote an essay titled “The Engineering of Consent” in which he described the media “as a potent force for social good or possible evil”. He also observed that whereas authoritarian governments used force to achieve their goals, government leaders in democratic societies are “faced with the problem of engineering the public’s consent to a program or goal.”
The thought-controlling American intelligentsia essentially serve as high priests of the state religion—another phrase borrowed from Noam Chomsky, who has written, “There is indeed something truly religious in the fervor with which responsible American intellectuals have sought to deny plain fact and to secure their dogmas concerning American benevolence, the contemporary version of the ‘civilizing mission.’”
One instructive example of how the media serve to manufacture consent was how, prior to US war on Iraq, they uncritically parroted government claims about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) despite the complete lack of credible evidence. In the case we want to focus on here, the consent being manufactured is for the US government’s policy of financially, militarily, and diplomatically supporting Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.
We can see the media performing this function in the presentation of the history of the conflict and how they essentially adopt Zionist propaganda narratives of historical events. Looking to the origins of the conflict, the media have a standard narrative that we’re all familiar with, essentially as follows: The UN passed Resolution 181 partitioning Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, but the Arabs, for no other apparent reason than their hatred of Jews and the Jewish presence in the land, rejected this peaceful solution. So when Israel’s declaration of independence was announced, the neighboring Arab states launched a genocidal war to wipe the nascent state off the map. Many Palestinians became refugees in the war that ensued, an unfortunate consequence of the Arab aggression.
This standard narrative is contrasted by reviewing what the actual documentary record has to say about the conflict’s origins. We could examine the record in detail, but just a few relevant details will suffice for our purposes here.
For starters, the UN partition plan was premised on the explicit rejection of the right of the majority Arab population in Palestine to self-determination, and the reason given for this rejection of Palestinians’ rights was that it was contrary to the Zionist project. Resolution 181 neither partitioned Palestine nor lent any legal authority to the Zionist leadership for their unilateral declaration of the existence of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948. The Jewish community at the time legally owned only about 7 percent of the land in Palestine, the remaining 71 percent or so that became part of Israel having been acquired by force. By the time the neighboring Arab states managed to muster a military response, 300,000 Arab Palestinians had already been ethnically cleansed from their homes in what Israeli historian Benny Morris has described as the Zionists’ “war of conquest” to establish the demographically “Jewish state” of Israel. By the time it was over, 700,000 Arabs had been ethnically cleansed from their homes in Palestine, never allowed to return; indeed, the Zionists saw to it that returning to their homes would be impossible by destroying them and wiping their villages completely off the map.
It’s not the case that members of the media are unaware of such historical facts; they just choose not to present them. As an instructive example, a New York Times article on May, 2011, written by Ethan Bronner recited the standard narrative of the origins of the conflict, characterizing the refugee problem solely as a consequence of a war started by the Arab states. One reader wrote in to ask why Bronner’s account had left out the fact that a quarter of a million Arabs had already been ethnically cleansed by the time the neighboring Arab states intervened. The response from the public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, was that “space was limited in a short story and he wasn’t trying to recite the full history”.
The mainstream media’s reporting on other historical events follows the same pattern. The standard narrative about the 1967 Israeli-Arab War is that the Arab states were threatening war and massed armies on Israel’s borders. In the face of a genocidal threat to wipe Israel off the map, Israel acted in self-defense by launching a preemptive attack on Egypt.
Once again, reality is an entirely other matter. In fact, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) observed at the time that Egyptian forces had taken up defensive positions in the Sinai Peninsula. The CIA also presciently warned President Lyndon B. Johnson that war was brewing and correctly predicted that it would be started by Israel. Israel’s own intelligence, as documented by no less authoritative a source than former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael B. Oren in his book Six Days of War, had assessed that there was no threat of an Egyptian attack on Israel.
During the 1967 war, of course, Israel invaded and occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank, an occupation and colonization regime that persists to this day despite UN Resolution 242, passed in the wake of the war, calling for a full Israeli withdrawal in accordance with the principle of international law that the acquisition of territory by war is inadmissible.
Looking to the present, we can examine how the US mainstream media present Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. One of the devices employed to manufacture consent is to lend equal weight to Israel’s position as to international law. The media adopt the Israeli and US governments’ framework, upon which the entire so-called “peace process” is grounded, that negotiations should be about what each party wants, rather than what each party has a right to. This framework assumes the inapplicability of international law to any negotiated settlement.
For an illustrative example, a New York Times editorial on August 10, 2010, adopted the position of the US government that Palestinians must negotiate “without preconditions”—a euphemism meaning while Israel continues its illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank. The Times editors acknowledged that the Palestinians had “understandable reasons” for being unwilling to negotiate while this activity continued, noting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a “master manipulator” who had cynically used the “peace process” to “give the illusion of progress while never addressing Palestinian concerns”. They nevertheless criticized the Palestinians for refusing to enter into negotiations with the regime of this same Benjamin Netanyahu while Israel continued to prejudice the outcome of any talks by continuing its illegal settlement expansion. The editorial board further described the US and Israel’s demand that illegal settlement activity be allowed to continue as the “moderate” position, while the Palestinians’ view, shared with the rest of the planet, that this violation of international law must cease was “the maximalist position”—that is, the extremist view.
We see the same standards applied when the media refer to East Jerusalem and land on which there are Israeli settlements in the West Bank as “disputed territory”, “hotly contested”, or similar phrases. Such descriptions overlook that it is a simple point of fact under international law that all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is “occupied Palestinian territory”. Thus Israel’s position is elevated to the level of having equal legitimacy as what international law actually has to say about it.
The media use other means, as well, to portray Israeli settlements as though controversial in terms of their legality. In many if not most cases, their illegality is simply ignored and not reported; it’s simply not important or relevant enough to warrant a mention. When the question of legality does come up, however, the standard formula is to say that “much of the world” views Israel’s settlements as illegal. This characterization implies that there is a debate in the international community about the settlements’ legality. However, when employing this rhetorical device, the media never say which countries dissent from the view that the settlements are illegal, for one simple reason: there aren’t any. This is simply the mainstream media’s standard euphemistic way of saying that every single government on planet Earth other than Israel’s own recognizes the fact that Israel’s settlement activities violate the Fourth Geneva Convention.
A particularly useful case study of how the mainstream media serve to manufacture consent was the media’s coverage of “Operation Cast Lead”, Israel’s full-scale military assault on Gaza from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009. The media’s narrative of this operation was that it was launched by Israel only after thousands of rockets had been fired into Israel from Gaza, and only after it had tried diplomacy by agreeing to a ceasefire with Hamas that Hamas violated and ultimately called off on December 19.
The reality is that the ceasefire that went into effect on June 19, 2008, was immediately and repeatedly violated by Israel. The UN reported that Israel had violated the ceasefire on at least seven occasions during just the first week, with Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers shooting at Gazan farmers across the border fence. Two elderly Gazans were injured in these shootings. Israel also maintained its illegal blockade of Gaza, a policy of collectively punishing the entire civilian population for having Hamas as its leadership. Israel’s modus operandi was to provoke a violent response to create a pretext for launching its pre-planned military assault on Gaza.
One means by which the media manufactured consent for the US policy of supporting this violence against Gazans was to state or imply that Hamas was the party responsible for violating the ceasefire. A headline in the New York Times on June 25, 2008 declared, “Rockets Hit Israel, Breaking Hamas Truce”. The headline was contrasted by the facts: the day before, Israel had killed a Hamas member and an Islamic Jihad member in the West Bank; Islamic Jihad responded to the provocation by firing three rockets into Israel; and Hamas responded by successfully urging Islamic Jihad to abide by the ceasefire.
When not directly blaming Hamas for ceasefire violations, the media characterized the ceasefire as being threatened by Hamas, but not by Israel. On June 30, 2008, the New York Times reported that the ceasefire might break down because “Hamas may not respect or enforce the cease-fire; there have been almost daily violations”. The context was that the three rockets fired on June 25 by Islamic Jihad were followed the next day by a fourth rocket fired by Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which Hamas responded to by again urging all groups to adhere to the ceasefire. On June 30, a third incident in which a fifth rocket was fired occurred. So at the time of reporting, there had been only three instances in which rockets were fired at Israel, and none of the rockets were fired by Hamas, who actively sought to deter such attacks by groups not party to the ceasefire, including by making arrests. It was true that there had been almost daily violations—by Israel. And Israel’s violations of the ceasefire continued, including the July 10 killing by Israeli forces of an unarmed 18-year-old Palestinian looking for scrap metal in Gaza along the border fence.
On November 4, there was a major violation by Israel that effectively ended the ceasefire. Israel launched airstrikes and a ground incursion into Gaza that killed six Hamas members. This time, Israel’s provocation was successful in prompting retaliatory fire from Hamas, and Israel’s violation was followed by daily tit-for-tat violence.
As noted by the Israeli Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, among other observes, the ceasefire had been remarkably effective at reducing the threat of rocket fire from Gaza, and Hamas’s observance of the ceasefire until Israel’s November 4 violation had been absolute.
The New York Times did report on Israel’s violation the day it occurred, in an article written by Isabel Kershner under the headline “Israeli Troops Launch Attack on Gaza”. However, being too inconvenient for the narrative the media sought to push subsequently regarding the causes of goals of Operation Cast Lead, this fact was quickly forgotten. Thus on December 30, Kershner could report: “Israel began its devastating aerial bombardment of Hamas targets in Gaza with the stated goal of stopping the incessant rocket fire that has plagued Israeli towns and villages close to the border for years.” That there had even been a ceasefire, much less that it was violated by Israel, was simply tossed down the memory hole to accommodate the narrative required to manufacture consent for the US policy of supporting Israel’s onslaught.
Kershner resurrected the memory of the ceasefire in a piece on January 4, 2009, but did so by stating merely that it “began to break down in November”. Naturally, she declined to explain why; namely, because it was violated by Israel. As a simple thought experiment, we can imagine if Hamas had been the party to violate the ceasefire whether this fact would have been deemed equally unimportant. And we have our answer to that question as the media did in fact go out of its way to mischaracterize Hamas as having been the party responsible for bringing the ceasefire to an end. In fact, that that very same sentence, Kershner added, with respect to the ceasefire, that “Hamas declared it over on Dec. 19”—a statement of pure propaganda, as we’ll now turn to.
This propagandistic means of blaming Hamas for ending the ceasefire was a routine feature of the New York Times’ reporting on the violence. On December 20, Ethan Bronner wrote that Hamas on December 19 had “declared in a statement that the ceasefire had expired, saying the truce would not be renewed”. On December 29, an article filed under “news analysis” begged the question, “Why did Hamas end its six-month cease-fire on Dec. 19?” The simple answer provided for readers was that Hamas rejected negotiations and preferred the “way of armed force”. On December 30, the editorial board asserted that “Hamas must bear responsibility for ending a six-month cease-fire this month with a barrage of rocket attacks into Israeli territory.”
Such characterizations of Hamas violating or otherwise unilaterally ending the ceasefire were again contrasted by the facts. One purpose of this propaganda narrative was to obfuscate the fact that the ceasefire was officially six months in duration and expired on December 19 by mutual agreement. Also not reported by Bronner, Kershner, or anyone else at the Times was that Hamas had in fact repeatedly offered to renew the ceasefire, but this offer was rejected by Israel. Accordingly, despite a stand-down order from Hamas intended to convey to Israel its seriousness about renewing the ceasefire, the IDF launched its operation, codenamed “Operation Cast Lead”, on December 27 with massive aerial bombardments of the defenseless Gaza Strip.
We also see the media performing its usual function it its treatment of Israeli war crimes during this operation. The media went to great lengths to obfuscate the criminality of Israeli attacks on civilian persons or objects; international law was deemed inapplicable and replaced by adopting the standard of the US and Israeli governments.
For example, on January 1, 2009, a New York Times article by Ethan Bronner acknowledged that Israel had bombed the parliament and other government buildings, universities, and mosques with the curious remark that such targets were “once considered off limits”. Of course, international law hadn’t changed since Israel began its operation and such attacks were still off limits; but this is a useful illustration of how the media accommodate the US government’s standard that international law just doesn’t apply when it comes to the actions of Washington or its partners.
Another Times article the same day stated, “In the debate over civilian casualties, there is no clear understanding of what constitutes a military target.” It was an “ambiguity” that was “evident at the intensive care ward in Shifa Hospital” in Gaza City. Indeed, the “ambiguity” was evident throughout the Gaza Strip. This supposed “ambiguity” disappears, however, when one sets aside Washington’s rules and examines what international law actually has to say about the matter. Since doing so leads inevitably to the conclusion that Israel engaged in massive war crimes, the necessity of such attempts to obfuscate the matter becomes obvious.
It also became obligatory for the media to assert that Israel was taking extraordinary measures to avoid civilian casualties, even issuing warnings to civilians to take shelter prior to launching airstrikes. In fact, Israel warned civilians to flee to the Gaza City center, then bombed the city center. Israel warned civilians to otherwise flee to shelter, then bombed several UN schools where civilians were sheltering. The warnings also induced a panic and flight that only served to put civilians at greater risk of harm. Moreover, media commentators universally failed to observe that issuing such warnings did not relieve Israel of responsibility for its ensuing indiscriminate attacks in which civilians were killed.
The media also consistently blamed Hamas for the deaths of Palestinian civilians. Accompanying characterizations of Israel as going out of its way to avoid civilian casualties was the obligatory claim that Hamas was using civilians as “human shields”. In fact, there is not a single documented case of civilians being killed by the Israel Defense Forces during Operation Cast Lead because they were being used at the time by Hamas as human shields. This propaganda claim, plagiarized of course from the Israeli government itself, depended on a euphemistic use of the phrase “human shields” effectively encompassing any civilian killed by the IDF in Gaza during its operation by virtue of Hamas being the governing authority there.
For an example of this, on January 1, 2009, Israel bombed the home of Hamas official Nizar Rayan. The attack flattened his building and damaging neighboring buildings, killing him, his four wives, and nine of his children, four of whom were under 18 years of age. To the US media, having adopted Israel’s standard, this constituted an instance of Hamas using human shields. Turning to international law, however, we find that “The presence within civilian populations of non-civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character” (Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions, Article 50). Moreover, the definition of “human shields” does not include civilians who choose to remain in their homes despite Israeli warnings to flee. Consequently, the supposed “ambiguity” that the US media try so very hard to see disappears, and it becomes apparent that the attack on Nizar Rayan’s home and the killing of his family was unambiguously a war crime.
When it comes to official enemies of the US, of course, the media considers the applicability of international law; but when it comes to the US’s own actions or the actions of its partners, a different standard applies. Therefore euphemistic language is employed that redefines the meanings of words and phrases like “human shields” to better accommodate and manufacture consent for US policy.
Reporting on Israel’s operation ranged from denials of any wrongdoing on Israel’s part to outright admiration for unambiguous war crimes. For context, the purpose of the operation, as announced by Israeli officials prior to its commencement, was to punish the civilian population through implementation of what the IDF called the “Dahiya Doctrine”—a reference to the flattening of the Dahiya district of Beirut during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon. The purpose of this doctrine was to inflict deliberately disproportionate damage to civilian infrastructure and otherwise engage in indiscriminate attacks—that is, to commit deliberate war crimes. After just two days, the Palestinian death toll was over 300, and by the time the 22-day assault ended on January 18, 2009, nearly 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, the vast majority of whom were civilians. This wasn’t a war; it was a massacre. Throughout the operation, Israel engaged in massive war crimes.
The US media nevertheless chose to glorify Israel’s onslaught. The headline of a December 28 article in the New York Times by Ethan Bronner read, “Israel Reminds Foes that It Has Teeth”. In it, there was no mention of the fact that scores of Palestinian civilians had already been killed. The headline of a December 30 article by Isabel Kershner read, “Despite Strikes, Israelis Vow to Soldier On”. Incidentally, this was the same piece in which she excised from history the existence of the ceasefire (and its violation by Israel). Both headlines could just as well have been written by the Israeli Ministry of Defense.
The New York Times editorial board on December 30 explicitly endorsed Israel’s operation—in the same editorial in which they blamed Hamas for violating the ceasefire despite being fully privy to the fact it had been Israel who had done so.
To cite a final example of the kind of prejudice existing within the US mainstream media, on January 13, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman lauded Israel’s operation, encouraging the IDF to inflict “heavy pain on the Gaza population”. He began by posing his only question about the operation: “What is the goal? Is it the education of Hamas or the eradication of Hamas?” He expressed his hope that it was the education of Hamas, then proceeded to explain what this meant: Operation Cast Lead was like Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, in which Israel’s strategy was “to use its Air Force to pummel Hezbollah and, while not directly targeting the Lebanese civilians with whom Hezbollah was intertwined, to inflict substantial property damage and collateral casualties on Lebanon at large.” This deliberate use of indiscriminate force by the IDF to punish the civilian population was “the education of Hezbollah”. Israel’s policy “was not pretty, but it was logical.” In sum, the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times explicitly praised Israel’s “logical” policy of committing what he, as a former war correspondent, must certainly have understood constituted war crimes.
So, to conclude, the US mainstream media effectively serve as a propaganda arm of the US government, performing the function of manufacturing consent for US policy. The challenge is to deprogram Americans from their indoctrination into the state religion, to overcome their resistance to facts not compatible with their worldview, and to properly inform them about the true nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the role of the US government, as well as the role of the US mainstream media, in it.
This article was originally published at Foreign Policy Journal.