Lethal, own-goal war journalism

Published date14 June 2021
Date14 June 2021
AuthorProf. Richard Landes
A brief preliminary discussion about the three types of unethical forms of "war journalism" is in order. There is patriotic war journalism: reporting as news your own side's war propaganda; lethal war journalism: reporting as news a foreign belligerent's war propaganda; and own-goal war journalism: reporting your enemy's war propaganda as news.

Modern, professional journalism considers patriotic war journalism unethical, a prostitution of its high calling. While reporters sometimes sympathize with one "side" in a foreign war, lethal war journalists systematically give credence to one belligerent's narratives, depicting the other side as an atrocious enemy. The third category seems wholly improbable, since why would anyone do something that stupid?

"Eight children in one strike," ranted John Oliver, unaware that six were killed by Hamas rockets.

And yet, in the 21st century, the land "between the river and the sea" has given birth to a peculiarly virulent case of both lethal and own-goal journalism among Western news providers. From 2000 to 2002, a wave of the most ferocious and provocative lethal journalism in the history of modern, professional journalism came from Western journalists who published dishonest Palestinian Arab claims about Israeli evil-doing (targeting kids, massacring civilians) and ran them as news.

When those claims were disproven, as they all were, these news outlets did nothing to correct their errors. In the spring of 2002, when lethal journalists filled the global public sphere with reports of Israeli massacres in Jenin (just like the Nazis in Poland), progressives in Europe protested by wearing mock suicide belts in solidarity with an enemy about to attack their own countries. Own-goal journalism scored a massive blow for an enemy whose viciousness was embodied in those very suicide belts that these demonstrators, inebriated with virtue, wore so proudly.

(N.B.: Just before the outbreak of the recent hostilities in Gaza, The Guardian did a review of its major "errors" in its 150-year history. While it did not list its appalling and unrepentant "Jenin massacre" coverage, it did list the editorial approval of the Balfour Declaration. In other words, it covered up its journalistic error about the news and reversed a moral judgment call from 1917 on the basis of a view of Israel inspired by that uncorrected lethal journalism.)

Since then, Western media have continued to practice this lethal and own-goal war journalism where Israel is concerned and beyond (e.g., the dismissal/banning of the Chinese lab origin of COVID-19 "conspiracy theory").

Here in the Middle East, it goes like this: Run Palestinian (Hamas) propaganda—lethal narratives about evil Israel—as news; treat Israeli denials as propaganda; when proven wrong, move onto the next lethal narrative.

This seemingly unbreakable pattern of press behavior in the 21st century has given birth to one of the most grotesque (and profoundly inhumane) war strategies in the history of asymmetrical war: Provoke the enemy to attack, so as to maximize your own civilian casualties, exploiting the compassion of outsiders to get outsiders to hate your enemy as badly as you do.

This cannibalistic strategy of inflicting damage on your own people to win a propaganda war against your enemy can only work if the outside media tell the story as you want it told: highlight your suffering; use your statistics; blame the enemy for disproportionate response; accuse it of war crimes and ethnic cleansing. This means that the foreign media must not report how you fire from the very midst of civilians, including members of the foreign media; not report when your stray bombs kill your own people; not report on the genocidal hatreds with which you stoke the conflict; and, of course, since it takes considerable intimidation to get journalists to behave so unprofessionally, to deny categorically the "nonsense" (Jodi Rudoren's famous phrase) that they...

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