When an explosion on a Gaza beach killed several Palestinians earlier this month, the international media didn't pause to think, research or ask questions about the incident.
They simply jumped.
As a picture of a Palestinian girl grieving over the corpse of a dead relative spread around the world and onto the front pages of newspapers like The New York Times, there was little doubt as to who was to blame for her suffering and, by extension, that of all Palestinians: the Israeli "occupiers" whose brutality had once again taken the lives of Arab innocents.
The only problem with this story, like so many others that have come out of this conflict, is that its basic premise wasn't true. Shell fragments from some of those wounded in the incident who were treated in Israeli hospitals, along with other factors, showed that the Israel Defense Forces were not responsible.
But the facts counted for little even a few days later when a credulous media accepted at face value the usual shrill accusations about Israel from Palestinian spokesmen and their leftist allies from non-governmental organizations on the ground.
The Truth Doesn't Matter
The context of the story, which was a Palestinian Kassam missile offensive against Israeli towns from territory that the Jewish state had actually evacuated last summer, was largely ignored. That the strife was itself a direct result of a decision on the part of the Palestinian leadership to pursue violence instead of peace negotiations was lost in the "human interest" angle of the Palestinian casualties.
Since they perceived Israel to be in the wrong as a matter of principle, many in the media seemed to act as if it was okay to promulgate the myth at the expense of the truth.
Does all of this sound familiar? It should. The Gaza beach story was just the latest rerun of the same scenario we've all seen before.
It was the same when a Palestinian boy named Mohammed al- Durra was supposedly slain by Israeli army snipers in the arms of his father at the beginning of the second intifada in the fall of 2000 when, in fact, he was killed by Palestinian gunfire.
And the same scenario was played out in the spring of 2000 when many in the media bought into a lie about a massacre of Arab civilians in Jenin during an Israeli army counteroffensive following a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings. Even the United Nations eventually had to accept that this was false, too.
Why does this keep happening? How is that the pictures and the facts seem to be so divorced from each when it comes to Israel? For a credible answer to these questions, there's no better place to look than a book that was published by Encounter late last year to little fanfare: The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy, by journalist Stephanie Gutmann.
Gutmann, whose book was unsurprisingly ignored by most of the mainstream media, spent most of the second intifada as a member of the working press and saw up close how all of this happens. The result is a slim volume that is must reading for anyone who wishes to understand why so many in the media make the same mistakes over and over again.
As Gutmann reports, in the age of the 24/7 news cycle of Internet and all-news cable television, the stakes involved in this issue have never been higher.
"If you can dominate world media and enlist world opinion," she writes, "you can defeat your enemy."
That is a piece of wisdom that she says "a master media manipulator" like the late Yasser Arafat understood all too well. And with 350 permanently based foreign news bureaus in Jerusalem producing up to 900 articles each day, that provides a lot of media to manipulate. Those who were ready to believe the lie about Gaza, al-Durra or Jenin did so because they believe they understand the conflict because "they trust the BBC and the Times" and think "the pictures they see on CNN don't lie."
In her introduction, Gutmann asserts, "I wrote this book because apparently people need to be reminded that pictures do lie … The second intifada was explained to the public through a series of images – images that didn't bring us the truth."
The entire course of the Palestinian terror against Israel that raged during the past few years was based on using the media to undermine support for Israel at home and abroad. Indeed, she writes, "it is impossible to separate" any analysis of the second intifada from its coverage.
The point was, once one side has established its narrative as the one accepted by reporters and editors, it doesn't really matter what actually happened.
The classic example of this was a celebrated New York Times error in which the paper printed an Associated Press photo that it said depicted an Israeli soldier brutalizing a bloody Palestinian youth on the Temple Mount. As the Times discovered, the youth in extremis was actually an American Jew who had been attacked by Arabs. The soldier, whom Times readers were told was beating him up, was really an Israeli police officer who had rescued him from a mob bent on lynching him.
In seeking an explanation for this shoddy journalism, Gutmann likened the error to a "Freudian slip that revealed something deeper: the prejudice and assumptions that governed most editors' thinking about the conflict."
Devoting chapters to each of the symbolic gaffes that characterized the mainstream media's ham-handed treatment of the conflict, Gutmann breaks down the al-Durra story, the Jenin myth, as well as the horrifying tale of the failure of most of the media to report the lynching of two Israelis soldiers by a Palestinian mob in Ramallah.
Even when confronted with obvious manipulation to produce atrocity stories against the Israelis or the truth about Palestinian terror tactics, many journalists on the job in Jerusalem preferred to treat false statements from Palestinians as credible. And they disdained truthful Israelis. Even when the proof was right in front of their noses.
Gutmann relates that one European reporter confessed to her that he wouldn't report a story of a boy suicide bomber who had been captured before he could explode his bomb because he felt "the Israelis were trying to exploit" it. The obvious exploitation of a child by the Palestinians didn't seem to bother him.
Gutmann closes on a hopeful note when she predicts that blogs and alternate media sources are undermining the "imperial media" monopoly and bringing accountability to a profession that desperately needs it. I hope she's right, but given the way anti-Zionist and anti-American conspiracy-theory nuts have used these alternative resources to undermine the truth as much as the liars of Jenin doesn't support this optimism.
In the meantime, both the general public and journalists would do well to read her cautionary tale of a story that continues to be gotten wrong – and take it deadly seriously.