It’s a pattern familiar to the point of cliché: an international crisis—or, to be slightly more precise, a crisis that takes place in a foreign country—occurs, and in its aftermath, American media outlets produce think pieces considering how the media performed in covering said crisis. These articles will almost always find that the mainstream coverage was somehow wanting. They will almost always find that the coverage produced by citizen journalists (they’ll almost always mention the citizen journalists) was both valiant and instructive, and that the news-sharing platform used by said citjos, be it a blog or a podcast or, most recently, a Twitter feed, offers enticing answers to the question of Where Journalism Will Go from Here.
At their best, these post-mortem efforts encourage critical thought about the progress of new media; even at their worst, they provide revealing snapshots of journalistic history. Yet occasionally these stories seem perfunctory, belying the editorial pressure to find something new to say about an impulse as old as history itself: the desire to share news of an event one has just witnessed.
The Israeli invasion of Gaza has produced treatments of both varieties. During the (first?) week of the crisis, in addition to the articles that focused on foreign journalists’ exclusion from Gaza and the pro-Israel bias in the American coverage and American media’s reticence in coverage, we’ve gotten the predictable—vaguely celebratory yet also vaguely cursory—citizen journos covering the crisis write-ups. And most of these have, not surprisingly, focused on everyone’s love-it-or-hate-it platform du jour: Twitter.
To (t)wit, yesterday’s New York Times piece, “The Toughest Q’s Answered in the Briefest Tweets,” which is the latest article to explore the use of Twitter and other new media platforms by Israeli officials during the Gaza crisis. Here’s its lede:
The Israel Defense Forces, recognizing that success in neutralizing the Hamas movement in Gaza is as much a public relations challenge as a military one, has enlisted an arsenal of Internet tools to take their message directly to a global audience. There is a military channel on the video-sharing site YouTube where you can watch suspected Hamas sites being obliterated by ordnance; blogs that spread the message of the foreign affairs ministry; and in the newest wrinkle, a news conference conducted through the microblogging service Twitter.
The piece goes on to highlight the key element of the IDF’s message-based Shock and Awe strategy: a press conference conducted last week, by officials at the Israeli consulate, via Twitter. (This was, the article goes out of its way to note, “the first governmental press conference ever held on Twitter,” and is therefore, one presumes, news chiefly by virtue of being new.) The use of Twitter is essentially youth outreach, according to David Saranga, Israel’s consul for media and public affairs. “We wanted to outreach to the young generation, who does not read the conventional media, but is still interested in events in the Middle East, so we thought this is a good way to be an official voice for the questions people are asking,” he told CNN. As the IDF’s Foreign Press branch head, Major Avital Leibovich, told The Jerusalem Post, discussing the YouTube clips that depict the attacks, “The blogosphere and new media are another war zone. We have to be relevant there.”
Blogosphere as war zone. The metaphor probably rings true to any blogger who has faced the wrath of a disgruntled reader, but to be used this literally? The theater of popular opinion, to be sure, has never been a demilitarized zone—but, then, there’s a fine line between information and propaganda—and, more to the point, as far as media coverage is concerned, there’s a fine line between exploration and boosterism. The Times piece, in the gee-look-how-tech-savvy-Israel-is tone it adopts to tell its story, reads like a press release full of Billy Maysian enthusiasm for What Twitter Can Do. (First press conference conduced via tweets! Illustrates the new ways military powers are relating to the public! Hints at journalism’s Web-democratized future! And will get your dingy socks looking sparkling white!) As Poynter blogger Alan Abbey noted, discussing the conference, “The briefers were extremely well-informed and kept peppering their answers with links to online content that backed up their positions. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that any positions were changed through this direct contact. Still, this approach to getting the message out is definitely forward-thinking.”