The foreign press—British and American alike—was less eager to dissect the findings. Both The Guardian and The New York Times offered straightforward accounts of the army’s report; each paper devoted a few lines in its story to noting that Israeli human-rights groups were calling for an independent investigation. In the days before and after, however, The Guardian trained a major spotlight on mounting international charges of Israeli war crimes, including two full-scale roundups of the furor plus an account of its own investigation into Israel’s actions. The major contribution of The New York Times during that period was a major report on Israelis’ mounting fears of international isolation. It folded the international uproar into its report on the army’s findings.
Was the Times being properly judicious, or just timid? As I noted at the outset, that depends on your point of view. One could just as easily ask whether The Guardian’s coverage of Israel’s actions was penetrating or just obsessive. In fact, the Times was being American and The Guardian was being British. If one views Israel as the injured party, the Times got it right. If Israel is basically a bully, then The Guardian got it right.
American coverage of the Middle East was profoundly affected by its traumatic experience after the battle at Jenin in 2002. During the eight-day Israeli incursion into a crowded refugee camp, Palestinian officials issued widely quoted reports of deaths numbering in the hundreds, perhaps thousands. The Israeli army said it was in the dozens. When the dust had settled, a United Nations investigation found that the army was right. That was the event that triggered the yearlong wave of media boycotts I mentioned earlier.
The Jenin experience was evident in American coverage of the recent Gaza war from the outset. When Israel barred reporters from entering Gaza, CNN’s cameras showed the fighting as tiny puffs of smoke, seen from a distant hilltop, while its reporters repeatedly noted that they couldn’t get inside to verify the facts. The BBC, by contrast, hired Palestinian camera crews and covered the devastation live. Only midway through the twenty-two day war, once the evidence of massive destruction was inescapable, did CNN start airing extensive footage from Palestinian crews.
Whom you turn to first is a function of whom you trust more. And that depends on your point of view.
In addition to this piece, the Columbia Journalism Review is offering two additional perspectives on the coverage of the fighting in Gaza. From Gaza itself, Taghreed El-Khodary, a correspondent for The New York Times, writes a Reporter’s Notebook piece on the war. Both articles are in the May/June 2009 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. And Lisa Goldman, writing from Israel, explains how the fighting was covered in that country, and how the militant mood of the Israeli press matched and fed the mood of the people there. All three pieces in this special package were supported by a grant from the Open Society Institute, for which we are deeply grateful.