But you had to read it in Maariv (or see it in Shelah’s report on Channel 10). Most of the foreign correspondents don’t read Hebrew, and most educated Israelis they talk to don’t read the right-wing tabloid. Naturally, most overseas readers—and columnists—didn’t hear about it. Mostly they heard what was in Haaretz. And so one commentator after another complained about lack of evidence—and about Haaretz’s “leftist” motives in publishing.
On march 30, eleven days after the stories first appeared, the army published the report of its investigation. It said the squad leaders who described the two killings admitted they had not witnessed them directly, but were reporting hearsay. Therefore, the case was considered closed.
Amos Harel of Haaretz treated the probe’s findings sarcastically. A year earlier, investigators had completed a probe of an officer accused of letting his teenage son take a joy ride on a military ATV. That investigation took eighteen months. “One would be hard-pressed not to express astonishment at the speed and efficiency” shown by the army’s legal team this time, he wrote. Still, he wondered, why were the investigators so certain “the soldiers were truthful during the investigations,” as the army report put it, but lied when talking among themselves? Why were the soldiers now forbidden to speak to the press? What about the soldiers’ other accounts—of vandalism, bullying and the like? And why hadn’t the army sought testimony from Palestinians in Gaza, some of whom had told the AP stories that matched the soldiers’ accounts?
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.