What’s A Journalist To Do When The Political Gets Personal?

When you write about the world, or report on what’s happening “over there,” the issues can seem far away enough to permit disengagement. The distance encourages detachment and objectification. When warring peoples are labeled and treated like competing sports teams, coverage can easily desensitize as well as inform. The world can then look like a chessboard, as it appears to many policy-makers and TV pundits, who move toy soldiers in their minds across maps of their imaginations.

A writer named Tom White from Odessa, Texas, was commenting about this tendency that one sees in journalism all the time. He raised the issue in reference to the way than an “expert” was quoted in Nicholas Lemann’s brilliant policy dissection of “The Next World Order” in a recent issue of The New Yorker. “What caught my eye,” he explains, “more than anything else in the piece was Lemann’s rendering of an interview with Ken Pollack, who was, he said, the National Security Council’s staff expert on Iraq during the last years of the Clinton administration Here are Lemann’s prize lines on Pollack:

‘When I went to see him at his office in Washington, with a little encouragement he got out from behind his desk and walked over to his office wall, where three maps of the Middle East were hanging. “‘The only way to do it is a full-scale invasion,’ he said, using a pen as a pointer. ‘We’re talking about two grand corps, two to three hundred thousand people altogether. The population is here, in the Tigris-Euphrates valley.’ He pointed to the area between Baghdad and Basra. ‘Ideally, you’d have the Saudis on board.’

He pointed to the Prince Sultan Air Base, near Riyadh. ‘You could make Kuwait the base, but it’s much easier in Saudi. You need to take western Iraq and southern Iraq’ – pointing again – ‘because otherwise they’ll fire Scuds at Israel and at Saudi oil fields.

You probably want to prevent Iraq from blowing up its own oil fields, so troops have to occupy them. And you need troops to defend the Kurds in northern Iraq.’ Point, point. ‘You go in as hard as you can, as fast as you can.’ He slapped his hand of the top of his desk. ‘You get the enemy to divide his forces, by threatening him in two places at once.’ His hand hit the desk again, hard. ‘Then you crush him.’” White then comments: “Nice, vivid writing you will agree. Grown men used to play with painted lead soldiers reenacting the Civil War or the campaigns of Napoleon. Clearly the fun has not gone out of that kind of thing for men like Pollack. You’d hardly think he was talking of human beings. Indeed he’ll SMASH the Iraqis. He and his army of two or three hundred thousand people, two grand corps, whatever.” The Power Of Personal Observation But, hey, wait a minute, what about the people who are in the way when the marines come SMASHING through? Journalists like England’s John Pilger are worried about them. The reason: he’s met them and feels an empathetic connection that often gets lost in media coverage that treats human suffering in terms of the body count, or that fails to distinguish between rulers and the ruled. Listen: “I have seen the appalling state of the children of Iraq. I have sat next to an Iraqi doctor in a modern hospital while she has turned away parents with children suffering from cancers that are part of what they call a “Hiroshima epidemic”- – caused, according to several studies, by the depleted uranium that was used by the U.S. and Britain in the Gulf War and is now carried in the dust of the desert. Not only is Iraq denied equipment to clean up its contaminated battlefields, but also cancer drugs and hospital equipment.” His report goes on, but the point I am making is that Pilger’s personal presence there gave him a vantage point that few of the many Iraq bashers have. Incidentally, I know that other journalists who have been to Iraq, such as Maurice Murad, contradict the “500,000 dead Iraqi children due to UN sanctions” story that has circulated for years.

In an essay in “Into the Buzzsaw” (Prometheus Books), Murad writes that he visited many hospitals and saw few sick children, and says that it is in Saddam’s interest to let people think this. Without revisiting the details, I do think that personal investigations are important, and what journalists see and choose to report often reflect their values and political outlook.

Sadly, it is far too easy for them to disconnect from the human realities of this conflict, perhaps because of the difficulties of gaining access. That is why, for instance, that reporters who covered Vietnam are far more skeptical than many of the gee-whiz crowd in Afghanistan, including the “exclusive” CNN crew allowed to tag along to show American soldiers picking their way through the caves on “Operation Mountain Lion.” Two Jews, Six Opinions As a Jewish American who has been enmeshed in the debate over Israel for years, I feel a responsibility and connection to what’s going on in the Mideast because Israel’s leaders generally claim to be acting not just in their national interest but in the interests of Jews everywhere.

I am constantly being exposed to and involved in emotional arguments on these issues and feel them directly, not just intellectually. I have been exposed to them since I was a kid. The editor of my Web log comes from a family of holocaust survivors. She lives in a complex emotional universe of fear and pro-Israeli conviction. We share many values. We quarrel constantly but I know how vexed she is about Sharon, and at the same time, the hate directed at Jews all over the world.

I can feel her pain, as well as the feelings of families who have lost children in terror attacks and suicide bombings. We must not be callous about these losses. At the same time, this pain mustn’t blind us to the history of the conflict. For years, Noam Chomsky has compared Israeli policy to colonialism and was criticized for exaggeration.

Now centrists like former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis and former National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski are using similar language. The occupation has been justified for all these years as necessary for Israel’s security. bit is it? I do believe Israel has the right to exist and like many, think that its future will only be secured after a settlement that also secures the rights of Palestinians. The Trashing Of A TV Station As I write, I am reading about an educational TV station in Ramallah that was just trashed by the Israeli army. A few years ago, the journalists and educators who launched the channel as a democratic counterpoint to the authoritarianism of the Palestinian Authority AND the fanaticism of Islamic fundamilitants visited our offices to seek help for their plans to create an independent media voice.

We had a lot in common. I was pleased to follow reports from Internews about their progress as well as their conflicts with and criticisms of Yasir Arafat’s government. Today, Al Quds TV is in ruins. Two days earlier, a friend gave an independent filmmaker, another Palestinian, my phone number. She called from Bethlehem, hoping we could help her get the news out about what was happening in her hometown.

Suddenly, a conflict I was watching on TV was in my ear. Literally, in the form of a real person. Her house was surrounded by tanks, she told me. “What did we, the ordinary people here, do to deserve this, she asked?” Click. The phone was soon cut off, as was her electricity and water. And then I started thinking about an exchange I witnessed between two young teenagers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who had become fast friends in the Seeds of Peace camp. The program was organized by John Wallach, a journalist who, after years of covering the conflict, was moved to do something about it by creating an oasis of conflict resolution, hope and dialogue. One day in the camp, as I was filming a documentary for Globalvision, the Israeli youth explained that he would soon be drafted into the Army. And the Palestinian, who was hanging on his arm, said, “Yeah and if he invades my neighborhood, he will shoot me.” He laughed but the Israeli boy did not. I wonder where they are today? And I wonder, as well, where my colleagues in the news business are. Why aren’t more speaking out against well-documented attacks on journalists covering the crisis?

I have heard from a friend at a TV station here in New York City that their newsroom has been charged with internal wrangling over the need for more even-handed coverage, even as most of the city’s editorial columnists and politicians are supportive of Israel.

Years ago, activists used to say that the personal is the political. Today, for me, this news is very personal, leading to debates with friends and family members who I feel, in some instances, react more as knee-jerk members of a tribe than as citizens in a global community committed to compassion and human rights for all.

As a Jew, I identify with an appeal for a cessation of hostilities now making the rounds in Scandinavia. “Our alternative to Sharon and to Arafat should be the Jewish tradition of humanism and faith in the future. they write.

When challenged by a stranger to sum up the Jewish religion while he stood on one foot, the great Rabbi Hillel replied simply, “That which you find hateful to yourself, do not do unto others. That is all of the law. The rest is commentary. Go and study.”

– Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org, most recently directed “We Are Family” as a Globalvision production for Tommy Boy Films.

Danny Schechter Executive Editor Mediachannel.org http://www.mediachannel.org

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