July 13, 2020

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Cognitive Egocentric Journalists Helpless before Palestinian Disinformation


From my now-completed book ms: 

They’re So Smart cause We’re So Stupid, part I, chap. 3, “The Jenin ‘Massacre’.”


Cognitive Egocentric Journalists Helpless before Palestinian Disinformation

That Palestinians might have not been telling their eager audiences the truth, worse, that they were engaged in war propaganda designed to alienate support from the enemy and arouse rage among their own, never seems to have occurred to these information professionals.[1] And if any Israeli had the nerve to point out that the Palestinians might not be telling the truth, a journalist like Andrea Koppel, operating entirely from third hand accounts from colleagues about Israelis slaughtering Palestinians, and believing that signaled the “end of the state of Israel,” would scornfully respond, “Oh, so now they’re all liars.”[2]

In the abundant thesaurus of astonishingly stupid statements made in the early 21st century, Andrea Koppel’s holds a special place, partly because it reflects a wide post-colonial consensus that has corrupted fields like anthropology and journalism to the core,[3] partly because it was supremely inappropriate from a journalist in this particular case. First, the actual evidence indicates a long history of widespread lying by Palestinians to Western journalists. Second, it was precisely the astonishing and uncorrected credulity of the journalists – Koppel had just arrived in Israel, no journalist had yet been in the Jenin Camp at the time of her conversation – that produced the continuous series of episodes of lethal journalism in which they mainstreamed Palestinian propaganda accusations as news.[4] Third, by phrasing it as a rhetorical question in which the only way not to look like a racist was to say, “no, they’re not all liars,” she literally boxed herself and her interlocutors out of reality.

For, repeatedly, the real story turned out to be the opposite of what Palestinians told anyone who would listen. Abo Gali, the head of the Hospital in Jenin, told any and every one that the Israelis had targeted the hospital with 11 tank shells that destroyed one wing, and subsequently did their best to keep the wounded from being treated in the Hospital, including blocking food supplies.[5] On the contrary, the IDF had gone out of its way to protect the hospital and guarantee its continuing supply, including the treatment of wounded Palestinian combatants, while the Palestinians used ambulances to ferry suicide belts. When Pierre Rehov asked to see the destroyed wing, he was shown a wall with some bullet marks. Similarly, an old man, Ali Youssef, testified how the Israelis shot him in the foot and the hand, when in fact the Israeli medical team not only treated him for injuries (not bullets), they sent him to an Israeli hospital to treat his undiagnosed congestive heart failure.[6] One must see these interviews to realize how easily and convincingly these men lied.[7]

For a serious journalist like Koppel, trained to be suspicious of, and double-check, eye-witness accounts, her principled credulity bespoke a dramatic collapse of professional standards, precisely where and when they were most needed.[8] Instead, she opted for the Saïdian Zeitgeist.[9] Nor was she the only one. CBS’s correspondent Mark Phillips, indignant at Israel’s “destruction of the peace process,” explained that how to evaluate what happened at Jenin depends on whom you believe (i.e. he preferred the Palestinian narrative). Joshua Muravchik noted how he “sounded like a modern-day literary critic approaching a ‘text’ of which all constructions were equally subjective, thus equally valid.”[10] A Human Rights Watch activist gave the poor journalist’s version of this narrative equivalence. Ceding somewhat to the evidence, he explained to The Washington Post’s John Lancaster, “the final tally will probably be somewhere in the middle.” It wasn’t anywhere near: the final tally fell not between Palestinian hundreds and thousands vs Israeli estimates around 100. They were half the IDF estimates.[11]

The Jenin affair represents one of the most extraordinary episodes in the battle for the soul of 21st century journalism: narrative vs accuracy. Here, accuracy undermined the apparently enormously exciting narrative that Israel was massacring Palestinians. For many, that narrative was too good to let go.


[1] For documentation of the systematic lying involved both by Palestinian spokespeople, medical officials, and people on the street, see below.

[2] Diana Lynne, “Pro-Palestinian Bias among CNN Ranks?” WorldNetDaily, April 23, 2002. The conversation took place on April 14, at which point no journalists had access to the battlefield.

[3] See below, II, 1.

[4] See below, II,  5.

[5] Bakri, Jenin, Jenin, 14:17-15:49; 35:30-38:50; Rehov, Road to Jenin, 28:40-32:40. Similar claims to Himmel in Jenin: Massacring the Truth.

[6] Bakri, Jenin, Jenin 05:29-06:20; 29:47-31:50. Rehov, Road, 39:00-40:54.

[7] See Phyllis Chesler’s discussion of this problem in the context of journalistic credulity about Jenin: The New Anti-Semitism, pp. 65-69. See the repeated cases of Palestinians treated by Israeli doctors, accusing the Israelis of trying to kill them: Pierre Rehov, La route de Jenin, discussed below.

[8] Koppel denied making these remarks, despite the independent testimony of three witnesses. This is typical of astounding stupidities: in one context they’re self-evident, and everyone nods (e.g. among journalists), in another, they become deeply embarrassing silliness to be categorically denied.

[9] See below, II, 4.

[10] Muravichik, Covering the Intifada, p. 107.

[11] Kuperwasser: around 100.

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