March 7, 2021

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Profiles in Lethal Journalism: Janine de Giovanni, She Who Cannot Err

The following is from my book ms: They’re so Smart cause we’re so Stupid: A Medievalist’s Guide to the 21st Century. It is part of a chapter on the Jenin “Massacre” and concerns the self-justification of Janine de Giovanni to documentary-maker Martin Himmel (Jenin: Massacring the Truth) for her claim about that what she saw in Jenin “Rarely in more than a decade of war reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life.

Profiles in Lethal Journalism: Janine de
Giovanni, She Who Cannot Err

When it became clear that no massacre had occurred at Jenin, some papers and individual journalists, like Phil Reeves, ran apologies for the errors of their coverage after the UN came out with its report of fifty plus dead.[1] Others, often the most egregious offenders, like the Guardian, refused outright to acknowledge the error, even a decade later.[2] Martin Himmel, with one of the soldiers from Jenin, tried to track down some of the British press’s most lethal journalists, and found himself either refused audience, or, when granted interviews, dismissed with more misinformation.[3]


The prize for dishonest response to being caught engaging in lethal journalism goes to Janine di Giovanni, whose claim to fame was writing in the London Times (possibly Britain’s most high-minded paper), “Rarely in more than a decade of war reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life.[6] Note how both remarks involve attributing (malevolent) motive: “deliberate… disrespect.” Given the massive and savage destruction of Bosnia, Chechnya et al., where massacres of civilians and mass rape of women ran into the thousands and tens of thousands, where whole cities were devastated, as compared to five square blocks of a refugee camp, it is hard to imagine a more dishonest, personal “testimony.” And anyone among her readers who wanted to put Israel, that nation of sovereign Jews, in the gutter of Nazi-like behavior, could avail themselves readily of her false “witness” as a journalist.

Unlike A.N. Wilson of “genocide” fame at the
Evening Standard,[7]
and the Guardian’s team (Susannne Goldenberg, Peter Beaumont, Seumas Milne,
Brian Whitacker, and Chris McGreal), all of whom declined to be interviewed by
Himmel, Janine, completely unrepentant, had the immodesty to think she could
defend herself. In so doing, she gives us a striking profile of a lethal
journalist – how one thinks about his or her work, subjects, critics, even
self… None of it is particularly attractive, much of it very damaging to a
profession with alleged ethical standards.

“We’re not naïve,” Di Giovanni insists, not
realizing that the alternative to naïve in this case, is maliciously dishonest.
“Well into 15 years of covering war, we [I and my colleagues] were horrified,
really horrified. The level of destruction was quite unnecessary, to level it,
to make it look like a football pitch was shocking,” she explained, as if she
knew the military issues that made the IDF’s choices “unnecessary,” and as if
so tightly contained an area of destruction were worse than the vast,
indiscriminate, destruction she had been seeing for 15 years. “They were hiding
something,” she asserts confidently, clinging to the massacre-meme that the
Israelis had buried the bodies of those they had executed.[8]
“What happened at Jenin was an outrage and a violation of all human rights,”
she asserts, though she did admit that the Israelis had not committed a

Asked how she felt about apologizing for her
own coverage, she responds authoritatively, “I would never do that. I stand
completely by what I write.” Whether this is meant as a normative statement (my
impression), or specifically about Jenin, it bespeaks a remarkable attitude
toward self-criticism on the part of an alleged journalist. Not only is it
obvious to her that she has done nothing wrong, it is equally obvious that
Israel has committed heinous war crimes. For her, the only significant
difference between the Serbs, the Hutus, and the Israelis is that when it came
to the first two, war criminals were condemned, but “the Israelis never are,”
as if everyone knows they’re guilty but they always get away with it.

Asked to explain how 56 dead in three weeks of
urban warfare can be worse than Chechnia and Bosnia, where a third of a
million, primarily civilians, died, Di Giovanni first takes refuge behind her
personal experience – “Have you been to Chechnya?” – then resorts to the
stunningly naïve:

Was it [my comparison] disproportionate? Well I’ve been to all those places, and I’ve been to Jenin, and I don’t… I still really believe that one human life is one human life… so I think in a sense… [discusses the thousands and thousands massacred by the Hutu]… horror is horror, injustice is injustice, human rights abuse is human rights abuse.[9]

This is not the seasoned voice of a serious war
correspondent, who understands the terrible truth of triage, of a journalist
who “bears [honest] witness” to her time. Rather, it is the sophomoric voice of
the “every life is precious” meme, of the most empathic of progressives living
in a civil society bubble of non-violence and safe-spaces. Having thus
undermined her repeatedly invoked “I’ve been around and let me tell you…”
claim, Di Giovanni then switches to a “ridiculous” moral equivalence, in which
painfully avoided collateral damage is equated with deliberate genocide —
because in both cases, people died.[10]
As Martin Sieff comments to Himmel, “Where were these people coming from? What
did they see and what did they imagine they were seeing?”

Di Giovanni has seen a war crime in Jenin. No
evidence will dissuade her:

Time and time again Sharon has been excused for massive human rights violations… I could go on and on, and it’s not just that they’re excused from it, but it’s very rarely accurately reported… in America, in North America… [where] the Zionist Lobby is much stronger than in Europe.

Consider this double imprint of the lethal
journalist’s attitude. First, the target has been acquired: Sharon and the IDF
are a priori guilty, as bad as the worst, and need to be brought before
justice. Therefore, as a journalist, she is completely justified in comparing
the IDF to the Hutus and Serbs, in order to right that standing ‘injustice.’
Second, like those who attack the press for being too pro-Zionist,[11]
she complains that not enough Palestinian claims get passed on as news, and
that American journalists, less willing to be lethal journalists and turn on
Israel, are less free.[12]
How can we get Sharon and the IDF punished for their crimes, if not enough of
these “massive human rights violations” get reported?[13]

But perhaps her most telling attitude was
towards the Israeli soldier who had come with Himmel. Asked to address her self-justification
to the soldier before her, she responded, “I don’t want to talk to him. In
fact, I don’t even want him in the room when I’m talking.” Then turning to
Himmel, she asks, “Are you Israeli? Are you Jewish?” In other words, the “human
rights” advocacy journalist has so completely bought the Palestinian narrative
that she will not even consider interacting with an Israeli “war criminal.”[14]
As she herself insists, there is no way that she might be wrong and he might be
right. Pretty tribal for a progressive.

In this, she sheds light on David Blair’s false
memory that he would have reported it, had the Israelis made their case, and
Kuperwasser’s observation: these journalists were not listening to Israelis
(unless they confirmed their beliefs). They always-already considered them
“beyond the pale.”[15]
The question about Himmel’s Jewishness reflects, on the one hand, the
widespread attitude that “only a Jew would defend Israel,”[16]
and on the other, a treatment of another human being that, were it addressed to
any other group, would readily be called racism.[17]

None of this hurt De Giovanni’s career. She
went on to positions in Newsweek and Vogue, where she has
repeated her self-justification about Jenin.[18]
She even gave a talk in which she advised aspiring journalists on how to do the
job professionally.[19]
Here the lethal journalist has cleaned up her act (aside from warmly
recommending Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as reliable sources).

You have to be extremely careful and check stories, especially of massacres… The reader will always be able to tell if you have bias… footage is often not reliable… Be very careful when interviewing… you have to maintain distance without giving witnesses impression you don’t trust them… you need to be objective. I try not to be for one side of the other, but sometimes it’s very hard when someone is the victim of state terror… There’s no need to exaggerate, just tell the story… You’re not a prosecutor… [but] an objective writer, above, trying to tell it.

The only connection here to her Jenin lethal journalism is the semi-admission of bias “when someone is the victim of state terror.” In other words, in Jenin, for example, she sided against Israel which was, in her and Human Rights Watch’s PoMo-PoCo victimology book, committing “state terror,” the worst of all.[20] Otherwise, she advocates the kind of journalism that she decidedly did not practice at Jenin. No wonder the talk is so flat and lacking in conviction. Pretending to be an objective reporter, above it all, trying to tell it like it is… is not Janine’s passion.

[1] Report of the Secretary-General prepared pursuant to General Assembly resolution ES-10/10, August 1, 2002.

in Jenin
,” Guardian, August 2, 2002;on the ten-year
retrospective, see above n. 25.

[3] Himmel, “Challenging the British Media,” Jenin:
Massacring the Truth

[4] David Blair, “Horror
stories from the siege of Jenin
,” The Telegraph, April 15,

[5] Conversation with (rtd) General Yossi
Kuperwasser, 2006.

[6] Janine di Giovanni, “Inside
the Camp of the Dead
,” London Times,April 16,

[7] A.N. Wilson, “A demo we can’t afford to ignore,” Evening Standard, April 15, 2002.

[8] A theme that recurs in Palestinian testimony
over and again in Jenin, Jenin (see below).

[9] Himmel, Jenin, “Comparing Jenin with
other Conflict,” ***

[10] Compare this thinking with the technical
prevarication of the Human Rights Watch official explaining how what Israel
does (collateral damage) is a war-crime but what Hamas does (suicide terror) is
not, despite the key factor being intent: “***.”

[11] See below, chap on lethal journalism, n. 3.

[12] This is the complaint not only of the
academics who defend the lethal journalists (Falk and Philo), but of the
Palestinians themselves: Abo Gali complains to Rehov that the information does
not flow as it should (Route de Jenine, **:**).

[13] On the political agenda of lethal journalists,
see ibid, n. 47. For the example of a Harvard Student excoriating the US press
for failing to report the massacre as luridly as the European press, see above,
n. 27.

[14] Just as the crowd of Israeli admirers of Omar
Bakri considered David Zangen a war criminal when he tried to defend the IDF
operation (below).

[15] For an in-depth analysis of this syndrome, see
Robin Shepherd, A State Beyond the Pale,”

[16] See French consul’s remark to me; the
journalist to the French Jewish teacher I, 1, n. **.

[17] See Richard Ingrams, a columnist for the
Observer, who refuses to read letters from Jews about the Middle East, and
wants that Jewish journalists to declare their racial origins when writing on
Israel. Julie Burchill, “Good,
Bad and Ugly
,” Guardian, November 29, 2003. Can one imagine
such a demand from Muslims?

[18] Vogue article.

[19] Janine di Giovanni, On
Research, Responsibility, and Narrative Nonfiction
,” Power of the
Pen Fiction Nonfiction
, [no date].

[20] Above, on Urmi Shah at HRW, n. 38.

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