Tuesday, February 5, 2008

What Passes Unchecked in 'Alice in Wonderland' Journalism

A blatant example of how bias and ideology trumps common sense. One of the authors of this absurdity is touted as a "political economist." But what of a major newspaper not catching this mathematical impossibility?
The article in full below, as well as some additional takes on media bias by Richard Landes.
--david brumer

Gaza Buried in Flour - Martin Kramer
The Boston Globe ran an op-ed on Jan. 26 under the headline "Ending the Stranglehold on Gaza" by Eyad al-Sarraj of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and Sara Roy, a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. The op-ed included the sentence: "Although Gaza daily requires 680,000 tons of flour to feed its population, Israel had cut this to 90 tons per day by November 2007, a reduction of 99%." If Gaza has a population of 1.5 million, as the authors also note, then 680,000 tons of flour a day come out to almost half a ton of flour per Gazan, per day. A typographical error? Hardly. The authors copied it from an article in the Al-Ahram Weekly from last November. Note how an absurd and impossible "statistic" has made its way up the media feeding chain. It begins in an Egyptian newspaper, is cycled through a Palestinian activist, is submitted under the shared byline of a Harvard "research scholar," and finally appears in the Boston Globe, whose editors apparently can't do basic math. (MartinKramer.org)

Gaza buried in flour
Martin Kramer
Monday, 28 January 2008
The Boston Globe has just run an op-ed under the headline "Ending the Stranglehold on Gaza." The authors are Eyad al-Sarraj, identified as founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, and Sara Roy, identified as senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. The bias of the op-ed speaks for itself, and I won't even dwell on it. But I do want to call attention to this sentence:
Although Gaza daily requires 680,000 tons of flour to feed its population, Israel had cut this to 90 tons per day by November 2007, a reduction of 99 percent. You don't need to be a math genius to figure out that if Gaza has a population of 1.5 million, as the authors also note, then 680,000 tons of flour a day come out to almost half a ton of flour per Gazan, per day. A typographical error at the Boston Globe? Hardly. The two authors used the same "statistic" in an earlier piece. They copied it from an article published in the Ahram Weekly last November, which reported that "the price of a bag of flour has risen 80 per cent, because of the 680,000 tonnes the Gaza Strip needs daily, only 90 tonnes are permitted to enter." Sarraj and Roy added the bit about this being "a reduction of 99 percent." Note how an absurd and impossible "statistic" has made its way up the media food chain. It begins in an Egyptian newspaper, is cycled through a Palestinian activist, is submitted under the shared byline of a Harvard "research scholar," and finally appears in the Boston Globe, whose editors apparently can't do basic math. Now, in a viral contagion, this spreads across the Internet, where that "reduction of 99 percent" becomes a well-attested fact. What's the truth? I see from a 2007 UN document that Gaza consumes 450 tons of flour daily. The Palestinian Ministry of Economy, according to another source, puts daily consumption at 350 tons. So the figure for total consumption retailed by Sarraj and Roy is off by more than three orders of magnitude, i.e. a factor of 1,000. No doubt, there's less flour shipped from Israel into Gaza--maybe it's those rocket barrages from Gaza into Israel?--but even if it's only the 90 tons claimed by Sarraj and Roy, it isn't anything near a "reduction of 99 percent." Unfortunately, if readers are going to remember one dramatic "statistic" from this op-ed, this one is it--and it's a lie. Sarraj is a psychiatrist, but his co-author, Sara Roy, bills herself in her bio as a "political economist." Her research, the bio reports, is "primarily on the economic, social and political development of the Gaza Strip." You would think someone with this claim to expertise would know better than to copy some impossible pseudo-statistic on the consumption of the most basic foodstuff in Gaza. Indeed, in a piece she wrote a decade ago, she herself put Gaza's daily consumption of flour at 275 tons. Did she even read her own op-ed before she sent it off to Boston's leading paper? If she did, what we have here is a textbook example of the difference between a "political economist" and an economist.

Richard Landes below on Media Bias
Hamas scored a major propaganda victory with its self-imposed blackout and tearing down of the wall between Egypt and Gaza. The MSM was complicit, featuring prominent pictures of Gazan women marching and washing dishes by candlelight. Not surprisingly, the articles about Israeli measures against Hamas-run Gaza featured the same slant. as Prof. Barry Rubin, Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, writes in his latest article fisking the consistent spin of the NYT Middle East correspondent, Steve Erlanger, a favorite target of The Augean Stables:Erlanger gets a D in Jounalism 101: Palestinian Suffering via PCP1Listen to the hollo w man: Erlanger defends himselfErlanger on Israeli Soldiers: Where’s the Balance?Erlanger, Dupe of Demopaths: Does he really believe this stuff?

Not Even Pretending to be Fair: The New York Times On GazaBarry RubinJanuary 31, 2008
The New York Times coverage of the Middle East, especially Steven Erlanger (who will soon be leaving) has often been terrible. Naturally, the Times and Mr. Erlanger will dispute this, but they will not do so by examining the specific stories filed and what these articles do–and do not–say.
Anyone who analyzes the articles themselves will find many points which seem slanted, and all the slants seem to lean in the same way.
Consider, for example, the January 28 article, “Israel Vows Not to Block Supplies to Gaza.” By presenting this decision as a negative rather than a positive (Israel will let supplies flow; Israel wants to avoid any humanitarian crisis in Gaza, etc) it seems as if the newspaper is grudgingly admitting that Israel is doing something good but trying to minimize it.
Note that Erlanger is not responsible for the headlines. But given the content of the article, it’s not hard to claim that there’s a similar approach by both the journalist and his editors.
Then comes a spin slanted against Israel:
“Israel would no longer disrupt the supply of food, medicine and necessary energy into the Gaza Strip and intended to prevent a ‘humanitarian disaster’ there.”
The obvious and intended implication here is that Israel has been blocking three things, thus threatening to unleash a humanitarian disaster. In fact, Israel has never blocked food and medicine, and while it has reduced energy supplies slightly–to a level reducing the Gaza electricity by no more than 20 percent — it has not blocked “necessary” energy but only made a marginal reduction. Thus, in a masterfully crafted but factually inaccurate sentence, both newspapers accuse Israel of something it has never done and imply that it has committed inhuman crimes. (Or to put it another way, Congratulations, you have stopped beating your wife.)
Oh, we’re just getting started as Mr. Erlanger is a master of bias. Dig this sentence:
“Last Wednesday, the Hamas rulers of Gaza broke open the border to Egypt, allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to seek goods that Israel had restricted in its clampdown on the region.”
Now it would be fair to say that Palestinians went to Egypt to buy lots of things and not just goods Israel has restricted–which, remember, we have been just falsely told include food and medicine. In addition, as other reporters have noted, it is not just availability but the fact that many things are cheaper in Egypt than in Gaza, a fact that was also true before the restrictions.
This point deserves particular attention. Indeed, Erlanger himself had previously noted that some of the Gazans were struck by the primitive conditions in Rafah [need link], a long-standing situation that explains why the last time the border opened (before Hamas took over), Egyptian brides came over to marry Gazans who were better off than Egyptian men. The media have presented the West with an image of Gaza as the hell-hole of the world. That’s not the case even after almost two years of disastrous rule by Hamas. (We sometimes fail to realize just how normatively impoverished the rest of the Arab world is. These are, after all, endemic cases of “prime divider” societies.) Note how many luxury items went back across the border.
Speaking about restrictions, it might be worth mentioning that there are no such Israeli restrictions on the West Bank. Why is that? It is because the Palestinian Authority regime there doesn’t systematically encourage and facilitate terrorist and rocket and mortar attacks on Israel. This, then, is the central issue pertaining to the Gaza Strip, and not the apparently motiveless meanness that much media coverage makes it seem to be Israel’s reason for so acting.
This is the key point to understanding why Erlanger is a travesty of an honest reporter. Any comparison with the West Bank reveals that the more insanely vicious the Palestinian leadership, the more hostile the Israeli response. If you don’t understand that over 1000 rockets have rained down on Israeli civilians near the Gaza border since Hamas took over a 18 months before, then you can’t understand why the Israelis are making life miserable for these poo Palestinians. (No European country would tolerate a neighbor systematically bombing its citizens over the border… or is that what’s in store?)
If you don’t know this — which Erlanger will barely mention — you can’t understand why, in all fairness, the Israeli response is actually extemely mild. There are Israelis who reasonably ask, why are we helping them bomb us? But note how virtually none of the coverage, and correspondingly little of the diplomatic language, addresses the goal of getting Hamas to stop. Why?
There are 16 paragraphs remaining in the New York Times version. Do you think that we will be told that some of the restricted goods Palestinians bought in Egypt are guns, ammunition, explosives, and material for making rockets? Of course not.
Every paragraph is a gem. Here’s the next one:
“As an indication of the altered Israeli attitude the government told the Supreme Court, which was meeting to hear a petition against Israeli efforts to cut electricity and fuel to Gaza, that industrial diesel fuel needed to run Gaza’s main power station would be supplied regularly, although in amounts that would not meet Gaza’s needs for uninterrupted electricity.”
This, too, is a well-crafted lie. For even if the proposed Israeli cuts were implemented, any blackouts would be minimal at most. It would be fair to say that Gaza’s total electricity supply would be reduced but certainly not far short of what is required for “uninterrupted electricity.” Moreover, in a further flaunting of bias we are never told that Israel supplies directly 70 percent of Gaza electricity. After all, a reader might think that is pretty humane to give power to an entity next door whose leadership openly states its intention of destroying Israel and killing its people, while that same leadership permits daily attacks on Israel.
I’m not sure I’d call that a lie, so much as heavy spin. Any time it presents the picture, this article consistently does so by spinning against Israel and for the Palestinians, even as it gives the Israeli “side.” Indeed, an examination of this article’s consistent spin reveals that it operates essentially as a kind of public relations for the Palestinian. While not engaging in the violent anti-Israel invective of Palestinian Arab, a subject about which Erlanger has a long tradition of conspicuous silence, it nonetheless, systematically presents the situation in as favorable a light as possible, skimming over Hamas’ negatives and Israel’s positives and focusing on Israel’s negatives and Hamas’ positives.
What’s interesting is that the spin is not so much pro-Palestinian, as pro-Palestinian leadership. And in this case, the favored subject, the sly victor, is the most badly behaved of all Palestinian leadership. Hamas’ regime in Gaza displays all the least progressive qualities one can imagine. These are, after all, people who adhere to a charter with genocidal intentions, refuse even the palest expressions of a willingness to let Israel exist, whose liveliest industry is the manufacture of cheap homemade rockets to fire randomly and constantly at the neighboring Israeli town of Sderot, even if that means sewage disasters for their own people. These folks are a combination of Machiavelli’s “e conomy of violence” and apocalyptic fanaticism. They are perfect illustrations of why the Palestinians suffer. Why on earth would a responsible journalist want to spin so hard in their direction?
And yet,
The author goes out of his way not to tell us about Israel’s direct supply. Consider for example the next paragraph:
“The government also said that supplies of gasoline and regular diesel fuel to Gaza would be resumed although in diminished amounts.” But no mention of direct electrical supply which is almost four times larger than the total amount made using fuel.
There follows several paragraphs about the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas and some material about the situation on the Egypt-Gaza border. What ensues, far down in the article, is the closest thing to explaining why Israel is acting:
“Israeli has restricted supplies into Gaza, which it has labelled a ‘hostile entity,’ to try to push Hamas to stop any militant group from firing into Israel. But the move backfired when Hamas breached the border, letting Gazans cross to buy supplies.”
Two points on the above paragraph. First, it is amusing that the reporter doesn’t say what Hamas has been firing–rockets and mortar shells in large numbers–so the reader could be forgiven for thinking it might be an occasional burst of automatic weapons’ fire.
Second, it is not clear that “backfired” is the right word here. But the reason for the phrase becomes clear in the next paragraph:
“The Israeli statement to the court on Sunday was a kind of concession that the policy had failed, but it made clear that Israel would continue restrictions to keep Gazans uncomfortable.”
The problem here is that Israel had been backing off the limited restrictions before the border breakthrough took place. Moreover, if the reporter is going to be balanced he would say that if the policy had “backfired” it was because Hamas was left in a position in which it could continue to incite and implement attacks against Israel; gain some international popular sympathy (thanks to misleading media coverage like this one); maintain a policy of seeking Israel’s extermination; and still get everything required to conduct that military campaign and avoid pressures that might turn Gaza’s population against it.
The author will not do this, however, because he wants to minimize the reasons why Israel needs to make Gazans “uncomfortable.” After all, at a time when there were no restrictions on supplies the Gazans were making Israeli civilians “uncomfortable.” But only the Palestinians are permitted to be portrayed as having a reason to be aggrieved and to be victims.
This brings us back to the issue of spin. Is it that what really moves Erlanger, is not so much his (misguided) concern for the Palestinian people expressed in his quiet admiration of Hamas, and his unofficial role as the Palestinians’ PR agent, as it is, his stong preference for the narrative that makes Israel look bad. Is he, in fact, not so much concerned for Palestinian suffering, as he is eager to feed anti-Zionist Schadenfreude — that seemingly inexaustible appetite among so many — Jew and gentile — for ways to look down on Israel, to condemn her, to feel morally superior to her?
Naturally, only one side within Israel is quoted on this issue:
“Sari Bashi, director of an Israeli advocacy group, Gisha, which was part of the court case, said, ‘This is part of a stop-start game that continually pushes Gazan residents to the brink, pushing them over, then pulling them back temporarily.” She said that ‘for the last seven months, Israel has been slowly reducing Gaza residents to desperation.’”
No one is quoted from Israel saying that residents of Sderot and the region are being hit by rockets, that their children are being terrified, that Hamas is holding an Israeli soldier as hostage, etc. (Yes, Erlanger has covered this occasionally in other articles but it also belongs here as a balancing quote.) It is fairly typical, of course, that Israelis are usually only quoted when they are being critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinians.
This is classic: present the Palestinians blaming Israel, and Isaelis blaming themselves. Now how is an outsider going to understand what’s really going on here? You mean, it’s not Israel’s fault? How does one factor for self-criticism vs. demonizing tendencies in the discourse to which Erlanger exposes us. This really does fail the most basic principles of fair journalism.
Ah, but there is an Israeli quoted in the next paragraph which goes like this:
“Separately, as expected, the Israeli attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, said he would not indict police officers involved in the deaths of 13 Arab civilians in 10 days of Arab-Israeli demonstrations in October 2000. In a legal opinion, he upheld a decision by the Justice Ministry in September 2005 to close the investigation of the case.”
The reader would be left to think that this is a whitewash and that people who murdered Arabs are being let off the hook. The reader is not told that the report on the demonstrations (whose violence also goes unmentioned) said that the police acted reasonably given the difficult situation they faced at the time.
Now this spin is really interesting for several reasons. First, it’s a segue… “in other news.” But it clearly supports the anti-Israel thrust of the article, especially in how it is spun. Second, these riots were right at the start of the intifada, and specifically provoked by Enderlin’s footage of Muhammad al Durah. Israelis were stunned and terrified at the rioting that broke out among their own Arab citizens in response to those pictures. The thirteen killed represent, in proportion to the number of rioters and their aggression, a tiny fraction of what any other state in this region of “hama rules” would have done to rioters, even if they were their own people, much less a religious minority.
A detailed examination of this one article shows a pattern of one-sidedness that can be repeated in hundreds of others, showing clearly the bias in certain specific media outlets and by certain reporters.
To cite only one example, the Los Angeles Times ran an article simply transmitting false Hamas propaganda about the horrors of Israeli cutbacks. And this, to take the cake, was published–with no mention of this fact, after the far more limited reductions had been rescinded. Speaking of cakes, a Boston Globe op-ed piece lambasted Israel for starving Gaza of flour — though its estimate was somewhat skewed by the fact that the deprivation was based on the provision of a half-ton of flour daily for each Gaza resident. At any rate, there have never been any food shortages in Gaza that would lead to deprivation, as is admitted even by international institutions.
The Boston Globe piece is a really good example of the porous borders between journalism, “scholarship,” and advocacy. Did no one at the Globe do the simple math? Was it just too satisfying to read and run this diatribe against the Israelis to even bother to see if it were accurate? How is an unsuspecting reader to know that this is systematic misrepresentation. And that it comes from a hyper-self-critical Jew who believes that she is somehow doing her small part to redeem us all from the Holocaust. And she is formal in her position. 100% PCP:
Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians is the crux of the problem between the two peoples, and it will remain so until it ends.
Naturally, none of this critique is ever going to appear in the mainstream media which will, at most carry pieces ridiculing this critique and proclaiming what a great job they are doing. This doesn’t mean that many newspapers and other media aren’t doing a good job–they are–but the ones that aren’t will not engage in honest self-criticism or work hard to root out the bias they are showing.
The analysis here has really important bearings on how we think about issues, less substantively than in a sense unconsciously. It’s a tone, one that carries a great deal of weight, a mood setter. The PCP frame, which Erlanger consistently spins, holds Israel responsible for the suffering of the Palestinians. Reporting like this reinforces that impression, even as it reports information which, “spun” differently, might shed some harsh light on why the Palestinians are suffering. Instead, like useful idiots rooting for the wrong side, the media eagerly grant the award of PR victory to Hamas, when they are precisely the Gazans’ greatest problem. How badly and obviously do Palestinians have to suffer specifically and visibly from the se lf-destructive decisions of their leaders, before tone-setters like Steve Erlanger stop sneering at Israel, and decide to feed other corridors of our minds than the demeaning Schadenfreude of the “bien pensant’s” hostility to Israel and embrace of “Palestinian liberation”?


Lao Qiao said...

Most of the press and most of the Palestinians agree: Israel is the most hated country on earth. Nobody appreciated the fact that Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was a gift to the Palestinians and an opportunity to start building a state. Instead, rockets were launched against Sderot and other parts of Israel in order to persuade the Israelis to continue fighting against Gaza.

This seems to make no sense, but given a choice between statehood and coexistence on the one hand or jihad on the other hand, a majority of Gazans prefer jihad. They are totally selfless. They cannot be bribed with a state.

A de facto union of Gaza and Egypt, perhaps leading to a federation, would solve the problem of the Palestinians. The more moderate factions on the West Bank could negotiate a peace agreement. A Palestine split between Gaza and the West Bank doesn't make too much sense. A split Pakistan eventually broke into two states. Unfortunately, the world will not allow Gaza to merge with Egypt. It is more important to oppose Israel than to let the Gazans live in peace.

Uzi Silber said...

Lao, while were at it, lets merge some parts of the west bank with Jordan. Given the opportunity, Both Hamas and Fatah can be counted on to shower Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with Kassams.