Palestine in Scare Quotes: from the NYT Grammar Book

[The disinformation spewed out by the imperialist media is strategic in securing the disorientation and disempowerment of people throughout the US.  While many disinformation instruments focus on dumbing down with endlessly repetitive news of sex scandals and murderous moms, others take their lead from the New York Times, which wraps their disorientation in the guise of informed reporting.  But they deliver the disorientation nonetheless.  This detailed exposure, from, of the NYT coverage of Palestine reveals some of the ways they confuse millions with what they call “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” — Frontlines ed.]

July 12, 2011

by Anthony Alessandrini

[Qalandiya Checkpoint. Photo by Anees of Jerusalem. Image from Mondoweiss] Qalandiya Checkpoint. Photo by Anees of Jerusalem. Image from Mondoweiss
When I feel the need for my blood pressure to go up, I read the New York Times’ coverage of Israel-Palestine.

The extent to which the Times’ reporting (or misreporting) is deeply slanted, selective, and misleading has been thoroughly documented in Richard Falk’s and Howard Friel’s Israel-Palestine on Record: How the New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss provide excellent ongoing critiques of the Times’ day to day coverage (see, for example, this recent piece by Ali Abunimah), and both were quick to report the seemingly obvious conflict of interest in the fact that Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner’s son is currently serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. The Times’ editor-in-chief responded to the revelation of this fact by dismissing its effect upon Bronner’s reporting, even going so far to suggest that his “personal ties in the region” help to “supply a measure of sophistication about Israel and its adversaries that someone with no connections would lack” (“connections” in this case seem to stand in for, say, “expertise” or “knowledge” — as though critics might suggest replacing Bronner with a journalist who knew nothing about the region). As’ad AbuKhalil has noted that Bronner and the Times, in covering the Goldstone Report, have “devoted more space to Israeli and Zionist criticisms of the Goldstone report than to the report itself,” while Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has produced a number of exemplary media critiques of the Times, for example a blistering criticism of the paper’s coverage of Operation Cast Lead and its horrifying effect in Gaza, noting that when it comes to addressing the facts on the ground in Gaza, the Times’ fetish for “balance” and “equivalence” leaves readers with “the sense that the truth is too one-sided.”

Is it worth our while to give so much time and attention to the Times’ coverage? Of course, the Gray Lady is the object of criticism from both left and right, and a glance at the comments section for any Times article on Israel-Palestine reveals that there are as many readers who consider the paper to be a seething hotbed of Hamas apologists as there are those who see a pro-Zionist bias. There’s almost a jeering reflection here of the Times’ own ideology of “balance.” So don’t we face the danger of simply falling into this endless echo chamber of criticism? Furthermore, is it perhaps absurd to expect anything better from mainstream media in the U.S. when it comes to Israel-Palestine?

If I continue to think that it’s worth engaging with the Times’ coverage of Israel-Palestine, this may have something to do with my own work teaching at a public two-year college in the CUNY system. Many of my colleagues use the New York Times as a text in their classes; I don’t, but I certainly would like my students to become readers of the Times — skeptical, disturbed, deeply critical readers, but readers nonetheless. For better or worse, the paper continues to act as a sort of cultural and political touchstone for U.S. society (whether this will still be true in five or ten years, given the evolution of electronic media, is a different question), of the sort that I would like my students to have access to — at least in part because the stories of their lives, too, can be found refracted and distorted in the pages of the Times.

But equally important is the influence that the paper exerts upon liberal public opinion in the United States. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the standard U.S. liberal position on Israel-Palestine — the sort of position best summed up by the acronym PEP (“Progressive Except for Palestine”) — is shaped more crucially by the Times’ coverage than by any other single source. If there is a desire (as there should be) to see this overall position in the U.S. shift, then it is crucial that we continue to work to critique and refute the Times’ coverage as persistently and creatively as we can.

So my text for today is a short article filed by Times correspondent Isabel Kershner on July 8. Entitled Israel Blocks Air Travelers to Palestinian Conference, the article reports on Israel’s various efforts to bar international activists from arriving at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv en route to the West Bank; in some cases, these Israeli efforts included preventing passengers from boarding flights bound for Tel Aviv in Paris and other points in Europe. The international travelers were responding to an invitation from a number of Palestinian civil society groups and peace and human rights activists working together as part of the Right to Enter campaign; in their invitation, the Palestinian groups declared: “Entering Palestine through Ben Gurion airport in hundreds of people over 26 hours will send a message that we want Israel to recognize the basic human right of entering to Palestine by those who want to visit us.” Organizers of the “fly-in” effort in Europe and the U.S. estimated that nearly 600 participants would arrive at Ben Gurion airport on July 8; as one of the participating groups noted in their press release, “We declare openly that we are peaceful travellers who will be going in groups large and small from cities around the world to Tel Aviv Airport on July 8th. Since Israel currently controls all entry and exit points to Palestine, there is no other way to travel there than through Israeli passport control.”

I should start by saying that the Times article does include important information, and also provides, in the online version of the article, a link to a site set up by international activists taking part in the fly-in (although not, it should be noted, to the Palestinian Right to Enter campaign website). But for our purposes, I want to stay with one particular paragraph from the Times’ article, since it reveals a good deal about the ways in which the very grammatical and rhetorical tools used in such articles (the very sorts of things that, as an English professor, I would want my students to attend to) are indicators of the Times’ ideological orientation. Here is the seventh paragraph of the article, quoted in full:

There were persistent reports that the foreign visitors would try to create chaos and paralyze the airport, despite strenuous denials from the organizers of the campaign, who advocate nonviolence. They insisted that the foreigners wanted only to transit the airport and “go to Palestine.” (The West Bank has no airport of its own.)  

Let’s make our way through the New York Times grammar book, as it reveals itself in this paragraph. First, there is the use of the passive tense: “There were persistent reports.” Who was responsible for the existence of these reports? From whence did they issue? We don’t know. The reports simply were. This, as I tell my students, is the beauty and the horror of the passive tense: it represents the grammatical power to dodge responsibility. “The milk spilled.” “The bombing commenced at 9pm.” “Mistakes were made.” “There were persistent reports.” One will find the passive tense sprinkled liberally throughout the Times’ coverage of Israel-Palestine: for example, in Bronner’s October 2010 profile of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman: “relations with Turkey reached a crisis level after nine people died in May in Israel’s raid on a Turkish flotilla.” What happened on the flotilla? “Nine people died.” Or as Philip Weiss rephrased it, with savage irony, “They up and died!”

The missing subject of the action in the Times article on the fly in, and the source of the unattributed “persistent reports,” could of course be traced quite easily to Israel’s ongoing “hasbara” campaign to spread misinformation regarding international actions such as the flotilla and the fly-in. A Jerusalem Post columnist had no trouble making this connection (suggesting, in the process, that thanks to these ongoing efforts, the very term “hasbara,” usually translated as “public diplomacy,” “has come to mean ‘Israeli disinformation’”); the Times, thanks to the passive tense, could simply note the existence of these “persistent reports” before moving on.

Then comes what we might describe as the “call and response” aspect of this sentence, which has to do with the nature of these reports: the alleged plans by those flying to Ben Gurion airport “to create chaos and paralyze the airport.” The organizers of the fly-in are then permitted to make their “strenuous denials” in the second half of the sentence, which also notes that these organizers “advocate nonviolence” (it’s worth noting that this is a careful way to seemingly say something nice about the organizers while not-quite refuting the charges of the mysterious reports, since one could presumably “create chaos and paralyze the airport” through nonviolent means). The action in this sentence all comes from one side, the Israeli side (although it is not identified as such — again, the beauty of the passive tense in action); from the other side can only come reaction. Furthermore, a sense of equivalence is thereby set up between these two “competing claims,” with the reader, placed in the position of the reasonable arbiter, encouraged to see each one as an equally valid or invalid perspective: “persistent reports” (which must be credible, since they are so persistent, and apparently issue from everywhere and nowhere at once) versus “denials” from identified and interested parties. The desired response to such framing — indeed, the only “reasonable” one — is to shrug and assume that the truth lies somewhere between.

Then come the strategically-placed quotation marks around the stated plans of the arriving international passengers (or would-be passengers), which was to “‘go to Palestine.’” Since these quotes don’t seem to denote any particular citation or speaker — at least none who is indicated — we have to assume that they are scare quotes. To “go to Palestine” is thus being set off as — well, as what exactly? Nonsensical? Comic? Absurd? Or simply a statement that needs to be problematized or put into question, not to be delivered without some sort of authorial abstention from responsibility — these are not my words, the scare quotes tell us, so please don’t understand them as such. Unlike the unattributed “persistent reports,” which, thanks to the passive tense, become part of the reality of the article, the idea that these travelers really plan to “go to Palestine” is set off as separate from this reality. The reader is thus gently but firmly pushed outside the realm of fact and into the more shadowy world of “point of view.”

In this sense, both halves of the phrase are called into question through the use of scare quotes: the supposed intention to go to so-called “Palestine.” The latter half is particularly noteworthy in light of a “correction” made recently to an article on the paper’s website: a piece on the “Weddings and Celebrations” page originally suggested that the happy bridegroom had visited, in the course of his travels, a place called Palestine. The subsequent correction speaks for itself: “A report last Sunday on the wedding of Bridget Guarasci and Mani Potnuru misidentified the area visited by the bridegroom a few years before the couple met in 2010. It was East Jerusalem and several West Bank towns; it was not Palestine.” The only surprise is that the last phrase doesn’t read “it was not ‘Palestine.’”

This is another tried and true technique in the Times’ Israel-Palestine coverage. A prime example can be found in a June 2010 piece published not long after the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla, an article by Brian Stelter entitled “Videos Carry On the Fight Over Sea Raid.” The article’s opening sentence is a classic specimen of Timesian balance and “equivalence”: “When Israeli commandos attacked the so-called Freedom Flotilla, both sides were well armed — with video cameras — and both sides have released a blizzard of video clips as evidence that the other side was the aggressor in the conflict on Monday, which left nine activists dead.” Here, in place of scare quotes, we find the rather less subtle placement of “so-called” before “Freedom Flotilla,” which was of course simply the name given to the flotilla by its organizers.

As I noted at the time in an (unpublished, needless to say) letter to the Times: “At a moment when, as Brian Stelter suggests, competing claims regarding the Israeli attack upon the Mavi Marmara have made the situation appear ‘murky,’ even small nuances in the presentation of the story matter. This leads me to wonder why the Times has appended the phrase ‘so-called’ to each mention of the Freedom Flotilla. I happen to support the humanitarian mission of the Free Gaza Movement, but one can certainly disagree strongly with the group and still accord it the right to name its own flotilla, just as the Israeli government has the right to name its armed forces the Israeli Defense Forces. The suggestion that Israeli commandos may have been the initiators of the violence, and were thus the perpetrators of an offensive rather than a defensive action, has not led the Times to refer to the ‘so-called’ IDF. To use such a qualifier for one side rather than the other strains the notion of objectivity.”

At other times, of course, the need to use scare quotes or verbal qualifiers such as “so-called” in order to problematize statements which would otherwise be read as factual does not appear so urgent to the Times’ writers. This is the case, as FAIR points out, with the Times’ February 2009 report from Gaza: the article begins by describing a phosphorus bomb that destroyed a home, killing all five members of the family living there, as a “phosphorus smoke bomb,” thus directly implying that the bomb was intended to be used as a smoke screen (which is legal, under international law) rather than as a weapon aimed at a civilian population (which would constitute a war crime). This is then confirmed in the second paragraph by the unattributed and unproblematized statement that the bomb “was intended to mask troop movements outside.” FAIR’s report asks: “According to whom? That claim is stated is as a fact, with no attribution.” Neither a scare quote not a “so-called” is anywhere in sight.

Similarly, when Bronner claimed in a November 2010 article that “the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been largely drained of deadly violence in the past few years,” there was apparently no need to either problematize or in any way provide support for such a statement. “So much for the Gaza massacre,” Norman Finkelstein retorted — and, conveniently, after this and other outraged responses, the online version of the article was amended to read: “the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the West Bank has been largely drained of deadly violence in the past few years” [my italics] — still a false statement by any measure, and still noted as a “fact” without attribution or question.

Returning to our current example, we come at last to the final technique: the obfuscation presented “objectively” in the form of seeming information — that is, the selective providing of information in such a way as to intentionally mislead the reader — neatly placed in parentheses to further distance the truth of the matter: “(The West Bank has no airport of its own.)” Again, this is a lovely example of a sentence whose grammatical structure allows a complete absence of responsibility for the situation: the West Bank has no airport of its own why? It looks like such a simple statement, somehow factually equivalent to a statement such as, say, “Fremont has no airport of its own (so you’ll have to fly into Oakland).”

As Adam Horowitz has noted in his sharp and pithy response to Kershner’s article, this is just part of the way that the piece “obfuscates the basic reality that the fly-in was mean to underline, that Israel controls all borders and entry and exit of Palestinians and foreigners into and out of the West Bank, and cuts Palestinians off from the outside world.” As Horowitz notes, the phrasing here obscures more than it reveals, and leaves the reader with questions that the article intentionally avoids addressing. Horowitz imagines these reader questions: “A less knowledgeable reader might ask: ‘Well why didn’t they just cross a land border to visit the West Bank?’ (Kershner didn’t tell you that Israel similarly controls the land borders). Another reader might ask, ‘Why don’t the Palestinians just build their own airport rather than using Israel’s? Don’t they get enough foreign aid?’ (The NY Times didn’t explain that Israel won’t allow Palestinians to have their own airport).”

By intentionally leaving out this information, and obfuscating the real reason why the passengers flew into Tel Aviv, the Times thus indirectly provides support for the “persistent reports” with which the paragraph began: it can’t simply be about going to Palestine, the implication goes, so they must have other hidden motives, possibly having to do with creating chaos and paralyzing things. None of this has to be stated explicitly; it can all be done grammatically and rhetorically.

A press release from the organizers of the fly-in clearly spells out the necessity of flying into Tel Aviv: “In order to go to Bethlehem, we have no other choice than first landing at Tel Aviv airport, since the only Palestinian airport was destroyed by Israel in the early 2000’s.” Indeed, as Horowitz points out, in its report on the same events, the Associated Press was quite straightforward in setting out the facts of Israel’s control of all borders and points of entry; as the AP put it: “Visitors can reach the West Bank only through Israeli-controlled crossings, either through international airports or the land border with Jordan. Citing security concerns, Israel bars most Palestinians from entering Israel or using its airport, meaning they must travel to neighboring Jordan to fly out.”

The strategy of the fly-in participants, taken together with the Right to Enter campaign, was precisely to dramatize and call attention to these facts for an international audience. The purpose of calling attention to the refusal to let internationals enter through the airport (or, indeed, to even board planes to Tel Aviv) is precisely to call attention to the incalculably more draconian everyday repression faced by Palestinians, including the ever-increasing constraints upon their right to movement within Israeli-occupied territories. The goal of the Israeli hasbara campaign in response was to brand the participants of the fly-in as violent “hooligans,” in the words of Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, determined to simply cause disruptions at the airport; the hope was thus to undercut the very basis of this non-violent and strategic action.

Under its usual guise of balance and equivalence, and without explicitly endorsing the Israeli position or explicitly denying the perspective of the solidarity activists, the New York Times report on the fly-in, in its very syntax, grammar, and punctuation, managed to implicitly do exactly this. If we wish to support these sorts of creative and effective solidarity actions, we can start by exposing and attacking the Times’ implicit participation in the Israeli campaigns to discredit them. We need, in other words, to do our grammar homework every so often, and perhaps even to come up with a grammar book of our own.


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