Monday, December 07, 2009

Shmuel Rosner: "I do not eat pumpkin. That is true."

I just caught a lecture by Shmuel Rosner, former chief of news at Ha'aretz, as well as their Washington correspondent, and now a highly influential blogger at the J-Post. The lecture, which was co-sponsored by the Judaica collection of the Doe Library and the Berkeley journalism school, concerned media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab conflict. Rosner spoke from a lectern that has also belonged recently to Benny Morris, and the journalist at times struck the historian's muscular pose, affected the same contempt for naiveté and for leftist partisanship. I eagerly anticipated his views on Ha'aretz. He said the left-of-center daily is at times too critical of Israel, and may even have caused the IDF excessive pain. Rosner's goal was to describe the community of reporters and organizations covering Israel, and to brief us on how to discern bullshit.

As for the Israeli media, those of us who rely on the Anglophone Israeli media are woefully out of touch with the internal political discourse in Israel. That discourse is created, he argued, on TV, and in the pages of Yediot, Maariv, and, now, Yisrael Hayom.

But the foreign media was the real focus.

The lecture was full of lists. The four cardinal sins of foreign journalists in the Middle East:

1. Obsession

2. Prejudice

3. Ignorance

4. Condescension

5. Unprofessionalism -- chiefly a matter of dereliction of fact-(re)-checking. (Not officially on the list, but something he lingered over later with regard to the unreliability of the Palestinian media, as well as the merely innocuous nature of the Swedish reporter who accused the IDF of harvesting Palestinian organs).

Rosner's rules for readers of foreign reporting:

1. What leaders say behind closed doors doesn't matter. What matters is what they say in public, to their own people, in their own language.

2. Israelis and Palestinians can't keep secrets. You will know what you want to know...eventually.

3. Commissions and reports of all types have little value.

4. Envoys of the US and other world powers are always too optimistic -- and almost bound to fail.

5. Do not overestimate the impact of the White House or other foreign intervention.

6. Just because someone doesn't speak English, it doesn't mean they're dumb.

7. Arabs generally have a lot of patience.

8. Never underestimate the power of domestic politics to dictate events.

9. Beware of predictions.

10. Beware of polls.

11. Beware of reporters with political biases.

12. There are many groups in the Middle East that hate each other, but they all agree on at least this: Americans are naive.

I found the scolding of foreign journalists quite satisfying. Rosner painted a vivid picture of what I imagined as a horde of professional gawkers gathering their luggage and translators at the carousel at Ben Gurion Airport, and then greedily speeding to as close to the scene of the carnage as they could get during the last two wars. And with print media downsizing everywhere, the correspondents are becoming ever less versed in the local cultures they cover. The result is a foreign media that covers Israel as a conflict, not as a country. Sounds problematic to me. We get the Israeli leadership's sound-bite, then the Palestinian's. Gazans are suffering these deprivations; now, look -- look how much it sucks to live in Sderot! The foreign media makes our heads swivel like the cat at the window watching the movements of birds outside. But what would the alternative be? What would covering Israel as a country really look like? I am not sure, and I wish I would have asked Rosner. To him, Israel as a country does have to be explained to (certain) Americans. Take his audiences at the American War College in Pennsylvania. Part of what is culturally idiosyncratic about Israel, Rosner explained to them, is the lack of distance between civil society and the military. "Everyone is a civilian, everyone is a soldier," said Rosner, unapologetically. But in fact, the image of Israel as a face-to-face society, where everyone knows someone who is affected by war, the rigors of the occupation, terrorism should be very familiar to readers of, say, the New York Times. This may be the way Israel really is, but it's also something that Israelis desperately want us outsiders to know. I find that very interesting.

A face-to-face society with 5 million cell phones, boasted Rosner, offers the determined journalist an almost unique opportunity to recover the truth about complex events. His paradigmatic example was the so-called massacre of Jenin in 2002. How did his team at Ha’aretz debunk the rumors of a massacre? By calling the soldiers, particularly reservists, they knew. “They couldn’t all be lying,” claimed Rosner. These informants were the “cousins’ best friends" of Rosner’s news division. Social proximity for him is a comparative advantage over foreign media in terms of access, not a journalistic liability. The fog of war was lifted, a little too effortlessly. On the other hand, Rosner insisted on the incompatability of perceptions born of different cultural contexts. Shimon Peres, so his opening joke went, isn’t the same Shimon Peres at home as abroad. Here, I thought Rosner combined not-so-satisfactorily a post-modern uncertainty about what we can really know with great faith in the capacity of the critical reader or journalist to get to the bottom of things. American journalistic pretension to objectivity almost sounded like the American naiveté he seizes upon. But his epistemology is certainly practical. There are things we can know (the Jenin massacre didn’t happen), and things we can’t (what happened to Muhammed al-Durrah).

Granted the last question, I asked about my personal cause celèbre: archaeology in East Jerusalem driven by vulgar ideology. I offered myself up as the guinea pig here. It's an Israeli media story that, for me, is opaque. I read about it in English in Ha'aretz and on the website of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. But I can't seem to figure it out. Are all the projects undertaken in the Ir David legal or illegal (under Israeli, not international law)? Was there a "cultural context" that Rosner could provide that would explain the seemingly contradictory reports? Rosner's answer, and he must have been fatigued at this point, was to draw again a distinction, however provisory, between the forces of objectivity and those of subjectivity. There are the "objective" archaeologists, and there are the ideologically driven right-wing zealots who fund and support the dubious excavations. At this point, Rosner could have taken a line from the Berkeley-version of Benny Morris, who, when an audience member complained that a faulty microphone rendered his lecture inaudible, explained bluntly, "This is the situation." In the final analysis, Rosner admitted, we have to trust someone. "I trust reporters, not newspapers," he said, naming a few of his favorite colleagues' names. Indeed, this is the situation. I agree.


Carmia said...

Very interesting post, Noah.

Amos said...

This post is a tour de force. I have to agree with you (if I am interpreting correctly) that the critical (or would-be critical) reader on the outside has a very slim chance of getting to the core of things. On the other hand, I think that blogs with access to very local developments or micro-social insights can sometimes do a very good job at filling in the cultural context required to explain what seems odd.

Amos said...

BTW, what do pumpkins have to do with any of this?

Rebecca said...

I know that when I'm actually IN Israel, and not just reading about it online (which I mostly do in English, because it's easier and I'm lazy, but I can read the Hebrew press in its original) I feel like I'm getting a much fuller sense of how things are going, since I can talk to my friends, read newspapers in English or Hebrew, listen to the radio (I love the news/talk shows on Reshet Bet), watch the TV news and also the various fascinating documentaries that are broadcast which never make it to the American market, go to special events discussing various political issues, etc. I don't understand how anyone could really report from Israel with anything close to full understanding without knowing Hebrew well, and hopefully Arabic as well.

Noah K said...

Yes, Amos, I think you are definitely right about blogs providing micro-social insights, filling in cultural context, etc. One of Rosner's criticisms of the bloggers is that they never leave their computers. But they don't necessarily need to leave their apartments to provide the kind of insights you're talking about. And as long as we are looking for as many perspectives as possible...

Okay, the pumpkin quote: it was part of a little banter regarding Rosner's "media diet." I put it up there as a parody of the kind of ad hominem attacks in the blogosphere, which focus on sometimes decontextualized comments of public figures. It's my blogger response to Rosner being so professional, congenial, and genuine.

As for the language issue, isn't this true of any foreign media story? Is Israel so different? If so, what makes it so different? There is more information available in English in Israel than in many places foreign correspondents are asked to go. I think of Ed Wong of the NYT, who transferred from Iraq to China, was sent off to Middlebury Language Schools to get ready. But these aren't anthropologists, they're journalists. Of course they are limited by their lack of language skills. But is that the most important critique out there of foreign media covering Israel?

Amos said...

It seems unlikely to me that we'll start seeing more foreign journalists who know Hebrew or Arabic showing up in Israel. Not with the compensation that journalists currently receive. It's not worth it for a hopeful journalist to invest that much time into mastering the languages (let's say as an undergrad and master's student) for such an unstable and poorly-paid occupation. Relying exclusively on "native informants" leads to all sorts of other problems. There is a small number of people who really do have their feet in multiple languages and cultures, but not all of them want to become reporters.

Nobody said...

I think most of this discussion about what journalists should or should not do is missing the point because of its assumption that nuanced and informed reporting is what journalists should be aiming to. In my view this is simply not the situation. Every media has its own audience and it gathers and presents information according to what the readers or viewers want to see. And what these want is not necessarily getting to know the situation better. Mass audience can digest information only when this fits certain stereotypes, certain archetypal models/schemas. Say powerful and unjust oppressing weak and vulnerable. Or good and descent ordinary people ruled by corrupt and selfish politicians. If the media tries to introduce any degree of complexity into reporting, its audience fails to connect, its brain and eyes go blank. I see it all the time.

More sophisticated audiences in the West these days are so brainwashed by "scientific liberalism" that they are also basically putting very strict limits on what and how journalists should report.

In my view much of the reporting these days has very little to do with information at all and more with some kind of emotional stimulation. When people are watching the news, 90% of them simply want to be emotionally stimulated in certain ways. To get scared or to indulge in all sorts of moral indignation and self righteous posturing. It's simply not about information.

The same applies to absolutely everything. It's not limited to Israel. And this is the same about the way Israeli media is reporting about Israel itself. Take for example the annual hysteria about poverty reports. How many Israelis know that the poverty line in Israel is recalculated each time based on some national average? That it does not reflect absolute poverty as much as inequality. Or that the majority of the poor are concentrated in the Arab and ultra orthodox sectors because poor families in Israel have on average almost twice as many children as the national average as poverty in Israel is driven by demography. What you see instead in the media are unfortunate middle class families or urban low classes who don't not represent Israeli poverty, not even 20% of it.

Why is the media doing it? Because this evokes strong emotional responses from the audience. You get people fuming over the government's inaction, you get legions of arm chair Mahatma Gandhis denouncing capitalism, Zionism and whatever. Present the poverty as it is, as a bunch of localized problems requiring a technical solution and you may even get some people to agree that Bibi was right to cut on child subsidies. And who is going to watch such news? There is not enough emotional stimulation in this kind of reporting, too much information.

Anonymous said...

Great post and very interesting comments. Nobody, you've captured sentiments that I myself have long felt but that I would have had trouble articulating in such a concise manner. I must confess that I, too, am guilty of consuming some news as I would other kinds of emotional entertainment.

Nobody said...

I can only add to this that these things are part and parcel of the modfern lifestyle of which the defining characteristic is that in matters of consumption and stimulation humans just can never get enough. However, when it comes to obesity and such stuff, they can be at least measured in kilos and expressed in averages and people in general tend to get embarassed by their appearance. However, when it comes to consumption of junk emotional stimulation humans know no limits and see no reason to get hold of themselves.

The reporters themselves like to feel that they are making the world a better place and when it comes to such a noble mission one just can never go too far. The audience itself also seems to entertain itself with the notion that it takes part in a very important project, but it's not difficult to see that major news outlets today have become Macdonalds of junk emotional stimulation and the Western society itself is so demoralized and disoriented by this style of reporting that it can't get its act together on just about any serious challenge facing it from Muslim immigration in Europe to the general demographic collapse rapidly unfolding across large chunks of Europe and Japan. It became a house of cards only waiting for a minor push from outside or even inside to collapse.

Amos said...

I think that's a pretty accurate assessment of the media environment today - and I including most blogs in this.

I think that here you have to take your analysis a bit further:

"Why is the media doing it? Because this evokes strong emotional responses from the audience. You get people fuming over the government's inaction, you get legions of arm chair Mahatma Gandhis denouncing capitalism, Zionism and whatever."

Why would media be interested in producing "strong emotional responses"? We either assume some kind of model whereby the media caters to tastes in order to entertain or one where journalists and editors are suffering from some kind of ideological blindness. In the former model, media see their aim as producing emotional "highs" for consumers; the better the high, the more hours people will spend watching (and looking at ads). In the latter model, it's all an accident of history and no one is really in control or benefiting.

Nobody said...

Humans have unchecked craving for all sorts of stimulation including the emotional one which was probably evolved in environments where such craving had survival value. It was not designed for situations in which people will have unlimited means resources and spare time to provide themselves with such stimulations. As anybody who has ever had a dog knows, if you don't stop your dog it will be massively overeating. Humans are like this in just any other respect. In the absence of conscious control and understanding that moderation is an absolute necessity in such an environment, what you get is a neurotic culture that lives its days in the state of a permanent psychosis.

Amos said...

This whole debate precedes the rise of mass media by several hundred years. At least since the 18th century, critics of various stripes have been concerned about the dangers of limitless indulgence and the untrammeled pursuit of whatever flights of fancy the imagination embarks on.

Noah S. said...

Is there a direct relationship between a medium's source of funding and its production of emotional highs? Or is this just a product of human nature? Nobody, I have to bone up on Pavlov to understand some of your comments.

Nobody said...

It's a typical "the demand drives the supply" and the demand is human nature

Nobody said...

Of course the supply conditions the demand in its turn and this is how you get a vicious circle

Noah S. said...

That's what I thought you'd say :)

Amos said...

It's hard to figure out which is more important - the supply or the demand side.

You have to make a choice here:

More sophisticated audiences in the West these days are so brainwashed by "scientific liberalism" that they are also basically putting very strict limits on what and how journalists should report.

People are either brainwashed or pursuing their interests (for financial gain or emotional highs).

Noah S. said...

As an afterthought, Nobody, you might want to check out some handbooks on Soviet propaganda theory - I think you'd find some gems there to back up your claims.

Amos said...

Every media has its own audience and it gathers and presents information according to what the readers or viewers want to see. And what these want is not necessarily getting to know the situation better

There is also a decently-sized market of people who do want (and need) to know what is really going on. Those people are often willing to pay big bucks - that's why the Wall Street Journal can charge for its online content. Whenever people have a financial or political stake in having good information, they will pay for it.

Nobody said...

Noah S

I grew up in the former Soviet Union where I spent a significant part of my first 20 years absorbing the Soviet propaganda and studying scientific Communism. It was only after I came to Israel, lived for a year in Spain and such stuff that I realized to what degree the West and its inhabitants are brainwashed by this "scientific liberalism". Until then I was sure that to achieve such an effect you need a militant totalitarian party driven by a utopian ideology to take over a country and hermetically seal off its borders.

Nobody said...


I doubt that Rosner was referring to WSJ, but the problem is anyway bigger than this. I touched only on one side of the problem. There are others too. In fact, the actual causes are not that relevant. What's relevant is the result. And the result is that there happened a tremendous destruction of social capital in the West in the last decades. So you now have demographically shrinking or even collapsing countries burying themselves under mountains of debt with no chance of just growing up out of these debts and deficits anytime soon. You have in many places social and national fabric so damaged by these experiments in diversity and multiculturalism that these places can hardly count for nations anymore. The day will come, and it may come sooner than you think, that a serious belt tightening will be required to address the consequences of this crisis. I bet you don't believe that every time we will just spend our way out of our problems. Do you? On this day we will all see how much cohesion and stamina is there left.

Amos said...

Nobody, that's a very different matter you're talking about and I'm not sure how it is connected to this discussion of media.

First of all, I don't think there's been a shrinking of "social capital" in the U.S. over the past 3 decades. Second, a decline in social cohesion is not equivalent to a decline in social capital and certainly not to a decline in plain old capital.

It seems to me that you're really talking only about Western Europe. I don't think it has much to do with multiculturalism and diversity.

Nobody said...

This is a different matter. Probably it should be addressed in a separate post. So in conclusion I would just limit myself to saying that these things are more connected than one may think.

Black Ubuntu said...

I agree with Nobody about the media and its role in satisfying people's urge for stimulation
Just watch 5 minutes of the BBC channel to see it..... Most people get their news info from the TV ,though recently there has been an interesting shift to style news ("social networking") which is even more tailor-made for specific cultural groups.
I will go further even and claim that most post on blogs and forums are to a degree an amateur version of such journalism with the audience being the posters themselves or a common social group.
As you said 'this is human nature'

Nobody said...

The Internet seems to be feeding a lot of conspiratorial paranoias fashionable in some circles. With the Internet weirdos got new means to create their parallel realities.