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The Five Ws of 19th Century journalism fall far short of the demands of 21st Century journalism and yet they remain the effective diktat of newsrooms. Let me show you why — why being the fifth of the five.
Gaza’s tunnels are one of the stated targets of Israel’s incursion into Gaza. The press has made much of their use to move weapons and Hamas commandos to imperil Israel. The press has made less of their role as Gaza’s economic arteries. And the press has made nothing of their long history. And yet without an understanding of their history we are at the mercy of a hail of W’s that stimulate but do not enlighten.
Who, what, where, when and why are the essentials of reportage, but that was when reportage was tapped out along telegraph lines. That was when Kitchener was taming the Mahdi’s barbarians. That was when the Earps faced off with the Clantons. That was when countries were isolated from each other and people relied on a handful of media to enlighten them. Today you can read The Russian Times, Le Monde Diplomatique or The Guardian online. You can compare bodies of information, angles of vision, differing viewpoints. You can challenge what you read. You can readily research what you read.
But the press persists in incident reportage: series of presumed facts and statements that appear before us as unconnected dots, like ink standing in air. There is no excuse in the cyber era for not connecting those dots. There is no excuse for dearth of context.
What if the very first stories about the Gaza tunnels and Israel’s vexation with them had told you that they vexed Alexander the Great? It would have changed your perspective. You would not have formed an impression that Hamas dug those tunnels to harass the Israelis. You would have understood that the tunnels are an integral part of Gaza’s history. And then you might have wondered how the Palestinians improved them, re-engineered them—something you have not been told by the popular press.
And this would have prompted the curious to wonder who occupied Gaza when Alexander’s Macedonians came a-conquering with their siege engines and phalanxes. Canaanites, Egyptians, Philistines, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Israelites, British and Arabs have all occupied Gaza. Alexander found a Persian-held city-state. Today the majority of Gaza’s 1.8 million souls are displaced Palestinians, mostly from southern Israel.
A few journals, most notably Slate, have run stories in recent months about the history of the Gaza tunnels, but the mainstream press has ignored their history, leading us to believe they are solely an aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That, it turns out, is far from the truth.
How to account for such a disconcerting omission? Certainly Israeli historians and archaeologists are aware of the tunnels’ history. Certainly our own scholars are aware. How else would Slate and a few of our more curious journals have gotten their information? Is a dogmatic adherence to the Five Ws sufficient to explain this omission? Wouldn’t a rigorous application of the fifth W, the Why, have resolved the problem?
I think not. I think the problem runs much deeper than outdated newsroom manuals and drowsing journalism schools. I think omission of context is a tool of the misdirection of news. To have mentioned those tunnels’ ancient history would have opened doors the five or six Citizens Kane who own and manage our press don’t want to open.
As the American press is doggedly anti-union so it is also doggedly pro-Israel. We have been seeing examples of this for four weeks now. Israel reports an officer missing and probably kidnapped by Hamas, while both the UN and Hamas report the killing of Palestinian children at a UN school and the shelling of a hospital and mosque. The New York Times then runs a picture of the missing Israeli officer and headlines his supposed capture while leaving the deaths of the children to the innards of the story. What are we to make of this?
It turns out that the officer was killed in action, but meanwhile more Palestinian children have been killed, and while we may be allowed to see their bodies we are not shown their faces when they were alive and happy, as we have seen the Israeli officer. In other words, their dead bodies are news—their lives not so much. But the officer’s life was. What are we to make of this?
The New York Times is the bellwether of print journalism. It claims to be our national paper of record. But it is hardly alone in this kind of slanted reportage. Fox News and CNN, for example, were as gleeful about the Israeli assault on Gaza as they were in 2003 about the calamitous assault on Iraq. There is no standard— 19th Century or 21st Century— by which this can be called fair or responsible reportage. And the artifact of incident reportage, of telegraphic journalism, dovetails nicely with Citizen Kane’s desire to control the story. That is how Citizen Kane drew us into the Spanish-American War. It is how he drew us into the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
Why does Citizen Kane love war? Jingoism is not an answer. In fact, it’s a cover-up. He likes war because banksters like it, because it means handsome profits for all the people Citizen Kane deems important in a class society. And his love of war is even more practical than that—Boeing, Lockheed and the rest of the military-industrial complex are big advertisers. They buy the press’s behavior as surely as Wall Street buys Congress’s.
The fact that Gaza’s Persian defenders were using its tunnels to fend off Alexander is as integral to the Gaza story as its offshore gas reserves. The tunnels and the gas fields share a similar fate in the hands of the mainstream press and its commentariat. The tunnels are mentioned only with regard to Israel’s intent to destroy them, and the gas fields aren’t mentioned at all, certainly not with regard to Israel’s intent to seize them.
Both stories are left to the specialty press, the alternative press, and yet both stories shed the very light for which the Gaza conflict cries out. Can it be the mere arthritis of journalism that explains their downplay or outright omission? Both stories contravene Israel’s official explanation of the killing of innocents to protect innocents. Both stories are inconvenient and troubling.
Israel professes surprise at the number of tunnels and its difficulty destroying them—the same kind of surprise Alexander’s engineers must have expressed. But as surely as our Arabists foresaw what would happen if we invaded Iraq, so Israel’s scholars knew about those tunnels and how complex they are. Why hasn’t this anomaly been explored? Why hasn’t the press raised the questions raised here?
Let’s think more about omissions. The American press expressed editorial surprise at the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis. But that never rang true. Surprise? When the press was raking in advertising revenues from developers, predatory lenders and realtors? They bought the press’s silence.
Or how about the routine housing starts and homes sales and employment statistics we see regularly published. The figures go up and the press hails economic recovery. But recovery for whom? Not the millions of Americans who have been paid shit wages for more than 35 years. Not the owners of homes worth less than their under-water mortgages. Not millions of indentured students. Not homeless and sick veterans.
In one week The Times ran Jamie Dimon’s picture four times, twice in the same edition. His is the face of a class society. The faces of the veterans in the streets, of the struggling students and those burdened by homes they can’t sell for enough to pay off their mortgage—they are not as important as the deftly coiffed visage of a bank executive some people believe ought to be in jail.
It is not merely disingenuous to run those stories about homebuilding and employment without mentioning wage stagnation, without connecting such obvious dots—it is devious and misdirective. It leads attention away from the fact that Wall Street soars in large part because of those shit wages. It directs America’s attention away from the social and economic inequality that bedevils us.
This is more, much more than a failure to develop journalism beyond the five Ws. It is a breach of faith with the founders of the country and their investment in the First Amendment. They warned against banks and corporations, but they hoped a free and vigilant press might always rescue the republic from its corrupters.
This essay was written for Vox Populi.