Amahl Bishara- Back Stories

Bishara, A. (2013). Back Stories: U.S. News Production and Palestinian Politics. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA.

In her book, Back Stories: U.S. News Production and Palestinian Politics, anthropologist Amahl A. Bishara examines Palestinian society, focusing on the role that international (which is often synonymous with U.S.) news organizations and journalists play. How does international media shape the conflict for outside and inside audiences? Bishara’s work focuses generally on Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and more specifically on the Second Intifada (2000-2005).

The media dictates the narrative of current events. It serves as a guide for information on what is most current. When it comes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, most Americans do not have a direct connection to the conflict. Therefore, their understanding of the conflict is filtered through the lens of U.S. journalism.

In order to understand the role that journalism plays in society, we must also understand the values upon which journalism relies; “objectivity and distance are predominant values of U.S. journalism,” which stems out of America’s liberal values (23). The concept of objectivity in American society began to develop in the nineteenth century. It was during this time that societal norms about knowledge production shifted, moving away from a basis in faith and religion, towards the objective, impartial values of science. This societal shift also had an impact on journalistic practices (37).

These core values shape the way American journalists investigate and construct news stories. Bishara further notes that “dominant Euro-American notions of how language or meaning is and should be produced… presume language’s separation from action, that language’s primary purpose is to refer to existing things in the world, rather than to act on the world.” (24).

As Bishara shows in reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “representing the two sides through the logic of balance obscures the differences in power between the two sides and erases the relationship between them as occupier and occupied… geopolitical and institutional circumstances lent themselves to creating news under the rubric of balanced objectivity.” (43)To portray Israel and Palestine as equal denies the reality of their inequality and further denies the embodied experiences of Palestinians.

Furthermore, balanced objectivity can obscure cultural context and the reality of an imagined West versus East dichotomy. American cultural values of liberalism (which play a pivotal role in shaping American journalism ethics) further shape a perceived difference between these liberal, Western cultural values and those of Arab communities. As Bishara outlines, the 9/11 attack carried out on U.S. soil birthed a new sense of American unity; a sense of unity developed in opposition to the violent terror of Al-Qaeda. In 2001, President George W. Bush called for a “War on Terror,” in effect, further solidifying an “us-versus-them” narrative between the West and the Arab world. Drawing upon feelings of insecurity and mourning post-9/11, this sense of dichotomy only grew. In the United States, “Arabs and Muslims have frequently been positioned as the ultimate outsiders and enemies. Conflicts around the world that had little to do with Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States have been drawn into the framework of the U.S. War on Terror” (23). Belonging to the Arab world, Palestinians were lumped in with all Arabs, and painted as the epitome of the “other.”

The end result of international media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is framed by international news networks and their foreign correspondents. At times this can lead to the erasure of Palestinians from media coverage of the conflict. As Bishara remarks, journalists are closely linked to government officials (44-50); and as Palestinians are a stateless people, they do not have the same relationship with international journalists. Furthermore, “Israel also has a well-developed infrastructure for the production of international news,” which Palestine lacks (49). This, in combination with the problems of “balanced objectivity” discussed beforehand, leads to a skewed perspective of Palestine in the international media.

However, Bishara is careful to note that Palestinians are not completely absent from the creation of U.S. media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In reality Palestinian journalists are active participants in the collaborative process of knowledge production. Bishara describes this collaborative journalism as “accumulated authorship.” While the end result usually features one author – which obscures the collaborative journey news articles go through and at times overshadows Palestinian voices – Palestinians are not without agency. They are not passive subjects for international media to mold a narrative around however they want.

As Bishara’s case study on Palestine and U.S. media production shows, there is a complex interaction at work. Interspersed within her book are short interviews with Palestinians concerning U.S. news articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Through these ethnographies, Bishara is able to give voice to this emotional community in a unique way. The common theme that plays in these sections was Palestinian reflection on how an international audience might interpret Palestinians based on their portrayal in international media.

In one New York Times article, which portrays the everyday lives of Palestinian children, Bishara’s interviewees “hope[d] that this article on Palestinian childhood would bring Palestinians into the fold of a universalist vision of humanity for American readers” (69).

Palestinians are concerned with international media portrayal because they recognize its power (20).This is because “news… is the predominant mode of representing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the United States and indeed of representing the Palestinians as people” (65). Therefore, being able to influence and shape how the media portrays the conflict is an important component for gaining sympathy for their cause. Palestinians are hopeful of the potential role that media can play in the conflict to support their side.

Disappointment is expressed as a resigned disillusionment with international coverage. Palestinians see international media as often being skewed and colored by Western prejudices. As discussed previously, the issue of the West versus the Arab world subtly plays out in media coverage of the conflict, and Palestinians recognize this. Bishara even remarks on the development of Palestinian “double consciousness akin to what W.E.B. Du Bois described for African Americans.” Palestinians are cognizant of how they are being portrayed in the international media (169). They “have the sense that people in the West see them either as terrorists or as abject victims… During protests, activists perform for audiences they do not know well and will likely never meet” (169). There is an added psychological weight in knowing your actions are always being judged by others. In the case of Palestinians, they perceive this voyeurism as often working against them. The knowledge of Western judgement based on stereotypes puts Palestinians in a place of “performance” when under journalistic eyes.

In another case, several Palestinians discuss a Newsweek article about Yasir Arafat’s funeral. During their reflection, her interviewees disappointedly note the double standard that seems to be applied to how Palestinians are portrayed in the international media (200).As one Palestinian remarked, “we [Palestinians] have learned that Israel, America, and the international community are fickle” (209).The undertone of disappointment is clear – there is a kind of sadness in the phrasing “we have learned this,” as if Palestinians have tried over and over again to appease these communities and experience has taught them the hard way.

In the concluding section of her book, Bishara discusses the role that graffiti art plays in Palestinian resistance. Graffiti “is the medium of the stateless” (234). For Palestinians, whose voices are often overshadowed or erased, graffiti art can be used to express powerful and succinct messages. Messages that are easy for journalists to capture. Recalling the liberal values of U.S. journalism – where “disinterested and decontextualized speech” is favored (236)– graffiti on the other hand, forces contextualization. Part of graffiti art is the physical space on which it is written. Therefore, Palestinian graffiti written on the separation wall draws explicit attention to the wall. The bold statements and appeals in graffiti reflect the hope of Palestinians – that the international community might finally hear their pleas and assist their struggle – while the temporal nature of graffiti reflects their disappointment, the “double consciousness” that realizes this art piece will create little change. At its core, much Palestinian graffiti art is emotional. It is the opposite of the objective, distant narrative that international media creates.

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