A Guide to Reading the News About Israel
Despite the media's decades-long attempts at trying to frame its work as a "public service," it is anything but that.
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Bill Clinton was not a model citizen or president by any means, but he said something very true and increasingly essential for today’s day and age:
“Follow the trend lines, not the headlines.”
The headlines might make us feel like we’re well-informed citizens about our surroundings and the world, but the trend lines tell a different story: Much of the media is overly obsessed with reporting and thus overemphasizing single events, which overshadows the slower, often more boring developments that shape and reshape our world.
For media consumers, there is also the “news paradox,” the idea that the more news we consume, the less we are informed. More information leads to a higher noise-to-signal ratio, so we end up understanding and comprehending much less about what is actually occurring.
Social media — which combines traditional media organizations, new media companies, journalists, commentators, activists, influencers, and everyday people — takes the “news paradox” to unfathomable heights. Since there is always something new to consume literally every second on these platforms, we don’t have time to reflect and think critically about what we’re consuming. Our brains are on constant “information overload” which means that when a new piece of knowledge comes in, another one has to go out.
We also know that social media imposes echo chambers, and certain media outlets are considered taboo in certain echo chambers. In other words, more and more people are automatically invalidating media outlets which bring to our attention important issues and topics, simply because the media outlet doesn’t align with their identity politics. In turn, issues and topics become heavily politicized, even though they affect all of mainstream society, and even though their origins have little to do with political allegiance.
Crime is a great example. Many left-leaning Americans lambasted Donald Trump and right-wing outlets like Fox News for sociopolitically conflating COVID shutdowns and mandates with exaggerations of violent crime. But it turns out that now, the spike in violent crime is very real, and voters across the political board are genuinely concerned about it.
Israel is another great example. The growing problem is not so much that Israel is subject to some of the most critical observations and questioning by media members, politicians, diplomats, and the everyday folk. It’s that, now, being “pro-Palestinian” automatically means you have to be “anti-Israel” (and vice versa).
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, the European Union, and other actors can harp about a “two-state solution” all they want, but the reality is that exponentially more people across the world believe that being “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian” is mutually exclusive.
Which is precisely what the Palestinians’ profoundly corrupt leadership wants — because this type of thinking and posturing keep the Palestinians as an “underdog” and thus Palestinian leaders in their positions. A fair and just “two-state solution” would upend the entire Palestinian narrative and disrupt the incumbents’ kleptocratic siege, all in the name of “liberation” and “resistance.”
The media and social media play on this thinking and posturing for one reason and one reason only: It is good for their bottom lines. And this is the first and most important part of reading the news about Israel, that the news and the platforms that deliver it are products, not public services (despite the media’s decades-long attempts at trying to frame itself as the latter).
To drive subscription and advertising sales, the media uses provocative headlines in huge letters, often about relatively minor news, accompanied by lavish use of pictures or imaginary drawings, a parade of so-called experts, and dramatic sympathy within a construct of the “underdog” versus the ruling elite. Or, in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the “uninvolved” and “poor Palestinians” against the all-powerful, world-controlling, colonial-settler Zionists.
“Journalistic” techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, and sensationalism. Even some of the most “reputable” and longest-lasting outlets like the New York Times heavily rely on unnamed sources and engage in unabashed self-promotion, while conflating news journalism with opinion journalism (sometimes not labeling what’s “hard news” and what’s an opinion piece). Although, they do serious reporting as well so they can point to it when their “journalistic” integrity gets called into question.
Social media platforms, which used to be called “social networks,” have become performative arenas that aid and abet media outlets (what they call “publishers”) in attracting and capturing audiences that previously these outlets never even dreamt of reaching. These platforms have a “suite” of “publisher tools” designed to maximize engagement and keep users quite literally addicted to their technologies — and, by extension, the news.
Social media platforms drive surges of dopamine to the brain to keep consumers coming back over and over again. The clicks, shares, likes, and comments on these platforms trigger the brain’s reward center, resulting in a “high” similar to the one people feel when gambling or using drugs.
Dopamine creates a positive association with whatever behaviors prompt its release, training you to repeat them. When that dopamine reward system gets hijacked, it can compel you to repeat self-destructive behaviors, such as spending hours on social media that wastes precious time and even makes many of us unhappy.
And the companies behind these platforms don’t just know this; they purposely hire “attention engineers” that use addictive principles, such as those deployed in casinos, to make their products as addictive as possible, so they can maximize their profits by selling people’s “attention” to advertisers and other third-parties. “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product,” Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, reminded us.1
At the heart of these social media platforms are algorithms which filter, sequence, and decide which types of content to serve users, when and at which frequency. There are four steps involved in content recommendation — data collection, data storage, data analysis, and finally data filtering — all of which are powered by “machine learning.”
User data is filtered via two methods. The first is called collaborative filtering, which makes recommendations based on how similar your usage is to other users; and the second method is called content-based filtering, which makes recommendations based on how you engage with content. If you click on, like, comment, or share a piece of content, or if you simply spend a few seconds hovering over it, the algorithm will assume you enjoy this type of content and deliver you more of it (and vice versa).
For example, if a platform’s algorithm detects you are interested in “pro-Palestinian” content just because you engaged with a piece of media about it, the platform will deliver you more of this content and, thus, less “pro-Israel” content.
This creates a zero-sum game that could easily lead a user to be more “pro-Palestinian” and thus less “pro-Israel” — again, a mutually exclusive proposition — without the user consciously intending to develop such opinions. Now, imagine this at scale, in nearly every language, across billions of users, eagerly using these social media platforms for many hours each day.
The result, if not already, will soon be a profuse lack of trust in media and social media companies. Where will we go to get valuable, reliable, timely information about the issues and topics that matter most to each one of us? And how will we make good decisions that affect our communities, cities, countries, regions, and the greater world?
My apologies in advance; I don’t have answers to these burning questions. But I do have a trick to counter the increasingly unreliable, untrustworthy information emanating out of media and social media companies. I call it the “Complete and Utter Opposite” trick.
When I was a journalist working in sports and news media for NBC, ESPN, the LA Daily News, and other outlets, I heard someone high up in the industry say: “Whatever gets ‘leaked’ to the media is rarely leaked. It is put there on purpose by someone who wants it out in the public.”
After I heard this, I started applying my “Complete and Utter Opposite” trick to every headline I read. It involves reading a headline as if it was written in the turned-around way, to see if the new headline makes any sense. For example, “Hamas sent Israel hostage deal proposal, but two sides still far apart, sources say” becomes: “Israel sent Hamas hostage deal proposal, but two sides still far apart, sources say.”
Does the turnaround make sense? Sure, Israel doesn’t negotiate hostage deals in the media, because this could harm the hostages, and it could also make Israel seem weak or compromising in its other aim for this war: to eradicate Hamas from the Gaza Strip.
While the “Complete and Utter Opposite” trick doesn’t always work, it is a good practice that can help you see the world from different angles when consuming the news, especially but not only about Israel.
To make sense of most international news from Israel, it is also important to understand that the media tell us far less about Israel — and far more about the people conveying the news. “Journalistic” decisions are made by people who exist in a particular social milieu, one which, like most social groups, involves a certain uniformity of attitude, behavior, and even dress code, according to Israeli journalist Matti Friedman.2
“These people know each other, meet regularly, exchange information, and closely watch one another’s work,” wrote Friedman. “This helps explain why a reader looking at articles written by the half-dozen biggest news providers in the region on a particular day will find that, though the pieces are composed and edited by completely different people and organizations, they tend to tell the same story.”
The media, like many governments, is a corrupt and troubled institution. Corrupt not in that it accepts bribes; corrupt in a systemic sense. It fails to do what it claims to do, what it should do, and what society expects it to do.
The news media and governments (including terrorist-run governments like Hamas) are entwined in a vicious circle of mutual manipulation, myth-making, and self-interest. Journalists need crises to dramatize news that produces more profit-inducing clicks, likes, comments, and shares; and government officials want to “show” that they’re responding to crises. Too often, the crises are not really crises, but joint fabrications.
“The two institutions have become so ensnared in a symbiotic web of lies that the news media are unable to tell the public what is true and the government is unable to govern effectively,” according to Peter Vanderwicken, a former journalist at Time, Fortune, and the Wall Street Journal.3
This symbiotic web is very much present in Israel and the Palestinian territories, where foreign activists are a notable feature of the landscape, and where international NGOs and numerous arms of the United Nations are among the most powerful players, wielding billions of dollars and employing many thousands of foreign and local employees.
“Their SUVs dominate sections of East Jerusalem, and their expense accounts keep Ramallah afloat,” according to Matti Friedman. “They provide reporters with social circles, romantic partners, and alternative employment — a fact that is more important to reporters now than it has ever been, given the disintegration of many newspapers and the shoestring nature of their Internet successors.”
“In my time in the press corps,” added Friedman, “I learned that our relationship with these groups was not journalistic. My colleagues and I did not, that is, seek to analyze or criticize them. For many foreign journalists, these were not targets but sources and friends — fellow members, in a sense, of an informal alliance. This alliance consists of activists and international staffers from the UN and the NGOs; the Western diplomatic corps; and foreign reporters.”
In these circles, a distaste for Israel has come to be something between an acceptable prejudice and a prerequisite for entry. I don’t mean a critical approach to Israeli policies or to the extreme right-wing government currently running the country, but a belief that to some extent Israel is a symbol of the world’s ills — a perception quickly becoming one of the central elements of the “progressive” Western zeitgeist, spreading from the European left to U.S. college campuses and intellectuals, including journalists, reporters, and pundits.
Hamas “confides” in these journalists, reporters, and pundits to give the impression that they are anything but representatives of a terror group. Many Hamas spokesmen are fluent in English, sound somewhat reasonable about their grievances toward Israel, and are highly educated, usually in engineering or medicine. They portray themselves as part of the “political wing” of Hamas, one that is unaware of what its “military wing” does. Of course, you’d have to be an idiot to believe that there is no commingling going on.
“By and large, we reporters ate it up,” said Ilene Prusher, who recently reported on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years. “Our editors wanted us to have access to this shadowy group and to explain its lure for average Palestinians. By claiming that the organization’s left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, Hamas made it easy for themselves to evade tough questions — like, why target civilians rather than military targets? — and convenient for so many of us to feel like we were putting our fingers on the Palestinian pulse rather than sitting down for tea with terrorists.”4
As such, the uglier characteristics of Palestinian politics and society are mostly untouched by the international press because they would disrupt the “Israel story,” a story of Jewish moral failure. The news media’s editorial line, predominantly, is that the conflict is Israel’s fault, and the Palestinians and the Arab world are blameless.
This charade serves the media’s interests, but misleads the public. Journalists dutifully report fabrications and know the content is self-aggrandizing manipulations that fail to inform the public about the more complex (and thus harder to explain) issues of history, policy, and geopolitics. What has emerged, according to professor and author Paul Weaver, is a “culture of lying.”
Sure, reporters might feel that they have little choice but to rely on the growing Palestinian casualty numbers that Hamas’ Gaza Healthy Ministry publishes, but the media could at least be more transparent about the lack of independent verification and provide context on how manipulative Hamas, a terror group after all, has proven to be.
Still, many media outlets enthusiastically report what Hamas tells them, which peaked in October when many mainstream media outlets immediately repeated Hamas’ claim that an Israeli air strike devastated a hospital and killed a nice big round number of 500 Palestinians. (More details later indicated that it was most likely Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which Hamas reportedly funds, that had fired an errant missile which landed on the site.)
To be fair, Hamas talks a good game. “Look, we take no joy in seeing Israeli civilians get blown up,” one spokesman told Prusher — back in the day when Hamas’ worst weapon was a suicide bomber in an urban area — before insisting that these attacks were the only logical solution to what they saw as the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. The spokesman insisted that Prusher not use his name with that almost-empathetic quote about not taking joy in killing Israelis, probably because he knew it sounded good to the Western ear.
“One thing already clear after October 7th is that members of Hamas didn’t sound like they experienced ‘no joy’ in the slaughter of more than 1,200 Israelis and the kidnap of more than 200,” said Prusher. “Hamas gunmen laughed as they committed the attacks, according to eyewitnesses, and they recorded themselves as they gleefully rampaged through Israeli homes. Did Hamas change? Or was too much of the media too willing to see them as something other than what they always were?”
“The Social Dilemma.” Netflix.
“What the Media Gets Wrong About Israel.” The Atlantic.
“Why the News Is Not the Truth.” Harvard Business Review.
“Opinion: I reported on Hamas in Gaza for over a decade. Here are the questions I’m asking myself now.” CNN.