In his 2001 book, Lying About Hitler, an account of the spring 2000 David Irving / Deborah Lipstadt trial in London, prominent British historian Richard Evans noted the shallowness of (most) journalists who reported or commented on its outcome. With few exceptions, they provided Irving a platform to repeat, without challenge, the lies that had just been exposed in the court as malicious falsehoods.
In fact, Judge Charles Gray not only dismissed Irving’s libel claim against Lipstadt, ruling that her book describing him as a Holocaust denier and a manipulator of the evidence was true; he also ruled that Irving had deliberately manipulated evidence to serve his “right-wing pro-Nazi polemicist” bent: that he was an antisemite and racist.
Many journalists, however, either forgot it was Irving who had sued Lipstadt, forcing her, under British libel law, to prove that what she had written about Irving in her 1994 book Denying the Holocaust was in fact true, or they ignored that he had lost. Many defenders of historical relativism viewed the trial as an assault on that and interviewed Irving uncritically, casting him – even after the verdict that proved him a bigot and falsifier of history – as the victim.
After two years spent poring over Irving’s writings to itemize his distortions and manipulations of historical evidence, and then serving as a witness for the defence during the months-long trial, Evans commented on the media circus surrounding Irving’s post-verdict interviews:
The problem lay in the way that the interviewers dealt with Irving’s answers. Discussion in this case had to be based on a detailed knowledge of the documents, the reports, and the court case that the journalists and the interviewers simply did not possess [or took the time to investigate]. Few of the journalists who interviewed Irving after the trial proved capable of challenging the fresh distortions of the truth that he peddled.
What was wrong about the media’s reaction to the verdict was not that they interviewed Irving, but that they failed to prepare properly for doing so. This contrasted strongly with the hard work and dedication of the lawyers involved in the case. Small wonder, then, that Irving thought he could make capital out of his media appearances after the verdict. For Irving himself, the ‘feeding frenzy’ of the media after the verdict prompted a reaction like that of an attention-grabbing child.
After winning a case that had consumed a full five years of her life, Lipstadt was ignored while all the sensational media coverage and shallow public attention fell on Irving, the one proved to be an antisemite.
The media beast was fed, but to nobody’s edification.
Coverage in the wake of the Lipstadt trial is just one example of a systemic media failure that affects coverage of many issues, including the Israeli-Arab conflict. To be clear, there is no comparison between Holocaust deniers and critics of Israeli policy or politicians. However, the failure to undertake basic research on the history and facts of the conflict, combined with the inclination to recycle myths without adequate journalistic scrutiny, certainly diminishes the quality of media coverage of Israel.
Facts about the peace process (e.g. the 282 words of the foundational UN Security Council Resolution 242, imposing several obligations on the Arab parties in addition to one on Israel for broad peace-making), are typically ignored while journalists blithely place all the onus on Israel, the historical victim of Arab rejectionism. What matters more is portraying the Arabs (especially Palestinians) as helpless victims of alleged Israeli aggression. Thus, the inversion of David and Goliath has become the standard and, indeed, the only acceptable, storyline.
Journalistic laziness, sloppiness, or (in some instances, ideological leanings) in both the Lipstadt trial and much coverage of Israel cannot be ignored or excused.
To be sure, there are important exceptions in key media circles – the Robert Fulfords and Rex Murphys who are still writing. Unfortunately, the depth of the knowledge they have carefully acquired and their dedication to objective historical fact are almost vanishingly scarce journalistic qualities in this age of the internet and it consequent instant (i.e. shallow) reporting and commentary. Still, while the Internet age contributes to shallowness and lazy habits, these deficiencies in fact pre-date the Internet or even the computer age.
All too often emotion, prejudice, and lazy assumptions substitute for evidence and careful deliberation.
To take a recent example, Canadian academic, Bessma Momani, who, in a November 9 Globe and Mail op-ed, wrote the following about a looming crisis in Lebanon, in light of the resignation of its Saudi-backed prime minister, Saad Hariri:
The bruised Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, would like nothing more than to have a conflict to rally his people around and divert attention away from troubling corruption charges against him and his wife, and there is little doubt Israelis are pushing the Saudis to confront Hezbollah and Iran hard.
Other writers, including journalists, have made similar comments in recent days.
Momani is usually a solid Middle East analyst. A few years ago, when reviewing the region with Steve Paikin on TVO’s The Agenda, she remarked, even with purposeful overstatement, “As an academic I say let’s wait 25 years until you have all the evidence.”
However, her assertion in the Globe, made with breathtaking confidence but no evidence at all, was simply irresponsible.
Israeli officials and analysts know that any possible future confrontation with Hezbollah (since the last war in 2006 now armed with some 120,000 missiles) is almost certainly going to be very destructive and costly to both sides. The Iron Dome can be overwhelmed by volleys of missiles; vital Israeli structures, to say nothing of human lives, are at risk. No Israeli leader with knowledge of these risks is going to act so recklessly as to choose to start a war to distract from personal political problems.
To suggest otherwise is simply unfounded and reckless.
Ironically, it was Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah himself who claimed, near the time Momani’s piece appeared, that, although Saudi Arabia was pushing Israel to attack Hezbollah, Netanyahu is “cautious” and unlikely to act on the Saudi wish.
It was Nasrallah who had been left to apologize to the Lebanese people following the 2006 war when he admitted that, had they known Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the murder of eight others would lead to that war, they certainly would not have proceeded.
At the very least, Nasrallah understands something that Momani and many others do not.
This is not to say that, especially with Iran’s bold meddling in both Lebanon and Syria, a war between Israel and Hezbollah is impossible. But, if that war begins, it will not be based on a decision as dangerously cavalier as Momani suggests.
Journalism, including those who write for media outlets, is often designated as providing the “first draft of history.” Real history (even its first draft), Evans reminds us, requires “someone who is concerned to discover the truth about the past, and to give it as accurate representation of it as possible.” This obviously applies to covering events of even the recent past.
Objective truth and fair-mindedness demand nothing less.