On 26 May 2021, The New York Times published a front-page article titled “They Were Only Children” by Mona El-Naggar, Adam Rasgon and Mona Boshnaq. The article presented the pictures and names of at least 67 Palestinian children killed by Israeli air raids during Operation Guardians of the Wall against Gaza, which lasted for 11 days in May 2021.
Each dead child had a caption beneath his or her name, telling the story of the child, his life, and his death.
Some voices in the Arab media and social media were surprised, and a bit relieved. The Western media, they thought, has finally recognised the Arab suffering under Israeli aggression, and is on its way to a more balanced and fair representation in dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
However, the picture is not as rosy or as optimistic as some in the Arab media or Arab public opinion might think.
The New York Times did not publish the pictures of the murdered children out of empathy, or out of a sudden spell of journalistic integrity. There were political and economic pressures that led the New York Times, in particular, to publish the pictures of the 67 dead Gazan children.
Before presenting these reasons, though, it is worth emphasising the pro-Israel bias in the US media and in the Western media in general.
This media bias towards Israel is due to political pressure from pro-Israel lobbies in Washington and other Western capitals. These pro-Israel movements are very influential in the media, academia, and government in Washington and the West, and their support is usually necessary for candidates who want to win presidential or parliamentary elections.
These organisations, which include the famous American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, are usually capable of stifling any voice expressing a balanced or fair view towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. They do not accept less than a pro-Israeli stance, no matter how clear it is that Israel is the aggressor who is breaking international norms and violating the human rights and threatening the very lives of Palestinians or Arabs.
One only has to read, for example, the famous 1984 book They Dare to Speak Out by Paul Findley and the famous 2006 book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt to have a clearer picture of how such organisations work and influence politics and the media in Washington.
This is usually clear during Israeli military operations against Arabs or Palestinians. The American bias towards Israel and its right to defend itself has always been clear during such times of acute crisis. While the United Nations and human-rights organisations usually condemn Israel’s use of disproportionate force in bombing civilian areas and killing tens or hundreds of Arab civilians, Washington and its politicians always defend Israel’s right to defend itself and condemn Hamas’ or Hizbullah’s or the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) or the Intifada’s terrorism.
Even the American and Western entertainment industry is not immune from pro-Israel influence. One famous incident occurred with the world-famous pop singer Rihanna during the Israeli air raids against Gaza in 2014 codenamed Operation Resolute Cliff, which lasted from early July until late August 2014. About 2,200 Palestinians were killed by the end of the Israeli operation. During the crisis, Rihanna tweeted against the Israeli aggression. A few minutes later, she erased the tweet. It was widely understood that this was due to pressure from pro-Israel movements in the music industry in the US.
This also happened during the recent Operation Guardians of the Walls last May. Mark Rufallo, famous for playing the Hulk in the Avengers movie series, tweeted since the early days of Operation Guardians of the Walls against the Israeli aggression against the people of Gaza, describing it as “genocide”.
He called for international sanctions to be imposed on Israel and started a donation campaign to support the Palestinians. On 26 May, however, he apologised on Twitter for using the word “genocide” to describe the Israeli actions against the Palestinians, saying that he had “reflected” and seen that the term is “inflammatory, disrespectful, and is being used to justify anti-Semitism”.
The pro-Israel media also slammed any celebrity who dared to express any empathy with the Palestinians during the Israeli air raids. This famously happened to the British pop singer Dua Lipa and the American-Palestinian models Bella and Gigi Hadid, each of whom has condemned the Israeli aggressions and expressed pro-Palestinian views.
The three women were shamed by the US media. The New York Times itself ran an advert on 23 May, sponsored by the pro-Israel World Values Network, which called the three the “Hamas influencer brigade” and claimed that they had falsely accused Israel of ethnic cleansing. The three celebrities stood their ground. Lipa responded to the ad by tweeting that “the World Values Network are shamelessly using my name to advance their ugly campaign with falsehoods… I stand in solidarity with all oppressed people and reject all forms of racism.”
British actor Edris Elba, star of the BBC detective thriller series Luther (who, at one point, was also a frontrunner to play James Bond after Daniel Craig acts in his final film as Bond), has also expressed solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza during the Israeli air raids. He tweeted that “the bloodshed has to stop” and “stop the bloodshed in Palestine.”
Moreover, the US media during the 11 days of Operation Guardians of the Walls, continued to express its traditional pro-Israel stance, emphasising Israel’s right to defend itself against the terrorism of Hamas. American president Joe Biden himself has famously emphasised Israel’s right to defend itself and did not express much public concern about the Israeli violations of human rights or the Palestinian plight in the face of Israeli occupation or air raids.
Given the traditional pro-Israel stance of the American media, as explained above, the question therefore still arises: what were the real reasons behind the New York Times’ deviation from the standard pro-Tel Aviv position and its running of a front-page story of the 67 Palestinian children who died in the Israeli air raids?
THE INFLUENCE OF SOCIAL MEDIA: It could be argued that the decision to run this story was caused by changes in the global structure of mass media, as well as by changes in the political structure of the American domestic political scene.
The first reason is the changes caused by the rise of social media, according to Mona Badran, an assistant professor of Mass Media at Cairo University, and Rasha Al-Ebiary, an assistant professor of Political Mass Media at the Future University in Egypt. Social media has been increasingly playing a role in political life worldwide, and it is filling a large gap unoccupied by conventional media such as newspapers, television, and other traditional media outlets.
Social media is increasingly playing a role in the mass mobilisation of peoples and voters. For example, it played a role in the victory of Barack Hussein Obama in the 2008 presidential elections in the United States. It also played a decisive role in the surprising victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Social media played a role in the Arab uprisings of 2010 and 2011 and in other political movements around the globe. It could be argued that social media is the voice of the masses, unlike traditional media which is occupied by the elites and the well-educated who sometimes follow a certain political agenda that is not in touch with the voice of the man-on-the-street.
In contrast, social media could be dubbed the “news in your pocket”, as one click on your touchscreen can provide you with immediate access to news and/or opinions from similar-minded experts or bloggers, seemingly without a political agenda being imposed from a sponsor or editor-in-chief. (Social media has its drawbacks, of course, which can be discussed later).
In the US, and all around the globe, the conventional media outlets are increasingly becoming influenced by trends on social media, and they cannot escape discussing or tackling the stories and news that are trending on social media. In other words, social media is increasingly contributing to setting the agenda for the conventional media.
In a similar fashion, social media played a role in the New York Times’ decision to give some space to a pro-Palestinian stance as well. Pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab bloggers played a vital role in organising and calling for the large and widespread pro-Gaza demonstrations in the US that were seen in several American states during Operation Guardians of the Walls.
Such pro-Palestinian demonstrations, which have reached an unpreceded scale in the United States, show that American public opinion is gradually shifting to a more balanced view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, thanks to the use of social media by pro-Palestinian bloggers and bloggers who have a more balanced view of the conflict.
The New York Times did not want to seem isolated from these changes or confined to its traditional direction. On the contrary, it wanted to be seen as interacting with, and perhaps even playing a vital role in, these developments. And given that the Israeli crimes in Gaza were becoming too obvious to be ignored, the New York Times could not avoid covering them (albeit while trying to downplay the severity of Israel’s actions by emphasising Israel’s right to defend itself against the terrorist actions of Hamas), according to Mohamed Al-Shazly, former Egyptian ambassador to Abu Dhabi, Khartoum, and Havana, professor Hassan Mohamed Wagieh, a professor of Linguistics and Political Science at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and Lawrie Phillips, an assistant professor of Politics and Mass Media at the British University in Egypt.
This, perhaps, was the motivation of the paper to give some space to the Palestinian view. Thus, it took the decision to run the story “They Were Only Children”.
THE RISE OF PRO-PALESTINE VOICES: Another reason for the decision to run the story was the changes taking place on the American partisan scene, specifically within the Democratic Party.
I wrote in a previous article that there has been a decline in the classic Democratic Party support for Israel. This was seen, for example, in the positions of Democratic congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib and Democratic senators Chris Murphy and Tim Kaine, both of whom are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
It was also seen in a Gallup poll published in March 2021 that showed that 30 per cent of Americans have favourable views of the Palestinians, compared to only 18 per cent in 2018. The poll showed that among Democrat-voting Americans, 53 per cent want Washington to apply more pressure on Israel, which is the first time that a majority has taken this position.
The “pro-Israel hegemony” in the Democratic Party is being challenged, according to Fawaz Gerges, a professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics.
According to Badran and Al-Ebiary, these changes within the Democratic Party had a role in the New York Times’ decision to run the story. The newspaper, despite its pro-Israeli stance, is aware that progressive members of the Democratic Party, like those mentioned above, have increased in political influence, especially with the election of Joe Biden in 2020. It may also be considered as one of the important mouthpieces for liberal and progressive Jewish Americans who have been changing their position recently on the Palestinian issue and have been giving more respect and attention to basic Palestinian rights and more support to the two-state solution.
The New York Times did not want to lose this portion of its readership. Thus, it ran the “They Were Only Children” front-page story. Maher, who dismisses pressure from social media as being a factor in the decision to run the story, cites another political reason for the story, which was pressure from Biden to discredit the government of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which opposed the two-state solution.
Moreover, one has to take into consideration a number of additional factors regarding the New York Times story. First, the “They Were Only Children” story, which was published on 26 May as said earlier, was not actually an original article by the New York Times. In fact, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz ran a similar story a day before the New York Times, again listing the names and pictures of the 67 Palestinian children killed by the Israeli air raids.
Two points should be noted here. First, people have more freedom to criticise Israel in Tel Aviv than they do in Washington. For example, it is normal to see some Israeli newspapers inside Israel criticising Zionism and Israeli actions. The irony, however, is that such freedom to criticise Israel is much more limited in Washington and on the American political and media stage. This is due to the power of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. This is why some experts say, half-jokingly, that the Israeli prime minister has more power in Washington and in the US Congress than he does in Tel Aviv and the Israeli Knesset.
Second, Haaretz is a liberal, left-leaning newspaper (by Israeli standards), so it is normal that it would allow some space for a more balanced, pro-Arab view (unlike the other right-wing, more extremist media outlets in Israel which have a much more anti-Arab stance).
Another additional factor to be noted is the fact that the New York Times story was not the first time that the American media has given some significant space to the Arab view. One noted example concerned the late Edward Said, the famous Palestinian-American professor of Literature at Columbia University who passed away in 2003.
Said, the author of the famous book Orientalism which criticises the Western view of Arabs and Muslims, was frequently given space to express his views in the American media and academic outlets. This applied to a few other pro-Arab experts as well. However, their influence pales in significance to that of the pro-Jewish media and pro-Israel lobbies in Washington.
Giving this relatively limited space given to the pro-Arab view, it is not enough to claim that Washington is moving towards a more balanced and fair view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The space and the actual political influence given to the pro-Israel side is much more powerful.
Naturally, the articles by the New York Times (and Haaretz before it) stirred up some strong reactions inside Israel, especially from the right-wing anti-Arab media. Haaretz was accused of being “Hamas’ newspaper” by some members of the Knesset and other members of the far right. Haaretz apologised for not giving enough attention to Israeli deaths during the conflict.
One interesting incident is that Israeli social media made a fuss about an unintentional mistake made by the New York Times. It correctly named a 10-year-old Palestinian girl named Rahaf al-Masry who was killed by an Israeli air-raid during the military operation. However, the New York Times mistakenly, under the name of Rahaf, put the picture of another Palestinian girl called Salma, who is still alive and well.
The name was correct, and the child was indeed murdered by Israel in May 2021. But the picture was of a different girl. The New York Times apologised and inserted the correct picture of Rahaf in its online edition.
CHILDREN AS A PROPAGANDA TOOL: It is indeed a positive step that the New York Times and, perhaps, other mainstream media outlets in the United States are giving more space to the pro-Arab view. However, we must remember that this was not due to a sudden attack of conscience.
The New York Times was using the images of the dead Palestinian children as a tool to look up-to-date and connected with new developments in politics and the mass media. In other words, it was just another act of propaganda by the pro-Israel American media to give the illusion of a more-balanced image in front of American and global public opinion.
Despite all this bias to the Israeli side, we have to admit that the American media is the most successful in the world in terms of global reach, influence, and perhaps even in terms of professionalism and freedom of expression. We, as Arabs, have to take another look at our own Arab media outlets and think about what we can do to compete against the American media, so that our message will have a wider reach and a stronger influence around the world.
The writer is a political science lecturer at the British University in Egypt, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, and a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, UK.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly