The Semantics of Gaza, War and Truth

14 July, 2021

Journalist-author Robert Fisk in a bombed out Beirut building, 2008 (photo  Stephanie Sinclair ).

Jour­nal­ist-author Robert Fisk in a bombed out Beirut build­ing, 2008 (pho­to Stephanie Sin­clair).

Jour­nal­ism ver­sus cor­po­rate news and the de-seman­ti­za­tion of Gaza.
A med­i­ta­tion on This Is Not A Movie: Robert Fisk and the Pol­i­tics of Truth

Mischa Geracoulis

This Is Not A Movie: Robert Fisk and the Pol­i­tics of Truth (2019), the work of Chi­nese-Cana­di­an film­mak­er, Yung Chang, is, over­ar­ch­ing­ly, a study of jour­nal­is­m’s posi­tion in today’s cor­po­ra­tized media, amid weaponized lan­guage and fake news, and its role in report­ing on the Mid­dle East. Known for his cin­e­mat­ic explo­rations of the human con­di­tion and con­flict through com­pli­cat­ed char­ac­ters, Chang fea­tures vet­er­an for­eign cor­re­spon­dent Robert Fisk (1946–2020) to exam­ine the func­tion­al­i­ty of press free­dom, inde­pen­dent eth­i­cal sto­ry­telling, and crit­i­cal media lit­er­a­cy. Since the spring 2021 blitz on Gaza — the most intense since Israel’s 2014 onslaught — Chang’s This Is Not a Movie is see­ing renewed inter­est, if not for Fisk the per­son, for his analy­sis of and posi­tion on Gaza. 

In spite of Chang’s per­son­al com­mit­ment to bring to the screen method­ol­o­gy unteth­ered from the con­ven­tion­al white, patri­ar­chal, colo­nial stance, he chose to spot­light the work of white, male, British Robert Fisk. Chang’s direc­tor’s state­ment describes how fol­low­ing Fisk through the Mid­dle East served the film’s objec­tives to chal­lenge view­ers’ beliefs about jour­nal­ism and media, and for sur­vey­ing seman­tics and the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of truth. Fisk’s will­ing­ness to con­front cul­tur­al excep­tion­al­ism, pow­er struc­tures, and the cor­po­rate media that uphold those struc­tures brings to light the delib­er­ate asym­me­try of the Arab-Israeli nar­ra­tive. Chang’s inclu­sion of archival as well as recent footage of Fisk report­ing in the Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ries, Lebanon, and Syr­ia, reveals just how pro­tract­ed is the one-sidedness. 

Says Fisk in the film, by chang­ing words and down­grad­ing lan­guage when report­ing on Gaza — a war of attri­tion, he con­tend­ed, that remains entrenched in colo­nial­ism, land theft, and human rights vio­la­tions — the sit­u­a­tion is effec­tive­ly trans­formed into some­thing that bears no resem­blance to real­i­ty. In his decades writ­ing for The Inde­pen­dent, Fisk assured read­ers that Israeli attacks on Gaza are about land, not Israel’s right to self-defense.  The cor­po­rate medi­a’s ren­di­tion is delib­er­ate­ly de-seman­ti­cized, explains Fisk in this clip from the film.

Pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al and cul­tur­al crit­ic, Hen­ry Giroux, has long held dis­course on the use and mis­use of lan­guage in the cor­po­rate media, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of ter­ror-filled head­lines and images in ser­vice to agen­das at work to change his­to­ry and col­lapse pub­lic mem­o­ry.  That media is part of a polit­i­cal econ­o­my in which cer­tain sto­ries car­ry cap­i­tal is noth­ing new. 

After a 2012 trip to Gaza, promi­nent lin­guists Noam Chom­sky, Hag­it Bor­er, and oth­ers from France, Cana­da, the U.S., and U.K., issued “Nous accu­sons,” an open let­ter express­ing out­rage at cor­po­rate medi­a’s dis­tort­ed por­tray­al of the real­i­ties there. The let­ter was a call to jour­nal­ists work­ing for cor­po­rate media out­lets to heed their jour­nal­is­tic oath of ethics, as well as to cit­i­zens, urg­ing them to become informed by inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ists, and to voice their con­science by what­ev­er means available. 

“News items over­whelm­ing­ly focus on the rock­ets that have been fired from Gaza, none of which have caused human casu­al­ties,” the let­ter writ­ers stat­ed at the time. “What is not in focus are the shellings and bom­bard­ments on Gaza, which have result­ed in numer­ous severe and fatal casu­al­ties. It does­n’t take an expert in media sci­ence to under­stand that what we are fac­ing is at best shod­dy and skewed report­ing, and at worst will­ful­ly dis­hon­est manip­u­la­tion of the readership.” 

Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­can pro­fes­sor of soci­ol­o­gy and author of To Resist is To Exist (2019), Susan Rah­man, pur­posed her book to show that “the whole secu­ri­ty myth that Israel is pro­mot­ing is absolute­ly false.” What’s called a “con­flict” between Israel and Pales­tine, implies an even­ly matched dis­pute, and writes Rah­man, total­ly omits his­tor­i­cal con­text and that the occu­pa­tion of Pales­tine has always been puni­tive and debas­ing. Recount­ing a well-worn yet still use­ful quote from Amer­i­can econ­o­mist, envi­ron­men­tal­ist, activist Winona LaDuke, speaks to the will­ful dis­hon­esty in cor­po­rate report­ing.  She’s alleged that the U.S. can’t hon­est­ly talk about Gaza because the U.S. can’t hon­est­ly talk about Israel because the U.S. is Israel. Pre-pack­aged lines like, “atroc­i­ties in Gaza are Hamas’s fault,” and “Israel has the right to self-defense,” keep con­ver­sa­tions locked in sta­tus quo.

Says Rah­man, mov­ing for­ward, stale­mat­ed dis­cus­sions must include the real effects of occu­pa­tion of the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple, of life in an open-air prison, and in apartheid Israel.  Only when dis­course is sit­u­at­ed in real­i­ty and con­duct­ed with authen­tic­i­ty, she asserts, can there be any hope for move­ment towards peace, jus­tice, or equi­ty.  Oth­er­wise, writes Bar­ry Lopez in Hori­zon (2019), “we risk end­ing up in a waste­land of unin­formed dog­ma­tists, the same short­sight­ed, nar­row-mind­ed bel­liger­ents who rise up in every era of human his­to­ry.”  While tak­ing care, he cau­tions, not to posi­tion one­self on moral high ground, human­i­ty has an eth­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty to object to wrong­do­ing. To this point, Fisk broke from the notion that a reporter must be neu­tral and unbi­ased [ital­ics mine]. He claimed that neu­tral­i­ty must be extend­ed to those who suf­fer rather than to the per­pe­tra­tors of suffering. 

Con­tends Fisk in the film, “First some­one tells the truth; then some­one else denies it… I’m a jour­nal­ist, and my job is to tell the truth,” he ratio­nal­ized.  Telling grim truths may not cur­ry favor in the econ­o­my of pol­i­tics and cor­po­rate media, but accord­ing to Fisk, equates to a form of soci­etal insur­ance.  His ulti­mate wor­ry, he admits nev­er­the­less, is that truth telling might not ever make any real difference.

— • —

In June 2021, speak­ing with Nora Bar­rows-Fried­man of the Elec­tron­ic Intifa­da, Cana­di­an doc­tor, Tarek Loubani, who often works at al-Shi­fa hos­pi­tal and trau­ma cen­ter in Gaza City, says that since the spring 2021 attacks, some aspects of the con­ver­sa­tion have shift­ed away from the Israeli nar­ra­tive. Due, per­haps, to a more glob­al view on the bla­tant destruc­tion of Pales­tin­ian peo­ple and ter­ri­to­ries, pop­u­lar Israeli sto­ry­lines, its has­bara, are being called a bit more into question. 

Says Loubani, “Up to this point, we’ve done rea­son­ably well in talk­ing about the human rights abus­es and health crises in Gaza, and in pro­mot­ing a truth­ful nar­ra­tive about what’s real­ly going on. How­ev­er, what will hap­pen in the future unless we’re very care­ful, is that we’ll run out of ener­gy, sta­mi­na, atten­tion, time, mon­ey; and the human rights abuse sto­ries that are break­ing now, will fade. The more famil­iar nar­ra­tives of how every­body in Gaza deserves to die any­way, and every­body is a ter­ror­ist any­way, and the doc­tors who are going in to help are part of the prob­lem any­way, will resur­face. Let’s not make the same mis­takes we’ve made before by turn­ing our atten­tion away just because the bombs have stopped.” 

Return­ing to Lopez in Hori­zon, he’s artic­u­lat­ed the ten­den­cy of gov­ern­ments to go light on cor­rup­tion and mur­der, putting them down as nec­es­sary and legit­i­mate tools of state; mean­while gen­er­at­ing despair and the sense that the “Pales­tin­ian ques­tion” is unsolv­able. Recon­struct­ing Gaza, main­tains Dr. Loubani, is pos­si­ble.  There is no lack of imag­i­na­tion, knowl­edge, or will, but rather it’s a mat­ter of end­ing block­ades on Gaza­’s land, air­space, and ter­ri­to­r­i­al waters. 

It’s also a mat­ter of break­ing from what Chom­sky coined “the pro­pa­gan­da mod­el,” from ille­git­i­mate his­tor­i­cal revi­sion and false­hoods that flood the news cycles.  While This Is Not A Movie projects no Hol­ly­wood end­ing, it is time­ly in its wari­ness of cor­po­rate reportage on Gaza. 

The case for crit­i­cal think­ing, crit­i­cal media lit­er­a­cy, inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism, and press free­dom is made clear through the lens of Gaza. Coast­ing along to the most blar­ing, rep­e­ti­tious, mind-numb­ing head­lines is easy. Hard­er, yet more inci­sive and exact­ing, is to probe pre­vail­ing nar­ra­tives, demand accu­ra­cy and facts, and resist incul­ca­tion. More chal­leng­ing still, per­haps, is to stretch beyond one’s own bias­es, beliefs, delu­sions of cul­tur­al supe­ri­or­i­ty, or knee-jerk reac­tions that super­fi­cial­ly con­firm “truth.” 

Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­can teacher and pro­fes­sor, Shamia Shoman, Ed.D., designs cur­ric­u­la for Teach Pales­tine, a resource orga­ni­za­tion for edu­ca­tors.  Teach­ing on sub­ject mat­ter rife with myr­i­ad nar­ra­tives, she offers a crit­i­cal think­ing frame­work help­ful for arriv­ing at truths that may be clos­er to fact than spin. Her lessons enu­mer­ate what Chang illu­mi­nates through Fisk — meth­ods for data dis­cern­ment, crit­i­cal think­ing, and for cut­ting through the pur­pose­ful cura­tion of rapid-fire sound bites that per­pet­u­ate us-against-them. Cana­di­an jour­nal­ist and social com­men­ta­tor Mal­colm Glad­well has not­ed that we humans are nev­er more alive as when our false beliefs, pre­con­ceived notions, and mis­per­cep­tions are turned upside down. 

This Is Not a Movie puts Glad­well’s premise to the test, exam­in­ing the rel­e­vance of jour­nal­ism with­in the chang­ing field of media con­sump­tion, its role amongst the dis­cor­dance of sto­ry­telling, and jour­nal­is­m’s rai­son d’être in Gaza and, more broad­ly, in the neolib­er­al era. It demands for fact-based his­tor­i­cal inquiry, lin­guis­tic verac­i­ty, and eth­i­cal respon­sive­ness to atrocity. 

Click here to stream This Is Not A Movie in the U.S., and here to stream in Canada. 

Rec­om­mend­ed: “Seman­tics,” a poem by Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­can Jes­si­ca Abughat­tas in Tin­der­box Poet­ry Jour­nal por­trays the pow­er and con­trol that words wield. 

Beirutfake newsGazajournalismRobert Fiskwar

TMR contributing editor Mischa Geracoulis is a writer and educator of critical media literacy, English for speakers of other languages, and those with learning differentials. Her writing, teaching and approach to life are informed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Some of her topics of research include the Armenian Genocide and Diaspora, restorative justice, equitable education and child welfare, and the multifaceted human condition. Her work has appeared in Middle East Eye, The Guardian, Truthout, LA Review of Books, Colorlines, Gomidas Institute, National Catholic Reporter, and openDemocracy, among others. Follow her on Twitter @MGeracoulis.

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