Janine Jackson interviewed University of Guelph-Humber‘s Gregory Shupak about Gaza and genocide for the January 19, 2024, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: The New York Times has recently published an op-ed by journalist Megan Stack, who calls out U.S. officials’ “glib dismissal” of the International Court of Justice case brought by South Africa against Israel. “Meritless,” she says, seems to be the agreed-upon term.
The paper also ran columnist Michelle Goldberg’s “America Must Face Up to Israel’s Extremism,” where she criticized attempts by the Biden administration to draw a bright line between statements from Israeli officials that their open goal is the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, and those of Prime Minister Netanyahu, to whom, she notes, America continues to give unconditional backing.
Better than a poke in the eye, do op-eds and critical comments below the fold represent meaningful change in U.S. corporate news media’s approach to Israel/Palestine?
We’re joined now by Greg Shupak. He teaches English and media studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto, and he’s author of the The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media, from OR Books. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Gregory Shupak.
Gregory Shupak: Hi, thanks for having me back.
JJ: I know that you have a long view of Western news media coverage of the occupation, of the human rights of Palestinians, so I wanted to start by asking your thoughts on the present—like, January 18 moment. It feels like the sheer scale of the horror in Gaza, plus the International Court of Justice case submitted by South Africa, are forcing something. Long-serving narratives are being strained. But maybe that’s me looking at social, people-to-people media, and I know better than to expect real epiphanies from corporate media. What is your sense of the adequacy of the relationship of news media to reality right now, and are you seeing any change?
GS: I’m not seeing much significant change. You mentioned, for example, the South African case, and if you go to, say, look through the Washington Post opinion/editorial pages, and just search “South Africa” and “genocide,” “Israel,” whatever key terms you want to string together, you’ll find that you basically get a range of opinion where the spectrum is from Max Boot, on one hand, really being frothing in rage about South Africa accusing Israel of genocide, and then, at the other end of the spectrum, you get Fareed Zakaria saying, “Well, it’s not genocide, but maybe it’s disproportionate.” So you don’t get a lot of admission of the fact that there’s really strong evidence for this genocide accusation.
That’s one example of how the most current events in Palestine and in the region, in fact, are being covered. There’s relatedly pretty strong endorsements in the Post, again, for instance, of the bombings of Yemen—ostensibly aimed at Ansar Allah, which are typically referred to as the Houthis—so an endorsement of broadening of U.S. and its allies’ violence to even more theaters in the region.
I’d also point out that I feel like, and I don’t know, this may be more of a blessing than anything, but I feel like there’s less attention, in some ways, than there ought to be, given the scale and pace of the massacres in Gaza. So as far as I can tell, there’s nothing in the New York Times editorial relating substantively in any way to Gaza since December 8, and that might not be a bad thing, because it’s sparing us from having to be subjected to what the New York Times‘ editorial board has been saying about Gaza when they’ve written on it. But that’s quite a long gap, over a month, when you consider that we’re dealing with upward of 30,000 Palestinian deaths in just about four months now.
JJ: One thing that makes me think of is the way that U.S. news media are so U.S.-centric. It’s a joke. There can be an earthquake in Indonesia that kills 5,000 people, and the headline will be “Four Americans Killed.” I guess that’s different in Canada, but U.S. citizens who rely on the news won’t know the history, not just of other countries, but of the U.S. relationship to those countries. So events seem to come from nowhere, and narratives are easier to sell. The lack of history in the media is playing in here.
GS: Absolutely. That’s really been pretty central with the coverage as it regards to the Yemenis, who have been attempting to enforce the shipping blockade on Israel to stop the assault on Gaza. The coverage has really done little to mention at all, and even less to mention accurately, the role that the U.S. and other allies, including Canada and the UK, have played in really obliterating Yemen from, well, since at least the Saudi/UAE attacks on the country, which went from 2014 until a sort of tentative truce just over a year ago.
That’s pretty crucial context to understand, not only the position that the movements in Yemen, specifically Ansar Allah, have taken with regard to the Western powers that are attacking them, but also in just making clear how obscene it is to reignite this war on Yemen, which killed—there’s a shortage of reliable figures, but tens, probably perhaps hundreds of thousands—brought cholera back into the country, really laid waste to it. So that’s a pretty glaring omission in the coverage.
With regard to Gaza, you’re right about the U.S.-centric character of it. I mentioned the last New York Times op-ed dealing with it, and it was called “An Aid Package That Invests in U.S. Security Goals.” And so that’s how U.S. aid to Israel, military aid to Israel, is framed in this piece, as being part of “security goals.” It’s quite explicit in the first two paragraphs that the authors of the editorial think it’s “essential” that Congress approve $14.3 billion in arms assistance to Israel, and it calls that a U.S. “security goal.”
I don’t know how this is supposedly related to U.S. “security,” with security in scare quotes. Perhaps the editors are afraid that Americans are in danger of being treated by Palestinian doctors if Israel doesn’t murder enough of them. But this really speaks to what you said about the U.S.-centric framing of it, that, among other things, the primary concern here has to be not stopping this genocidal slaughter, but some really nebulous, unspecified U.S. “security goals” that supposedly are enhanced by slaughtering Palestinian children.
JJ: And I guess fitting with that U.S.-centered frame is another damaging failing of corporate journalism, which is this crude “winners and losers” frame about international relations, that makes international courts, truth and reconciliation councils, even the UN, all of the structures and devices that folks have created to address international conflict with something other than bombs and bloodshed (and then the attendant economies that are centered on military spending)—in the news media, that’s all kind of silly and performative and tangential to real life. Those things are not taken seriously, and I feel like that’s going to come into play also with this International Court of Justice case.
GS: I think the two ways that international legal proceedings are portrayed, on the rare occasions, we do have to say, that they target U.S. allies, primarily Israel or, in a couple of cases historically, the U.S. itself, is either that they’re a joke to not be taken seriously, or some kind of unfair witch hunt, which is a big part of what we see in terms of the way that the South African case against Israel is being carried out.
The other side, the other related form of it, is that if it’s not a joke, it’s presented as equivalent to military warfare, right? As if that’s the real violence, or somehow that’s as bad as—I mean, it’s not bad at all. It’s the alternative to violence, but it’s presented as attacking Israel, as if prosecuting a state for severe human rights violations and violations of international law, or suing it, I should say, as if somehow that’s comparable to what Israel is doing, with its actual attacks, leveling hundreds of thousands of homes in Palestine, rendering the hospital system dysfunctional, blowing up every university in Gaza. These things are somehow used describing, the same language at best, when we’re lucky, as legal actions being pursued to try to stop those things.
JJ: Right, “diplomacy is weakness,” I think it’s fair to say, in corporate news media. That’s what you don’t want to do. But then if it happens, then, yeah, you portray it as singling out and attacking particular powers.
Part of being a media critic is attentiveness to language, not just for its own sake, but because we know that words and phrases have weight and freight, if you will. You wrote for FAIR.org about the work done by the words that we’re seeing: “A battle between Israel and Hamas,” “this is a war between Israel and Hamas.” What are you getting at there? And do you see other tropes or lazy language that trouble you?
GS: So to answer the first question, I would say what I’m getting at is that, essentially, when the media cover what’s happening as being an “Israel/Hamas war,” it really does Israel a favor by presenting its campaign as being much more narrowly targeted than it is in practice, because that sounds to, I think, most people’s ears like a war between a guerilla army and a state and its military, which is going to sound more legitimate than the much more accurate ways that one might describe what’s happening, such as “Israel’s war on Gaza,” for example.
I just simply don’t think that it’s at all reasonable to describe what’s happening as an “Israel/Hamas war” when journalists based in Gaza, Palestinian journalists, when schools in Gaza, when hospitals, when UN refugee centers, when all of these places, not to mention residential homes, power generators, water sanitation systems, etc., etc., when all these things are destroyed, I mean, that’s not a war against a guerilla army.
I think it packs a particular punch to the kind of American ear—or the Western ear; it certainly works the same way in Canada—to describe what’s happening as an “Israel/Hamas war,” because Hamas has been thoroughly demonized in the media since it has existed. It’s presented as nothing other than this irrational group of religious fanatics that’s dedicated to violence for its own sake, comparable to, say, ISIS or Al-Qaeda. And so for those reasons, it’s going to sound to a lot of people, and it does sound to a lot of people, like, well, Israel is doing what it has to do, because it has to take on these dangerous fundamentalists.
And so the fact is that the Israel/Hamas framing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It has to be seen in terms of the way that Hamas has been covered quite simplistically over the course of its history. And in my estimation, in that context, the framing of “Israel/Hamas war” really helps legitimize the war to at least certain sections of the public in the U.S. and Canada.
But as you pointed out, that’s far from the only linguistic problem that we’ve seen in media, and I can certainly give a couple examples of that if you’d like.
JJ: Sure, absolutely!
GS: To keep going, since the very beginning, in fact, of this escalation, since October 7, we’ve had the invocation of “self-defense” to describe what Israel’s doing, and that’s quite ridiculous because, for one thing, that would only make sense if Palestinians initiated the violence, which is a logical impossibility. When you’re in a colonial situation, the colonial power initiates violence. That’s how you establish colonial rule.
And so this notion that Israel is defending itself relies on the preposterous assumption that the violence began on October 7 when, as I wrote about for FAIR in the days after October 7, there was immediate Israeli violence in the days leading up to October 7: shooting protestors in Gaza, for example, pogroms across West Bank Palestinian towns, throughout 2023 up to that point. And certainly the siege that has been enacted for 16 to 17 years prior to October 7, depending on how you measure it.
So, I mean, a siege is an act of war, right? It’s enforced through military means, through land, sea and air. Israel can’t be “defending itself” when it was the party that was carrying out mass violence since long before October 7.
That framing, though, has a way of legitimizing, or at least making it sound legitimate, what Israel is doing, because to people who are not immersed in this subject, who maybe have things to do with their time other than study this or other international issues, it sounds reasonable, like, well, they were attacked, they have to defend themselves. But that really evacuates what has happened of context.
And it also leaves really crucial longer-term factors like, well, under international law, Israel is an occupying power, which means it does not have the right to defend itself against the population that it occupies. It only has responsibilities to ensure the well-being of that population and to end its occupation. So the notion that Israel has a right to defend itself against the people that it occupies is legally quite dubious.
So this framing, which has been really central to the coverage, I think is ludicrously misleading, and frankly propagandistic. So take, say, the LA Times, which was the first major U.S. paper to call for a ceasefire, but a couple weeks into the war, it still said, quite explicitly, “Israel has every right to use military force”—and that just isn’t true, for the reasons that I’ve described. It does not have every right to use military force. It has every obligation to end its colonization of Palestinian lands.
JJ: I did want to give you an opportunity for just any final thoughts. I was going to say, first of all, thank you very much. It seems like every generation sees a crisis that shakes their faith in news media. For some, it was Vietnam and the civil rights movement, and then they saw media vilification of protesters.
For some, it was the Iraq War. You march in the street with thousands of people, you go home. It’s not on the news.
Something on this scale, with people saying, “Don’t believe your lying eyes, and if you do, we’ll try to get you fired.” Media critics are being born today, is what I’m saying. And I just wondered, do you have any counsel, professor, for these people with these newly awakened concerns? Because we know that distrust in major news media doesn’t necessarily lead folks to independent critical media literacy; it can go a lot of different ways.
GS: No, that’s true, and sometimes in unhelpful directions. I would say, contribute to and consume independent media, like FAIR and many other sources; on the Palestinian issue, we can highlight Electronic Intifada or Mondoweiss.
Corporate media does not exist to provide the public with information to make democratic choices. It exists to make a profit for its shareholders and/or its owners. Independent media can actually fulfill the democratic mission of helping enable the populace to be exposed to a much wider range of ideas and interpretations, as well as a much wider range of information itself.
The short advice is—I don’t want to say, don’t read conventional media at all, but certainly don’t rely on it as the main source for your way of thinking about the world. I think you can find a lot of useful nuggets in there, if you bring a prior understanding of the issue. There can still be useful information when it comes to having journalists on the ground in some cases, albeit not Gaza, for instance. But I think that the opinion and analysis is overwhelmingly useless at best. And, frankly, the reporting is often so slanted that you need a scalpel and a magnifying glass to make sense of it.
But that can be done, if you are supplementing it heavily with independent media—or, reverse that, and say: supplement your independent media consumption with little bits of the useful nuggets that can be found through careful readings of commercial media.
But I would say that I think that that’s what’s happening among younger people on Palestine. It’s quite stunning to see the way that my students, and other students on the campuses at which I teach, think about this issue, and compare it to 20 years ago when I was a student, and how Palestine/Israel was understood then. That makes me feel quite optimistic. And the more energy, time and money that can get put into that type of work, the better.
JJ: Let’s end on that note. We’ve been speaking with Gregory Shupak. He teaches English and media studies at the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto. The book The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel and the Media is available from OR Books. Greg Shupak, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
GS: Thanks for having me.