The proliferation of online news outlets has democratized newsgathering, but it’s also updated the famous adage that “there’s a sucker born every minute” for the Internet age. And no circus attracts the suckers quite like the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not only will people believe anything about Israel; their editors will let them write it. And as we learned yesterday, pretty much every year someone will fall for the impossibly preposterous accusation known as the “flood libel.”
There are moments when biased coverage of Israel goes beyond mere opinion. Last year, the good folks at Vox, a notoriously error-ridden site, declared the existence of a bridge connecting the West Bank and Gaza. It was not a maddening mistake; it was, rather, kind of endearing. It was adorable, in its own way. But that such a bridge does not exist is an easily verifiable fact.
Same goes for New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren’s claim in 2012 that prospective Jewish construction in the West Bank would bisect the West Bank and make physical contiguity impossible. As was subsequently pointed out (and corrected accordingly), this was not even close to being true and Rudoren would have known as much had she glanced at a map.
And this week we were treated to another version of this story, though it’s one we hear often enough. It’s a bit of a hazing ritual: the Palestinians find someone they haven’t yet sold this particular lie to and watch the magic unfold. The lie is this: that flooding in Gaza was caused by Israel opening dams in the South. Easily the most important part of this story is the fact that there are no such dams. They are the Gaza-West Bank bridge of this story. And yet, the story just keeps appearing because the Palestinians never run out of Western suckers.
One of the suckers this year was Vice News. To try to hide its ignorance, Vice offered up several paragraphs of false accusations from the Palestinians followed by this attempt at “balance”: “Israeli officials categorically denied they were to blame while speaking to VICE News on Monday.”
Other outlets were more honest and ethical in the aftermath of publishing the flood libel. As HonestReporting notes, the Daily Mail went with a bit of false balance but also, crucially, added a straight correction and admission of error: “An earlier version of this article stated that Israel had opened river dams in the south of the country, causing flooding in the Gaza strip. In fact, there are no dams in southern Israel and the flooding was caused by rain and drainage issues. We are happy to clarify this.”
According to HonestReporting, the Daily Mail piece also contained the following amazing sentence: “The flooding was today compounded after an Israeli power company cut electricity to two of Gaza’s major West Bank cities.”
And according to CAMERA, both Agence France Presse and Al Jazeera (shocking, I know) passed along the flood libel. AFP pulled its video, and Al Jazeera went the Vice route by pretending the existence of magical dams is somehow in dispute.
The flood libel is proof that sometimes people refuse to learn from others’ mistakes. See this post from Jonathan Tobin in December 2013 for a reminder that the flood libel is neither new nor surprising. IDF spokeswoman Libby Weiss understandably would rather news organizations first locate their unicorns before blaming those unicorns for goring the neighbor’s ox:
— Libby Weiss (@Libby_weiss) February 24, 2015
So why does this keep happening? Part of the frustration with reporters stems from their absolute laziness. The Internet has put so much information within arm’s reach, and yet reporters are taught that when it comes to Israel, the facts are optional. And that’s because the facts favor Israel.
If you were to draw a map of Israel, using Western news organizations’ reporting, you’d have one that showed Israel bisecting the West Bank while connecting it to Gaza via a bridge and holding parliamentary meetings in its capital of Tel Aviv. None of that is true, but that’s the picture that emerges from the media’s “reporting.”
There also appears to be a kind of modified Stockholm Syndrome at work. These reporters and the outlets they represent are constantly made to look like fools by Palestinian propaganda. But they also seem not to mind, because they sympathize so strongly with what the propagandists and terrorists are telling them.
If what I’m describing to you sounds an awful lot like an activist, not a journalist, well–that’s about right. And such activists play a key role in disseminating grist for the anti-Semitic mill. The first headline is the one that makes waves, especially in the Arab world and in Europe. If the follow-up is not a full retraction or correction, but rather a “balanced” piece in which Israel is permitted to deny the existence of things that plainly don’t exist, then it casts the Israeli government as a powerful entity engaged in a cover-up.
It would be bad enough if we were forced to admit that our media just can’t get the story right. But that’s naïve. The truth is, much of the time our media just won’t get it right. And that’s why the flood libel returns, year after year.