by Beatrice Paez in Toronto
Journalists can pay a high price with their reputations for reporting on the polarizing, decades-old Israel-Gaza conflict.
As the platforms for gathering news become more sophisticated in delivering customized information to readers, there’s a risk of readers insulating themselves from divergent views, said Olivia Ward, the Toronto Star’s foreign affairs reporter, who moderated the talk hosted by Poets, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) Canada.
Blumenthal’s critics have accused him of disseminating propaganda through his reporting on Gaza.
PEN stood its ground against calls to cancel the event, citing its efforts to defend free speech.
“There are hard questions that require a great deal of debate, and it isn’t always polite,” says Randy Boyagoda, president of PEN Canada. “We fight for the right to make it possible.”
Embattled Truths was a discussion of Blumenthal’s critique of mainstream media, the challenges of covering the Gaza Strip and his own privileges as an American Jew from an upper-middle class family with ties to the Clintons.
Anticipating heated confrontations between Blumenthal and his critics, a modest police presence was on standby to rein in on any disruptions from the crowd. Interruptions —from both the pro-Israel lobby, including members of the Jewish Defense League, and Blumenthal's own defenders — staggered his exchange with Ward and the question-and-answer session with the audience.
There were repeated calls to boot individuals from opposing sides as Blumenthal’s detractors challenged his view of Israel as an aggressor and his assertion that what was happening between Israel and Palestine was “a conquest, not a conflict.” His critics — who came with placards showing the photo of a jihadi with the words, “This is not a victim” — questioned why he was not reporting about terror attacks against Israelis as well.
For Blumenthal, there’s no avoiding bias — even as journalists — in the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The way I see my journalism on this issue is, I’m involved in a campaign,” he said. “Information on this issue is very difficult to obtain. There isn’t much of a counter-narrative, and the Palestinian narrative, which I have found to be closer to reality, is frozen out.”
A self-described advocacy journalist, he defends his embattled credibility on the basis that his reporting is grounded in facts.
“I rise and fall on whether I’m presenting facts,” he said. “[People] spend so much time trying to characterize my views as slander or slurs, instead of actually addressing the facts of my book.”
Blumenthal’s recently released book, the 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza, is a first-hand examination of the military conflict in Gaza in 2014, or as the Israeli Defense Force calls it, “Operation Protective Edge.”
Efforts to undermine his work by framing him an anti-Semite, he said, cheapen its meaning, making it difficult to condemn real acts of anti-Semitism when it surfaces.
When asked about the challenges of reporting on Gaza, Blumenthal said it goes beyond the financial obstacles newsrooms face and personal risks journalists are willing to take.
Asked by Ward about whether the fact that journalists have had to chase “moving targets” as news breaks elsewhere and parachute into other conflict zones was a factor, Blumenthal said he’s not beholden to the 24-hour news cycle, which allows him to probe the issue further.
His focus on gaining unfettered access to Gaza and covering the conflict in 2014 from inside, he said, provides a counterweight to what he characterizes as a cultural problem that newsrooms face when reporters are more immersed in Israel and are prone to “absorb the anxieties of the people they’re around, which is often the Jewish-Anglo community.”
Ward noted that his stature plays a considerable role in amplifying his voice, whereas Palestinians may have more difficulty getting heard.
Blumenthal agreed that his background has made his writing difficult to ignore, with the pro-Israel lobby trying to make “an example of him” to young Jews who might decide to follow his lead.
While accounts of personal narratives from the Palestinian side are chronicled, what’s rare is an overarching analysis from them, said Blumenthal. “The narration usually falls more to people like me.
“Palestinians who seek to do what I’m doing can easily be painted as terrorists, Islamists or ignored because they’re [seen as] simply being loyal to their people,” he said.
Then there’s the struggle faced by young Palestinian writers who have never seen the world beyond Gaza.
“[They’re asking] how can we write for the people in the West to explain our experiences because we have never left Gaza?” said Blumenthal. “You’re wondering what the outside world is like.”
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