In his latest skit on the war in Gaza, American comedian Jon Stewart sent what is perhaps one of the strongest messages about perceptions of the Middle East conflict on American television by not discussing the issue at all.
On Tuesday's edition of The Daily Show, Stewart attempted to begin discussing Israel’s conduct when a mob of actors popped up behind him screaming retaliatory slogans that have become template arguments in the pro-Israel community in the US.
“What, Israel isn’t supposed to defend itself?”
“Yeah, if Mexico bombed Texas, would we exercise restraint?”
“What other country in the world is held with the same standards as Israel?”
After a short pause, the baffled comedian is dealt another blow: “Self hating Jew!”. Stewart eventually crumples his script, tosses it away and says, “Why don’t we discuss something lighter… like Ukraine?”
Stewart managed to take on some of the biggest hurdles facing mainstream media in the United States in covering the Palestine-Israel conflict, demonstrating without even discussing the topic that long held taboos are slowly being chipped away.
Much of the challenging of the narrative America’s mainstream media chooses to adopt has occurred on alternative media and social networks. News sites that take a more balanced approach, like Mondoweiss , Electronic Intifada, +972 and Tikun Olam, have been working round the clock with updates on the Gaza conflict, often highlighting, or even breaking stories before they appear on mainstream news sites. These sites often garner more ‘likes’, shares and retweets than stories covered by the likes of CNN, ABC and the Washington Post.
Stark differences have emerged between mainstream media and alternative media in the United States. This Washington post headline highlights the death of two Israeli combatants over those of hundreds of Palestinians.
This Baltimore Sun headline identifies the two Israeli combatants but reduces the Palestinian victims to "others".
Perhaps adding to their credibility, the alternative sites also do not have to conform to Israeli censorship laws that outlets like the New York Times and others are forced to abide by. Such constraints have often led to news outlets adopting the Israeli narrative as fact. This was perhaps best demonstrated when Hamas’ claim that it had captured an Israeli soldier was dismissed by the media after Israel denied it. In ongoing conflicts like the one in Gaza, journalists operating in Israel are bound by gag orders even if they stumble upon breaking stories.
But even journalists for mainstream news outlets are turning to the very social media channels that are undermining the fast-diminishing monopoly of their publications on news. It is often the case that tweets posted by these journalists get more retweets than the often sanitised reports they submit to their news outlets.
News agendas that had long been set by powerful behind-the-scenes individuals in newsrooms and beyond are now being successfully challenged by publics that have used social media to hold mainstream media to account. Award-winning Arab-American reporter Ayman Moheyeldin was recently removed from Gaza by his employers at NBC without reason after sending taboo-breaking empathetic reports on the suffering of Palestinians. The move led to a massive Twitter campaign that led the #LetAymanReport hashtag to trend, and NBC soon reversed it's decision.
Similarly, a news segment by celebrity anchor Diane Sawyer of ABC that falsely identified Palestinian victims of Israeli bombardment as Israeli led to a campaign of mockery on Twitter, eventually forcing the network to apologise on air.
Social media's hijacking of the Gaza narrative from mainstream media may be bearing fruit already. A Gallup poll of Americans' position on Israel's Gaza war revealed that only 25 per cent of Americans between the ages 18 and 29 support Israel's actions. That is the the segment that is most active on social media. Perhaps more interestingly, the poll shows that the younger an American is, the less likely he is she is to support Israel's positions. If this proves to be a trend, Israel may be faced with a serious public relations nightmare in the near future.
As the Moheyeldeen case demonstrates, social media is not only dominating the narrative, but it is also engaging in a 'trickle-up' process, forcing mainstream news outlets to rethink their traditional biases. They are becoming more open to giving a voice to young Western-Arab journalists who tell the Western audience the Palestinian side of the story in its own language (and accent), refusing to conform to the taboos associated with reporting on Israel.
Moheyeldin and Sky News' Shireen Tadros both made their names during Israel's second-last deadly assault on Gaza in 2008 reporting for Al Jazeera English. And it is perhaps the stellar journalistic record they built there that kept them from giving in to pressure. Ahmad Shehab Eldin, another Arab-American 'Al Jazeera export' said on his facebook page on Wednesday that after struggling for ten years, often in vain, to bring balance to Middle East coverage in US news outlets, he finally sees hope."... thanks to both the democratisation of media and [Israel's] continued flagrant disregard of international law and human rights... hopefully those wasted hours arguing over whether it's ever "fair" or "balanced" to be critical of #Israel are over...like the lives of the 637 Palestinians killed by Israel these last two weeks".
The death toll has since crossed 1000 and is still rising.