Point Austin: Oppel vs. Chomsky
The Austin Chronicle News, August 11, 2006
As my headline inevitably suggests an unarmed man charging into a battle of wits, I briefly considered leaving it at that, knowing that regular Statesman readers would understand it immediately, enjoy a quick laugh, and move on. But those of you who aren't blessed with such strong stomachs might just be puzzled, so I'll try to fill in the blanks. Not once, but twice during recent weeks Our Hometown Editor decided to demonstrate he knows more about the Middle East than Noam Chomsky. The results were predictable.
The exchange actually began with a letter from local Palestinian-American and activist Sylvia Shihadeh, who wrote to Oppel with the complaint that reporting from the Middle East in the U.S. press in general and the Statesman in particular tends unfairly to favor Israel. Oppel reduced the charge to a claim of "censorship" of reporting and stoutly denied the charge: "We don't put a pro-Israeli slant on things." ("Tracking down claims of bias in Middle East reporting," July 23, Austin American-Statesman) In his heart of hearts, I'm sure Oppel believes that, because he conceives of "slant" as something carefully slathered on copy during the production process, like oil-based paint. Yet anyone looking for evidence that mainstream editors (and too many reporters) see the Middle East exclusively through U.S./Israeli foreign-policy spectacles will be able to cite these two Oppel columns as undeniable evidence.
Oppel's direct dispute with Shihadeh focused on whether Cox Newspapers' Middle East bureau reporters experience editorial "censorship" when their reports are too critical of Israeli policies. Satisfied by the reporters (notably Larry Kaplow) that they experience no such thing – only that "space is not inexhaustible" – Oppel rejected the charge of censorship as well. That is, if there's no direct censorship, there's no bias.
Chomsky entered the argument secondhand, as Shihadeh cited his statement (on the Democracy Now! radio and television program, July 14) that the latest violence in Gaza (and subsequently Lebanon) was not simply – as it has been largely portrayed in the U.S. press – a righteous, defensive Israeli response to the June 25 abduction of an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, by Gaza militants, followed two weeks later by a similar capture on the Lebanese border of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. Chomsky noted in the radio interview that the situation has been especially volatile since the January democratic election of a Hamas majority to the Palestinian parliament and the violent U.S./Israeli rejection of that outcome. And then he pointed out something more specific: that the capture (or "kidnapping," as it's usually described) of Shalit was in fact preceded the day before by the quite literal kidnapping of two Gaza civilians by Israeli soldiers.
As reported briefly in the Israeli press, the IDF announced the Gaza abduction that day, calling it an "arrest" of suspected "Hamas militants" who were allegedly "planning a major terror attack in the coming days." (No evidence needed or supplied.) Yet it was the first such incursion into Gaza by Israeli forces in months, and Chomsky cited it primarily for the Western media response – effectively none. "Israel abducted two Gaza civilians, a doctor and his brother. We don't know their names. You don't know the names of victims. They were taken to Israel, presumably, and nobody knows their fate.
"The next day, something happened, which we do know about, a lot. Militants in Gaza, probably Islamic Jihad, abducted an Israeli soldier across the border. That's Corporal Gilad Shalit. And that's well known; first abduction is not. Then followed the escalation of Israeli attacks on Gaza, which I don't have to repeat. It's reported on adequately." That is, there had been a few passing press mentions of the IDF abduction, unquestioning of the Israeli justification; by contrast, the capture of Shalit and the other soldiers has been a major story for weeks, and (until the subsequent Hezbollah missile barrages) seen as explaining and justifying the entire Israeli military offensive against Lebanon.
Chomsky's simple point, virtually a truism, is that military actions by Israel are generally treated by Western sources as self-explanatory and self-justifying, indeed barely worth mentioning; similar actions by Israel's enemies (even military captures of uniformed soldiers) are unspeakable outrages justifying unlimited Israeli offensive response.
Oppel asked Chomsky for his sources on the Gaza episode, and Chomsky supplied them. Oppel's response was stunning. In his July 23 editorial, he suggested the event never happened, dismissing what he called "commentary articles on leftist web sites," though the published sources he acknowledged include Israeli dailies, The Baltimore Sun, and The Los Angeles Times. And he called Chomsky's "acknowledgment" that some reports were "marginal, understated and brief" as somehow confirming that the kidnapping was not worth reporting. (As Oppel put it with a shrug, "Israeli intelligence and armed forces have made it a practice to abduct Palestinians from their homes and from the street without warrant or probable cause in the way that we understand these things.") Chomsky's point was precisely the opposite, of course, as he wrote Oppel in demanding a retraction: "It is not an 'acknowledgment,' but a condemnation. I assumed it would be so obvious that I would not have to spell it out to you."
Bostonian Chomsky might be forgiven for overestimating Our Hometown Editor, but alas, Oppel wasn't finished. In his second column, ("Agreeing on the facts of the story, but not on the conclusions," Aug. 3), he apologized for misinterpreting Chomsky's "acknowledgment" – and then did it again. In response to Chomsky noting that the IDF routinely describe the abducted civilians as "terrorists" is not self-confirming ("Reports by armies engaged in military actions," Chomsky wrote, "do not become 'True' because they are on 'our side'"), Oppel responded, "I see that as an attack by Chomsky on the credibility of the sources that he chooses to cite." The IDF says they're "terrorists," reporters write that down, and if that's not good enough for Chomsky, he's acknowledging that his "sources" are weak. (Longtime Austinites will recognize that familiar circular logic from the opposite side of the editorial page.)
Finally, while explicitly justifying Israeli military responses to Hamas' "provocations," Oppel attributed arguments to Chomsky that he didn't make, specifically that "the Israeli abduction of the two civilians touched off the Hamas attack." Other observers have suggested that possibility, but Chomsky specifically was reacting only to the Western media response to the two parallel events, and in his angry letter to Oppel he characterized that response quite bluntly. "What all of this reveals, clearly, is utter lack of concern over kidnapping when it is carried out by a U.S. client," Chomsky wrote. "Some gave it marginal, understated, and brief mention, again revealing the same lack of concern.
"The conclusions are obvious," Chomsky continued. "Whether suppression of the undisputed facts or casual concession, the performance demonstrates that the pretended outrage over capture of soldiers is pure, cynical fraud. Those who suppressed the story, and those who gave it marginal mention, are telling us, loud and clear, that they care nothing about even the far more serious crime of kidnapping civilians. The timing is particularly dramatic and impossible to miss: IDF kidnapping of civilians on June 24, Hamas capture of a soldier the next day, then the huge U.S.-Israeli escalation of attacks on Gaza ... then the kidnapping of soldiers by Hezbollah, then the U.S.-Israeli destruction of most of Lebanon, justified by the pretense of outrage over kidnapping, which is – to repeat – is demonstrated, conclusively, to be cynical fraud."
Terrorists vs. Surgeons
Oppel is clearly stung by Chomsky's harsh charges against the U.S. media – "moral depravity" really sticks in his craw – but Chomsky is only characterizing, in quite traditional moral terms, a very old lesson. I'll cite just the classic source on double standards: "Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast the mote out of thy brother's eye" (Matthew 7:5). The broad pattern of U.S. media coverage of the Middle East, from Iraq to Palestine, is institutionally hypocritical in just this way. If "their" side attacks, it's a ("terrorist") outrage deserving any extreme of military response; if "our" side attacks, it's a regrettable but necessary ("surgical") response to unbearable provocations.
Oppel's own editorials are squarely in this tradition. Consider his inability even to conceive (let alone admit) the possibility that the Israeli military perspective on events might not be the only credible version. He can't (or won't) understand Shihadeh's and then Chomsky's complaints, because that would require him, if only for a moment, to see the Israeli Defense Forces as they might be seen from the wrong end of the gun. Even more striking is his lachrymose but unreflective adoption of the Bush administration's imperial perspective as his own: "U.S. influence in the Middle East has declined as our efforts to build a democracy in Iraq have disintegrated into sectarian violence" (my emphasis). When this insane Iraq adventure began, the Statesman (like virtually all U.S. papers) enthusiastically endorsed the colossally criminal "shock and awe" hunt for "WMD." Now, when that always transparent rationale has been repeatedly exposed as a massive fraud, Oppel adopts the ludicrous alternative of "democracy-building," which has somehow, passively, "disintegrated" – due, of course, to those unmanageably "sectarian" Iraqis.
Since he's abundantly earned it, I'll give Chomsky the last word, summing up Oppel's most recent performance. "This is not just awful journalism. It's real cowardice."