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Violence sells: When the media profits off the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

In my third post about publishing–or, rather, not publishing–my book about migrant workers and African refugees in Israel, I examine the role of violence in the media and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And then there was a ray of light. In the wake of the May 2012 race riot in Tel Aviv, the mainstream media was suddenly paying attention to African refugees in the Jewish state. My agent called to say that we might be able to ride the wave of violence to sell my book about migrants in Israel.

There’s something wrong with an industry that only sits up and takes notice when things get bloody. There’s something sick to me about riding the riot and the asylum seekers’ fear and suffering. But, hey, sex and violence sells. As a number of my students pointed out, when blood is spilled, the international community pays attention to issues that the world usually ignores. And it seems the only way to force Israel’s hand.

During and after Operation Pillar of Defense, my university students in the West Bank were divided on the role armed struggle should play in Palestinian resistance. Some felt that violence only begets violence and chastised their classmates who rejoiced in seeing footage of Tel Aviv residents dashing to bomb shelters. When one young man told the class that he was happy to see “Jews running like chickens” to take cover, a girl in hijab turned around and yelled at him, “Haram!” She went on to upbraid him for enjoying anyone’s suffering, including that of the Jews.

Others felt that the frightful images coming out of Gaza—and the lopsided body count—might call the international community to action. And then there were those who were conflicted: violence sucks, they said. But sirens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem made Israel pay attention to Gaza and to ease the blockade a little bit. That proved to them that, as awful as bloodshed is, fighting back is the only way to “peace.”

It’s all too easy to blame the Israeli government for ignoring Palestinian demands for human rights. It’s comfortable to point the finger at journalists, editors, and publishers who follow a sensationalistic “if it doesn’t bleed it doesn’t lead” line. However, at the end of the day, the fault lies with a public that, to put it simply, just doesn’t care.

Or does it? Noam Chomsky and others argue that the media plays a huge role in breeding public complacency. To the extent that this is true (it all depends on the news you consume) the experience has dampened my enthusiasm for journalism. Even when news editors and publishing houses “get it”—and many of them do—they are too worried about sales to take any risks with content. This suggests that the real problem underpinning all these issues, including the highly profitable “conflict,” is the free market, to which even progressive publishers must appeal.

But this is the system, and I can’t overthrow it. So what options am I left with? To conform to a tired model of Israelis versus Palestinians; Jews versus Arabs. To go along with a binary of armed struggle versus non-violence rather than interrogating the fact that the Israeli military is considered legitimate while Palestinian militias are not. To continue to work as a “woman journalist.”

This is the part where I’m supposed to write a plucky ending—where I should come down on the side of digging in my heels and shaking my fist at “the industry.” This is the part where I should say that, screw it, I’m carrying on. Forging ahead. This is the part where I’m supposed to say that I have grit.

Right now, I’m not sure I have that fire left. But I wish I did.

Final post in series: Back to where it all began–Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station

This post first appeared on Souciant.

It’s a man’s world: women in journalism and publishing 
Media misconceptions: Is the conflict really about Jews vs. Arabs? 

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    1. “[The] public that, to put it simply, just doesn’t care. Or does it?

      Noam Chomsky and others argue that the media plays a huge role in breeding public complacency.”

      LOL!! “Chomsky”! Good grief, is he still around? If so, I wonder if he’d allow for the notion posited in the quote to be applied to America where a compliant media has bred a populace stupid enough to reelect the worst President they’ve ever had? But, alas, I suspect he’s of the mind that they’ve performed admirably.

      Reply to Comment
      • sos

        What are you talking about? Chomsky has been quite critical of Bush. (Obama too for the matter, but I know you don’t really care.)

        Reply to Comment
    2. Kolumn9

      A free media is a media driven by what the people want to see. Whatever you report has to stick with the narratives people identify with or they will just not read the article. The editors can push their agenda here and there to suit their political views but at the end of the day they have to answer to owners who are usually just corporations whose underlying reason for being is to make money. If you want a media that ‘cares’ go find left-wing billionaires to subsidize a free newspaper with expressly leftist opinions.

      So, your job as an activist journalist is to turn known narratives towards unknown places by looking for and finding things where the known narrative and the one you are trying to sell interlap. So, if you are trying to sell the “fascist Jews versus everybody else” narrative go look for a Russian immigrant or African migrant married to an Arab and describe their pain and suffering but without trying to explicitly switch narratives in the process.

      Frankly I don’t think it matters whether you ‘carry on’ or not. The space on the website will be filled by somebody else with similar opinions as you. Within the system that is the media you are the ‘content producer’. Outside of a small number of high profile journalists you are all practically interchangeable.

      Reply to Comment
      • I think K9 is right.

        Reply to Comment
    3. rsgengland

      The media survives and thrives on sensationalism.
      It has to grab the attention of its audience, who are no longer captive to one source.
      So it uses dramatic pictures (not necessarily relevant and/or truthfull) and equally stirring headliners (often not relating to the article in question).
      TV is the worst, because viewers are easily bored and distracted with anything less than full blown, and if possible, bloody action.
      The power of the pen and the camera, if used judicously, is incredible.
      The problem is when the picture and the written word are distorted, to follow an agenda by wilful manipulation.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Two conservative commentors of this site have come to you aid. That says things, I think.

      I’m sure you have considered an ebook. I know you will make little that way, but through online networking you may thereby become better known. There may also be the possibility of some magazine articles based on a published ebook.

      I know that after all the work you have done an ebook may sound like failure. Yet the real problem is how to actualize your work for a future. To do that, some overt losses may be necessary, but I really don’t know.

      I have already said that I think your early work on refugees enables a new pathway in understanding Israel and its future. Consider that K9, above, who once said he wants the Africans out, gave you a suggestion on how to present a new narrative through an Afican/Israel marriage. There is a common place to talk.

      Reply to Comment
      • rsgengland

        You used the term ‘conservative commentators’.
        What constitutes progressive, and what constitutes conservative.
        I find an awful lot of ‘progressive commentators support regimes and groups that do not seem to be aware of womens rights (women rated as worth half that of a man), lesbians and gays treated as a group that needs to be eradicated, minority rights that do not exist, rule of law that is not respected (even in the breach), etc etc…..

        Reply to Comment
        • I could have said “right corporate nationalist” but wanted to avoid such a label given the present post. I meant conservative on the Israeli issues presented on this site. I think you conflate viable outcome with advocated outcome. Egypt will have to exhibit some form of democracy, which has lead to Islamic dominance. This is distinct from claiming one likes this. Democracy of the vote often goes to umpleasant places, as journalists at 972 like to remind.

          Although off topic here, it will not do to say Israel is better than the surround. The issue before us is always to be the best we can be.

          Reply to Comment
          • rsgengland

            I was not being specific to Israel when I talk about what constitutes a ‘progressive or conservative’.
            Wherever I have lived, I have found some self confessed ‘progressives’ to be very biased and one-sided to their side of the argument.
            They tend to allow and excuse all manner of things, to justify their ‘progressive support, that would normally be totally unacceptable in any other circumstances.

            Reply to Comment
    5. sh

      I’m wondering whether it’s true, the idea that only violence sells. The problem you’re really facing is that violence is ignored unless it happens in places it is estimated to matter. Israeli violence towards Palestinians and immigrants has a hard time making waves. Violence committed by others against America, Europe and their interests makes waves.

      I agree with your conclusion that the public doesn’t care. If you look at what people prefer to watch on TV you can see that quite clearly in the success of “reality” TV and the ways in which most people prefer to use social media. The press gives itself awards for bloody reportage, but if it was the public that voted, the results would be very different.

      Chomsky is right that the media played a role in bringing the public where it is. When the violence was at its most bloody in Bosnia I was (dumb-) struck by a CNN discussion between studio talking heads against an endless loop backdrop of bloodied, headless bodies being dragged away after a bombing in Sarajevo market. That’s the best training you can get for what he’s talking about. Viewers have adapted. They want their sanity even if it means a diet of harmless pap, please.

      “interrogating the fact that the Israeli military is considered legitimate while Palestinian militias are not” must continue to be done. But those who do it must also find a way not to drown in it and to write about other things, perhaps also trying to put what happens here in a more universal context… Not that someone like me should be offering advice to anyone!

      Reply to Comment