Friday, January 23, 2009

Q&A: “A Lot of the Gaza Story Is Being Left Out”

Miren Gutierrez interviews NANCY SNOW, propaganda expert

Inter Press Service


ROME, Jan 22 (IPS) - The war of words continues in Gaza, in spite of the ceasefire. Nancy Snow, propaganda expert, talks to IPS about information spin strategies and whether we, the public, have learnt any lessons from Iraq.

Snow is a writer and a Huffington Post blogger. Her latest book is “Persuader-in-Chief” about public diplomacy and persuasion in the Age of Obama. She is also Associate Professor at the Newhouse School of Communications, Syracuse University.

IPS: The Israeli propaganda effort is being directed to justify their attack. The sight of Hamas rockets streaking into Israel has been helpful in this respect. But do you think Israel’s effort has achieved anything?

NS: Israel’s effort seems to be designed to shake the confidence of Hamas. Of course, innocent people are in the way of this power struggle. We don’t know yet if Hamas will be emboldened or weakened by the Gaza conflict. We do know that global public opinion is against Israel for its raining of air attacks on a densely populated area. A lot of people died unnecessarily simply because of where they lived.

IPS: On Dec. 28, Israel released a video of a missile attack against what appeared to be a lorry being loaded with rockets. A caption says: “Grad missiles being loaded onto the Hamas vehicle.” As of last week, 632,714 people had watched it. However, it turned out that a Gaza resident named Ahmad Abdallah Muhammad Sanur claimed that the truck was his and that he and his workers were moving oxygen cylinders from his workshop. How do you think this case has hampered Israel’s propagandistic efforts?

NS: If one believes that the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) is acting in self-defence and that Hamas is completely responsible for creating the Gaza conflict, then the resident’s claim that this truck was his and that they were only moving oxygen cylinders places innocent victims smack in the middle of the propaganda war between Hamas and the IDF. If Sanur’s claims are true, naturally it hurts the IDF position that only Hamas is the target of its rockets.

IPS: Has the ban on foreign correspondents “helped”? (The television channels Al-Jazeera and BBC operated there during the attack). The absence of reporters from other major organisations has meant, for example, that Sanur’s story has not been as widely told as it probably would have been, or his account subject to examination.

NS: How do you think the ban is affecting this war of words? I’m all for the complete access of media to conflict areas. If correspondents are willing to put themselves in harm’s way in order to tell the story, completely and truthfully, then they should be allowed in. When a ban takes place, all we can wonder is what is being left out of the story being told? We cannot allow just officials to tell their stories. We need people on the ground, both citizen journalists and foreign correspondents, to complete the landscape picture.

IPS: Only last week, if you typed “Gaza” in the YouTube search engine, you would get 47,200 hits. Some of the titles included “Mortar Bombs Shot from U.N. School in Gaza” (from Oct 29, 2007); “Hamas terrorists kill innocent Palestinian in Gaza”; and “White phosphorus shells on Gaza.” Some of them come from established TV channels like Al-Jazeera, BBC or CBS. Others come from unclear sources. We have seen pictures of the conflict in Lebanon in 2006 and videos of the Jabalya refugee camp from September 2005 passed off as images of the current conflict in Gaza too. An apparently conclusive piece of evidence can turn into something doubtful. How can the reader know that what he or she is seeing is true or an honest rendition of the truth?

NS: I wouldn’t entirely trust Youtube for the whole story. We often say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but if that picture has been doctored of if the caption is inaccurate, then the picture is utterly worthless. I would tell people to utilise a wide spectrum of sources, both print, online, and video, to dig deeper. Compare and contrast media coverage, for instance CNN versus Al-Jazeera. A lot of the story is being left out or told from a biased perspective. We’re all biased; no one is without a slanted perspective, but we can try to overcome our worse biases by constantly questioning the story, its conclusions and the sources used. Always ask yourself, what is being left out on the cutting room floor?

IPS: In an interview with IPS in 2004, you said that, once the masses have chosen sides, “propaganda is used to reinforce existing attitudes more than it is used to change attitudes”. Is that what is happening here?

NS: Yes, this is still the case. Propaganda is generally ill-suited to completely change opinions from one side to another. What it can be more effective at is challenging a prevailing assumption among those who aren’t yet fully committed to one side or another. Also, the best propaganda, like the best persuasion, is that which is subtle and designed to make one believe that the conclusion comes from oneself and not an outside sponsor.

IPS: In the same interview with IPS, you said about the invasion of Iraq that the propaganda surrounding it that it was more “about not seeing images. People in the U.S. didn’t see the same war as people outside the U.S. or as did viewers of Al-Jazeera.” What about Gaza now? Are we seeing the same war?

NS: Absolutely not. Just the other day, my colleague, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of Middle East studies here at Syracuse University, commented on how different the media coverage of the Gaza conflict was between CNN and Al-Jazeera English. He said that just five minutes of watching convinced him that the media are setting the agenda and creating different wars through their distinct coverage. CNN was much more pro-Israeli and pro-official sources while Al-Jazeera English gave voice to the people on the ground.

IPS: You also said that with Iraq, the U.S. public “succumbed more to the stupid propaganda tricks than did the rest of the world”. Are they succumbing to Israeli propaganda now? Has the public learnt any lessons from Iraq?

NS: I’m not sure if we learned anything from Iraq. It’s still too soon. We’re in the midst of saying goodbye to a most unpopular war president whose favourability is at an all-time low of 22 percent. I think most of us don’t know whose propaganda is more credible.

*Miren Gutierrez is IPS Editor in Chief.

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