Not Ready For Prime Time

When the New York Times sent Ben Ehrenreich to write about the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli apartheid wall cutting across Nabi Saleh’s village in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), it knew what it was doing. The New York Times has a long history of explaining away Israeli crimes and colonial settler practices. They are never casual about whom to ask to write about Palestine, particularly a piece that was to be produced from within the OPT.

The resistance struggle in the village of Nabi Saleh, where Ehrenreich situated himself, had already captured the world’s attention, and the village had become a pilgrimage site for many Western activists. Ehrenreich’s article, “Is This Where the Third Intifada Will Start?” appeared in the New  York Times Magazine and was lauded for its balanced and insightful writing about a people’s struggle against the Israeli occupation and the construction of the separation wall. [Ben Ehrenreich, Is This Where the Third Intifada Will Start?” The New York Times Magazine, March 15, 2013].

Some weeks after the article had appeared in the newspaper, in an interview given to Mondoweiss, Ehrenreich was asked to explain the necessity of a Jewish narrator.

“When do Palestinians,” the interviewer asks, “get to hold the microphone? Aren’t you and I to blame too? Because if they were holding the microphone, a basic human rights issue like the right to resist that is so core to your piece would have been noncontroversial many years ago. As it is, Americans have to warm up to the idea, and a Jew has to bring them this news.” [Philip Weiss, “An interview with Ben Ehrenreich, author of ‘extraordinary’ Nabi Saleh piece in ‘NYT Magazine’,” Mondoweiss, April 29, 2013].

Ehrenreich acknowledged his complicity in the silencing of Palestinian voices but had a rather strange explanation.

Black and brown people’s stories,” he argued, “can…only be told in…[America] via the authority of a White narrator, that we–White people, in this case of Jewish ancestry–are tasked with the representation of black and brown, and in this case, Palestinian people, who…are stuck in the passive role of being represented and are not allowed to interpret their own realities (emphasis mine).

There is no further clarification or examination of whether these assumptions – about being “tasked” to represent “black and brown” communities or the authority of the White narrator–were valid or where they came from. Even the interviewer does not challenge Ehrenreich’s presumptions. I respect Ehrenreich’s honest acknowledgement of his position of power and authority. However, Ehrenreich’s response reflects journalists’ reluctance to acknowledge their social, political, and institutional situatedness and power. Ehrenreich lays the blame at the feet of an imaginary American audience that “tasks” him to represent black and brown people. He assumes the authority to narrate without explaining who gave him that authority and why it holds. He isolates himself from the broader socio-economic, historical, and political factors that give him authority, permitting him to speak for others and frame their struggles. 1

He performs the fantasy of an apolitical, neutral, and disinterested “reporter” who can act as a transparent and objective interlocutor between the reader and the Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation rule. He equally absolves his editors at the New York Times, who have long been unwavering supporters of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This newspaper is infamous for hiring white Jewish correspondents to Israel, posting them to Tel Aviv, and remaining unconcerned that some even have had family members serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). [The Electronic Intifada, “New York Times fails to disclose Jerusalem bureau chief’s conflict of interest,” 25 January 2010. Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz, “Another New York Times’ Reporter’s Son is In The Israeli Army,” Mondoweiss, October 27, 2014. Hila Weisberg, “David Brooks: Gaza War Proved My Son Was Right to Serve in IDF,” Ha’aretz, October 14, 2014. Philip Weiss, “NYT’s Jerusalem bureau chief: ‘I come knowledgeable about the Jewish American or Jewish Israeli side of this beat’,” Mondoweiss, February 28, 2014. The Electronic Intifada, “Candid Video Reveals NYT Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren’s Zionist bubble,” 2 August 2014 ].

Ehrenreich portrays himself as standing outside Western history, particularly outside the history of colonial settlement in Historic Palestine. He assumes a place outside the privileges of power – historical, political, economic, cultural, and colonial – that he enjoys and permits him to arrive and report. He becomes the reporter who uses a “plain reportorial style [that] coerces history, process, knowledge into mere events” to manufacture “the eye-witness, seemingly opinion–less politics…of contemporary Western journalism” and passes himself off as “beyond Left piety or right–wing cant.” [Edward W. Said, “Tourism Among Dogs,” Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Harvard University Press, 2000:97]. By veiling these historical and institutional relationships, Ehrenreich helps entrench structural injustices and playacts the disinterested and objective journalists performing acts of moral concern. Ehrenreich enacts an act of silencing.

He centres himself and sidelines the Palestinians who had placed their struggle on the world stage via other media channels. But with the arrival of Western journalists, the Palestinians become mere providers of quotes, facts, and anecdotes. In contrast, the journalist is the thinker, the analyser and the organizer of the narrative and the argument. With the help of the editors at the New York Times, the writer makes the Palestinian struggle palatable, intelligible and “appropriate” for US readers.

No one “tasked” him or any other US journalists to “speak for black and brown people” other than himself and the editors at the New York Times who commissioned him to write it and chose not to ask a Palestinian to do it.

By the time Ehrenreich arrived in Nabih Saleh, the Palestinians had already made their struggle and their just resistance to Israeli colonial theft into an international story. They were speaking, just not on mainstream corporate media. The Palestinians were telling their story, and it does not take much imagination to realise that by sending and insisting the Ehrenreich speak for them, the New York Times was silencing and effacing them. Ehrenreich arrived to write his article after Emad Burnat’s beautiful and poignant documentary film 5 Broken Cameras appeared on the world stage. By then, the village of Bilin had already become global news, not the least, because Palestinians had effectively bypassed the mainstream press and collaborated with international activists and supporters. The Palestinians had intelligently used social media to reveal the brutality of the Israeli occupation and their resistance. The residents of Nabih Saleh, which lies not too far from Bil’in, had also used alternative media channels to get their story out and build their arguments against the Israeli apartheid wall, and many – local journalists, Palestinians, human rights activists, well-wishers and others – had been covering the unfolding situation.

Ehrenreich was not the first on the scene. It was already a major story by the time he arrived. But it needed a specifically American voice. It required the centring of a primarily White voice.

Journalists rarely acknowledge or understand that their experiences are neither transparent nor pure. They preclude examining the relationship between dominant discourses, cognition and reality and how they represent these relationships in the stories they file. As de Certeau writes, “the authority of the ‘subject of knowledge’ [is measured] by the elimination of everything concerning the speaker.” [Michel de Certeau, quoted in Joan Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry, Summer, 1991, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Summer, 1991), pp. 773-797].

As I argued in the previous essay, “Between the subject and the world is inserted the entire sum of discourses which make…visuality different from vision, the notion of unmediated visual experienced.” [Bryson, Norman. “The Gaze in the Expanded Field.” In Foster, Hal (editor) Vision And Visuality, The New Press, 1988:91-92]. These discourses determine the line between the “true” and the “false,” the relevant and the useful.

A journalist’s experience is political because of her particular “processes of identity production,” and her subjectivity is political. Her experience in a situation “is always already an interpretation” because it depends on the processes through which his subjectivity has been constructed. These processes determine her experience and interpretation of any social reality she may find himself in. [Ibid.] We comprehend this social reality–material, economic and interpersonal–through this socially and historically created subjectivity. None of this, however, is ever acknowledged or examined. Related to this is the uniquely Western myth of the individual seen as fixed, autonomous and considered a reliable source of knowledge of the real through experience. “It is not individuals who have experience,” Joan Scott argues, “but subjects who are constituted through experience.” [Ibid.]. But this is precisely what journalism veils, presenting the reporters as above politics and beyond ideology.

It is a truism that the observing subject cannot distance herself from the subjects under investigation, yet her power as the “unified subject of knowledge” remains. She is bestowed with a powerful agency, one that conceives and understands the world as a “totality intended for [individual] cognition alone…[as though it were]…a representation…[and social worlds]…no more than stage parts…or the implementing of plans.” [Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press, 2013:2, 96.]. This stable, coherent, retrievable, locatable self that knows, or perhaps understands too much, sees too clearly” is particularly ironic given journalism’s close relationship to political and corporate power relationship. And the relationship between disciplinary power (biopower) and the creation of the modern political subject. [Talal Asad, Anthropology And The Colonial Encounter, Humanities Press, 1995. Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, Picador, 2003]. If our research subjects are produced through the machinations of power, what then of the researcher herself?

The “modern individual, constructed as an isolated, disciplined,
receptive, and industrious political subject…[and]….his or her very individuality…is already the product of those [disciplinary power] relations.” [Mitchell, Timothy, Colonizing Egypt, University of California Press, 1988:xi201]. Yet those power relations are never in question, nor are how they set specific priorities and interests or how they impose specific frameworks and methods.

The myth of the individual is the starting point of knowledge, the basis of the construction of difference, and the very constitution of the journalist’s subjects themselves. [Scott, Joan. “The Evidence of Experience” Critical Inquiry, Summer, 1991, Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 773-797]. Relying on the experience of the self-contained, autonomous, objective, and individual, journalism “immedi­ately takes off in an ego-centred view of the world. There is no experience beyond the experiencing subject–the re-centred self.” [Hastrup, Kirsten, A Passage to Anthropology Between Experience and Theory, Routledge, 1995:80].

A journalist travels with an omniscience that permits her to reduce all situations, interactions, and encounters to “communicative relations and decoding operations” and believes all her experiences are worthy of interpretation, analysis and insight. [Rosaldo, Renato, The Day of Shelley’s Death: The Poetry and Ethnography of Grief, Duke University Press, 2013:136]. She is the centre of the world, interpreting it through frameworks and discourses she may not even be conscious of. And even when she is aware of them, she never acknowledges them.

But this power is dangerous because it is the power to silence. It is the power to claim that I, the reporter, can talk about you better than you can and that you only have to tell me what I have come to ask you and your story. And then I, the reporter, will tell you and the world in my way so that I remain the true speaking subject and you at the centre of my talk. [bell hooks, “Choosing the Margins As A Space of Radical Openness,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, No. 36 (1989), pp. 15-23.].

Regardless, she is the voice, and her’s is the experience and interpretation that matters. Those she meets along the way are merely there for “evidence” and for her to use as she sees fit. Veiled within the narratives of Western discourses are the unspoken, unacknowledged, unconscious, and silent influences of powerful frameworks that help create the basis of what becomes “objective” journalism.