This time media distortion makes Brits look bad

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-15-10

Last Thursday, we saw once again how the media distorts views of the conflict. Rather than concentrating on the peaceful, constructive majority, reporters spotlighted the most violent, destructive, extremist minority’s activities.  In economics, Gresham’s Law suggests that bad money always drives good money out of circulation; in media, politics, and diplomacy, bad or violent news always drives out good or peaceful news to boost circulation.

No, this is not another woe-is-me column about how the anti-Israel press always highlights extremist elements within Israeli society, caricaturing all Israelis as violent, racist, proto-fascist fundamentalist settlers – although that problem persists. In last Thursday’s conflict, British students protesting tuition hikes clashed with police on Parliament Hill. Photos the next day, zeroing in on lit fires against a backdrop of Britain’s iconic Big Ben Clock Tower, suggested that student protesters had violently torched the heart of British democracy.  In fact, the protesters were calmer, less chaotic, and more constructive than most media reports suggested.

I had a unique vantage point on the riots, having innocently emerged from the Churchill War Rooms on Parliament Hill with my four young children shortly before the protests began. We were still steeped in British gallantry during World War II, evoked so vividly in the underground bomb shelters where Winston Churchill and the British High Command strategized while under Nazi attack. Nevertheless, as we walked down Whitehall toward Trafalgar Square, I felt eerily like Gary Cooper walking down the deserted main street in High Noon. Few people were around. No cars drove on this main drag. Restaurant owners looked anxiously at their empty dining rooms and their vulnerable plate glass windows. Police were everywhere.

“What’s going on, some kind of ceremony?” I asked one Bobby.  “No, sir,” he replied, “student protests.”

We ended up mingling a bit with the protesters on the other end, closer to the Houses of Parliament. The crowd was jovial – not menacing.  There was minimal tension in the air, more like the air of anticipation as the audience trickles in before a play, with everyone knowing their assigned roles yet still excited by the unknown element live theatre injects into the mix. Students lit some fires to keep warm.

The crowd displayed three types of signs. Most, crudely addressing the threefold increase in tuition prompting the protests, proclaimed “F… THE FEES.”  Scattered signs were more clever, as befits British students, crying out: “SOME CUTS DON’T HEAL” and even, “CUTS ARE FOR MOHELS NOT MINISTERS.” The third type randomly attacked America, defended Iran and the Palestinians, and advocated either socialism or anarchism.  Once again, I was struck by the unholy alliance forged between the New Left’s Faux Cosmopolitans and some of the most illiberal, violent, fundamentalist currents emanating from the Arab world today.

The crowd was so orderly and good humored, I tried cutting across with my children. The police stopped us, in the first indications of the “kettle” strategy used to contain the protesters, before forcing out a few at a time to relieve the pressure.

Disappointed, we doubled back to a Tube station, leaving the scene by riding underneath the barricaded crowds. An hour later, we were in a downtown hotel four blocks from Whitehall enjoying high tea. A large screen TV had my kids mesmerized by the battle of Parliament Hill which erupted. As the TV cameras zeroed in on one clash or another, even my children noticed that most of the violence was at the crowd’s margins. In fact, many of the same anarchists trying to hijack the tuition protests to advance their broader anti-government and anti-Western agenda were the ones turning an overwhelmingly peaceful protest into the violent clash that made front pages around the world.

The dramatic footage caricatured “the students” as violent and London as “aflame.” The attack on Prince Charles’ Rolls Royce reinforced the impression of British chaos. But of a crowd estimated between 25,000 and 50,000, only fifty were arrested and only a handful of hooligans attacked the royal Rolls. All the while, we sipped tea then ice skated, as the rest of London continued with its pre-holiday hustle bustle.

All this reminds us that reporters remain addicted to the dictum that “if it bleeds, it leads.” The mainstream media and now the blogosphere shine a spotlight on a story’s most violent, dysfunctional, and thus dramatic aspects. As a result, we absorb a distorted view of the world, especially in the age of 24/7 news.

We also see that Israelis do not have a monopoly on Split Screen Living. Just as Israel’s malls were packed in the center of the country when Hezbollah rockets menaced the country in 2006, just as this month Israelis still celebrated Hanukkah while the Carmel Mountain burned, the student riots did not interrupt London’s pre-Christmas carnival.  There is an art to Split Screen Living in a healthy democracy. Sometimes sticking to routine requires tremendous courage amid formidable odds. Just as individuals emerging from dysfunctional families learn that living well is the best revenge, citizens seeking to defy attacks from the outside or within know that living life despite imposed crisis is the best defense, keeping to the ordinary amid extraordinary pressures has its own power and poetry.

I confess to schadenfreude, delighting in another’s misery, watching the Brits struggle against media exaggerations after so many of them have swallowed media lies about Israel.  We must stop defining reality and judging society through the media’s distorted lens. We must learn how to address sometimes extraordinary challenges while living our ordinary lives. And we must seek just the right balance, in every healthy democracy, knowing how to push for progress without destroying what we have built.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of
Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he is also the author of The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction.  giltroy@gmail.com

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