Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Democracy Now, Objectivity Later

On Monday, Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now interviewed Adam Horowitz and Lizzy Ratner regarding Judge Goldstone's recent reconsideration in a Washington Post column of some of most important findings of his report on the Gaza War. Horowitz and Ratner edited a recently published book of essays about the Goldstone Report, and continue to support its findings.

You can read a transcript of the Democracy Now interview at the link here: Judge Goldstone Retracts Part of His Report on Israeli Assault on Gaza, Leaves Rest Intact. I thought the following three questions (actually two questions, one statement), which Gonzalez asked in the order below and which formed the heart of his interview, were noteworthy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And hasn’t the problem been from the very beginning that there was no cooperation whatsoever from Israel in terms of the initial investigation, or even in terms of the United Nations human rights investigation that has followed and came out with a report recently, Lizzy?

Gonzalez may believe that "the problem ... from the very beginning (was) that there was no cooperation whatsoever from Israel", but that contradicts Judge Goldstone's column in the Post which praised Israel's investigations of their own actions, and condemned Hamas' complete failure to investigate theirs. Gonzalez seems to be asking whether his guests agree with his view or with that of Judge Goldstone.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And it seems to be, here in the United States, his retraction of a portion of the report has gotten far more coverage than the original conclusions of his report when it first came out.

Gonzalez' guests are completely unable to confirm his question's assumption. The best they can muster is "I think that's true", and then change the subject. That's because neither Gonzalez nor his guests have actually studied the question of how much coverage the Goldstone Report and the Goldstone retraction stories have received.  Moreover, the Goldstone retraction story is a new one. Unless and until further developments occur, the story may well die. So the answer to Gonzalez' leading question may turn out to be that the issuance of Goldstone's report got much more press than his partial recantation of it. That's a problem with leading questions. They sometimes highlight weaknesses in the questioner's argument.  That brings me to the following.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the claim that Israel really has gone after those rogue elements in the military who may have been involved in the targeting of civilians, that were not, quote, "part of Israeli policy," supposedly?

If anything highlights the fact that Gonzalez is arguing against Judge Goldstone, it is this bizarrely constructed question. Gonzalez' tendentious phrasing of what should be two simple questions (1. Has Israel investigated misdeeds by their troops in Gaza; and, 2. Were those misdeeds part of Israeli policy?) is so comically freighted with argumentation that it's barely intelligible as English. The icing on the cake is that he still feels it necessary at the question's end to add "supposedly", as if there could be any doubt as to what he thinks of Israel's, and now Goldstone's, "claims" that Israel did not target civilians. The complete failure on the part of Gonzalez or either of his guests to cite any evidence to back up this charge makes Gonzalez' argumentative phrasing all the more puzzling, and brings the weakness of their arguments into very clear focus.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with journalism that highlights Israeli misdeeds in Gaza. Such reporting is absolutely essential and should be supported wholeheartedly regardless of one's views on the subject.  But when interviewers deliberately distort news stories to argue their side of an issue they cross the line between advocacy journalism and mere advocacy. This is the problem with Fox News, and it's the problem with this Democracy Now interview. Democracy Now did not report on this story, they just used it as an occasion to promote a particular political view. Such overt argumentation may work to confirm the beliefs of their target audience (who knows -- it may even alienate some of their core audience with its clumsiness), but it clearly does nothing to bring out the facts, which is what journalists are supposed to do.

I don't expect to agree with Democracy Now on Israel, but I would like to see them do what they do better.

As bad as the interview's questions were, the answers were sometimes ludicrous. Horowitz made the following point in response to what aspects of the Goldstone Report Goldstone's column retracted.

(Goldstone, in his column) talked about one small point. He said that there was not a policy, an intentional policy, to target civilians. This was something that was mentioned in the report, but it was just one small issue.

Horowitz, incredibly, argues that the question of whether Israel targeted civilians as a matter of policy is a "small point". This argument is Horowitz' lead bullet point -- the one he came into the interview most prepared to say -- the one he thought most important. The question of whether either side deliberately targeted civilians as a matter of policy is precisely the main point and Horowitz knows it. If Goldstone had written a column stating that facts have come to his attention which confirm charges that Israel targeted civilians, Horowitz would rightly be arguing that that is a main point. Now that the facts belie such charges, Horowitz is forced to unconvincingly argue that the targeting of civilians is a "small point". That would really make quite a headline, wouldn't it? Adam Horowitz: Israeli targeting of civilians a 'small point' (Better than the headline I chose for this post? Maybe so.)

In fairness to Horowitz, he goes on to argue against the Gaza War in terms that would apply equally to military action in any populated area, specifically with respect to the inevitability of civilian casualties and to humanitarian issues deriving from damage to infrastructure. He is right to say that those really are important points which are fundamental to understanding both the causes and results of the Gaza War. When Hamas concealed weapons, combatants and command centers in populated areas and near essential infrastructure, and when they deliberately targeted Israeli civilians with missiles, they committed precisely the type of acts against which Horowitz argues. Hamas' shelling of Israeli civilians were the acts which Israel's counterattack addressed. Hamas' use of Palestinian civilians, including in schools and hospitals, as human shields, caused many of the civilian casualties. Hamas committed precisely the war crimes which created the humanitarian issues about which Horowitz is rightly upset, but he is unable to see that.

In her answers, Ratner echoes Horowitz' lead point, calling the retraction by Goldstone of charges that Israel deliberately targeted civilians a "modest retreat". While she minimizes the importance of the question of whether Israel targeted civilians, Ratner does not retreat from making that charge. The one specific case which she is able to cite as potentially indicating deliberate targeting of civilians by Israel is the horrendous shelling of a house which contained an extended family. According to reports, about 40 members of the al-Samouni family had been herded into their house in Zeitoun by Israeli troops to shelter them from harm. According to Israeli investigators, and now to Goldstone as well, that house was later shelled by the IDF as the result of a misread digital image, killing more than 20 and wounding many other members of the family. It was a horrible, deeply troubling, incident, but is was not a deliberate one. The Israeli investigation of this incident concerns breakdowns in communications between command centers and troops, failures of troops to follow approved procedures, flaws in imaging technology and negligence in its use. There is no reason that Israel would kill this family deliberately and such a charge does not comport with the facts. For one thing, Israel went to extraordinary lengths to prevent civilian casualties, to the extent that it severely limited what they were able to achieve with respect to fighting Hamas. Why on earth would they limit themselves where it really effected the outcome of the war, but arbitrarily target this group of civilians for attack where they stood to gain nothing?

Here's what Ratner has to say on it:

Goldstone says in his essay that an investigation by Israel shows that all that took place was a misreading of drone images. The officer who ordered the attack is being investigated. In fact, this (U.N.) Committee of Expert report that came out two weeks ago says they really can’t find any conclusive evidence, or they can’t really figure out what’s going on with the investigation. There’s a lot of conflicting information. It doesn’t seem like the officer is actually necessarily being investigated. It looks like—there’s conflicting information. Some information suggests that he didn’t know they were civilians; other information suggests that he was warned that there were civilians and ordered the attack anyway. So, you know—

Ratner's complaints, that the investigation is too complex and that results are uncertain, are strange ones. The facts of the al-Samouni case are complex and require a thorough investigation to untangle. The results of the investigation are uncertain because it has not been concluded. Does Ratner advocate that Israel reach a simple conclusion without conducting a proper investigation?

Ratner does not answer that question, or provide any evidence whatsoever to back her implication that the al-Samouni tragedy somehow indicates that Goldstone is now wrong -- that Israel did deliberately target civilians. Contrary to Ratner's implied argument, this troubling case tends to confirm that Israel did not intend to kill civilians. The procedures now under investigation in the al-Samouni case were designed precisely to hit military targets and to prevent civilian casualties. It is the failure of that procedure that is being investigated, not the success of a policy that would constitute a deliberate war crime.

All of this, of course, stands in stark contrast to Hamas. I recommend that readers click on the link to the Democracy Now interview transcript and see if they can find one reference to Judge Goldstone's statement that, where Israel did not target civilians, Hamas did. The interviewer and his guests completely fail to hold Hamas accountable for that, or for Hamas' failure to conduct investigations of their alleged war crimes. That, in itself, speaks volumes about their bias. As I stated above, the question as to whether civilians were targeted goes to the heart of whether war crimes were committed. That standard should be implied impartially to both sides, let the chips fall where they may.


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