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New Texts Out Now: Amahl Bishara, Back Stories: US News Production and Palestinian Politics

[Cover of Amahl A. Bishara, [Cover of Amahl A. Bishara, "Back Stories: US News Production and Palestinian Politics"]

Amahl A. Bishara, Back Stories: US News Production and Palestinian Politics. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2012.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Amahl Bishara (AB): Back Stories is an ethnography of the production of US news during the second Palestinian Intifada. I started this project in New York City around the beginning of the uprising. I would wake up every morning, and my first step would be to reach for the news. But obviously the news represented only a narrow slice of Palestinian ideas about and experiences of national struggle. I wanted to explore the multiple, complex factors that make it difficult for diverse Palestinian perspectives to be heard in the United States. As an ethnographer, I felt this required that I go beyond an argument about media “bias” to study the practices of journalism.

Looking at those Intifada photographs on the front page of my morning paper, I also realized how much I depended on the journalists who produced this news. I started to think more and more about the people capturing the images—especially since many of these journalists were Palestinians, and since they worked in conditions of grave danger. I knew that Palestinians also worked as fixers and producers for US foreign correspondents, arranging interviews, translating, and helping with reporting. They did this even though they did not control the final narratives of the stories they helped produce. I wanted to learn more about why and how these Palestinian journalists did what they did in such dangerous circumstances. What special skills did this work require? How did their concepts of news values differ from those common in news institutions in the United States?

During an internship with the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, I began researching how checkpoints affected journalists. I made a documentary about Reuters cameraperson Mazen Dana, who had been injured countless times covering his hometown of Hebron. Then, weeks before I was to depart for my research, US soldiers killed Mazen Dana outside of the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. His camera was on his shoulder. It was often Arab—and even Palestinian—journalists who were doing reporting for US news outlets when it was too dangerous for American journalists to be in the field. I felt that Americans needed to know more about where their news came from, about the debts we all incurred just by reading the news.

Another reason that I wanted to write about journalism was that, especially during the Intifada, news was centrally important to Palestinians in the occupied territories themselves. News was part of their daily—or even hourly!—routines. In the West Bank, I would often meet smart young girls and boys who told me they wanted to be journalists when they grew up. News shaped Palestinians’ views of themselves, for example when they saw themselves or their community represented in a newspaper or on a website. It shaped how they planned public political action. In researching journalism—and in particular US journalism—I knew I’d be talking to people about something they cared about deeply.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

AB: Because news was such a central part of the Palestinian experience during the second Intifada, an ethnography of news production offers a critical perspective on this uprising, and on the relationship between media and political action. I write about the Israeli violence against civilians, life next to the separation wall, popular protests, graffiti during the second Intifada, and civic life in the Palestinian Authority. I address how people conceived of media’s importance and how they tried to shape media messages.

This book is also a part of the burgeoning anthropological literature on journalism, a literature that has scrutinized a variety of norms and practices of journalism around the globe and that helps us to reflect on the production of knowledge more generally. Back Stories is one of the first studies to focus on fixers and producers, people whose work often goes unrecognized. In looking at the roles of Palestinians in US and other international media organizations, we can explore a larger set of skills and values within the field of journalism. For example, it is difficult to imagine what disinterest means for Palestinian journalists working in their hometowns in the occupied territories. It turns out that Palestinians’ contributions often hinge on their long-term engagement with the issues, with their closeness to the people they are covering. Palestinian journalists are adept at a number of what I call “skills of proximity,” skills gained from being close to an issue, and also skills of drawing close to people and events. For example, they can decipher the sounds of a great variety of weapons during protests or sieges, and they know how to position themselves to take the best photographs during a funeral. An analysis of skills of proximity stresses the inextricability of intellectual and embodied skills.

In a broader sense, Back Stories contributes to conversations about popular political action and transnational public spheres. You might say I’m working on the production side of the transnational public sphere, rather than on the circulation side that is more often studied. While much work has argued that media texts can affect politics and culture, this book demonstrates that the production of news itself can have an influence on politics and culture. Palestinians are deeply aware that even in the rhetorical field, they are operating at a disadvantage. As I argue, even in terms of the circulation of the graffiti written on the separation wall, graffiti written by international solidarity activists often circulates more broadly in US news than that written by Palestinians.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AB: Of course, I hope that those concerned with contemporary Palestinian society and those interested in anthropology of media and journalism will read it. But since you ask me to think a bit bigger: Anyone who regularly reads, views, or listens to news from abroad might be interested in this book! I would like people to both gain a more nuanced understanding of how news is produced and also to imagine new ways of consuming news and learning about the world. Back Stories asks readers to acknowledge the cooperation at the heart of most international news production. At a time when the United States purportedly has been trying to spread ideas of democracy in the Arab world, it is important to realize that American democracy itself depends on risks taken by non-Americans. US freedom of the press is not “Made in America” in any simple way. It depends on contributions from people with very different biographies, skills, and forms of authority.

In terms of imagining a new way of consuming news, I hope my book encourages people to think, for example, about how a quote might be part of a different conversation entirely than the one into which the foreign correspondent has placed it. I’d like for people to look at a photograph and imagine what might be right beyond its edges. It is very difficult to do this when it comes to topics that are relatively new to us. Still, it can help just to open the possibility of multiple meanings. Perhaps more concretely, this book is also a reminder that political insight can come from many different kinds of people, not just pollsters and policy experts, and that it is incumbent upon us to listen widely if we are to truly deepen our knowledge of our world.

I would also love for journalists to read it, because it would be exciting for us to think together about alternative ways of producing news or acknowledging the labor that goes into news. For Palestinian journalists in particular, I hope this book offers some measure of recognition of their labors and expertise. Finally, my book focuses on a few different Palestinian communities. When Palestinians from these places read it, I hope they find an account that is at once familiar and new. I would be very happy if my book could be the start of many more conversations with the Palestinians about whose ideas and experiences I have written.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AB: I have begun research on the political and cultural relationship between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank. Once again, here, I’m interested both in what is spoken—in terms of civic events and mass media—and the ways in which what is spoken is conditioned by material circumstances. I examine rhetoric at demonstrations and in online and satellite media that are known for being able to cross geographic borders. I also analyze some of the factors that condition a separation between these two groups of Palestinians, including infrastructure around the Green Line and permits and regulations.

I am also involved with screening a documentary I made with my husband, Nidal Al-Azraq, Degrees of Incarceration, about the effects of political prison on Aida Refugee Camp, and how Palestinians respond to this crisis with creativity and love. Political imprisonment is an issue that does not go away in Palestine, and it causes no end of anguish. It’s a film that, unfortunately, I expect will stay current for a long time.

J: What does your book suggest about the relationship between violence and the nature of power that journalists hold in narrating stories of conflict?

AB: I examine the many ways in which speech and violence are intertwined, even as Israeli authorities often have had the upper hand in defining what counts as speech and what counts as violence. For decades under Israeli military occupation, the Israeli censor approved every word before it could be published in Palestinian papers in East Jerusalem. In 1994, with the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, that system of censorship melted away, and for a few years, Palestinian media seemed to be flourishing. Yet I argue that there cannot be true freedom of expression as long as military occupation continues. Shootings, bombings, and detentions that debilitated all of Palestinian society also impaired Palestinian journalists, and this, in turn, limited freedom of expression. Though they are probably not designed explicitly for this purpose, checkpoints restrict journalistic production. I also analyze graffiti on the separation wall. Even though the wall seems like an unrestricted space for discourse, this is not ultimately the case. Israel’s militarized control of space affects freedom of expression there, too. Looking at the matter from another angle, I examine the Israeli Government Press Office’s decision to rescind press cards of Palestinian journalists near the beginning of the second Intifada. This decision impeded the production of news about the occupied territories, because it inhibited Palestinian journalists’ movement. In a less obvious way, Israeli official talk about why the cards had been rescinded also harmed Palestinian journalists, because this talk maligned their claims to objectivity. My book suggests that we should not separate official statements from military actions, for they work together. During the Intifada, official statements and military actions compounded to affect Palestinian journalists’ abilities to work.

J: Your book is about news, but it is mainly about the processes of production. What do you have to say about news texts?

AB: A book about news that ignores news texts might, I figured, be disappointing! To point out the ways in which Palestinian narratives are sidelined in US news without making some space for Palestinian perspectives on topics covered in the news would be missing the point. So in my book, I not only trace out the existing routes of knowledge, but also take readers off the beaten path a bit.

Building on methods pioneered in visual anthropology, and the anthropology of media more generally, I translated articles from US news sources into Arabic and then interviewed Palestinians (students, activists, journalists, and community leaders) about these articles. It turned out to be one of the most fun parts of my research. I included some articles that I was pretty sure Palestinians would detest, but I also included some lyrical, evocative articles. My interlocutors were fantastic! For example, a human rights lawyer reading an article about kite flying in Gaza recalled memories of his own childhood and pondered the resourcefulness of Palestinian children in poverty. I was also amazed at how good my interlocutors were at imagining the scenes of news production. One person read an article about a protest and told me that he could tell from the way it was written that the journalist had positioned himself next to the military officer, rather than in the middle of the protest. I found it to be a great way to start a new kind of conversation about media.

J: What part of the book is something you end up discussing in your classes?

Objectivity is an issue that comes up in almost every one of my classes. Although objectivity has been widely critiqued within academia and beyond, it is still a prevailing value through which many people are inclined to evaluate knowledge. I argue in my book that even though objectivity is presumed to be a universal value that works the same way across different fields and different places, in fact this is not the case. I agree with scholars like Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, who argue that objectivity has many different meanings and a complex history. I examine how ideas of objectivity in elite news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hinge on the concept of balance. Approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through this lens of balanced objectivity is problematic because of the deep imbalances between the two sides, and because it erases hierarchies of power and differences of opinion within each side as well. This mode of balanced objectivity also positions the American journalist as the outside, neutral figure in relation to the immoderate Israelis and Palestinians. The political negotiations of the last decades, in which the United States is purportedly the outside, neutral negotiator, implicitly serve as a model for American journalists’ own performance of neutrality. This approach perpetuates hierarchies of power and knowledge that position Palestinian journalists as what I call “epistemic others,” people who are presumed to be impaired in their relationship to knowledge. I explore other methods for thinking about authorship and collaboration, and I also look at how Palestinian journalists themselves think about objectivity and the underlying ethics of their work.

Excerpt from Back Stories: US News Production and Palestinian Politics

[From the Conclusion, “Framing Graffiti: Voice, Materiality, and Violence”]

Journalists arrived early to the Abu Dis demonstration, timed to coincide with the hearings against the separation wall at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Television crews set up their communication equipment on an empty lot overlooking the wall. A small herd of goats grazed near the satellite dishes where Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei would later speak. Abu Dis was a familiar place for journalists, a place photojournalists based in Jerusalem could reach quickly to snap a photograph and return to their bureaus. In this village turned Jerusalem suburb, the wall truncated a road that had once been called the Jerusalem-Amman Road. When Amman became less accessible, people called it the Jerusalem-Jericho Road, referencing the city about an hour away near the Jordanian border. Now, it did not extend even that far.

The lower part of the wall had been painted a bright white, apparently to clear the way for new graffiti that the day of protests would surely yield. Immediately on the other side of the wall lay the charred metal remains of a bus destroyed in a Palestinian bombing the day before. It had been hauled there by Israeli authorities to make the point that such bombings necessitated the building of the wall. The bus might be regarded as the state’s answer to graffiti, here the medium of the stateless, for it was the state’s version of making things speak. On both sides, then, the stage was set. The journalists were chatting with each other and checking their equipment when a little event took shape. A girl of about twelve years, her long hair pulled back in a ponytail, stood at the barrier with a spray paint canister in hand. The photojournalists assembled around her with their cameras. Deliberately, in large, wavering spray paint handwriting, she wrote “Children Against the Wall” in English on the mammoth structure (Figure 14). When she finished, she turned around to an audience of several photojournalists, greeting them with a glowing smile.


[Photograph by Amahl Bishara.]

Children at the wall were frequent subjects for journalists’ contemplation. It was at this site that New York Times journalist James Bennet had spoken to a twelve-year-old boy who had been illegally crossing the wall wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Future Attack.”[1] It was a passing detail in an article about the toll of the wall on Abu Dis, an area without enough schools, health clinics, and jobs to survive without Jerusalem. The allusion was unclear. Who could say what the T-shirt meant, anyway? Did the boy know what the English writing meant? Was there a graphic of a machine gun or a spaceship on the shirt? Was an attack promised in the future, or was perhaps the future itself attacking in some more existential sense? For some, Palestinian children represent a double threat of demographic shifts and political violence; for others, they represent hopes for a democratic future. The girl’s graffito “Children Against the Wall” hinted at this latter possibility, evoking an orderly constituency unified against the barrier....The girl seemed like a perfect political subject for a liberal public sphere: English-speaking, nonviolent, and (apparently) secular. Dominant narratives about Palestinians in US media might position her graffito in counterpoint with the destroyed bus, suggesting that one side of the wall represented Palestinian aspirations to statehood and freedom of speech, while the other side referenced the dystopic option of violence, of past and future attacks. Yet, the girl’s graffito was an election-style slogan at a time when there were no politically meaningful elections. Even more importantly it was printed not on a traditional democratic medium like a handbill, placard, or button but instead on a wall that enclosed and restricted. The wall was an immense reminder of Israeli unilateralism, of Israel’s disinterest in Palestinian concerns. In the eyes of many Palestinians, the utopic vision of democracy was as unrealistic as the dystopic one was grim.

This moment crystallized three contradictions: between the ideal of freedom of speech and the fact of Palestinians stripped of many political rights; between a girl’s act of expression and the confining separation barrier on which it was written; between the fantasy of plain language producing clear communication with imagined international audiences on the other side of the photographers’ lenses, and the actual difficulties Palestinians have faced in translating their political experiences and aspirations to these audiences. In the next few years, as I watched the separation barrier fill with graffiti, much of them written not by Palestinians but by internationals, I came to see graffiti—and journalists’ photography of graffiti—as exemplifying the problems Palestinians faced in expressing themselves to the amorphous international audiences they sought.

[…]

By the second Intifada, Israeli authorities did not generally arrest youth for writing graffiti. Israel’s system of censorship of Palestinian media, in effect in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from 1967 to 1994, had long melted away. In fact, the separation barrier Israel built functions as a kind of invitation to discourse. It serves in some places as a prime billboard for graffiti writers. Graffiti on the wall epitomizes Palestinians’ contemporary conundrum regarding free speech. From one perspective there is an atmosphere of apparent permissiveness to Palestinian speech, as discourses of state building flourish and as Israel tries to conceal its role as occupier. As I will argue, though, just as Israel has continued to control actions on the ground, so too does it have final say over Palestinian graffiti through its material practices.

The young girl’s act of graffiti writing in Abu Dis was part of a wide spectrum of practices of writing on the wall, only some of which made the news. Visitors to the separation wall will find protesters’ graffiti in Arabic, English, and other languages; writing commissioned by people who are not in the West Bank[2]; colorful murals done by delegations of solidarity activists; and clever artwork designed to comment on the wall as a structure. Those who venture beyond the wall into the heart of Palestinian communities will find other kinds of graffiti and murals: tributes to activists, lines of poetry, murals of Palestinian history, plainly written political slogans, and celebrations of pilgrims’ return from Mecca.[3] Through photojournalism and other kinds of photography, the medium of graffiti—usually regarded as quintessentially local, grounded in place—has taken on a transnational scope, but, as with other transnational media, this does not mean that Palestinian voices are communicated transparently. In the next few pages I want to examine what made some forms of visible protests more legible than others in the medium of news agency photography, and to explore how some of these graffiti might have seemed to represent Palestinian voices even when they did not. Some messages and forms of protests of Palestinians that are less visible are in fact more attuned to the political circumstances of their creation—but they are harder to represent in Western photojournalism.

[…]

There has been extensive journalistic photography of graffiti on the separation wall, perhaps because it is so often visually compelling and it is easy to capture. News agency photographers often photograph graffiti that will be comprehensible to international audiences: English-language graffiti with a clear message that fits into news narratives. One photograph taken in Abu Dis on February 4, 2004, by Kevin Frayer, an award-winning photographer for the Associated Press, contained a graffito that read, “Peace comes [by] agreement not separation.” The sentence, written in even blue writing, stretches across two panels of what looks like the separation barrier, and between these two panels peer a man and a boy, whose faces are only partially visible. The graffito is a critique of the barrier, and the photograph amplifies this message because we see people apparently trapped behind the wall. Thus the photograph’s strength comes from a poetic relationship between the written message and its formal qualities. Still, both the graffito and the photograph conform to some aspects of the detached, plain-speaking style that liberal modernists have espoused. The graffito’s language of “peace,” “agreement,” and “separation” is abstract; its handwriting is earnest and unadorned; the identity of the speaker is unclear. It is a statement that could aspire to universal truth. Even the people trapped behind the wall look calm and unemotional.

When I examined this photograph, I was sure because of its message and its location that the graffito had been written by an international solidarity activist, and not by a Palestinian. Activists, political tourists, and pilgrims visited Abu Dis often, for the same reasons that journalists did. It was a convenient place from which to see the wall in all of its gray enormity. Moreover, Palestinians’ language in barrier graffiti often took a different tone from this message about peace. By this point, “peace” as a theoretical term had little currency for many Palestinians. As the boy stated in the James Bennet article discussed in the interlude after Chapter One, “Peace is a word that flies in the air.” Instead, for Palestinians, the barrier is often a site for the assertion of rights that push more forcefully back on the wall as a technology of confinement. After the February demonstration [during which the girl wrote “Children against the wall”], I could easily identify the graffiti that had been written by Palestinians. Many of these graffiti were written in both Arabic and English, as though direct translation would lead to the best possible communication. One read “Al-jidar lan yabqa,” translated into English as “The wall will not remain.” Some graffiti used the barrier, which cut Abu Dis off from Jerusalem, to assert a connection to the city and its centrality to Palestinian politics: “Nahnu fi al-Quds ila al-abad,” and in English, “We will be in Jerusalem forever.” Specificity of place was important. Some took advantage of the prominence of the wall to publicize neglected issues like that of prisoners: “Hurriya li-asra al-hurriya,” translated into English as “Freedom for the prisoners of freedom.” Unlike the abstract statement Frayer captured, some of these graffiti are poetic, or they are explicitly written in a Palestinian voice, promising an eternal presence of “we.” These kinds of graffiti were rarely photographed by international journalists.

In perusing my photo archive from Abu Dis, I found that I was right that the “Peace comes by agreement not separation” graffito had been written by internationals: it carried the signature “Ireland for Peace” (Figure 16). Moreover, it shows that the wall at this site was still a temporary, two-meter structure. Had it been the full, completed eight-meter structure, no faces would have been visible on the other side of the wall. Frayer’s message relied on this fortuitous material circumstance. This apparent critique of the barrier relied on the structure’s incompleteness. This is important because it underscores the ways in which what the graffiti writers and the photographer can say depends on the material world. Meaning is not autonomous; it is highly contingent on the physical environment—and this environment is to a great extent shaped by state actors, in this case Israeli authorities.


[Photograph by Amahl Bishara.]

[…]

As though understanding the tenuousness of their acts of resistance, Palestinians wrote graffiti even on surfaces that seemed to have only a peripheral or fleeting place in public view. When construction of the [separation] wall began in Al-Ram just north of Jerusalem, the barrier panels, shaped like elongated upside-down Ts, were lying down on the side of the main road. I noticed that graffiti had been scrawled on a few of the bottoms of these wall panels. One declared furtively, “Al-Quds lana” (Jerusalem is ours). Another attested, “Allahu akbar la ilaha illa Allah” (God is Great, There is no god but God). Riding by in a shared taxicab on my way from Jerusalem to Ramallah, I first thought this graffiti writer had chosen a degrading location for such weighty statements. It was as though she or he was writing on the bottom of a shoe. After all, the surfaces on which these graffiti were written would be underground once the wall was erected.

But construction of the wall in Al-Ram—as elsewhere in the West Bank—was a protracted enterprise. The barrier here was being built lengthwise down the middle of the road, and to build the wall the pavement on one side of the road had been destroyed, forcing two directions of traffic to sidle past each other on the remaining half of the street. Then this side of the road was closed, and cars sloshed through the mud on the other side. The process took months. Palestinians were living amidst a construction site for a project that had been designed without their consent and that would destroy economic, social, and other resources of their communities. For them, the disarray and violence of an extended construction period was further evidence that Israel was building the barrier with no consideration for local residents, to frustrate them and force them to submit to their own powerlessness.

The inconveniences and dangers of construction seemed to be part of the point, belying plainspoken Israeli assertions in the media that the wall was integral to Israeli security. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak could declare in a New York Times op-ed, “Israel must embark on unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians and establish a system of security fences. Israel’s very future depends on this.”[4] But according to Louay Abu Shambiya, the boy in the “Future Attack” T-shirt interviewed by James Bennet at the wall in Abu Dis, the wall was there “to make people suffer.”[5] In terms of representational authority, obviously Barak had Abu Shambiya beat. Barak’s statement was authorized by the fact that he had at one time been elected to represent all Israelis. His full op-ed was published in the New York Times. In contrast, Abu Shambiya’s quote—not even a full sentence—was produced in essence because of a gathering of interlopers at the wall, happened upon by a prominent journalist with an ear for evocative quotes….Abu Shambiya was speaking to Bennet because he and others Bennet interviewed that day were crossing the wall to go to school or work. On top of that, Abu Shambiya was a child. Who would take seriously his assertion that the wall was there to make people suffer, alongside Barak’s statement that the wall was there for security, at least if they did not already agree with the child? For Palestinians, though, the process of how Israel constructed the barrier informed how they construed Israeli intentions in building it.

As the cars moved more slowly on Al-Ram’s compromised roads while the wall was being built, I found I had even more time for reading graffiti. The “Jerusalem is ours” graffito was visible for much of this period. Though its visual characteristics and its location would never have attracted the attention of a photojournalist, it turned out that it was presciently well suited to the circumstances of the building of the barrier. It was at eye level of those passengers in dusty taxis. Palestinians’ means of protest express an urgency and local knowledge that exceed that of the eloquent and tidy graffiti written by foreign protesters. They reflect a keen sensitivity to the physical qualities of the barrier and to the processes of building it. Yet, these Palestinian protests were not always as legible to foreign audiences.

NOTES

[1] James Bennet, “Small Town on West Bank Stands as an Epitaph to Dashed Dreams,” New York Times (14 September 2003).

[2] See Send a Message, accessed Nov. 4, 2009. See also Amahl Bishara, “New Media and Political Change in the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Assembling Media Worlds and Cultivating Networks of Care,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 3:63-81 (2010) Robert Sauders, “Whose Place Is This Anyway? The Israeli Separation Barrier, International Activists, and Graffiti,” Anthropology News 53 (3):16 (2011) regarding graffiti on the wall and analysis of Send a Message.

[3] A few books have featured Palestinian graffiti (Mia Gröndahl, Gaza Graffiti: Messages of Love and Politics [Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2009]; Zia Krohn and Joyce Lagerweij, Concrete Messages: Street Art on the Israeli-Palestinian Separation Barrier [Årsta, Sweden: Dokument Press, 2010], and a volume of Banksy’s street art contains a section on his graffiti in the occupied territories (Banksy, Banksy: Wall and Piece [London: Century, 2006].

[4] Ehud Barak, “Israel’s Security Requires a Sturdy Fence,” New York Times (14 April 2002).

[5] Bennet, “Small Town.”

[Excerpted from Back Stories: US News Production and Palestinian Politics, by Amahl A. Bishara, by permission of the author. © 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]

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