Posted: 01/29/2005


Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land


by Oren Golan

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The documentary Peace, Propaganda & The Promised Land (Arab Film Distribution, takes a look at what it alleges is the television media’s bias in favor of Israel in the U.S. It is directed by Bathsheba Ratzkoff and Sut Jhally, and there is no doubt that the filmmakers stand squarely on the Palestinian side, as the film opens with a text synopsis of how Israel illegally seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 and has violated international law ever since.

Outspoken critics of Israel such as Hanan Ashrawi, Noam Chomsky, and Robert Fisk, along with some lesser-known analysts provide the commentary that dominates the film. Fisk, of the British newspaper The Independent, is easily the most engaging speaker, although some of the comments by Jews oppposed to the occupation are also instructional. The film certainly brings to light some valuable issues—for instance, the commentators point out the lack of media coverage of groups of Israelis and Palestinians who advocate peace and working together.

In support of their main thesis, the filmmakers present one interesting example of how the same story of 5 Palestinian children killed by an Israeli booby trap was covered quite differently by an American TV station and the BBC. This example is very effective, but it is the only such comparison in the film. The rest of the footage of news reports consist of sound bites taken out of context without dates and without a contrasting report of the same story. The bastion of equality to which all TV media should aspire is presented as the BBC. The various commentators suggest that most TV reports in the U.S. are biased because they do not provide enough of a background on the occupation, and further they do not present enough of the human tragedy on the Palestinian side. Also, some of the commentators claim that the American media is scared of the Jewish lobbying machine, and that the administration is biased towards Israel due to corporate interests in protecting access to oil.

Peace, Propaganda & The Promised Land makes a good start of examining media coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but unfortunately does not attempt present a complete picture. There is not one expert (or non-expert) presented with anything approaching a dissenting viewpoint. Nor do the filmmakers explore alternative reasons for the alleged shortcomings of the American media—for instance, the reason that each Palestinian that dies is not given a full background story, or that the full story of the conflict since 1967 is not explored in every relevant TV news story, is likely due to the quick-hit nature of nightly newscasts that total 20 minutes. These particular criticisms would be more appropriate if levelled at the print media but is hollow when applied to TV media. Also, there is no explanation as to how oil plays a part in either media coverage of the conflict, or in the American government’s approach to the conflict—call me stupid, but when neither Israel proper nor the occupied territories contain a drop of oil, then I think some explanation is in order to back up the charge. Also, the dearth of positive stories about efforts at peace and coalition-building by the people may take a backseat in TV news due to the medium’s preference for negative/violent news footage, as suggested by, among others, Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine.

The filmmakers also make hay about Israel’s public relations machine which feeds ready-made news stories to the American media. The commentators suggest that the Palestinians do not have the PR muscle that Israel does, but there is no examination of whether Israel’s PR campaign is different than any other state’s. It is also plausible that Israel’s PR cadre provides more accurate information to the TV media, as with the siege of Jenin that the Palestinian Authority claimed killed at least 500 innocent Palestinians, while the actual figure determined by the U.N. was a total of about 50 Palestinian militants and civilians (which was much closer to Israeli estimations). However, one commentator does make the good point that the American newscasts categorized the reported death of 500 Palestinians in Jenin as “a massacre” but changed their tone to say that there were “just” 50 deaths.

The movie is presented in a somewhat academic manner, showing some shocking footage of Israeli police brutality, but most of the picture is focused on the talking heads. The result is that it is not as visually interesting as it could be, but it still is thought-provoking. Peace, Propaganda & The Promised Land is a documentary that likely will spawn more debates than it could resolve, but it is hard to imagine a single film settling such a thorny issue as television media coverage. But if you’re looking to get into a good debate with some friends, this could be the spark you need—but it shouldn’t be the only source you rely on. This film was screening at the Cinema Village in Greenwich Village at the time of this review. It is also available from the distributor,

Oren Golan has an Israeli passport, among others, but is sad to report that the Golan Heights were not named in his honor.

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