If you’re hoping to enjoy a long, successful career as a reporter in the U.S. mainstream media, don’t follow the lead of journalist Rania Khalek. For starters, Khalek doesn’t shy away from providing candid coverage of sacrosanct topics like Israel and the U.S. military.
Her refusal to kowtow to the politically correct view on Israel does not play well in U.S. newsrooms. Corporate media owners want reporters who they trust will cover foreign policy issues from a pro-government angle. Since Israel receives unanimous and unconditional support from Washington — no matter the scale of the nation’s brutality against Palestinians — there is little doubt which side the U.S. press will support in its reporting on Israel and Palestine.
Even progressive media outlets in the U.S. are guilty of downplaying Israel’s atrocities. “What I’ve noticed is that Palestine and how it is reported on is a good barometer for how far progressive news outlets still need to go,” Khalek said in an interview. “I see a lot of apologism taking place for Israel. You still have progressive outlets like The Nation giving Israel legitimacy and credibility it doesn’t deserve.”
The same mentality governs how the mainstream media covers the U.S. military. As long as news reporters stick to the script that says the U.S. military is an institution that occasionally makes mistakes but whose mission is honorable, they will stay out of trouble. Don’t dare go and provide a serious analysis of the motives of the war planners inside the White House and Pentagon.
“There are certain sacred ideas that we’re not supposed to come out against. And one of those is that the U.S. military is good,” Khalek said. “The corporate press is invested in a lot of companies that profit from militarism abroad. You’ll see an ad for defense contractor Lockheed Martin and then the next segment is on whether we should invade Iraq again.”
Even the most effective mouthpieces for the U.S. military will come under attack if they upset the sensibilities of military-first Americans. After getting accused of lying about riding in a U.S. military helicopter that was hit by “enemy fire” in Iraq, NBC News journalist Brian Williams issued an apology by employing the “support-the-troops” defense. He described his helicopter story from 2003 as a bungled attempt to thank “our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere.”
“Soldiers are revered as flawless heroes. The most sacred thing in America is the troops. You can’t criticize the troops. Even in liberal circles, it’s off limits,” Khalek explained.
The military, Israel and other sacred topics, according to Khalek, should be fair game for reporters. Khalek, who reports for the online news outlet Electronic Intifada and serves on its editorial board, began covering the Israel-Palestine conflict only a year ago. Prior to joining Electronic Intifada, she reported on racial justice issues. She also served as the gender columnist for Extra!, the monthly magazine of media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR. In a recent budget-cutting move, though, FAIR switched from a 16-page magazine to a four-page newsletter format. One of the casualties of FAIR’s publication shake-up was Khalek’s column. It was canceled.
“Being in journalism in general is difficult. Being a freelance journalist who writes about what I write is even more difficult because few people want to publish what I write about for the most part. It’s not just Israel-Palestine. It’s with a lot of other issues that you’ll find it hard, especially if you are woman who is not white like I am,” Khalek said.
The Accidental Journalist
As Khalek quickly emerged as one of the top U.S. journalists covering domestic and foreign policy flashpoints, her readers grew to appreciate her honest reporting and her unabashed support for the underdog. But journalism wasn’t always what Khalek thought she would be doing. “I became a journalist by accident,” she said. “I was on a completely different path. I majored in exercise science and was working in cardiac rehabilitation and preparing to go to nursing school.”
But in 2008, Khalek came across the daily TV and radio news program Democracy Now! “My jaw was on the floor. I was learning about all these things that were happening in the world that I wasn’t being told about by the mainstream news,” she said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about independent media because it had a massive impact on me. It completely changed my life.”
At Electronic Intifada, Khalek pursues unique angles to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. She aims to offer readers a window into the real Israel. “Israel is a full-on apartheid state that’s engaged in ethnic cleansing and has an increasingly right-wing government that is perfectly comfortable with employing genocidal rhetoric toward the Palestinian population,” she said.
As an American, she feels an obligation to expose how U.S. tax dollars are spent, given that Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. As of early 2014, the United States had provided Israel with $121 billion in assistance.
Khalek also recognizes that other nations, including the United States, take their cues from Israel. That’s why in-depth coverage of Israel is so important. There may be other regimes around the world with worse human rights records than Israel, but none of those countries are extended the same respect as Israel.
The international community, according to Khalek, has abandoned the Palestinians, helping to create conditions where the Occupied Territories serve as a laboratory for Israel to test state-of-the-art methods for controlling an isolated population.
In fact, Israel has built a billion-dollar homeland security industry by using Palestinians as test subjects. It then exports what it learns in Gaza and the West Bank to authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world. “What Israel does to Palestinians doesn’t stay in Palestine,” Khalek said.
Last summer, only weeks after killing more than 2,100 Palestinians in Gaza, Israel hosted an annual drone conference in partnership with the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. “Israel held this big drone expo to advertise the products that it used to kill Palestinians in Gaza,” Khalek said. “Those products will end up being sold to other regimes around the world who want to suppress and oppress a marginalized population of their own.”
Even the CIA looks to Israel when it needs a legal foundation on which to justify its unsavory methods of collecting intelligence. In her reporting of the U.S. Senate’s report on the CIA’s torture program, for example, Khalek discovered that the CIA regularly invoked the “Israeli example” as a possible basis for arguing that torture was necessary to prevent imminent harm when there is no other available means.
The “Israeli example” refers to a 1999 Israeli Supreme Court decision that supposedly outlawed the use of torture to extract confessions from Palestinian prisoners, she reported in December 2014. But the Israeli court decision actually contained loopholes that have led to impunity for Israeli torturers, she wrote in an article.
An Innate Propaganda Detector
Khalek’s parents were born in Lebanon. Growing up in a family of immigrants from the Middle East helped her to sense and see propaganda in the news media. “I’ve always had a good overall general understanding of the fact that U.S. foreign policy is horrible and what you see on the news isn’t accurate,” she said.
At the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Khalek was a sophomore in high school in Northern Virginia. “9/11 was difficult because of the backlash toward Arabs and Muslims. I felt like I was marginalized and discriminated against in many ways. That was my first experience with that,” she said.
Khalek remembers her high school American history teacher, the day after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, opening class by saying there would be no discussion about the war. The teacher thought open dialogue could lead to criticism of the invasion, which would upset students whose parents were in the military.
More than 10 years later, Khalek looks back at her experience in high school as yet another example of how Americans are taught to embrace dangerous forms of nationalism. This closed mindset is why Khalek believes some Americans reacted so viciously to her reporting on the Clint Eastwood-directed movie “American Sniper.”
In her reporting for Electronic Intifada and on social media, Khalek highlighted the actual words that former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle used in his autobiography of the same name.” Kyle, in the book, boasts of killing 160 Iraqi “savages” during his four deployments in Iraq. “Savage, despicable evil. That’s what we were fighting in Iraq,” Kyle writes in his book. “I only wish I had killed more,” he writes, adding, “I loved what I did … It was fun. I had the time of my life.”
In an article about the movie, Khalek writes that “American Sniper,” the movie, is “brilliant propaganda that valorizes American military aggression while delivering Hollywood’s most racist depiction of Arabs in recent memory, effectively legitimizing America’s ongoing bombing campaigns across the Middle East.”
While watching the movie, Khalek said she understood that it was propaganda, but at the same time she found the story line compelling. “That’s what makes me so mad. This is a good movie and it’s going to be effective,” she said in the interview. “It re-writes the Iraq war that makes Americans feel good about it. It dresses up the whitewashing of the Iraq war with this story about soldiers and how hard war is for soldiers and their families.”
Many Americans did not appreciate Khalek’s frank reporting on “American Sniper” and they let her know how they felt on social media. “I am a little rattled when people say, ‘I’m going to come shoot you.’ It is a little bit overwhelming when people say, ‘I hope ISIS rapes you and cuts your head off,’” she said. But Khalek emphasized that she doesn’t let the attacks on social media change how she lives her life. “I don’t physically feel threatened,” she said.
According to Khalek, there’s always an accusation that the political left hates free speech. “After what I just experienced with ‘American Sniper,’ there is serious PC problem among right-wingers that liberals play into when it comes to criticizing a soldier,” she noted.
A prominent liberal writer who perpetuates the myth that political correctness is primarily a left problem is Jonathan Chait, who recently wrote an article for New York magazine about how “political correctness” has reared its ugly head after a long remission. In the article, Chait writes, “Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.”
What Chait did not cover in his essay is how people on the political left who do not conform to the “politically correct” stance of the U.S. establishment are often blackballed from jobs, harassed and investigated by law enforcement officials, and imprisoned.
Unlike the establishment-friendly Chait, Khalek might have trouble getting a job at The New York Times or other mainstream outlets for her honest reporting on Israel and the military. But the government has yet to harass her, as far as she knows. Right now, it’s only the right-wing PC police attacking her. “I’ve got people saying they want to kill me because I quoted Chris Kyle’s racist language,” she said. “That’s a serious problem if we’re going to talk about censorship and the PC police. When it comes to political correctness, you’re not allowed to say anything bad about a soldier at all. There’s a certain PC policing on the right more so than you see on the left by far.”
Mark Hand reports on political action. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.