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Are US Relations With Israel a Proprietary Matter? The People at PBS’ Frontline Seem to Think So

There are numerous templates available for the making of effective propaganda. One extremely crude approach, pioneered by the Nazis, and used to great effect but the Bush Administration in the lead-up to its calculated destruction of Iraq, is to have “authorities” and their usually quite willing media accomplices (despite their constant braying about being “fiercely independent”, this is all too often the sad reality of many reporters’ lives) repeat a falsehood so often, and with so much conviction, that it soon takes on the status of an unassailable reality in the minds of a great majority of the citizenry.

However, this approach is not without its shortcomings. While very effective in generating short-term mass support, it tends, as we have seen in the years since 2003, to falter in the long run.

Perhaps more importantly, it seldom, if ever, convinces a strong plurality of a society’s prosperous and influential educated classes, the 5-10% of the population who, whether we are prepared to admit it or not, often hold the keys to implementing and sustaining long term policy prescriptions at the national level.

To win over a durable plurality within this group, with its more advanced (or at least more highly self-rated) analytical capabilities, one must present propaganda messages in less overtly strident terms.

How?

By eschewing the bash-the-citizen-over-the-head approach described above in favor of messages built upon dialogic or dialectical narrative structures.

Those who engineer the communications strategies aimed at winning over this all-important demographic understand that the identity of most people in this sub-group is substantially linked to the idea of being autonomous thinkers, that is, of possessing the ability to sift through raw data from disparate sources and come to “independent” conclusions.

Not surprisingly, the Goering-Bush method of repeating evidently dubious claims repels them.

In contrast, putatively open-ended narratives, structured on the premise of a dialogue between competing voices, appeal to their self-identification as analytical decision-makers.

What the communication strategists have long understood, however, and a surprisingly large number of these self-identified “educated-analytical” types have been extremely slow to pick up on, is that even the most apparently polyphonic exposition of a problem can quite easily be manipulated for propagandistic ends.

The key lies in insuring that a very heavy plurality of the opining chorus be in tacit agreement with—to borrow from the great Pierre Bourdieu—the “structuring structures” of the discourse of power.

In this context, “structuring structures” are the set of underlying ideological assumptions that are considered to be so obvious that one need not waste time debating them.

For example, in virtually any conversation on the subject of terrorism in the US media it is tacitly assumed that:

a) no use of force by the US or its approved allies, no matter how bloody or destructive, or damaging to innocent civilians, can ever be even remotely construed as terrorism

b) the use of force, albeit in demonstrably smaller lethal doses, by any non-state actor against the US or one of its approved allies is per se something to be filed under that deeply pejorative label.

Generally speaking, no person known to be in disagreement these implied beliefs will ever be invited to talk about the subject of terrorism in the mainstream US media.

So while the American people get to hear different inflections and tonalities of opinion on how best to manage the supposedly grave problem of terrorism, they get no opportunity whatsoever to ponder the clearly opportunistic use of the diagnosis, nor the set of grievances that might have catalyzed this allegedly nihilistic and life-abhorring activity.

Last week, PBS’ Frontline aired a new report, Netanyahu at War, whose core aim is to explore the tense and mistrustful relationship between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu over the past seven years.

On one level, the program is a breakthrough. Up until the vote on the Iran treaty late last summer, one of the unstated presumptions that anyone wanting to be taken seriously in the media as an analyst US-Israeli affairs had to accept was that there were not any real tensions between Israel and the US because our strategic interests were and would always be, one and the same.

In adopting a story line that tears down this absolutely absurd and intelligence-insulting premise (as I’ve written before, no two people, never mind two nations ever have identical interests) the crew at Frontline deserve a modicum of credit.

It seems, however, that the task of invalidating this patent, if long submerged, absurdity completely exhausted their existing stores of intellectual courage.

How do we know?

By looking at the composition of the chorus of talking heads featured on the program.

If, as the producers of the program clearly allege, a Netanyahu-led Israel and an Obama-led US have divergent interests, it would seem incumbent on them to explore the causes of clash in the most structurally defined (as opposed to fixating, tabloid-style, on personality) and multi-variable way possible, with a selection of experts stretching from those—and there are many intelligent and extremely well-informed ones out there to choose from—who believe the so-called “special relationship” has been extremely damaging to long-term US interests, to people on the other end who see it as the bedrock of all the good things that this country does in the world.

This ideological panorama would, it seems, need to include, among others, non-Zionist US Jews, who as fervent partisans of Israel all too painfully realize, exist in much greater numbers that the mainstream media in the US would ever have us believe.

But rather than do this, the people at PBS fell back on a deeply offensive and profoundly anti-democratic idea: that when it comes to matters regarding US relations with the Zionist state, the only people truly qualified to talk about it are Zionists themselves.

In the eyes of the producers at Frontline, the rest of us—the millions and millions of non-Zionists, post-Zionists and just plain America-first “realists” here in the US—apparently have absolutely no need or right to see our views reflected in the debate over an issue which conditions the US’s engagement with the world in numerous and extremely important ways.

I know, I know.

Under the current baroque laws of political discourse management in the US I not only just disqualified myself as an intellectually serious person, but outed myself as a confirmed and raging anti-Semite.

My crime? Counting Zionists

In today’s America, where diversity has reached the level of a civil religion in many social sectors (especially those on the left), it is wholly permissible to obsess about achieving the proper amounts of identity-based or ideologically-calibrated representativity in any and all manner of opinion-shaping or decision-making assemblages, a process that is rooted, of course, in identifying and counting people according to their ethnic and/or racial background, as well as their perceived political postures.

But when it comes to issues connected to Israel, those widely accepted precepts are completely suspended.

To point out the obvious, that on the PBS program devoted to exploring US-Israeli relations, approximately of 85% or so of the people invited to opine on the subject would appear to be Zionists is, for the self-appointed gate keepers our public discourse on Israel, to go beyond the pale and enter into the worst realms of scurrilous behavior.

Do I know for sure all these people are convinced Zionists? No I do not.

But when one considers that that around 26 of the approximately 30 invited commenters appear to be either Israelis or American Jews, and that in elite policy/publishing circles in both countries the social pressure to accept the core righteousness of this ideology is simply enormous, then one can reasonably assume this to be the case.

But if that doesn’t suffice, we can simply look at the past writings and statements of the chosen cohort of talking heads. While a good number of them have condemned discrete elements of Israeli state behavior (with Peter Beinart issuing perhaps the most far-reaching critiques), none to my knowledge, has ever come close to repudiating the ideology of Zionism itself, with its quite explicit racism and its conviction that a writ from the Almighty gives people possessing certain blood lines the “right” to expel those with different lineages from lands that those apparently lesser “others” have inhabited for centuries.

By engaging in contrastive analysis, we can see just how ridiculous, and I must add again, how insulting, this all is.

Just imagine a program on US relations with another country known for racism and ethnic cleansing, indeed quite clearly founded on both, where 4/5 of the commentators invited to give their opinions were to view that fundamental historical truth about that second country to be essentially unproblematic, and this being the case, were to monolithically describe the inevitable resistance of those who have been displaced as “terrorism”, a.k.a., an activity with no minimally justifiable moral basis.

Just imagine a program on US relations with another country in which 80% of the commenters were either de facto or de jure citizens of the second country (It’s not me who is proclaiming that, but rather Israeli citizenship laws, and much more plainly and repeatedly, the country’s current prime minister) who see the constant enhancement of the second country’s geopolitical standing in the world as, at the very least, an indisputable good, and at the most, the central social concern of their lives.

When talking about Russia (or almost any other foreign state for that matter), commentators from the US mainstream press struggle mightily to admit any “natural” historically ratified interests or rights that the country might possibly possess. For example, that the lands around Kiev are seen by many Russians as the place where their national culture originated, or that that the Crimean Peninsula has been linguistically and culturally Russian for centuries, are seen as completely unmentionable, and therefore irrelevant, realities when discussing current events in that part of the world.

With Israel, however, everything is different.

Owing to the media’s almost exclusive reliance on Zionists to explain all things Israeli to the general public, the conversation starts from the premise that not only does Israel have clear and historically-ratified interests and “rights” (including the prerogative to usurp as much land as it, and it alone, deems necessary to achieve “security”, a concept whose parameters are, again, wholly defined by the Israeli strategic-planners themselves), but that anyone questioning all this is a best a fool not worth listening to, and at worst, a person suffering from a very malign and largely incurable ethical derangement.

If you go online, you can find a PBS promotional spot from 2012 in which David Fanning, the man who has served as the Executive Director of Frontline since the program’s inception in 1983, and who quite recently retired from the post, says—with the self-satisfied immodesty which we have come to expect from that network—that:

“Public media is important to democracy because we’re able to report free of the kinds of pressures of advertisers, the financial interests of media companies, it can shine light in dark places, it can hold people in power accountable, but mostly because we treat people not as consumers but as citizens”

Contrast that with the picture that emerges from a conversation that the filmmaker Michael Singh claims he recently maintained with Fanning regarding Frontline’s decision to back out of what Singh had understood was a commitment by the program to air his documentary, Valentino’s Ghost: Why We Hate Arabs, an investigation of the systematic attempts by powerful, interested parties to engender and maintain pro-Zionist and anti-Arab attitudes within in the American public.

FANNING: I agree with your premise and your arguments, but I will do everything I can to block the broadcast of your film on WGBH or in fact any other PBS affiliate in the country.

SINGH: Why is that?

FANNING: Because it’ll piss off my rich Jewish friends.

SINGH: So this huge subject will remain under the rug.

FANNING: It’s not a huge subject. You can cover your premise in about four minutes. What will you do for the next 50 minutes?

SINGH: I actually have enough material for a three-hour miniseries.

FANNING: How are you going to fund that?

SINGH: I don’t know. Get grants.

FANNING: And if you get Arab money, I’m going to find you out.

SINGH: What about Holocaust films made with Israeli money?

FANNING: That’s okay. Not a problem.

SINGH: That’s a double standard.

FANNING: Yup. It’s a double standard, and you’re going to have to get used to it.

SINGH: That’s hypocritical.

FANNING: Well, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

SINGH: That’s the exact opposite of PBS’s mission. In fact, it is a violation of their charter for the money people to influence filmmakers editorially.

FANNING: That’s the way it is, and if you quote me, I’ll deny it.

So, which Fanning represents the real spirit of PBS and its leading documentary program?

Take a look at last week’s Netanyahu at War and I think you’ll get your answer….. real fast.

More articles by:

Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  A Citizen’s Democracy in Authoritarian Times: An American View on the Catalan Drive for Independence  (University of Valencia Press, 2018).

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