The Medievalist Who Is Watchdogging the Media


Mr. Landes is a Medieval Historian at Boston University and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies. He teaches a course on "Communications Revolutions from Language to Cyberspace." He can be contacted at: rlandes@bu.edu.

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“Citizens” of the USSR called it “information vertigo.”  When you can’t trust anything you hear about through the media, what do you do?   A friend told me that as a child, her father would sit her down, have her read an article in Pravda (“Truth”), and then say, “okay, tell me what you think really happened.”  That’s also what medieval historians do.

Nowadays people from the whole political spectrum—from the left and right wing extremes alike who speak with contempt of the Mainstream Media (MSM, or, as some, with a nod to Chomsky write it, M$M), to mainstream people who want to trust their MSM—have begun to feel the tugging of information vertigo about the reliability of their professionally packaged mainstream news.  Pew polls report less than half the public trusts the news they get from MSM.

In our age of information glut, the premium is not “objective truth,” which most modest people will admit is an impossible standard to reach most – if not, as the post-moderns have it, all – of the time.  Rather the gold standard for the new century will be  relevance and accuracy .  

Unfortunately, there is no clear standard for assessing the accuracy and relevance of the data we receive: these are judgment calls, and like all judgments, partly subjective.  

Cyberspace is where people go when they feel information vertigo from the MSM.  That, of course, does not necessarily help. If Orwell thought we needed a Big Brother to brainwash us, the Internet has shown how we can brainwash ourselves by going where we find only the things we want to hear.  And the web has cooked a vast smorgasbord of conspiracy theories for such self-brainwashers, closing both the moral and intellectual doors of honest discussion. 

Fortunately, the Internet is more capacious than that.  A whole world of intelligent conversation has arisen in the blogosphere where much of the discussion is dedicated to MSM critique.  When bloggers caught Dan Rather using suspect documents, some in the MSM railed against pajama-clad nerds manning their computers in the dead of night and dismissed the transgression as “false but accurate.” Others hailed it as a “Gutenberg moment” when a new technology of communication challenged the hegemony of an older one. 

As an historian, I go with Gutenberg moment.  The printing press created a new world of conversation that grew up independent of the manuscript and university culture that had dominated the Middle Ages. It eventually gave birth to the “city of letters” and constitutional governments committed to citizens’ rights and a free press.  And what printing did to the 16th century, the Internet will do to the 21st.  The blogosphere offers a chance for independent citizens to readjust some of the serious imbalances that have entered the increasingly powerful and scarcely self-critical MSM over the last generation.

For these reasons, we have chosen to set up a website to address some of these problems and to point a way towards greater relevance and accuracy in news information.  Since journalism likes to call itself "the first draft of history,” we call ourselves The Second Draft: Historians look at Journalism.

Our opening dossier – Pallywood – is an exercise in pointing out that the emperor is naked.  Evidence we will make available to the cyber-public suggests that our news desks regularly receive staged scenes of fighting and injury filmed by Palestinian cameramen using Western equipment.  Rather than delete them or fire the cameramen for gross violations of journalistic standards, editors cut the obviously fake parts and run a medley of plausible sight-bytes as real news.

If any graduate student in medieval history came with a draft that treated its sources as credulously as our media have done in this case, he or she would not make it through the first semester.   

Instead, the MSM presented us indelible images of the outbreak of the "Second Intifada" – days and weeks of rioting in response to Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount (September 28, 2000) in which the Israelis killed hundreds of Palestinians, many of them children.  By contrast, viewing the raw footage from Gaza two days later, when the rioting and rage were supposedly everywhere, seems surreal.  Palestinian youth stand around directly in front of an Israeli post, smiling, ambling away from evacuation scenes with no concern for the Israeli guns that supposedly just felled their comrades.  We see directors, assistants, sets, civilians giving orders to military.  And everywhere an affluence of cameras and ambulances…  

What’s going on here?  Is this a joke?  Judging from the smiles of both the actors and the cameramen that follow successful “takes,” yes.  And the joke is on us.

How long has  Pallywood been going on?  We cannot say, partly because, so far, the MSM will not re-examine their own rushes, nor let outsiders see them.  But the material we have suggests a widespread and common practice that probably began in the 1980s and continues today.  

Now, it is one thing for Palestinian journalists to behave in this manner.  Many openly admit that the media represent a battlefield for them and they subordinate its values to their cause.  But why would Western media clean up these fakes and present them as news? 

Understandably, the MSM want us to, “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”  As one person at a major TV network put it, “I don’t know how much appetite there is for this kind of stuff here.”  But embarrassing as it may be for them to confront so serious a lapse of judgment, it seems far preferable for them – and us, the consumers of their product – to meditate on how such an error might have happened.

What are the consequences of this error for cultures that value a free and critical press, including any possible Palestinian civil society?  Why have the MSM shown such reluctance to address this problem, forcing me to resort to the Internet to inform the public?  What kind of reforms do we need to limit the odds of it happening again? 

We do not have any set answers to these questions.  

The problems go beyond laziness, or commercial concerns, or intimidation, or even ideological commitments, although all these factors play.  It raises questions about conceptual frameworks and expectations, about how we imagine both our own and other cultures, about how we judge. 

Our site is neither right- nor left-wing.  We believe everyone loses from Pallywood, including the Palestinian people, victimized by their own leaders who feed them a constant diet of war propaganda and hatred.  Insofar as the website is committed to the values of a responsibly free press, and the civil society of which the free media represents the eyes and ears of the public, it is progressive by any standards. 

Our audience is not the ideologues on either side, but the sincere and concerned people who have a sense of how perilous our times; understand how important our MSM are, especially now; and want them to fulfill their role honestly.

Come.  Watch.  Read.  Judge.  Join the conversation.  Suggest other topics for investigation.  We welcome the public’s involvement, and will not censure serious criticism.  Without self-criticism, one cannot learn.

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More Comments:

Charles S Young - 9/23/2005

Ha'aretz writer Tom Segev wrote a column about Mohammed al-Dura and the documentary about him.

He concludes that it remains very disputable how the child died -- the claims that the IDF physically could not have been the source of bullets do no pan out.


Charles S Young - 9/23/2005

As I understand it, the suggestion that the IDF did not kill Mohammed al-Dura is based on two arguments:

1. It was physically impossible for Israeli bullets to reach him.

2. Palestinian sources cannot be trusted because martyrdom is culturally encouraged.

I found another thoughtful article on this at http://www.supportsanity.org/Articles/The%20Truth%20of%20Mohammed%20al-Dura%20Article.htm.

It includes a photo diagram of the shooting scene. It is not at all clear that the bullets could not have come from the Israeli positions. The angle appears to have room for IDF bullets to have reached the boy. Certainly is not clearcut.

The article also makes the point that an IDF military investigation did not conclude there was a physical impossibility. It said the bullets "probably" came from the IDF.

The photographer, an eyewitness, stated that the shots were coming from the Israelis. I do not feel this should be dismissed because of the ethnicity of the cameraman.

The challenges to the standard understanding of the shooting depend on accepting the flat claim that Israelis were in the wrong place to hit the boy. This should not be taken at face value.

The obvious explanations are usually the best.

The Kennedy assassination is a great example of how the obvious can get obscured when subjected to endless, tendatious scrutiny.

The link I provided makes another important point: even if someone rejects Israeli responsibility for killing this particular child, the larger truth is still there. Plenty of other innocents have. This does not mean we should not consider what really happened to Mohammed al-Dura. It means it is part of a larger argument of whether innocent civilians are killed by just one, or both sides, and we need to keep the big picture in mind, as well as the details of particular incidents.

Gregory Dehler - 9/21/2005

Time to go to the library and check check out Boorstin, The Image again.

Roger Johnson - 9/21/2005

Another comparison might be with the practically looped footage of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad - a similarly staged 'spontaneous' event.

The site sounds interesting, I will go now to see it.

Richard Fell - 9/20/2005

It is provocative and worth the 18 minutes of ones time. In retrospect, the Pallywood video isn’t surprising and as I watched the staged scenes, some a comedy of errors, I realized how sadly desperate these people seem to be. Is this behavior externalized because of desperation, because they are outnumbered and outgunned?

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/19/2005

With respect, I do not believe that the events are comperable. The coverage with respect to Katrina may not have been fairly distributed, and may have been bias in favor of a particular angle (this is true with virtually all stories), but the events on camera were not "staged" as if a family were performing for the cameras.

Vernon Clayson - 9/19/2005

Your "revelation" is too little and too late. Responsible people have known of these staged events for years. The Palestinians are hardly alone in using this concept, witness our own media's coverage of the Katrina disaster. One would think that only poor black people were affected and while many were, the vast majority, especially in New Orleans were in subsidized housing which they care little about. How about the thousands of people there and in smaller cities and towns who worked long and hard to own homes or were paying for homes, now lost to wind and water? They were not the storied Southern gentry, i.e.,monied landowners, most were middle class people sturggling to meet mortgages and provide their family with a decent lifestyle. They are of no interest to the media, while they bleed, they largely suffer in silence so there's no news there, the media wants pathos, and preferably minority pathos.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/19/2005

What a provocative video at the web-site. Thank you for sharing it, I only hope the people who need to see it actually take the time.

Steven R Alvarado - 9/19/2005

But I wonder how long it will take some in the academic community to begin to attack you as " a tool of the the reactionaies"?

Michael Beatty - 9/18/2005

A case of life imitating art . . .