What U.S. journalism gets wrong about Palestine and the Middle East [Interview]

Part 1 of our conversation with journalist and author Mohammed Omer

Recently our communications team sat down with journalist Mohammed Omer to talk about the current state of U.S. journalism – particularly how the U.S. media cover Gaza, Israel-Palestine, and the blockade. What follows is the first part of a two-part Q & A where Omer reflects on his work, the state of the media, and how journalists ought to report on conflict. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Beth Hallowell: I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about why you became a journalist? And what inspires you or keeps you going in one of the toughest jobs I can imagine for sure.

Mohammed Omer: Well, it has never been my wish to become a journalist in the first place. I have always wanted to do something with an international organization. But I would say life forced me to be a journalist. I grew up in a place where there is so much injustice and so many untold stories that I decided somebody had to do the job. I picked up a camera and started my communication at the age of seventeen – that’s when I became a journalist.

BH: What keeps you going?

MO: What keeps me going is that there aren’t enough people who are doing it. I am often offended by the type of reporting I see in the west, particularly in the United States of America, where you can see ignorance at random, especially in the issue of Middle East, and Palestine, in particular.

BH: A study that we conducted for AFSC’s upcoming Gaza Unlocked campaign showed that U.S. national media barely cover Gaza or Palestine. And that when they do cover it, as you mentioned, they do a terrible job. They almost never mention the blockade. They never talk about what life is like for ordinary people. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about what you think about U.S. media coverage of Gaza and Palestine, in particular, and then the region in general.

MO: Well, look it’s not very surprising. You know the U.S. media is focused only on what is happening in America. There is no foreign news really in the United States. None. Zero. It’s only the alternative media and we are talking about some places like Amy Goodman, for example, at Democracy Now and some community radio stations that tend to focus on what’s happening in Palestine. If you ask me, the media is not doing the job it should be doing.

But we should also look at the bright side of events by looking at social media. We’ve got social media. We’ve got Facebook. We’ve got Twitter. We’ve got Instagram. We’ve got YouTube. We’ve got all of the methods of communications from WhatsApp to Viber to all of these different apps which we can use to communicate and connect. And nowadays it has become more difficult for journalists to misrepresent events on the ground thanks to social media. Thanks to Twitter, in particular, because now we can collect what they are exactly trying to say and catch their mistakes. In the old days, we couldn’t. In the old days, international journalists or American journalists, in particular, they could just run any story they wanted without being questioned. Nowadays you can challenge a journalist. You can challenge media outlets, and you can make it public and use the right hashtag and it will be quite embarrassing for them because of the terrible job they did. I’m very satisfied with social media because that’s the way to go for showing the wrong-doing of traditional media.

But if you want me to engage more with your original question of how I evaluate the media in the United States, I think it’s doing a terrible job in terms of informing public opinion in the United States of America. I think the American public deserves to know what is happening around Israel and Palestine. Not necessarily because I’m from that part of the world, but because it’s very important and it’s a crucial issue during and after the U.S. elections. We are talking about something which is critical where the American administration have always had a monopoly over this issue. And I think it’s the right of the voters here to understand the latest and what is happening on the ground. When I talk to Americans I get quite upset and sometimes I get quite disturbed by not only how little they know, but how twisted the information is that they get through U.S. media outlets. But that’s changing. Remember, ten years ago there weren’t many people who speak about what’s happening in Palestine. Nowadays, I’m very happy and delighted to see many people, including young Jews, involved in exposing the injustice and telling about what’s happening and calling for an end to the blockade.

BH: Our research also shows that many people in the U.S. don’t know anything about Gaza/Palestine. We heard a lot of people talk about their feelings of embarrassment about this or that it wasn’t something they could do anything about. Some people went so far as to say it wasn’t any of their business. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit further about the conversation around Gaza/Palestine that you’ve observed here in the U.S.? What’s been most surprising to you about the conversation? Where do you see that conversation going?

MO: Well, I haven’t been engaged in direct communication face to face with Americans since 2012. That was the last time I was in the United States. I’m just coming back after four years. It’s quite interesting to see all of the different changes. But from what I see through my communications only in the very small number of days here is that people tend to get really embarrassed about the lack of knowledge they know about Gaza or Palestine or where it’s located. Even with officials or some institutions or airline staff when you try to indicate where you live, and you tell them yes I’m from Palestine, and then they don’t find Palestine. And then you tell them I’m from Gaza. They don’t find Gaza. And then you tell them check West Bank and then they don’t find the West Bank either. But then you tell them to spell Palestine and then they mix it up with Pakistan. That’s quite embarrassing. That tells me quite a lot that people don’t really understand -- and I don’t blame them because they don’t get it in the news. But nowadays, again, with social media, things have started to change even though it’s pretty slow, but it’s forthcoming.

BH: How would you characterize or what do you think about the current state of journalism here in the U.S.? You mentioned that a lot of journalists aren’t doing their job. They’re a little more accountable because of social media. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about when it comes to reporting on Gaza/Palestine, on Middle East more broadly? And on some of the places that you’ll be visiting on your AFSC speaking tour like Ferguson, Missouri or the U.S./Mexico border. Talk a little bit about the current state of journalism covering these different kinds of topics.

MO: All I see from the United States media is that it tends to put important cases in the Middle East in boxes. And that is very disturbing. When you look at this they put Iraq in one box. They put Yemen in one box. They put Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt. You know, that’s not the way to engage with the Middle East. There is a need for deeper understanding. What this country needs is more feature stories that connect people. And that’s not the case right now. We have relied too much on hard news and short pieces covering bombings and attacks, and that’s what we know from all of these countries. We haven’t really learned about the culture of these nations that have been oppressed. We haven’t dug deep into their roots, into their history, into their art, into their museums, into their music. We haven’t dug deep into their foods and their heritage. We haven’t looked beyond the bombing and the killing, and that’s the first thing that somebody would say about Baghdad, you know, twenty people killed and then that’s it.

With Syria it’s the same thing. Have we tried to really engage in understanding what those countries are all about, other than war? And this is something really important that the media also needs to focus on. It’s not only to copy-and-paste the media wires that describes the killing and the blood. Of course, blood sells all of the time whenever you are reporting and what’s happening. The first thing that the media tend to use is when there’s an explosion or when there is an air strike or when there is a retaliation. Or when there are images of the Islamic State which some media would like to use.

So to put it in a nutshell, it’s a very sensational media in the United States. And that’s really quite disturbing the least to say. It has to change. This has to change. I think the U.S. public deserves to see more than that. You know, we need more journalists to be encouraged to go down on the ground to check the reality. And to not only focus on the bad side of events like bombings and all of that. That’s just one side. There is also life. There is the marriage of people. There is the social fabric of the society. There is the music. There is the food. There is the culture. There is all of that. It needs to be incorporated to the American audience in order to bring a better image of what these societies are all about.

You know, these societies are not really blood suckers as they have been portrayed in the media. They are not the Reel Bad Arabs that we have seen in the Hollywood movies. So that’s what we need to do: Engage and look at what’s beyond all of these headlines. And just go a few steps away from it. It’s really important to look at the very normal side of life, not only to look at the headline of death. And when you tell an average American girl, oh Yemen and then she will say, “Yemen, they are all terrible. Oh, it’s just those men who are oppress women I’m sure. And they bomb and they kill and that’s it.” No. Did she know about the Yemeni culture? Did she know about the food, the heritage, the history? Did she really dig deep into that? That’s the responsibility of the media in the United States.

Interested in learning more? Check out part two of our interview with Mohammed Omer next week on Media Uncovered. You can also check out his new book, Shell shocked: On the ground under Israel’s Gaza assault or come out to hear him talk in your community.