According to Reports: Media Cling Stubbornly to Established Storylines

In his weekly Canadian Jewish News media analysis column "According to Reports," Paul Michaels, CIC Director of Communications, finds journalists ignoring the facts regarding Hamas.

What has Margaret Wente's April 26 Globe and Mail column, "Can you handle the truth?" to do with the coverage of the Middle East? On the surface, nothing; but, by implication, quite a lot.

Wente's subject was the failure of the media to disclose the truth about the relative health of the Gulf of Mexico, including its fishing industry, one year after the horrific Deepwater Horizon oil spill. According to Wente, despite some lingering problems, most scientists have found the Gulf to be surprisingly healthy. Yet, she noted, media coverage has overwhelmingly clung to the established "narrative of catastrophe."

Why was this so? Why ignore the abundance of countervailing facts?

Her answer is that the media had invested too much in the "disaster" storyline (which also captured the "morality tale" of evil oil interests versus good environment) to change it in light of new evidence.

It is on this theme – maintaining the established storyline and ignoring overwhelming contrary evidence – that Wente's remarks become relevant to much of the coverage of the Middle East.

What we find here, with some exceptions, is a persistent narrative: currently, the notion that Islamists (whether Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood or its offshoot Hamas) are actually "moderates" if given the chance to prove it.

The latest illustration of this is the storyline found in much of the coverage of the "unity" agreement between Fatah and Hamas signed in Cairo last week. Despite fresh statements from Hamas leaders themselves that they'll never recognize Israel's right to exist and are determined to destroy it, numerous media reports ignored these pronouncements and focused instead on potentially positive results of the reconciliation agreement.

To be sure, the media in general did report that Hamas still refuses to accept the Quartet conditions that it recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence, and endorse existing Israel-PLO agreements. But many also drew attention to an apparent willingness of Hamas to compromise.

Patrick Martin, for instance, wrote (Globe and Mail, May 4) that "While Hamas leaders say they will not accept Israel's right to exist…they repeatedly make it clear they are willing to establish a Palestinian state based on the June, 1967 borders that defined the West Bank and Gaza, and willing to sign a long-term truce with Israel."

In fact, Khaled Meshaal, the Damascus-based head of Hamas who signed the reconciliation deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, reiterated one critical caveat. During the Cairo ceremony, Meshaal brought up the key, long-standing demand for establishing a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines: the insistence on the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to Israel. This of course would mean the destruction of Israel, not even a "long-term" truce with it. In short, what appears to many to be Hamas' moderation toward Israel is anything but.

Martin did acknowledge one aspect of Hamas' extremism when he noted that Ismail Haniyeh, the Gaza-based Hamas prime minister, "didn't do his cause any good…when he condemned the U.S. killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, just minutes after his Fatah 'partners' hailed the killing as a boon for peace."

Hamas leaders weren't alone in their views. The Fatah-affiliated Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade issued a similar statement, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also denounced the operation.

The previous day in the National Post, Robert Fulford wrote about Haniyeh's praise of bin Laden as an "Arab holy warrior" and condemnation of the U.S. operation for its "continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood." Fulford also added a rare skeptical reminder that Hamas "was recently endorsed by many observers as an appropriate peace partner for Israel."

In an opinion piece in the May 5 Globe and Mail, Michael Bell, in a departure from the standard narrative, observed that "Hamas's ideological determinism forces rejection of any achievable option [with Israel], despite what its members might whisper into the ears of Western sympathizers."

Fixed, familiar narratives may be appealing and comforting. But, as Wente reminded us – and these exceptions above indicate – it's the truth that matters.