In her new book, Back Stories: U.S. News Production and Palestinian Politics (Stanford University Press), the Tufts anthropologist Amahl Bishara describes making the slow trip along the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank. It was during the time of the Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada, and construction was under way on the separation barrier the Israeli authorities were building along the length of the border between Israel and the West Bank.
The wall became a backdrop for graffiti—some in English, written by international activists—that often caught the attention of photographers from international news organizations. At one point, Bishara noticed Arabic graffiti scrawled on the bottom of some concrete blocks that had not yet been set in place. It seemed, she thought, a peculiar place to plant a message. But as she made subsequent trips past the same spot, she realized that the words were precisely at the eye level of every passenger who rode slowly by.
“Palestinian means of protest express an urgency and local knowledge that exceed that of the eloquent and tidy graffiti written by foreign protesters,” writes Bishara, who was in the West Bank and Israel from September 2003 to May 2005, and during the summers of 2007 and 2009 conducting fieldwork. “Yet these Palestinian protests were not always as legible to foreign audiences.”
Like the message of the unknown graffiti artists, the efforts of Palestinian journalists who work with foreign correspondents in the West Bank—the subject of Bishara’s book—are not always visible to outside audiences. American news outlets rely on scores of Palestinians to work as translators, fixers, camera people, photographers, reporters and producers.
In her book, she examines the interdependence of American reporters, editors and producers with “those who have really a lot less power on the global scene, and that’s these Palestinian journalists,” says Bishara, an assistant professor of anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences.
Bishara recalled living in New York and depending on the media for information about what was happening as the Palestinian uprising began in the early 2000s. “I was grateful to the journalists who did that work; I felt that I relied on them in a very personal way,” she says. “At the same time, I knew that the names I saw as bylines were not the only people bringing the news to Americans every day. Who were these other people?”
Bishara interviewed foreign correspondents and Palestinian journalists who assisted international wire services, newspapers, television or radio stations. Her book focuses on media reports emanating from the West Bank, since Gaza was inaccessible during most of that time.
“There’s a little bit of a contradiction at the heart of this project,” Bishara says. “I write out of deep gratitude for all the labor that goes into producing the news, but that doesn’t mean I think our news institutions work as well as they should. I think there are a lot of problems with the way our news institutions work in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and elsewhere. That said, there’s no doubt that local journalists and foreign correspondents take tremendous risks to get us some of the basic stories that we have.
“My goals in writing the book were to learn about the process of producing news, to tell people about how knowledge production is not just intellectual labor, but also embodied work, and how the two are inextricable from each other,” Bishara says. “I also wanted to think about the unexpected ways in which Americans depend on Palestinian journalists for the vitality of their public sphere. Press freedom is a core value of American democracy, and freedom of expression is a vaunted export of the United States. Yet this book demonstrates that U.S. press freedom is not ‘made in America’ in any simple way.”
Like local journalists everywhere, Palestinians bring an intimate knowledge of language, history, geography and culture to the reporting process that can be inaccessible to their visiting counterparts from abroad. “Palestinian journalists have an eye for what’s going on, and without that close view of Palestinian society, our view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a lot less rich,” says Bishara.
In some cases, it would have been virtually impossible for foreign correspondents to do their jobs without Palestinian help. The majority of American and European reporters assigned to the area do not speak fluent Arabic, nor are most familiar with the intricate system of roadblocks and checkpoints that restrict movement within the Israeli-occupied territories, Bishara says. Especially during the intifada, “knowing the territory was not just a means of getting to the event; knowing the territory was a means of political insight,” she says.
The book, Bishara says, is one of the first ethnographies of the second Palestinian intifada, which began in September 2000 and ended in 2005. “It brings readers up close to the experiences of life in Palestinian society and examines both how this reality affected Palestinian journalists and also how it was not fully represented in U.S. news,” she says. “Journalism is a key point of entry for understanding the intifada because so many Palestinians were concerned with how they were represented.”
Among Palestinian society, she says, news coverage is consumed avidly—not just because of a desire to fnd out what is happening locally, but because of widespread acknowledgement that the way major news outlets cover the conflict influences international action around it. Despite the growth of online news sites and other alternative media, major American newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times still wield an outsize influence. “Articles in the major newspapers set the tone for debate. It’s what the people in power are reading,”
However, the average Palestinian rarely sees the majority of these stories from American media, owing to the language barrier and the existence of news sources like Al-Jazeera and other Arab satellite networks. As part of her fieldwork, Bishara translated selected news accounts and feature stories that appeared in U.S. newspapers and asked a cross-section of Palestinians to read and critique them, the results of which appear sprinkled throughout the book. It was, Bishara says, another way to inject seldom-heard voices into the discussion.
“These people—refugees, youth, women, poor people—are groups that do not often have the microphone, but it’s very important for us to think about them as potential experts. Politics affects every element of life in this context, and the people living in the midst of it can teach us a great deal,” Bishara says.
Helene Ragovin can be reached at email@example.com.