Friday, August 22, 2014

The Miami Herald's Gaza Problem

On the afternoon of Sunday, July 20, I attended a rally on Miami's Biscayne Boulevard in support of besieged citizens in Gaza, where, in the course of the last several weeks, the government of Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu has slaughtered over 2,000 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, including hundreds of children. The pretext was for this attack was the appalling kidnap and murder of 3 Israeli teens in the West Bank, but the result was an ethnic slaughter of which Slobodan Milošević would have been proud. As a U.S.voter and taxpayer, when my country provides billions of dollars of aid a year to enable such as policy, I feel it is my duty to speak up.

The rally itself was relatively uneventful as these things go, but what transpired since was illustrative to me about the rather sorry state of the media here in the United States at this time, and here in Miami in particular.

The protest was scheduled for around 3pm and I stood in front of the Israeli consulate. Two others arrived, one Palestinian, one Jewish, and then finally another man, a somewhat jittery fellow with a keffiyeh around his neck and a small camcorder also showed up. After standing in front of the consulate for a few minutes, we collectively realized the rally was in fact to be held at the Torch of Friendship and not at the consulate, so we ambled across Biscayne Boulevard to join the others assembled.

Shortly after we arrived, indicating the man in the kaffiyah, someone announced "This man is a Zionist [they did not say "Jew"] and he is here filming us to put it up on his Zionist website."

At this, a handful, I would say perhaps 4 to 5 people in a crowd that would eventually number about 200, started yelling at the man, who started yelling back at them. The man with the camcorder behaved in a fairly aggressive way, getting to within inches of the faces of the demonstrators and, it looked to my eyes, as if he might be trying to provoke some sort of physical confrontation in order to film it. However, having been around unstable types before in my work as a journalist in conflict zones, something about the man's demeanour alarmed me. At one point I advised the crowd "If you react, he wins" and "Don't take the bait."  Some however did, and engaged in prolonged back and forths with the man which involved some shoving. At this point, I wandered off to another part of the demonstration.

A few minutes later the police showed up, took the man to the side and extracted off his person and put on the hood of their squad car for all the world to see a very large handgun. When the footage the man shot was later put online, it was revealed that he was a member of a Lake Worth, Florida-based group called United West, an organization designated as an "Anti-Muslim hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights group. Some demonstrators later told me that they had recognized that he was armed.

Whether or not the man was trying to provoke a fight with the the protesters I cannot say. The man eventually went away, and I stayed at the protest for about two hours, joined, at one point, by a Moroccan and a Czech friend. They demonstrators chanted "Let's go Gaza" some slogans in Arabic I didn't understand and some chanted "Let's Go Hamas," which, in the context of the rally, seemed to me a statement of support for resistance to Israel's savaging of Gaza's population. For the record, as an avowed secularist, I do not support religiously-based parties, but, then again, it is not my place to tell people in other countries who they are and aren't allowed to vote for, no matter how ill-advised I may think their choice may be.

There were lots of young people at the protest, quite a few old people and quite a few toddlers as well. There were Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Latinos, basically a cross-section of different groups one finds in South Florida. A group of pro-Israel protesters - about half a dozen - also showed up, waving an Israeli flag and hurling what sounded like invective in Hebrew that I, at least, couldn't understand. Police kept the two groups well apart. I saw no physical altercations or actual violent acts on the part of either side for the two hours I was there.

I posted photos of some of the protest on my blog here.

A few days later, I was made aware of a blog post on the Miami Herald's website by a journalist named Marc Caputo, whom I had never heard of before but who is apparently the Herald's chief political reporter [Florida's ossified, corrupt political scene holds little interest for me, I generally turn to the Herald for its alas dwindling foreign coverage]. The Herald had published extensive coverage of a pro-Israel rally in Miami Beach that same week. To the best of my knowledge, Caputo's blog post was the only mention of the Gaza rally that appeared in the paper or on its website.

In the post, which didn't generally fall dramatically to either a pro-Israel or pro-Palestine slant, the author alluded to how the video I saw being shot that day was picked up by the extreme right-wing news source, which described the video with the words that a "Jewish reporter had been working undercover and was identified, then attacked by the demonstrators," which, as noted, is completely false. Caputo then quoted me by name from a comment I had made on the event's Facebook page about being proud to stand with  the people of Gaza and my query who the armed provocateur was, before concluding "as with any dispute rooted in the Middle East, it’s tough to tell who did what exactly, who started it, who’s more at fault and what the ultimate truth is. The video posted by The United West is edited. We don’t know the whole story. But we probably never will."

Caputo never made any attempt to contact me or, as far as I can tell, anyone else connected to the event, anyone who could have told him the cameraman from United West and the gunmen were one and the same. As neither Caputo nor any other journalist for the Herald had attended the rally, they missed making the connection that the man shooting the video and the man who had gun taken off him and registration checked by the police were the same person. To me, this seemed like a detail worth clarifying.

I wrote first to a Herald editor whom I had met and corresponded with before, explaining the situation and he thoughtfully put me in touch with the journalist in question.

Initially, Caputo was not receptive to this new information, and instead responded in a highly pompous, defensive and verbose tone that rather surprised me, but agreeing to contact the police to confirm my story that the cameraman was armed and that police had removed a firearm from him during the demonstration (I never said the man was arrested). I also found an additional attendee who confirmed my version of the story. The man apparently had a concealed weapons permit but, to me and others at the demonstration, at least, that doesn't make his behavior any less threatening. 

At the conclusion of our exchange, Caputo wrote that  "I think I'll do both: update and issue a separate post. The armed man is unreported and for search purposes on the Internet deserves a separate headline."

Had he done so, that would have been that. But up to this date (22 August 2014),  however, Caputo has done neither, hence what I viewed as the necessity of this posting. This is a detail that should be known. The Miami Herald, likewise, has, as far as I can tell, made no public acknowledgement of this glaring omission. They have had this information for a month and have chosen, for whatever reason, not to share it with the public. What has resulted is another instance in which the U.S. media can blithely paint. perhaps not even intentionally, those defending the human rights of Palestinian civilians as sympathetic or tangentially connected to violence and terrorism.

Though the Miami Herald is significantly diminished from the days when it was one of the world's great newspapers - with the gaping, destroyed facade of the publication's former home in downtown Miami providing some unflattering symbolism - there are still some fine reporters there, and it's a paper I have been happy to contribute articles to, both from abroad and here in Miami, from time to time over the years. But if friends of mine such as the great Irish photographer Andrew McConnell, who I reported with from the Democratic Republic of Congo, can cobble together their own often meagre resources to get into Gaza itself and cover the violence there, is it too much to expect a Miami Herald reporter to get into their air conditioned car and drive a couple of miles to town to cover a demonstration that they will later write about? Now that the Herald has moved from its downtown offices in the heart of Miami to the antiseptic and distant suburb of Doral, it is in ever more danger of being cut off from the people of the city it claims to cover authoritatively.

The temptation to sit behind a desk in an office with minimal effort, tweeting and blogging away, is great but, even in this digital age, reporters must go out among the people and, well, report.  If journalists want to wade into international reporting on fraught geopolitical issues such as this one, simply sighing those issues are "complex" does not cut it.

The Miami Herald failed the people of Miami and the people of Gaza in this instance.

These are matters of life and death.

Either do it right, or don't do it at all.

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