Lara-Nour Walton [Excerpt]
“This is quite something,” remarked Nadi Abusaada in a May 8 tweet. As many of us have done, the Palestinian academic found himself experimenting with the seemingly boundless powers of OpenAI’s ChatGPT software. But during this activity, he uncovered something disturbing.
“I asked @OpenAI whether Palestinians deserve to be free,” he said. The natural-language processing tool responded to Abusaada’s query ambivalently:
As an AI language model, I do not have personal opinions, feelings or beliefs. The question of whether Palestinians deserve to be free is a complex and controversial issue with many different perspectives and opinions….
But then he posed the same question about Israelis. This time, the chat box did not equivocate:
Yes, like all people, Israelis deserve to be free. Freedom is a fundamental human right that should be protected and guaranteed for all individuals, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity or religion. It is essential that Israelis, like all people, are able to live their lives free from violence, oppression and discrimination….
“Explanation?” demanded Abusaada.
The explanation lies in the overarching attitudes of the 570 GB of data that ChatGPT scrapes from the internet. And, with news media being one of the primary sources of information that the bot is trained on, Abusaada’s experience is hardly surprising.
To say that US news skews pro-Israel raises many an eyebrow, since the public has been conditioned to believe otherwise. With outlets like NPR vilified as “National Palestinian Radio” and papers like the New York Times castigated by pro-Israel watchdogs for lending “the Palestinian narrative” undue credence (CAMERA, 10/15/13), the myth of pro-Palestine bias appears plausible.
Yet such claims have been litigated, and the verdict is plain: US corporate media lean in favor of Israel. As Abeer Al-Najjar (New Arab, 7/28/22) noted: “The framing, sourcing, selection of facts, and language choices used to report on Palestine…often reveal systematic biases which distort the Palestinian struggle.” Some trends are more ubiquitous than others, which is why it is vital that news readers become acquainted with the tropes that dominate coverage of the Israeli occupation.
- Where Are the Palestinians?
In 2018, 416Labs, a Canadian research firm, analyzed almost 100,000 news headlines published by five leading US publications between 1967 and 2017. The study revealed that major newspapers were four times more likely to run headlines from an Israeli government perspective, and 2.5 times more likely to cite Israeli sources over Palestinian ones. (This trend was further confirmed by Maha Nassar—+972, 10/2/20).
+972: US media talks a lot about Palestinians — just without Palestinians
From 1970 to 2019, the New York Times and Washington Post ran 5,739 opinion pieces about Palestinians. Just 1.4% of these were by Palestinians (+972, 10/2/20).
- Turning Assaults Into ‘Clashes’
Reporting on Israel/Palestine often relies on a lexical toolbox designed for occlusion rather than clarity, “clashes” rather than “assaults.” Adam Johnson (FAIR.org, 4/9/18) explains that “clash” is “a reporter’s best friend when they want to describe violence without offending anyone in power—in the words of George Orwell, ‘to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.’”
FAIR has documented the abuse of “clash” in the Israeli/Palestinian context time and time again: In 2018 Gaza, Israeli troops fired at unarmed protestors 100 meters away. No Israelis perished, but 30 Palestinians were murdered. That was not a “clash,” as establishment media would have you believe; that was a mass shooting (FAIR.org, 5/1/18).
- Linguistic Gymnastics
AP: 2 Palestinians killed in separate episodes in latest West Bank violence
Who killed the two Palestinians? AP (8/4/23) structured its headline to conceal that information.
The passive voice—or, as William Schneider describes it, the “past exonerative” tense—is a grammatical construction that describes events without assigning responsibility. Such sentence structures pervade coverage of the Israeli occupation.
In her 2021 investigation into coverage of the first and second intifadas, Holly M. Jackson identified disproportionate use of the passive voice—i.e., “the man was bitten” rather than “the dog bit the man”—as one of the defining linguistic features of New York Times reporting on the uprisings. The Times used the passive voice to talk about Palestinians twice as often as it did Israelis, which demonstrated the paper’s “clear patterns of bias against Palestinians.”
- Newsworthy and Unnewsworthy Deaths
Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week military assault on Gaza in 2008, was carnage. According to Amnesty International and B’Tselem, the attack claimed 13 Israeli lives (four of which were killed by Israeli fire), while Palestine’s death toll was nearly 1,400—300 of which were children. Yet the media response was far from proportional.
In a 2010 study of New York Times coverage of Operation Cast Lead, Jonas Caballero found that the Times covered 431% of Israeli deaths—meaning each Israeli fatality was reported an average of four times—while reporting a mere 17% of Palestinian deaths. This means that Israeli deaths were covered at 25 times the rate Palestinian ones were.
- Sidelining International Law
Attempts to insulate Israel from condemnation also manifest themselves in establishment media’s reluctance to identify the country’s breaches of international law (FAIR.org, 12/8/17).
In Operation Cast Lead coverage, FAIR (Extra!, 2/09) noted that—despite the blatant illegality of Israel’s assaults on Palestine’s civilian infrastructure—international law was seldom newsworthy. By January 13, 2009, only two evening news programs (NBC Nightly News, 1/8/09, 1/11/09) had broached the legality of the Israeli military offensive. But, only one of those TV segments (Nightly News, 1/8/09) reprimanded Israel—the other (Nightly News, 1/11/09) defended the illegal use of white phosphorus, which was being deployed on refugee camps.
- Reversing Victim and Victimizer
As Gregory Shupak (FAIR.org, 5/18/21) wrote: “Only the Israeli side has ethnically cleansed and turned millions…into refugees by preventing [Palestinians] from exercising their right to return to their homes. Israel is the only side subjecting anyone to apartheid and military occupation.”
Nevertheless, US media enter into fantastical rationalizations to make the Israeli aggressor appear to be the victim. Blaming Palestinians for their suffering and dispossession has become one of the prime ways to accomplish this feat.
Coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine celebrates the efforts of Ukrainian resistance. With the anti-imperial Palestinian struggle, however, news media refuse to extend the same favor (FAIR.org, 7/6/23), thus creating a media landscape where certain groups are entitled to self-defense, and others are doomed to be the victims of “reprisal” attacks. It tells the world that…Palestinians living under apartheid have no right to react to the almost daily raids, growing illegal settlements and ballooning settler hostility.
Malcolm X once declared,“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” As stories about Israel/Palestine continue to bombard our screens and daily papers, readers and journalists alike need to remain aware of the pro-Israel pitfalls that pockmark establishment news coverage. Then maybe one day we can move towards a future where ChatGPT answers “yes” when users like Abusaada ask it whether Palestinians deserve to be free.