In normal times, it's said that only 5% of Americans eligible for
donating blood for emergency transfusion do so, and shortage of
blood plasma has been a persistent problem. But after the September
11 attacks, donations swelled the American blood supply to above
capacity by the next day. Many, like myself, wanted to give blood
but was refused permission due to health reasons (instead, I made
a cash donation to the Red Cross), and many others no doubt were
turned away after the capacity limit was reached. Blood donations
were given in sympathy across the US, and also across the world,
even though most blood donations could not possibly reach the disaster
areas in time to be of use. Donors gave blood because they wanted
to help practically, to have a sense of contact with the direct
victims, and also to relieve their own feeling of shocked helplessness.
But the act of giving blood is not only practical but is also highly
symbolic. What I look at here is how the media treatment of one
such symbolic image in relation to other.
A less material response that I, with many, was to seek out messages of
shock and sympathy from around the world, out of a need, perhaps, to feel
a global community. The major news networks did indeed start communicating such
messages, from every part of the world. But the first and most
talked of, most remembered, reports on international reactions was of an
extremely disturbing kind: TV footage of Palestinians - including
children - celebrating the attacks.
The scenes were particularly inflammatory, being broadcast as soon as on
the day of the attack itself. The implication was that the celebration was
the reaction of *all* Palestinians, and therefore symbolically, a
moral indictment of the Palestinian nation. This frequently repeated media
image, combined with gravity of the shock, meant that what was actually
happening in Palestine at that moment, was understandably not
given much care in the general US public's mind at this time. The gravity
of the loss of US life seemed to outweigh everything.
But the association of the attacks with the Middle East, and especially
the circulation of the controversial footage of Palestinians cheering,
also had the knock-on effect of putting the whole Palestinian cause in an
exceptionally bad position. Aside from their shared shock at events, the
formal, secular leadership, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, worried
that the influence of fundamentalist militants on its constituency, and that
world sympathy and coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict would
deteriorate, in the wake of the attacks.
One response from Yasser Arafat is to have, on the morning of the 12th,
made the desperate - at least apparently heart-felt - gesture of giving his
own blood to the US Embassy in Gaza, as well as bringing hundreds of his
chanting slogans supportive of the US, to give blood as well. In the recent
past, personal blood-giving on TV and encouraging public bloodgiving has been
one important way that some Arab leaders, such as King Abdullah II of Jordan,
have shown solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
Normally, I would have taken some kind of comfort from the media
distribution of such gestures, which seem to reaffirm an universal basic
desire for conciliation . But that night, something troubled me. It seemed
as if Arafat's gesture had almost totally failed to be be reported on by
the Western media, at least looking at the major news websites.
I first found the Arafat's blood story in a brief Associated Press news
article via a "wire feed" (where the stories are automatically transmitted
from a central press agency without editing by the subscribing site). But when
I used the search term, "Arafat blood", the CNN website came up with
nothing. The MSNBC site came up with nothing. The ABCNews site came up
with nothing. I rechecked the sites manually - still nothing. The main CNN
story on international messages of sympathy mentioned many major
countries, and some smaller ones, such as Macedonia, but no Palestinians.
The most widely visited news site - the BBC News - *did* come up with two
sentences in the lower half of a general report on international offers
of help, posted at just after 1pm Eastern US time that day. This BBC
report was the third story in the search results. The top story in the search
was a January 1998 report on a speech by Arafat warning that
Palestinians would be moved to "sacrifice blood", if the past promises of
the peace process were not respected by the then Israeli prime minister
Netanyahu. The second-rated story was a political analyst's report on
Israel/Palestine entitled "Peace Drowning in Blood", dated October, 2000.
At the time, I didn't know if Arafat's gesture had been covered by the TV
networks (though I'd already seen or heard about the "celebrating
Palestinians" footage numerous times on TV, as well through the print
media and word-of-mouth). I was worried and dismayed - why hadn't
this story been given more importance? Perhaps it had been overlooked,
or relegated due to the chaotic concentration on US events? But surely, if
the image of celebrating Palestinians had been so important from the first
day, and had naturally provoked much outrage, shouldn't Arafat's gesture
of giving blood - even if it were the case that it was purely "for show" -
been given more attention? The major TV and internet news channels were
already giving significant coverage to other international messages of
sympathy by the second day, but the important, symbolic gesture of
Palestinians giving blood in sympathy with the US seemed to me to have failed.
To my relief, reports and images of sympathetic Palestinians gradually
became widely circulated on the major media outlets by the third day. Some
reports about Arafat had appeared in a few newspapers on the second day.
But nonetheless, the more dramatic and circulated images of celebrating
Palestinians retained a much greater presence in the public mind. Two
people from New York I spoke to 5 days after the attacks, remembered
watching the inflammatory image, but not the conciliatory one. And
on the Friday night (Sept. 14th), I had watched how Fox TV News' voiceover
asking "But who shall the US attack?" overlapped with footage of somber
Palestinian children. A minor news story broke out about original CNN
filming of the cheering Palestinians - a Brazilian professor claimed that
it was old footage of Palestinians cheering the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait
in 1991. Many in the US responded to this criticism with outrage. CNN
rejected the accusation - and it was also later recanted by
its originators - and stated that the real scandal was the Palestinian
police and militia's concerted emergency suppression of the controversial
film footage and their reported threatening of media crews.
Meanwhile, away from this controversy over mass mediated images,
news coverage of Israel's expanding military operations against
the Palestinians - the subject of front page coverage and US condemnation
only a few days ago - had been marginalized as world attention focussed
on talk of US retaliation.
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