On Saturday, May 15, Jawad Mahdi — the owner of the 11-story al-Jalaa tower in Gaza City that was home to residential apartments and the offices of Al Jazeera and the Associated Press — pleaded with an Israeli intelligence officer for more time.
Less than an hour earlier, Mahdi and others in the building had been notified by the Israeli army of the military’s intention to bomb the building.
The army claimed it housed “military interests of the Hamas intelligence,” Al Jazeera would later report, a line typically used after buildings are bombed in Gaza. (The outlet would also report that the military’s claims were not backed up by any evidence.)
“All I’m asking is to let four people … to go inside and get their cameras,” Mahdi told the officer. “We respect your wishes, we will not do it if you don’t allow it, but give us 10 minutes.”
“There will be no 10 minutes,” the intelligence officer told Mahdi, who then replied: “You have destroyed our life’s work, memories, life. I will hang up, do what you want. There is a God.”
Mahdi’s comment is both fatalistic and defeated, but also hopeful and optimistic. Mahdi’s energy is spent, but his reserve is not depleted. The army may have obliterated his life’s work and artifacts of collective memory, but not his faith.
Recently, while thinking about the state of journalism, I’ve found myself feeling the mixed emotions Mahdi so vividly articulated over the phone in Gaza. On the one hand, I’m resigned to a reality that’s pretty hard to deny.
The al-Jalaa tower is, in some meaningful ways, a fitting metaphor for the state of local news in America.
When asked in 2019 about the future of local newspapers, billionaire and famed investor Warren Buffett said frankly: “They’re going to disappear.” Unfortunately, that’s how things seem to be trending.
A study in the Newspaper Research Journal showed that from 2004 to 2015, the country lost over 1,800 print outlets — each shuttered newspaper like a patch of brick wall holding up the al-Jalaa tower. Since then, more debris has fallen (and recently in Chicago, as Alden Global Capital aims its weapons of value destruction at the Tribune, we’ve gotten used to looking over our heads, so to speak).
For a country, newspapers in particular (the first drafts of history) and journalism in general are like neurons in the brain of a person. When she loses newspapers and journalists, a country also loses her ability to remember who she is, which is essential to forging the country she wants to be in the future. This amnesia plays right into the hands of authoritarians like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In Race, Media and the Crisis of Civil Society, his penetrating book published in 2000, sociologist Ronald Jacobs, referencing the philosopher Jurgen Habermas, explains that “the principle of open public discussion came to replace that of parliamentary secrecy” in the West due to the development of the public sphere: “the sphere of private people come together as a public, who claimed the space of public discourse from state regulation, and demanded that the state engage them in debate about matters of political legitimacy and common concern.”
After Habermas, Jacobs said, scholars questioned the validity of a single public sphere, arguing that civil society actually comprises multiple public spheres “oriented just as often to cultural issues as to political ones.” Of course, in our age of hyper-fragmentation (of Fox News and Facebook), this point is no longer up for debate.
However ancient, the conversation is still instructive. I found Jacobs’ analysis of the 1991 beating of Rodney King particularly useful as a tool for looking at crises like the al-Jalaa tower bombing beyond the lens of crisis journalism.
Jacobs explains that in 1991, most mainstream media outlets like the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and TV news outlets like ABC News “represented the beating as a ‘shocking’ event, criticized the police officers for using their powers illegitimately, and described them as being irrational and excitable in their works.”
The heroes in this mainstream media framework were good cops and politicians and well-known advocacy groups working against the uniformed villains seen in the grainy, black-and-white footage pounding Rodney King to a pulp. In this narrative, King himself is not worthy of much sympathy, his human suffering rendered invisible, overshadowed by the much greater emphasis white media placed on his alleged drug use and criminality.
It took Black newspapers like the Los Angeles Sentinel, the Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News to make Black agency and the Black community in LA central to the story and to provide a counter-narrative (an alternative public sphere, if you will) to the one provided by the mainstream white press.
“News reports in the Los Angeles Sentinel juxtaposed the outrage over and collective attention to the Rodney King beating with the relative lack of attention concerning another beating case whose trial had begun on the same day,” Jacobs writes.
“The trial stemmed from the Don Jackson case, a 1989 event where two Long Beach police officers were captured on videotape pushing an off-duty, African-American police officer through a plate-glass window.”
By recalling these other instances of police brutality, the Black newspapers “placed the event of the [Rodney King] beating in the middle of a long and continuous narrative, rather than at the beginning of a new one.”
For these much smaller and often overlooked outlets that were nonetheless critical platforms in their respective communities, it was important to show in their reporting that King’s beating wasn’t a unique emergency or one-off crisis, but consistent with hundreds of years of struggle that “had been largely ignored by the mainstream media and white society.” Call it a long crisis.
As with the 1991 beating of Rodney King, the current crisis in Gaza has to be understood within the context of deep history and of a larger struggle that has often been ignored or distorted by Western media. The bombings are nothing new and neither is the unjust false equivalency in the media between the harm done by the Israeli government and that done by the Palestinian forces.
AP and Al Jazeera are important, but we also need to think about the local journalism that may be threatened by the bombs — particularly the journalism told by reporters who aren’t just “embedded” in Gaza and Israel, but who live and have roots there. They are the Defenders and Sentinels of this particular moment. And I’m embarrassed that I can’t name a single one.
Despite my fatalism, I am still somewhat hopeful and optimistic about the state of local journalism much closer to home.
On May 5, I listened to Illinois Senate President Don Harmon give some remarks during the Illinois Press Association’s annual convention, which this year took place virtually.
When he was younger, Harmon said, he delivered copies of the Chicago Daily News in Oak Park and was a sports reporter for his college newspaper, the Knox Student. Those experiences in local journalism stayed with him and helped shape his identity, Harmon said, adding that he’s been subscribed to Wednesday Journal “for as long as I can remember; my mom always had it delivered and I certainly have kept a subscription.”
And then Harmon spoke about the overwhelming, bipartisan support that SB 0134 has received in both the House and the Senate. The bill, which would create a Local Journalism Task Force designed to propose possible solutions to the many existential problems confronting journalism in Illinois, was introduced by Sen. Steve Stadelman, himself a former journalist.
Sen. Jacqueline Collins, the bill’s co-sponsor in the Senate, and Rep. Dave Vella, the bill’s sponsor in the House, are also all former journalists.
The task force will include representatives from a variety of institutions — journalism schools and trade associations like the IPA.
When I learned of it several weeks ago, I realized that this task force, as it was composed, wasn’t representative of the many diverse media outlets that are owned by Black and Brown people and/or outlets that serve Black and Brown communities.
Any entity analyzing local journalism needs to hear these voices or risk perpetuating the kind of media that has historically ignored Black and Brown suffering, and that prompted Malcolm X to offer this word of caution: “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.”
To their credit, Stadelman, Collins and Vella all took my phone calls, listened attentively to my concerns and vowed to ensure that the task force will be open to a diversity of perspectives and viewpoints.
The process of engaging with these politicians gave me another reason to be optimistic about the future of journalism and, by extension, democracy. It turns out, not all of our elected officials are aspiring authoritarians.
America, as Robert McChesney and John Nichols once wrote, was “called into being by a journalist” named Tom Paine. The current efforts of journalists (and former journalists) are what will save her.