‘Atlantic’ writer ‘chickened out’ when it came time to write about Gaza (and what this says about journalism)

Ever come across a headline that does more than just demand your attention, one that fries your mind while you wonder why the headline even exists? I was scrolling through Mondoweiss’ home page when I saw this: ‘Atlantic’ writer admits she knocked Joe Sacco’s Gaza book out of deserved place on top-10 list out of fear of ‘polarizing’. Author Philip Weiss accurately describes it as “disturbing”.

Kirstin Butler, a Massachusetts-based writer, contributed to The Atlantic a round-up of what she sees as the ten greatest nonfiction comic books dealing with the “best elements of art, journalism, and scholarship”. One retells the story of Louisiana residents facing Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Another follows a photographer in 1986 war-torn Afghanistan. But to one commenter, the list of journalism-comic hybirds didn’t seem complete.

“This is a pretty good list, with a few that I was unfamiliar with and now would like to check out…but while I hate to sound like one of those fans, I’m amazed there’s no work by Joe Sacco here. He’s got to start every list of comic nonfiction.”

This individual was the article’s first commenter. The second person to comment agreed fully. Butler replied with the following:

“You guys are right–I almost included Footnotes in Gaza but chickened out at the last moment because the topic is so polarizing. I was already expecting heat from rank-and-file fanboys/girls about the overall list and didn’t want to brave the Palestine question as well.

“But as designer Stefan Sagmeister once said to an editor who asked him to tone down an illustration, this work is graphic, and that’s precisely its purpose. Should I write another roundup, Sacco won’t be missing from it.”

Journalism is oftentimes romanticized as a courageous endeavor meant to expose corporate fraud, government crime, institutionalized oppression, and, of course, the news and the truth without separation. Now, however, the ‘art’ of journalism is too mired with bureaucracy and political agendas to even bother upholding the values of honest and objective reportage and Butler’s article is an excellent (and distressing) example of today’s poor journalism standards.

Censorship in the media is a problem as it is, but self-censorship is much more worrisome. Butler “didn’t want to brave the Palestine question” so she decided to forego acknowledging Sacco’s work on the reality of a besieged Gaza Strip. Why did she “chicken out”? Was she afraid of “pundits” and bigshots labeling her as an anti-Semite?

This might be a reason to practice caution but it is not good enough to justify the abandonment of completeness and, thus, honesty. If Butler included Sacco’s work on Palestine, she would have simply brought more attention to an increasingly-critical situation. There’s nothing anti-Semitic to it.

Or maybe Butler was afraid she might lose her position at The Atlantic.

The fact that this is a reasonable concern is particularly offensive. Different agencies circulate memos about which words to avoid using in written or spoken pieces. BBC, for example, recently cut the word “Palestine” from a script and, on another occasion, masked the phrase “free Palestine” with a sound effect during a freestyle by Mic Righteous on BBC Radio 1Xtra. Mainstream media is undeniably restricted by certain social and political agendas and is both knowingly and unknowingly used as a tool to promote said agendas. Unfortunately, things that are deemed too controversial or lean too far over the boundaries set forth by these agendas jeopardize a journalist’s career and are quite literally torn to shreds.

So in a sense, this concern says more about news agencies than about Butler herself. But just like a doctor is bound to an oath requiring unbiased medical treatment for all individuals, a journalist is bound by an oath to properly, objectively, and honestly report. If a hospital prevented its doctors from treating patients from Latin America, for example, the institution would face pressure, criticism, and various other corrective measures until the policy is dropped. The physicians would also face the consequences of breaking their oaths. Similarly, if a news agency encourages writers to avoid the sticky Palestine-Israel situation or to flatly avoid “the Palestine question”, as Butler phrases it, both the agency and the associated writers should by all means face the same pressure, criticism, and corrective measures for spitting on the ethics of journalism.

Still, any concern over her career is, for lack of a better term, stupid. If Butler faced so much bullying and pressure for mentioning the word “Gaza” that The Atlantic felt compelled to terminate its relations with her, I can guarantee you her worth as an author would only elevate after winning the inevitable lawsuit against The Atlantic and going on to be recognized as the lone individual who conscientiously stood against the corporate and political agendas dominating the media’s airwaves. But this is dramatized. The worst that could happen is having to read a comment that goes something like:

“u ar a lozer,,,,u dummby dont u no pakstininans dont evn exist looool!11!! u r soooo dumb lool n hammas occupies isreal duh . sacco smh”

But she shouldn’t be let off the hook. Butler’s ability to simply hide from view anything that isn’t completely in favor of Israel indicates her complicity in the continuation of an unjust occupation even if it was just a semi-conscious decision. Hiding the reality of Gaza is a passive defense of Israel’s bombardment of Gazan families, Gazan homes, and an already struggling Gazan infrastructure. Butler reveals that she is not suited to face the facts and is either unable or unwilling to simply present them as is.

And frankly, being intimidated by “the Palestine question” is not an excuse. There is no question. Sacco’s nonfiction graphic account of Gaza puts the occupation and its attached injustices out on display for all to see, for all to know. And now Butler knows. This kind of journalism is shameful.

Sami Kishawi

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