The Silence and the Noise

From a story on by Jon Allsop headlined “The silence and the noise”:

Late Friday, Gaza was plunged into darkness. Phone and internet lines went down across the territory, stopping the outside world from communicating with its residents and its residents with one another. As Israeli bombs rained down, emergency workers located casualties by following the sounds of explosions.

Anonymous US officials told the media that they believed Israel had shut off communications in Gaza, and claimed that they urged their Israeli counterparts to restore them. Publicly, various international observers did likewise. “A communications blackout,” the Committee to Protect Journalists pointed out, is also “a news blackout.”

Following the developments from afar, one got the sense that something particularly significant was happening, though it was maddeningly hard to know exactly what. (Israel said over the weekend that it is “gradually expanding” the presence of its forces on the ground in Gaza; as of this morning, they appeared to be moving to encircle Gaza City.) This sensation, of course, has recurred repeatedly since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7.

The apogee of uncertainty, at least prior to the weekend, came two weeks ago, when a blast hit a hospital in Gaza. Hamas-run authorities in the territory were quick to blame Israel and major international news organizations picked up on the claim, but Israel later attributed responsibility to a botched rocket launch from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group allied with Hamas, and US officials, as well as numerous independent observers, concluded that the latter hypothesis seemed more likely.

Still, the evidence continues to be analyzed and contested. And the fallout hasn’t stopped. Over the weekend, the journalist David Zweig published an investigation on Substack making the case that early reports putting the death toll from the blast at five hundred, citing Hamas officials, may have been based on a mistranslation—in other words, on something Hamas never said.

What we can say with certainty is that several major outlets were too quick to promote Hamas’s claims about the blast and too credulous in the way they presented them. Some of those outlets have since apologized (or sort of apologized) for their framing; many others have not (and also, per Zweig, refused to meaningfully engage with his efforts to trace the sourcing for the death toll from the blast). Observers have pinned the flawed coverage of the blast on everything from anti-Israel bias to the chasing of clicks; on the BuzzFeedification of media and its CNNification.

If this failure and numerous outlets’ public silence around it reflected poorly on the media—and absolutely deserved scrutiny and criticism—I increasingly think that the amount of noise it generated wasn’t a great reflection either, or at the very least, wasn’t always helpful; among other things, discussion of the episode has dwarfed that around any number of other devastating incidents, including Israeli strikes on Gaza, whose facts are not in dispute.

Indeed, beyond the hospital blast in isolation, my overwhelming takeaway from following the coverage of, and discussion around, these three weeks of war has been how noisy it has been, in both the “loudness” and “interference” senses of the term. The noise has not only complicated our ability to hear clear signals from the ground; it has often become the story. As Ezra Klein put it in a moving and measured audio essay for the New York Times, about his experience of following the aftermath of the initial Hamas attack online, “it was striking to see how fast we were turning on each other, how we became obsessed not with what should actually be done or even what was actually being done, but with what was and could be said and by whom.”

This has quite literally been true within the media industry itself. Last week, Artforum fired its top editor, David Velasco, over his decision to publish an open letter, signed by thousands of art-world figures (including Velasco himself), calling for “Palestinian liberation” and an end to “institutional silence” around the humanitarian crisis in Gaza; following a backlash, the magazine’s publishers said that the letter, which did not initially acknowledge Hamas’s massacre of Israeli civilians but was later amended to do so, and the manner of its publication were “not consistent with Artforum’s editorial process.”

Velasco said he was “disappointed that a magazine that has always stood for freedom of speech and the voices of artists has bent to outside pressure”; several of his colleagues have resigned in protest of his firing. Separately, Michael Eisen, the editor of a scientific journal called eLife, was fired after sharing a post from The Onion that used satire to draw attention to civilian deaths in Gaza, while, according to The Intercept, a junior staffer at the German media giant Axel Springer (which also owns Politico and Insider in the US) was fired for internally questioning the company’s explicitly pro-Israel stance.

If these firings are examples of the noise becoming the story, I certainly don’t mean to dismiss them as unimportant. Speech, clearly, is the lifeblood of the media industry, and who gets to say what within its cultural confines is a matter of permanent relevance to all our livelihoods, as well as one of endless contestation. And speech is always crucial to elucidating and questioning what is being done, and by whom. (Of course, curbing speech is itself an action.) With so many lives at stake, the media industry as a whole needs to ensure and respect the conditions of genuinely broad and open debate—publicly, but at the very, very least within newsrooms, where our coverage first takes shape.

When I talk about “noise,” I also don’t mean to damn the totality of the coverage of the war so far. Media criticism is always subjective and vulnerable to overgeneralization, and this is particularly true when a story takes on wall-to-wall prominence; since October 7, I’ve seen a great deal of solid factual journalism, insightful analysis, and forceful opinionating. I certainly can’t endorse the idea—which I’ve heard from people on both “sides” of the conflict, for want of a much, much better word—that the coverage as a whole has totally privileged one perspective or only valued one set of lives, even if some of it has done so.

And yet there are some general incentives and pressures that shape the totality of how we experience a major story. It is these that have created what I mean by noise: the overwhelming of good information and analysis by—or at least its muddying with—bad information, manipulation, and an avalanche of takes.

Since October 7, social media barons (particularly Elon Musk) have taken much of the blame for this state of affairs, including in these pages: for taking platforms that were once essential during big breaking-news events (particularly Twitter) and allowing attention-seeking grifters to overrun them with spam and hate speech.

This is fair enough. But as Zweig and others have noted, it isn’t the full story. To the extent that I, personally, have had a hard time following this conflict through Twitter, it hasn’t been because my timeline has been flooded with rogue blue-tick accounts sharing out-of-date photos, but because helpful information has been wrestling there with the reflexive outrage of traditional media types whose views I typically want to follow. If this is a problem with social media, it is not a new one—and must be a problem with old media, too.

As the media reporter Brian Stelter once put it, the news media, like nature, abhors a vacuum. In one sense, the instinct to fill in gaps, tell stories, and minimize uncertainty is admirable and core to the journalistic spirit. But when good information isn’t available—or isn’t available right away—the vacuum must be filled with something. With this story in particular, the noise has rushed in, and the earliest or loudest noise has often risen to the top.

This isn’t only a problem because the earliest and loudest noise is often unreliable or misguided. Just as an overabundance of junk information has been described as a form of censorship—because it drowns out or undermines the credibility of accurate information—so, too, can noise abet silence.

This is particularly true when those whose voices we need to hear are rendered inaudible in the first place, as happened over the weekend with Israel’s apparent shuttering of communication lines in Gaza. By yesterday, internet and phone access in the territory had, at least partially, been restored, and outside journalists were finally able to check back in with their colleagues or contacts on the ground. Up to that point, doing so had been all but impossible, though a few messages did get through. The Washington Post was able to connect with Abdul Raouf Shaath, a photojournalist. He responded that Gaza was being “removed from the noise of the world.”

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today.

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