Saturday, January 11, 2014

Hawk in a Dove-Suit

Ariel Sharon, former Israeli general and Prime Minister, died today after. I followed Sharon obsessively for an intense 18 month period while filming a documentary on Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. I feel like I got to understand the man quite well. I often felt that Sharon looked a lot more comfortable in a military uniform than in a suit and tie, which makes sense considering that he fought in every single war in Israel’s short history.

It is Sharon’s last major act, as Prime Minister, that is the most fascinating, and most misunderstood of them all. Sharon’s unilateral initiative to withdraw from the Jewish settlements he helped pioneer in Gaza was not a political one-eighty as most pundits like to believe, but I believe, a tactical maneuver to intentionally delay peace talks and solidify Israel’s power over the Palestinians. 

While I can’t prove this theory to be true, it seems like a likely possibility to me. Here’s why: 

Sharon knew Gaza better than any Israeli. Leading up to the pullout, Hamas was the most powerful and popular organization in Gaza by a long shot. Street signs in Gaza City before the pullout were covered in Hamas propaganda posters depicting Jewish settlers running away from Hamas’ Qassam Martyrs Brigade. Hamas rallies attracted hundreds of thousands, turning the streets of Khan Yunis and Gaza City into seas of green. Sharon had to know that if Israel pulled out unilaterally it would quickly fall into the hands of Hamas. To believe otherwise, in my opinion, just does not jive with his intelligence or understanding of Gaza. The vast majority of Israeli intelligence officers and most vocally, current Prime Minister Netanyahu predicted this exact scenario before the pullout. And they were completely correct. It didn’t take long for Hamas to fill the Detroit-sized vacuum left by the IDF when it pulled its last soldier out of Gaza and shut the gates. 

With Hamas’ bitter rival Fatah firmly in control of the West Bank, I see the Gaza pullout as a classic “divide and rule” maneuver. Sharon pulled out of Gaza to ensure that the Palestinians would remain divided, and thus unable to field a negotiating team that would represent all their interests. This allowed, and continues to allow, Israel the ability to focus on growing settler populations in the West Bank and Jerusalem, where they know the demographic battle is not a lost cause, as it was in Gaza. If Sharon wanted to accelerate peace talks, he would have coordinated a bilateral withdrawal with Fatah, bolstering their power in Gaza. But instead, he made a unilateral move that delayed peace talks, allowed Israel to consolidate power where it mattered (West Bank and Jerusalem Corridor), and increased Israel’s leverage in case the Palestinians should ever form a united political coalition. 
Sharon’s pullout from Gaza was not a step towards peace or political moderation, but a brilliant, chess-like maneuver that would make Sun Tzu proud. His last great act was to fool the world into thinking that a hawk could turn into a dove. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Building a News Meritocracy

An adapted version of this appeared on the website of Ambulante, Mexico's largest traveling film festival.

 There has never been a better time to be a documentary filmmaker or video journalist. Thanks to the web, documentaries are now reaching more people than ever. The tools and training have become affordable and ubiquitous. Online video journalism is actually a GROWING sector in the news business. As a result, there are more freelance non-fiction videomakers than ever.

 What’s exciting about the web is how different it is than anything that has come before it. It is not a one dimensional content pipeline like television or newspapers, but a flexible, programmable medium only limited by human imagination. It is capable of transforming documentary from a linear, one-way experience to a much more immersive, interactive one. I believe that in the next decade, the web will lead to more innovation in documentary production and distribution than ever before.

But with these new opportunities come new challenges. The news business that was disrupted by the Web a decade ago, has not yet been redeemed by it. Lots of big media companies are still scaling back their global news gathering operations, letting go some of their most talented reporters, often replacing them with pundits or news aggregation services. How do we pick up the pieces and cover the world in a sustainable way when business models have been broken? How do we, as video journalists and documentarians, make money doing this crucial work? How do we prevent the same media monoliths who control the airwaves from controlling broadband as well? In many ways we are starting from scratch, with difficult questions that have yet to be answered.

In the past decade, we have seen that the democratization of media doesn’t yield the highest quality results, or a winning business model. It’s sort of like a football team where everyone is allowed to play. In all likelihood, this football team will not win a single match. Similarly, user-generated content and citizen journalism experiments have failed to attract viewers in a sustainable way, and thus, advertisers. This idealistic experiment has led to lower standards, and even less trust in media. Tailoring media coverage for social, viral engagement will just lead to similarly low standards. The rise of aggregators is ushering in the tabloidization of the internet. If news consumers don’t fix their unhealthy viewing habits online, we will witness a great decay of the intellectual and moral fiber of our society. In today’s world, we are what we click.

The best way to ensure our collective future in news is to build a meritocracy based on quality, credible video journalism for the web. More and more people, especially in emerging countries, now have the ability and equipment to make documentaries. But with the vast quantities of content now being produced, it becomes even more essential to figure out which are the most valuable stories to the largest number of viewers. There are several possible approaches, but we believe in a proactive one; providing the tools, guidance, and editorial support to train people how to make high quality journalism. At the end of the day, this meritocracy serves everyone’s best interests. Filmmakers improve their craft and make a living. Media companies regain trust and audiences. Most importantly, the highest quality stories that serve the public interest get to see the light of day.