US media: whose side are they on?

American newspapers' confusion over how to 'get it right' on the Middle East reflects deeper confusions within the US government.

US media: whose side are they on?

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‘It is time to deliver a message to the New York Times‘, said US Rabbi Haskell Lookstein at the end of last year, ‘a way to let its editors and owners know we are upset and taking action’ (1).

Lookstein accused the New York Times of having a ‘persistent bias against Israel’ in its Middle Eastern coverage, claiming that its reporting on the Arab-Israeli conflict today is ‘just as deplorable as its coverage of the Holocaust was years ago’ (2). A ‘boycott should start immediately’, said Lookstein, calling on New York Jews to stop buying the Times, cancel their subscriptions, and send a ‘symbolic’ message to ‘irresponsible editors everywhere’ (3).

But on 12 April 2002, the US media group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) accused the New York Times of being consistently pro-Israel. ‘By its headline choice, the Times suggested that the deaths of 23 Israelis…are more important than the deaths of 100 Palestinians’, said FAIR, after analysing the paper’s Middle East headlines and finding that Israeli deaths were likely to get an A1 (big) headline, while Palestinian deaths tended to get a sub (not so big) headline (4).

Then on 6 May 2002, web periodical The Idler accused the New York Times of publishing ‘Palestinian propaganda’. ‘Reporting [has] focused heavily on Palestinian suffering while continually minimising the personal toll on Israelis’, said The Idler, claiming that ‘the number and prominence of news stories and photographs regularly cast Palestinians as blameless victims of Israeli aggression.’ (5)

But in April 2002, one US commentator accused the New York Times of being a propaganda machine for Israel. ‘In a time of crisis, [Ariel] Sharon has chosen an unusual way to communicate with the USA…. He uses New York Times columnist and ideological soulmate William Safire as a press secretary’, wrote the Boston Globe media correspondent, accusing Safire of ‘serving as an unabashed propaganda outlet for the hardline Israeli leader’ (6).

It isn’t only the New York Times that is facing clashing accusations of being both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. ‘1000 Los Angeles Times readers have launched a one-day boycott of the US newspaper, accusing it of being biased against Israel’, reported BBC Online on 18 April 2002 (7). ‘There’s a feeling in the community that the [LA] Times has been one-sided and biased in its reporting about the Middle East’, said a Los Angeles-based doctor. ‘And people in the Jewish community want to express their anger.’ (8)

Yet a study of LA Times coverage of the Palestinian intifada published last year by the US-based group Palestine Media Watch (PMW) claimed to find ‘a marked imbalance in favour of Israel and against the Palestinians’ (9). PMW studied LA Times op-ed columns on the Middle East and discovered that 55 percent of them were pro-Israeli and only 20 percent pro-Palestinian (the rest were ‘balanced’) – with PMW claiming that the LA Times ‘permit[s] pro-Israel columnists to use language and arguments that can properly be charaterised as extreme’ (10).

On 5 May 2002, the American Jewish Committee said that while the Washington Post’s Middle Eastern coverage had ‘gotten better with time’, some of its past reporting has been ‘bad beyond belief. There was simply no effort whatsoever to use Israeli sources, balance Palestinian narratives with Israeli perspectives, or even check the validity of certain reports’ (11).

But in the same week, another media group claimed, ‘[T]here is no question whatsoever that the Washington Post’s editorial position has always been anti-Palestinian, and the Post’s op-ed page has been an echo chamber of anti-Palestinian views with minimal effort to show the other side of the story’ (12).

What’s going on? Are America’s leading papers propaganda outlets for hardline Israelis – or for Palestinian suicide bombers? Some argue that the complaints are just a case of old-fashioned lobbying, with different groups trying to get a leg-up in the propaganda stakes. According to one US journalist, American coverage is ‘as balanced as it has ever been’, but different ‘political interests’ are now picking holes because ‘what they consider to be the truth, their truth, is not being told as loudly as they would like’. No doubt there is some truth in that – but the US media’s muddle over the Middle East tells us something more about the USA’s changing relationship to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The fact that some American-Israeli groups have been reduced to complaining about the words and images used in US newspapers captures their increasing isolation from foreign policy circles in Washington. The USA is no longer the all-out supporter of Israel and Israeli interests it once was.

During the Cold War, the USA backed Israel financially, militarily and politically, seeing it as its policeman in the Middle East, protecting Western interests against the threat of Soviet-backed Arab nationalism.

But in recent years, US administrations have moved away from such stalwart support – as reflected in President Bush’s ‘historic statement’ of 4 April 2002. ‘Israeli settlement activity in occupied territories must stop, and the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognised boundaries’, said Bush – while also stressing US support for ‘the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people for a Palestinian state…living side by side in peace and security’ (13) (see Why the West is turning on Israel, by Mick Hume).

These recent shifts in American policy on the Middle East have impacted on Israeli groups within America. Where once such groups were confident they had the ear of Washington’s foreign policy men, they’re now more likely to organise protests and rallies to ‘send a message’ to Washington’s foreign policy men. ‘They aren’t listening to us’, complained one pro-Israeli demonstrator at a rally in Washington in April 2002, ‘so we’re going to have to shout pretty loud’.

Increasingly isolated from the corridors of powers, American-Israeli groups have focused on the US media’s coverage of the Middle East instead – making ever-more pedantic and petty complaints about the tone of the reporting. On 28 April 2002, some pro-Israeli activists complained about the use of the word ‘bold’ to describe Palestinian attacks, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle: ‘A headline on 28 April referred to the Palestinians “bold attack on Israelis”, drawing ire from those who saw “bold” as a positive depiction.’ (14)

Some pro-Israeli activists have written to newspaper editors to complain that using words like ‘bold’, ‘audacious’ and ‘daring’ to describe Palestinian guerrilla attacks on Israel grants the attacks a legitimacy ‘they do not deserve’.

Other pro-Israeli groups have complained that their rallies haven’t received enough coverage. As one reporter said: ‘[Newspapers’] failure to cover rallies provoked reactions. In New York, a 21 April prayer vigil attracted what the New York Post reported was an estimated 50,000 Jews, but the New York Times did not cover it. Likewise, the Los Angeles Times did not cover a rally in its home city on 6 April, inciting further protest.’ (15)

Even when pro-Israeli rallies do get covered, the complaints fly in. On 6 May 2002, the New York Times reported on a Manhattan parade marking Israel’s fifty-fourth anniversary, which was attended by 100,000 pro-Israel supporters – and a few hundred anti-Israel protesters. The New York Times was bombarded with complaints after its frontpage photo of the parade showed ‘the parade in the background, with anti-Israel protesters prominent in the foreground, holding a placard that read “End Israeli occupation of Palestine”’ (16). ‘Even when we are out in our tens of thousands, it’s all Palestine, Palestine, Palestine’, complained one of the pro-Israel supporters who had attended the parade.

Some on the American left and within media circles claim that the US media is as pro-Israel as it always was. David Demers of the Center for Global Media Studies at Washington State University says we can ‘generally conclude that the media coverage tends to favour Israel over Palestine’. ‘It’s not a conspiracy by any means’, says Demers, ‘but what it boils down to is [the media] depend on government officials. And these government officials represent the administration, which tends to be pro-Israel.’ (17)

But things seem to be changing – and when even the conservative bulwark that is the New York Times is accused of pro-Palestinian bias, you know that today’s American media coverage no longer fits into the old pattern of pro-Israeli administration/pro-Israeli media. The fuss over the media coverage, largely generated by complaints and campaigns by American-Israeli pressure groups, captures the pro-Israel camp’s increasing isolation in America’s shifting Middle Eastern policy – where those who might once have considered themselves influential are reduced to complaining about journalists’ choice of words and pictures.

The media’s reaction to the complaints is also instructive. Some leading US editors and correspondents have defended their papers against accusations of bias, claiming to be ‘evenhanded’ and ‘fair’ – but much of the media seems to have been hypersensitive to the accusations. When the New York Times was attacked for publishing the photo of the Manhattan parade which put anti-Israel protesters at the forefront and pro-Israel demonstrators in the background, it issued, not an apology, but a correction. ‘Although the editors’ intent…was to note the presence of opposing sides’, said the correction, ‘the effect was disproportionate. In fairness, the total picture presentation should have better reflected the Times’ reporting on the scope of the event.’ (18)

When the San Francisco Chronicle was criticised by pro-Israeli groups for its alleged anti-Israel bias, its executive editor responded: ‘We’re fallible – absolutely fallible. We make mistakes’ – adding, ‘but it does not equate to bias’ (19). Other newspapers, like the Arizona Daily Star, are planning ‘public panels’, to allow readers and other interested parties to ‘review their Middle East coverage’ and to give advice on how to report sensitive events (20) – while one US journalist says, ‘People should realise how difficult this is for us – reporting on such a divisive issue. It can be confusing, and hard to get right all of the time’.

Both those who complain that the US media is blindly pro-Israel and those who say it is blindly pro-Palestine seem to have got it wrong. Rather, the US media’s coverage of the Middle East since the start of 2002 seems to have been tempered with uncertainty and confusion – not quite sure how to present events and ever-sensitive to complaints from both sides about ‘getting it wrong’. And this, too, is a snapshot of America’s changing approach to the Middle East – where the pro-Israel stance of the past has not been replaced by a pro-Palestine stance or anything resembling a coherent strategy, but by confusion and a lack of direction.

As the London Times reported at the end of April 2002, in America Bush’s changing policy on the Middle East ‘has drawn accusations that [the Bush administration] fell into its new role by accident rather than design, and that its foreign policy is confused and inconsistent’ (21). In an article headlined ‘Policy changes and splits inside administration add to confusion’, the UK Guardian reported that since Bush got re-involved in the Middle East in April 2002, there has been ‘little to clarify [America’s] policy…adrift among disagreements within the administration and a general reluctance to get more deeply involved’ (22).

With America’s leaders scrabbling around for a policy on the Middle East, it isn’t surprising that the US media seems more confused about how to report the Arab-Israeli conflict without upsetting either side.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

How hardline is Israel?, by Brendan O’Neill

Why the West is turning on Israel, by Mick Hume

(1) Boycott of the Times, NYCLawyers, September 2001

(2) Boycott of the Times, NYCLawyers, September 2001

(3) Boycott of the Times, NYCLawyers, September 2001

(4) Palestinian deaths aren’t headline material at New York Times, FAIR, 12 April 2002

(5) Palestinian terrorist propaganda in the New York Times: a case study, The Idler, 6 May 2002

(6) See For Bush, so many demands, so little time, Washington Post, 11 April 2002

(7) Readers boycott ‘biased’, LA Times, BBC News, 18 April 2002

(8) Readers boycott ‘biased’, LA Times, BBC News, 18 April 2002

(9) Report on Middle East opinion articles published in the Los Angeles Times, Palestine Media Watch, February 2001

(10) Report on Middle East opinion articles published in the Los Angeles Times, Palestine Media Watch, February 2001

(11) Caught in the crossfire, Washington Post, 5 May 2002

(12) Flagrant anti-Palestinian editorial line at the Washington Post, Palestine Media Watch, May 2002

(13) Bush’s statement on the Middle East, New York Times, 4 April 2002

(14) Jewish groups battle media over perceived bias, San Francisco Chronicle, 2 May 2002

(15) Jewish groups battle media over perceived bias, San Francisco Chronicle, 2 May 2002

(16) See Corrections, New York Times, 7 May 2002

(17) US newspapers catching flak for MidEast war coverage, San Francisco Chronicle, 14 April 2002

(18) See Corrections, New York Times, 7 May 2002

(19) Jewish groups battle media over perceived bias, San Francisco Chronicle, 2 May 2002

(20) US newspapers catching flak for MidEast war coverage, San Francisco Chronicle, 14 April 2002

(21) ‘Bush doctrine confused by barrage of mixed messages’, The Times (London), 30 April 2002

(22) Policy changes and splits inside administration add to confusion, Guardian, 9 May 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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