Friday, April 12, 2002

Why the Media Are Hostile to Israel – Or Are They?

Ordinarily quite sane people have taken to talking back to their television sets, even wanting to throw things at the tubes, so provoked are they by what they perceive as intense media hostility toward Israel. Suicide bombers and Arab terrorism cause pain and a bad case of nerves. The Peter Jennings of broadcast journalism get the blood boiling. Nearly every Jew I know believes that there is media bias against Israel.

There is plenty of evidence to back them up. For years, Jews who have found themselves in hotel rooms around the world have been stunned by the one-sidedness and distortions of BBC and CNN. You need not travel afar to get the anti-Israel line featured in the Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, Los Angeles Times and other newspapers whose reporters and editorialists have long made Israel-bashing into a regular pastime.

Of course, their commentary is far more benign than what passes for journalism in many dozens of newspapers around the globe.

As for the daily that we Jews literally clutch to our bosom, the best that can be said is that the Times suffers from a bad case of moral equivalency. Editorials resemble an exercise in daisy-plucking: one day of support followed by one day of criticism.

If you look at the total media picture and not just at our enemies list, there’s more to the story. Israel has the Wall Street Journal in its corner, talk radio is chock full of Israelphiles and there are friendly television commentators. For all of its problematic record regarding Israel and certainly other things Jewish, it is relevant that for many years the Times’ op ed page harbored both A.M. Rosenthal and William Safire. Could it be that we are super-sensitive, that we have a too highly developed talent for picking out the unfriendly face in the crowd?

This is a legitimate question and is also a tough one because there is a significant imbalance in how we and the media approach Israel. For the media, the Middle East story is important and yet just another issue on the agenda of public affairs, something that is covered when there is news. Subjectivity enters into how events are reported and, of course, editorial opinion, but the same can be said of nearly all other issues.

For Jews – at least most of us – Israel is not an issue. It is our essence, our body and soul. It is our today and yesterday and tomorrow all enveloped in emotions that transcend the ordinary processes of judgment. We are not obligated to be objective and probably we have no right to be. But we ought to understand that because the media do not share our history or our feelings or our pain, they are not obligated to look at Israel the way we do.

Our interaction with the media is at cross purposes in a second way. Our view of fairness toward Israel emphatically includes a moral factor, the reckoning of such elements as Israel being a democracy and its neighbors being anything but, Islamic fundamentalism and violence, Arab terrorism and the acceptance and promotion of anti-Semitism throughout the Arab world.

The media’s approach to fairness is expressed by what is known as the fairness doctrine, which is the simple obligation to avoid moral judgment and to give each side an approximately equal opportunity to be heard. This inevitably leads to moral equivalency, which is what the Times indulged in when a front-page story juxtaposed a Palestinian girl who was a suicide bomber with an Israeli girl who she murdered. The newspaper was being “fair” and morally equivalent.

In fact, in the recent period major newspapers and newscasts seem to have discarded any sense of even-handedness, any obligation to abide by an attenuated concept of fairness. A content analysis of stories and pictures and op ed space allocation would demonstrate that the obligation to be fair has been abandoned. In the Times, for example, captions accompanying front-page pictures have inaccurately and even falsely described what is being depicted. There are, of course, more egregious examples. Peter Jennings and his ilk do not need the Intifada to display an obsessive hatred of Israel. Jennings’ role is especially outrageous because he is an anchorman and not a commentator and it is wrongful that he has been given a forum to peddle his bigotry.

The anti-media claque has been emboldened by Jewish turncoats who provide cover for that which would otherwise be regarded as odious. Like other fifth columnists, these Jews are an enemy from within, linking up with Israel’s external enemies. The Adam Shapiros of the world receive excessive attention – CNN and the Times have doted on him – because he is Jewish. He is glorified as a humanitarian, without any effort being made to examine his writings and record.

While all mainstream American media have strongly endorsed U.S. actions against Islamic terrorism, there is no more than a feeble effort to connect what is happening in Israel and Palestinian areas with events in Afghanistan or, for that matter, Iraq. This disconnect results in Palestinians being described as brave underdogs, as if their leadership and actions have scant bearing to current events. There is a similar disconnect regarding Israel’s decision to limit access of journalists who regard themselves as being blessed with the divine right to go wherever they desire to go. If the media would just pause and compare what U.S. policy has been regarding media access in Afghanistan with what Israel has allowed, a different story would emerge. Much the same could be said of civilian casualties.

So there is a great deal of one-sidedness and we are angry because too many of the media have not been even-handed or fair. However, there is a world of difference between lack of balance or unfairness and hostility. We must not lose sight of the distinction, especially these days.