Monday, May 20, 2002

Rich and Wrong

In his attention-grabbing “The Booing of Wolfowitz” Times column, Frank Rich repeated a question asked by Michael Getler of The Washington Post: “Is it possible that so many major American news organizations are getting this story wrong?”, the story being media coverage of Israel and the Middle East. Rich’s answer is that while there have been mistakes in the coverage, “the conviction that the American press is engaged in a conspiracy to spread Palestinian propaganda and insidiously counter Israeli interests“ is an exercise in looking for new enemies in all the wrong places.

Who has claimed that there is a conspiracy? - which is one of the points that Rich has wrong. Another is why Wolfowitz was booed when he read a scripted text that I doubt he believes in at a rally to support Israel, an event that was not meant to be a forum for moral equivalency. Still, maybe we Jews are a bit unhinged; after all, so many major news organizations can’t be wrong.

Or perhaps they are. Six months before Rich’s column, the Times celebrated its 150th anniversary with a special section that included a stunning article by Max Frankel analyzing the “century’s bitterest journalistic failure,” or the “turning away from the Holocaust.” This article should be required reading in journalism classes and Jewish schools. It stands for the proposition that major news organizations – print and broadcast – can all get one of the major stories of the century wrong, thereby disproving the thesis implicit in the question asked by Getler and Rich.

We have more proximate examples, albeit with far smaller consequences. Major American news organizations got it all wrong in several important stories arising from Israel’s incursions into Palestinian territory. Israeli restraint was met by media excesses and distortion and while it would be a stretch to claim a conspiracy, it remains that nearly all in medialand gave Israel a raw deal.

During the long siege at the Church of the Nativity, talking heads with grave voices confidently announced each day that those inside the church were without fresh water and food and were subsisting on a diet of boiled grass. The print media said much the same. Whatever may have happened there 2000 years ago, there apparently was a modern day miracle, for when the siege ended and the 200 or so persons inside left, with the exception of one or two who were wounded, all were hale and hardy.

There was a similar fairy tale regarding Yasir Arafat’s ordeal in Ramallah. We were told that there was no electricity in his compound and there were all kinds of hardships, too many to mention here. It made for good copy, though the world was essentially being fed a fabrication. Though old and ailing, Arafat emerged in good condition, ready as always to manipulate the media.

Then there is Jenin and the massacre that wasn’t. In one of his increasingly frequent senior moments, Dan Rather intoned repeatedly that Israel had leveled the entire camp, while other journalists spoke and wrote of a great number of civilians being killed. When the U.N. announced the inquiry that ultimately was aborted, most Jews who fervently support Israel had come to believe that terrible things had happened in Jenin. As we now know, all of the major American news organizations got the story wrong. Israeli soldiers acted with an heroic determination to protect civilians, in contrast to the way the U.S. conducts its military operations in Afghanistan.

I haven’t seen media mea culpas for these stories, although admittedly I may not have been paying sufficient attention. By any fair judgment, the major media have done a remarkably lousy job covering the Middle East, although one would hardly know it because part of the diseased culture of journalism is the code of silence regarding the failings of those who are esteemed in the profession. This code of silence is no more ethical than the parallel code which often protects police officers engaged in wrongdoing.

If doctors would be as error-prone as reporters are, morgues would be overflowing. If journalists are vital to the flow of information and for the proper workings of a free society, even as they are protected against any prior restraints they should not be immune from accountability or for being judged by standards that measure their professionalism and integrity.

Apart from infirmities that are now endemic in journalism, such as distortions created by deadline pressures, media coverage of the Middle East has been severely compromised by the bias of reporters. There is evident sympathy for the Palestinian cause, the popular view being that Israel is a militaristic and even imperialistic state. There is also the lamentable tendency to accept as factual lies told by Arab spokespeople with straight faces and mournful voices. It is remarkable how many lies have been widely accepted by reporters.

As enraging as this is, the phenomenon at least occurs outside of the ordinary precincts of Jewish life. What I find more troublesome is the fidelity of most Jewish media, including this newspaper, to the general norm of journalism which protects reporters from criticism from within the fraternity. When the Times published a picture equating Israel with Naziism, it did something that was totally repulsive and the newspaper should have been called to account by the Jewish media.

It’s true that Jews are on edge, maybe even a bit paranoid. We cannot shake off the remembrance of horrors past and our nightmares become more vivid when we contemplate the dangers confronting the Jewish State. Israel is surrounded by enemies, has hundreds of thousands of Arabs within its borders and Islamic militants throughout the region have declared that peace agreements or no, their mission will remain the destruction of Israel.

We have, in short, reasons aplenty to be scared, good reasons to be angry, good reasons to boo a good man like Paul Wolfowitz when he reads words written by others that are unsettling. In the final analysis, we are trying to relieve the Times of the ethical burden of apologizing down the road once more to Jews for underestimating the danger to Israel.