Monday, April 28th, 2008
Some things never change.
Taking part in a panel the other night at the JCC in Manhattan on “Israel, The Jews and The Press: Exploding the Myths,” my colleagues — Clyde Haberman of the New York Times and Sam Freedman of the Columbia Journalism School and the Times — and I felt like we were in a time warp. The questions from the overflow audience of about 100 people began with a request for a response to a 1992 NPR report that appeared to be biased against Israel, and included a complaint about Peter Jennings, the ABC-TV correspondent and anchor who the questioner referred to as “Peter of Arabia.” Jennings died almost three years ago.
It’s not surprising that people have long memories when it comes to slights, whether it be in their personal lives or in reading, watching or listening to media reports, especially when it comes to caring Jews following the Mideast conflict.
I understand that, and often share the frustration of reading a report that is unbalanced, lacking in perspective or just plain uninformed.
But we also have to realize that the Mideast narrative has changed over the years, and the media has changed with it. When Israel won the 1967 war, it was the darling of the mainstream press. But after the Yom Kippur War six years later and the resulting oil shortage, Israel was transformed from David to Goliath, the powerful military presence in the Mideast oppressing helpless Palestinians.
Israel of the last 25 years is known for enduring two intifadas, the assassination of a prime minister, and widespread charges of corruption in its various governments – not exactly inspiring events. It’s also, of course, the country that has led the way in medical, agricultural, scientific and economic advances despite being under almost constant attack from those who would prefer it destroyed.
Israel’s story, and message, are complicated. It sees itself as victim, a tiny democratic state surrounded by tens of millions of Arabs who oppose its very existence. But others see Israel as a powerful state still keeping Palestinians from independence.
There is no doubt that the mainstream media is so focused on symmetry and “fairness” in telling the story of the Mideast conflict that it fails to point out the context, most notably that Israeli leaders (and citizens) from left to right now welcome a Palestinian state, while Palestinian leaders across the board are unwilling or unable to meet the minimum requirement for a peace deal: stopping the violence. Or that Palestinians target Israeli civilians on purpose while casualties inflicted by Israeli soldiers on Palestinian civilians are the unintended result of firing on militants who purposefully place themselves in the midst of innocents.
But on balance, American mainstream reporters are doing their best at telling a complex and highly charged story, and we have to recognize our own biases and unrealistic expectations of having every Mideast story reinforce our own point of view.
That was the message our panel tried to convey the other night, but I’m not at all certain we changed anyone’s mind.