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 put to us 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. Was the media following events or leading the way?
Israel of the last 25 years is known most 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 made remarkable advances in medicine, agriculture, science, technology and its economy despite being under almost constant attack from those who would prefer it destroyed.
Israel’s story, and message, is 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. Too rarely is the distinction made between Palestinians, who target Israeli civilians on purpose, with Israel, whose soldiers inflict casualties on Palestinian civilians as the unintended result of firing on militants who purposefully place themselves in the midst of innocents.
On balance, though, 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.
Clyde Haberman seemed frustrated at times during the discussion. He has covered the Mideast for the Times and is well aware of the sensitivities — and expectations — of the New York Jewish community. His comments during the evening were a mix of insights into the complexities of telling the story of two peoples whose historical narratives never intersect, and wry asides and observations. (An example of the latter, “In Israel, anyone who says the country gets the government it deserves could be considered an anti-Semite.”)
He cited as a case of naïve reporting, or intellectual laziness, the fact that when some in the media wrote of Jimmy Carter’s recent meetings with Hamas, the references to Hamas’ opposition to Israel’s “occupation” did not point out that the militant group was not referring to the 1967 borders but to 1948 — namely any Jewish presence on Palestinian land.
Sam Freedman urged those who believe that the mainstream U.S. media is biased against Israel to read the European press, especially from France and England, for comparison. And he noted that the Israeli press is far more critical of the Jerusalem government and its policies than the mainstream press here.
Both Haberman and Freedman expressed deep concern over the impact of the diminishing first-hand coverage of foreign news by the media in the U.S. in an effort to cut costs. ABC-TV has reduced the number of its foreign correspondents from 30 to five in recent years, and fulltime reporters in Iraq has gone from about 1,000, several years ago, to 50.
It was noted that much of the uninformed coverage of the Mideast can be attributed to reporters who are, in effect, parachuted in from other foreign bureaus to cover the conflict for a short time, and are not knowledgeable about its nuances, and sometimes even basic facts.
I focused most of my remarks on the challenges of covering Israel and Jewish issues for a Jewish weekly, trying to balance the journalistic imperative to expose, on the one hand, with the communal sensitivities of presenting “our people, my people” in a favorable light — a constant struggle.
At evening’s end, I came away impressed, as I often am, with the caring and commitment for Israel in our community, at least among those who attend such events. But I was also troubled that a conflict as complex as the Mideast is still viewed in simple, black and white terms, with little room for nuance, which carries over to media coverage of the conflict. It’s not just good guys vs. bad guys, lovers of Zion vs. anti-Semites, out there reporting and editing. And until we acknowledge and deal with that fact, addressing the gray areas, we’ll never get over past wounds or gain the insights needed to prevent future ones.