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Jewish World Review Jan. 26, 2001 / 3 Shevat, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Consumer Reports

Perceptions of media bias against Israel are more than just Jewish paranoia -- THE QUESTION of how the media treats Israel is a controversy that has taken up a great deal of the attention of American Jews in the last two decades. Ever since Israel’s 1982 campaign in Lebanon, friends of Israel in this country have grown increasingly frustrated with what they consider an unfair and distorted image of the Jewish state in the American and international media.

The reason for the passion over media bias is not hard to understand. American support for Israel is critical to its survival. If the news coverage of Israel helps turn Americans against the Jewish state, that would be a critical blow to the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Yet the passion devoted to this issue by American Jews has another cause. The fight against media bias is, after all, the one aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict that allows American Jews to feel as if they are on the front lines of the battle to preserve the Jewish state from harm.

So it should come as no surprise that sparks flew when a few hundred American Jews were confronted with the opinions of a few foreign media representatives in Israel recently.

The setting for this event was the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Jerusalem, where a few hundred of the nearly 900 members of a United Jewish Communities Solidarity Mission to Israel were staying. The group had been promised a session on how to handle media distortions of Israel’s attempts to defend itself and its citizens during the Palestinians’ “Al-Aqsa” intifada. What they got instead was a lecture of a different sort.

The panel assembled for the group consisted of New York Times Israel correspondent Joel Greenberg and two representatives of the Danish media, Stefan Jensen of Danish television and Hannah Fogel, a reporter for a leading daily newspaper in Copenhagen.

The message from the panelists was clear: Reporters aren’t perfect. The real problem, Greenberg insisted, isn’t media bias, but what he called the “ reflexively defensive” attitude of American Jews toward anything that can be construed as negative coverage of Israel.

The correspondents were tired of being blamed for the way Israel is portrayed in the media. Instead, they said, blame Israel for its actions or, even better, blame yourselves for what Fogel said was “not wanting to hear the truth.”

Predictably, that message left many of those on the mission feeling frustrated and angry about the makeup of the panel and the message that had just been shoved down their throats.

Were these correspondents right?

Though some critics of the media tend to lapse into conspiracy scenarios or speak of anti-Semitism, it really isn’t that simple. Media distortions about Israel are far more likely the result of ignorant or sloppy editors and lazy reporters who either don’t know or don’t understand the historical and political context of the stories they cover. As Stefan Larsen said, “Mistakes are usually the result of a lack of professionalism, not evil intent.”

Journalism is a complicated business, and all too many complaints of bias — whether about the Middle East or local news — betray a lack of knowledge about how journalists actually report, write and edit under deadline pressure. Moreover, covering any conflict where both sides are always trying to spin reporters and use them to make political points is inherently problematic.

But a devotion to fairness doesn’t always stop reporters from picking a side in a dispute or adopting one group’s frame of reference in their coverage. Journalists love underdogs, and ever since Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, many have seen the Arabs in that manner.

According to Hannah Fogel, the facts of the ongoing violence can be summed up neatly: “The Palestinians are being very badly treated by the Israelis.” Her “obligation to report violations of human rights” meant her stories were bound to place Israel in a bad light.

For these journalists and for many of their colleagues, no matter what atrocities are committed by the Palestinians (i.e., lynchings of Israeli soldiers, terrorist shootings against Israeli civilians and bombings of Israelis cities), they must always be placed in the context of Israel as the villain.

This ignores the fact that the genuine sufferings of ordinary Palestinians have been caused by their leadership’s decision to opt for continued violence instead of accepting generous peace terms from Israel. Victims always exist on both sides. But if you are a reporter with an agenda, inconvenient facts which provide a context that works against the thrust of your story are often ignored. It is easier to do a sob story about an Arab victim than to put it in the context of a century-long struggle to extinguish the Zionist enterprise. Nor do stories about the Palestinian Authority fomenting hatred and terror against Israel get adequate coverage.

It is true that those of us who support Israel aren’t objective about it, and some of Israel’s supporters will never be satisfied with any reporting that highlights its shortcomings. But whether or not you are a devoted Zionist, the hatred and violence to which Israel has been subjected is the bottom line of the story. In contrast, when journalists start out with the idea that Israel is the bad guy — as Fogel and many of her colleagues clearly do — the result is news that doesn’t inform so much as it propagandizes.

The role of the Israeli media is another interesting aspect in this debate. All three journalists on the panel pointed out that the material that drove American Jews crazy about coverage of Israel in the world media was no different from the sort of articles and television segments that are routinely printed or aired in the Israeli media.

But what some people forget is that Israel’s press is fiercely partisan in a way that most American newspapers dropped decades ago.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz, the voice of Israel’s secular left, is a good example. When you consider that most foreign journalists in Israel are getting their news from this source, it’s no wonder that most of the news reported from the country is slanted toward Israel’s Labor Party, as well as being very sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Clearly, Israelis seem less concerned with their image abroad than American Jews.

In the end, what was most offensive about the panel was the condescending attitude these journalists took toward their audience. Events in Israel are more complicated than some of us would like, but the notion that perceptions of media bias against Israel is just the product of Jewish paranoia is nonsense.

Just a couple of days before hearing the media panel, participants in the mission visited with an Israeli battalion commander on duty north of Jerusalem. His troops have been under fire from Palestinians gunmen for months as they attempt to prevent Arab mobs from attacking Jewish settlements or army outposts. He told of the stringent rules of engagement that prevent Israeli soldiers from using lethal force except when they themselves are under fire.

But what seemed to frustrate this soldier the most was when he told us of his troops’ disbelief when they saw themselves falsely portrayed on CNN as trigger-happy killers. The truth — that the “underdogs” were actually armed aggressors and not just stone-throwing children — would have been a less sensational story than the ones that aired.

Supporters of Israel should not be fooled into thinking that all of Israel’s problems could be solved by improving its image. But when confronted with distortions in the way Israel is covered, honest journalists must do better than merely blame American Jews for being biased consumers of the news.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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