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Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 2001 / 11 Tishrei, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The Limits of Fairness

We recognize evil when it strikes America, but not when it hits Israel -- ACCORDING to Graydon Carter, the editor of the fashionable Vanity Fair magazine, the age of irony is over. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, it is no longer acceptable for journalists to be cynical about everything.

Carter's remarks, quoted in the Sept. 24 New York Times, are a reaction to the sea change in thinking about our country that has made patriotism fashionable again. Much like the way the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor transformed America of 1941, so has terrorism galvanized us today. For my generation, the models of the heroic journalist are cynics like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, as well as the anti-military attitudes of many who covered the Vietnam war. But in the wake of local horror two weeks ago, this may be changing.

Look at virtually any of the television stations giving saturation coverage of the story of thousands of American deaths, the rescue and recovery efforts, as well as the beginnings of the U.S. military response, and you'll see something very different about the well-coiffed news readers and breathless on-the-scene correspondents.

Red, white and blue is the color of much of the coverage of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Patriotism is in the air as Americans have rallied around the flag, and many journalists are not immune to the spirit of the times.

Think of Dan Rather choking up on the David Letterman late-night show while citing the lyrics of "America the Beautiful." Not to mention the flag-waving coverage titled "America United" or other equally patriotic slogans to headline the news on television.

Cynicism is nowhere in sight on the major broadcast and cable networks as they cover what CNN calls "America's New War." And viewing on-air personalities wearing flag pins (as they do on Fox News) makes the Vietnam war seem a couple of hundred years ago.

Print journalism, too, has reflected the popular spirit of support for President Bush and the war on terrorism. Excesses such as the front-page headline of the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News on Sept. 12, which screamed "Blood for Blood" in a cry for revenge, are rare. Even the most staid broadsheet dailies have exhibited signs of patriotism both in their news coverage and in their editorials.

Tabloid hysteria notwithstanding, there is nothing particularly wrong with all of this. Journalists are supposed to be impartial, but when faced with evil -- such as the Sept. 11 attacks -- honest men and women are obligated to call it by its right name, not obfuscate and refer to it with a fake objectivity.

While most viewers and readers find this brand of patriotic journalism enjoyable, many media critics think it is terrible. They warn us that with this rah-rah coverage, the media may be abandoning its role as the watchdog of the government.

They worry that if this trend persists, accounts of the American counterattack on Osama bin Laden and other terrorists will be even less impartial than the media coverage of the Persian Gulf war was in 1991. They note, with justice, that coverage of that war was notable for its lack of objectivity about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, as well as for the adoring views of the military and its hardware that were portrayed on American television.

News that reflected an unquestioning belief in the wisdom of our leaders would be a travesty, as well as be bad for democracy. But to expect a popular medium such as television or newspapers to be completely objective about Sept. 11 or a Saddam Hussein is as unrealistic as it is absurd.

Thus, reports on the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks - in even the best of newspapers - are bound to demonstrate little sympathy for the terrorists and their objectives. As much as American journalists pride themselves on their fairness, there is little effort being made to be fair to Osama bin Laden and his cohorts or their Taliban pals.

All of this leads me to some interesting conclusions about another instance where there is a debate about the lack of objectivity in the media: coverage of the Middle East.

Though most secular journalists I know claim these charges are unfair, the controversy persists. Most friends of Israel have long perceived what they believe is a bias in the American media against the Jewish state. Despite a decade of concessions made by the Israelis to the Palestinians, the peace process has collapsed. In return for these Israeli concessions that have empowered the Palestine Liberation Organization and its repellent leader, Yasser Arafat, the Palestinians have responded with a campaign of bloody terrorism.

Deadly sniper attacks on Jewish motorists are so common that they are no longer big news even in Israel. Suicide bombings by Islamic fundamentalists in Israeli cities and towns have maimed and murdered Jewish civilians much like the victims of the twin towers and the Pentagon.

But unlike the harsh treatment afforded bin Laden's gang in the Western press, Palestinian terrorists have received much more sympathetic coverage. Pictures of the Palestinian bombers' tearful though proud families are regularly shown in American newspapers. Profiles of these killers, replete with rationalizations about Palestinian grievances against Israel, are commonplace. The notion that Palestinians suffer "humiliation" at the hands of Israelis is virtually a cliche of modern journalism, though the main source of that shame appears to be their chagrin at having to live with a sovereign Jewish state, not human-rights abuses.

When Israel retaliates against the terrorists or attempts to pre-empt further attacks, there has been little sympathy in the American media. Whereas America's "war" against terror is reported as a justified act of self-defense, Israel's countermeasures are generally portrayed as just another part of "the cycle of violence."

While editorialists, as well as the U.S. Secretary of State, routinely warn Israel's leaders to act with "restraint" against people who not only murder civilians but wish to destroy Israel as a nation, similar cries for American restraint against our enemies are restricted to marginal voices on the far left.

In short, the American media is uninterested in being fair to bin Laden, but generally fair to Yasser Arafat's Fatah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. U.S. journalists are very subjective about American terror victims and judgmental about those responsible. But they are remarkably objective when it comes to reporting on those who commit similar crimes against Israel. This basic fact accounts for much of the frustration experienced by friends of Israel when reading or viewing news of the Middle East.

The point here is that terrorism is an unspeakable crime, whether it is the murder of workers in American office buildings or mothers and children at an Israeli pizza parlor. The Islamic fundamentalists who committed both crimes have similar aims, but they are not treated the same by the media.

Journalists who pride themselves on their fairness know very well that there are limits to how fair they are prepared to be toward murdering fiends. But until they portray those who shed Israeli blood with the same contempt as display toward those who kill Americans, the media will be vulnerable to charges of bias against Israel.

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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