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Jewish World Review May 20, 2002 /9 Sivan, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Who's Trying to Silence Free Speech?

Media counterattack against bias charges misses the point | For some readers of America's newspaper of record, it must have been the last straw. While there have been charges and arguments of The New York Times slanting its news and opinion pages against Israel, the front page of the May 6 issue was too much.

Prominently displayed at the top of that front page was a photo of New York's annual "Salute to Israel" parade that was shot with the paraders far in the background and anti-Israel protesters looming in the foreground. In the picture, a sign denouncing Israel was held facing the sidewalk rather than the parade, so that the Associated Press lensman could capture its message.

The picture was purporting to tell a story that, according to the Times' own account of the May 5 parade, had "hundreds of thousands lining Fifth Avenue in Manhattan," but which also drew "several hundred protesters."

A day later, the Times published an editor's note that acknowledged that its portrayal of the parade was "disproportionate" and lacking in fairness. But that note has not dissipated the drive on the part of some New York Jews to mount a symbolic boycott of the Times to protest its coverage of Israel.

Others in a number of other cities plan to do the same for their local papers. For many readers, the "disproportionate" space given to Israel-bashers and the downplaying of support for Israel is symptomatic of the Times' attitude toward Israel, where evenhandedness often seems to mean juxtaposing Arab criticism of Israel next to Jewish criticism of Israel.

In this, the Times is far from alone in the American media. Read the news and editorial pages of most major American dailies, and you find much of the same thing. Coverage of Israel's last 20 months of an Arab terror campaign and Israel's limited military response has consistently frustrated readers who are baffled by a willingness to portray Palestinians (who are rarely labeled as "terrorists") who kill Israelis sympathetically, while the same outlets simultaneously deny that same kind of understanding for those responsible for Sept. 11.

Efforts to change this mindset on the part of ordinary readers or even Jewish communal bigwigs who are granted audiences with publishers and editors have been ineffective.

In contrast to the spirit that animates the far worse coverage of Israel in the European press, few, if any, American journalists are classic anti-Semites. Most are, however, neutral about the justice of Zionism and openly sympathetic to the Palestinian Arabs, whom they perceive to be the underdogs in the conflict.


Many are also not terribly interested in the background and history that lies behind today's news. Indeed, the editors of one major American daily told a Jewish leader who tried to talk about Arab terrorism and refusal to recognize Israel before the "occupation" began in 1967 that this was just "ancient history."

History is a weak point for many journalists. For example, in recent weeks, feature stories in the Times incorrectly stated that the Koran mentions Jerusalem (it does not) and misstated the date of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's historic peace mission to Israel.

A story in The Philadelphia Inquirer on May 13 by correspondent Michael Matza also illustrated this problem. It purported to give a behind-the-scenes look at the few hundred Jewish settlers in Hebron who live surrounded by tens of thousands of very hostile Arabs.

But while Matza rightly included the fact that a Jew murdered 29 Arabs at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994, he neglected to mention the fact that Jewish "settlement" in Hebron had been continuous for more than 3,000 years, until the Arab residents of the city massacred the Jews who lived there in 1929. Wouldn't inclusion of those facts change the way readers looked at the Jewish presence in this place. Or was that just "ancient history," too?

Typically, ignorance about many of the issues, sloppiness and, most importantly, the ever-present desire of storytellers to write a piece from the point of view of the side they perceive to be the underdog have created a media culture that sees Israel as the bad guy and the Palestinians as the plucky underdog.

The media culture's response to charges of bias are not exactly apologetic. As Times' Op-Ed columnist Frank Rich put it in a column published on May 11, American supporters of Israel are spreading a "noxious" idea. Noting all of the newspapers that are receiving protests about their coverage, he approvingly quotes The Washington Post's Michael Getler, who asked, "Is it possible that so many American newspapers are getting this story wrong?"

Like the United Nations' Kofi Annan, who asked the same disingenuous question about the near unanimity of the world body in slamming Israel, Rich's answer is that the world cannot be wrong.


In particular, Rich takes to task those who are organizing symbolic boycotts of various newspapers. He quotes approvingly a column by New York Jewish Week editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt who urged Jews to abandon this tactic.

For the widely respected Rosenblatt, who agrees with many of the media critics' arguments, an "economic boycott" is "disturbing" because it is a tactic that has been used against both Jews and the State of Israel in the recent past. He also worries that "muzzling of a free press" undermines a drive whose purpose is truth.

But I don't share his distaste for those who say they don't want to buy the Times or support it with ads. As David Steinmann, a New York Jewish activist who supports the protest, put it to me in an e-mail, unwillingness to support the Times is no more a classic "boycott" than a similar refusal "to buy Penthouse magazine" because of its unacceptable content.

A symbolic protest that calls for subscribers or advertisers to withhold their business for a limited time is not a throwback to Nazi Germany. Those who do not wish to read my work need not purchase any outlet that publishes it. The same holds true of anybody other publication. That's not mob rule, it's just the workings of a free market, without which there cannot be a truly free press.

As Steinmann put it, in a free society, individuals have no obligation to finance speech with which they disagree.

On the other hand, figures like Frank Rich, who only seem to parade their Jewish identity for the purpose of undermining Israel's supporters and bolstering its critics, fear that their stranglehold on the bully pulpit of the press is being challenged. It is this group - and not the media critics - who want to shut people up.

Predictably, Rich, who wants to encourage those forces in Washington, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, who he hopes will put pressure on the Jewish state, asserts that friends of Israel are violating "some of Judaism's fundamental values." But besides throwing bouquets to Rosenblatt for opposing a boycott, his definition of those "values" appears to be nothing more than recycled liberalism and a belief that "moral clarity is dead."

Rosenblatt was right to call for more responses to newspapers and other media that get Israel wrong. He's also right to caution us against throwing the word anti-Semite around indiscriminately.

Let's not make a refusal to buy a newspaper a litmus test of affection for Israel, but those who wish to go on without the Times or any other paper are no threat to democracy.

A boycott may do little to better the situation, but like the character in the 1977 movie "Network" who urged television viewers to yell, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," media critics have a message that the conveyers of the conventional wisdom of the day don't want to hear.

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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