The Media's Twisted Coverage of the Middle East: Preliminary Thoughts

April 28, 2002

As I've been reading so much of the reporting on Israel's March 29 invasion of the West Bank, I've been hoping to have a day or a weekend to sit down and analyze the differences between U.S. mainstream media reporting and reporting in the rest of the world's media. It's clear that the American media's portrayal of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is dishonest in the extreme, to the extent of literally reversing the positions of the aggressor and the victim, and there are dozens of commentaries to that effect in the Media Analysis portion of my Palestinian-Israeli Conflict Research Guide. What I hope to be able to contribute is a list of the specific devices the media uses to achieve its desired result. Since I haven't yet had that day or that weekend, I decided to write down some of my thoughts before they slip away, and then build on this over time. I'll post this to my site in case anyone is interested.

I consider the media's role crucial to the development and maintenance of Israeli hegemony in the area, because (1) Israel could not have gotten to this position without unflagging American diplomatic, military, and economic support; (2) the American government might not have been able to build Israel into such a colossus if the American people had disagreed with the government's doing so; (3) the American people might have demanded that our government adopt fair policies in the Middle East if they had a better understanding of the history and nature of the conflict; and (4) the mainstream U.S. media, by essentially adopting the Israeli viewpoint, has prevented the American public from exercising its independent judgment about the balance of equities in Israel/Palestine.

General comments:

1. The reporting in the American press on the Middle East is very similar to the reporting in Israeli media. There are five main sources of news for American readers: two wire services (AP and Reuters) and three newspapers (all considered liberal in the American ideological spectrum) who syndicate their own coverage (the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post). All report the news in a manner consistent with the liberal Israeli daily Ha'aretz, other than perhaps lacking such a wanton usage of the word "terrorist." (Although I do not often examine the major conservative U.S. media--e.g., the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times--I suspect their reporting will be largely similar to that of the Jerusalem Post, the conservative Israeli daily.)

2. For what it's worth, the Washington Post seems slightly more likely than the Los Angeles or New York Times to ask questions that Israel would prefer not be asked. And Reuters is more likely than the AP to be able to use the word "occupation."

3. The effect of the American mainstream media's obfuscation has been to leave most Americans viewing the conflict as an interminable and inexplicable war apparently based on religious hatreds. And because Americans have not been allowed to become informed, and they are told endlessly in so many different ways that the Israelis are the good guys, that's who a large majority of Americans support.

4. Even where the American mainstream media takes a position at odds with Israel's, it may slide over to the Israeli position over time. Examples are (1) the settlements outside Jerusalem, particularly Gilo, that are now called "neighborhoods" of Jerusalem; and (2) the "occupied territories" becoming "disputed" instead.

Devices employed by the mainstream U.S. press (in no particular order):

1. Acknowledged facts are characterized as Palestinian positions, sometimes while also reporting an Israeli position that is known not to be true. The most outstanding example of this is the media's insistence that it is only the Arab "perception" that the U.S. favors Israel over the Palestinians. I call this the "we just don't know" tactic. Thus, in reporting on the Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity compound, stories will carry "Palestinian assertions" that the Israelis are denying delivery of food, and "Israeli statements" that food is being delivered, even though all evidence--statements by people from the inside or after they have left--for two weeks has been that the people inside are starving.

2. The word "invasion" is not used to describe what can only be regarded as such, preferring the bland and deceptive term "incursion." For a nice discussion of this, see "A Good Old-Fashioned Incursion" (David Vest; CounterPunch; April 13, 2002).

3. Only Israeli deaths are important:

(a) Headlines identify the number of deaths only when the deaths are Israeli. For an examination of this phenomenon at one opinion leader, see "Palestinian Deaths Aren't Headline Material at New York Times" (FAIR; April 12, 2002).

(b) Israeli deaths are made the focus of many news stories, while Palestinian deaths are regarded as mere background noise, to be noted in a throw-away sentence at the end of a story (and even then often characterized as Palestinian claims, the "we just don't know" tactic" again), despite the numbers of Palestinian deaths and their continuing nature. For an analysis of this approach at one supposedly liberal media outlet, see "For NPR, Violence Is Calm if It's Violence Against Palestinians" (FAIR; January 10, 2002).

4. Only Israeli deaths are morally wrong, the result of evil acts by Palestinians, while when Palestinians die (much more frequently), we are told that "civilians have been killed, as tragically happens in all wars," in the words of Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz. See "Media Drawn Into West Bank Propaganda War" (Washington Post, April 18, 2002).

5. As has frequently been observed in media criticism, only Israeli political violence is "retaliation." The implication is always that Palestinian political violence is unprovoked and initiatory, while the Israelis are simply, and legitimately, defending themselves. For one such analysis, see "In U.S. Media, Palestinians Attack, Israel Retaliates" (FAIR; April 4, 2002).

6. The Israeli military presence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is rarely described as an "occupation."

(a) The single most important contextual fact to understand the ongoing conflict is the 35-year-long nature of the Israeli occupation. Yet American newspapers absolutely never, as far as I can tell, state this, even though it would take four words ("35-year-long occupation") and make the situation immensely more clear to the American public.

(b) Even with regard to the Al Aqsa Intifada that began in September 2000, newspaper stories typically refuse to call this resistance to "occupation." Instead, they speak of "the 18-month-long Palestinian uprising" and leave it up to the reader to decide what it's an uprising against. (Those darn religious hatreds again? Plain bad temperament?) Adding "against occupation" would require only two additional words, but that's usually too much for the mainstream press. (Adding "against Israel's 35-year-long occupation" would add six words.)

7. When children die, only Israeli children's deaths are emphasized. Every article on the April 27 attack on the Adora settlement prominently mentioned the death of a 5-year-old girl, yet the numerous deaths of Palestinian children during the current invasion alone--not to mention since the beginning of the current Intifada--receive scant media attention, if at all.

8. "Hatred" is found only on the Arab side. There have been numerous examples of mainstream news stories reporting alleged hatred of Jews by Palestinians or other Arabs since the invasion began. Some examples:
     -----"Arab governments refuse to meet with Israel, or to speak out publicly against terrorism, or to pressure Yasser Arafat to act constructively or even to rein in the hate speech of their own state-run media and ambassadors..." ("Missing the Point"; unsigned editorial; Washington Post; April 28, 2002)
     -----"At one point it [a martyr's funeral procession] passed an anti-Semitic message, marked on a wall with spray paint: a Star of David, an equal sign, a swastika." ("Martyrs Brigades Member Mourned as Hero"; C.J. Chivers; New York Times; April 28, 2002).
     -----"All They Are Teaching Gives Peace No Chance; At a Few Gaza Schools, Children Get an Education in Hate" (Anna Badkhen; San Francisco Chronicle; April 25, 2002)
     -----"In Egypt, Sympathy for Palestinians Revives Hatred" (Michael Slackman; Los Angeles Times; April 22, 2002)
     -----"Palestinians Say Israelis Sow Hatred in the Raids" (David Rohde; New York Times; April 10, 2002)

     Yet racist graffiti left everywhere by Israeli soldiers is not found to evidence "hatred," nor are similar statements by Israeli soldiers or statesmen.

9. Mainstream news reporting focuses almost exclusively on an examination of what Israel wants to do and how, strategically, it can go about achieving its aims. Consideration of the legal and moral issues presented by Israel's conduct is absent. (And this is not, of course, restricted to reporting on the Middle East. The same approach is taken when discussing actions by the U.S. government. I still find this absolute suppression of fundamental issues of lawfulness and morality--with the consideration limited to notions of power and feasibility--breath-takingly effective as a propaganda strategy. For instance, a long article in the April 28 New York Times can dispassionately discuss the pros and cons of a huge American invasion of Iraq without the barest acknowledgement that such an invasion would be a violation of basic international law and a war crime under the Nuremberg Charter. See "U.S. Envisions Blueprint on Iraq Including Big Invasion Next Year" (Thom Shanker and David Sanger; New York Times; April 28, 2002).)

(a) The requirements of international law are not discussed. Thus the New York Times can run an entire article on the West Bank and Gaza settlements and never mention the certainty that the settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids the transfer of an occupier's population into an occupied area. The only mention of international law is general and is characterized as a Palestinian position: "To Palestinians, settlers are the embodiment of illegal occupation." Again, this is the "we just don't know" strategy. See "Despite Violence, Settlers Survive and Spread" (James Bennet; New York Times; April 28, 2002).

(b) Moral issues raised by the Israeli occupation, and by the exclusivist nature of a "Jewish state," are not examined.

10. The American media knows full well how to demonize individuals (e.g., Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Yasser Arafat) and movements (all "terrorists") and has done so with the Palestinians.

11. No distinction is drawn between suicide bombings against Israeli civilians (which are arguably both illegal and immoral) and other forms of resistance to the Israeli occupation, which under any formulation are legitimate. Accordingly, no distinction is drawn between those who are engaged in suicide bombing (against whom Israel might have a right to defend itself, even though it is an occupying power) and those engaged in other forms of resistance. All persons in both categories are denominated as "militants" or "terrorists," with the resulting implication to readers that Israel has a right to attack both. Yet the distinction is crucial in determining what, if any, rights Israel might have in self-defense.

12. Only rarely is there any consideration of why the entire rest of the world feels differently on this issue than does the majority of Americans. When such an examination is undertaken, utilitarian (or worse) rather than moral factors are found to be the primary guides of the opinions of others. Europeans are routinely assumed to be more sympathetic to the Palestinians because of (a) Europe's greater (than America's) dependence on oil from Arab countries, and (b) a predisposition arising from longstanding European ant-Semitism. Third world nations are portrayed simply as viscerally anti-American (and therefore anti-Israel).

13. The questions asked are posed in a "heads the Israelis win, tails the Palestinians lose" way. For instance, after the Karine A was seized, the questions posed was whether the Palestinian Authority was "smuggling" arms and whether Yasser Arafat was personally involved, not, as they should have been, whether Israel had any legal right to commandeer the ship in international waters in the first place. The only basis ever advanced for the arms' alleged illegality was their being in supposed violation of the Oslo accords--but since Sharon has long since rejected those agreements, he is hardly in a position to insist that the Palestinian Authority scrupulously adhere to them.
     Or, to take a current issue, the real question with respect to Jenin is whether the Israelis committed war crimes there, but the media is posing the question as whether a "massacre" took place--so that, in the media's eyes, Israel is presumably off the hook so long as any war crimes that did take place did not amount to a "massacre."