Every media outlet has its own stylebook, designed to be as fair and impartial as possible. These days, however, it often seems like the Palestinian Minister of Information is publishing and distributing his stylebook to dozens of newspapers and media outlets.
Since September 2000, a new de facto "stylebook" has emerged for reporters covering the Palestinian violence against Israel. In some cases, the "new rules for reporting" are based on actual policies promulgated by news organizations and editors.
Though elements of "pack journalism" are evident, there are probably no conspiratorial hands behind the emergence of this de facto stylebook. For the most part, reporters and correspondents have informally, perhaps even subconsciously, adopted these guidelines.
Invariably, the new rules are biased against Israel.
For now, the bias appears to have had little impact on American public opinion regarding Israel. In Europe, the stronger, more strident anti-Israel tone of much of the media may be having a different impact.
Following are eight new "rules" for reporters covering the Middle East, as distilled from hundreds of articles covering the recent violence:
Rule 1. Sensationalize the intensity and scope of Israeli military actions.
Call the Israeli actions "aggressive," "devastating" or "intensive." [CNN, April 16] Refer to Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory as "deep," even when they involve only 300 yards. [The New York Times, April 14]
On the other hand, refer to Palestinian mortar attacks as "ineffective" or "falling harmlessly" even though the intent of the mortar teams is malevolent.
Rule 2. Whitewash Palestinian acts of violence.
No longer label Palestinian bombings and shootings of Jewish civilians as "terrorism," nor the perpetrators as "terrorists." Label the perpetrators as "militants" or "activists." [Associated Press, BBC; CNN, The Guardian, et. al, March 27] Even bombs planted in the middle of Israeli marketplaces are not classified as "terrorism."
Reporters may make exceptions to the rule when their own " ox is being gored." For example, in referring to Irish bombers as "terrorists," the BBC's News Online declares: "It has long been the policy of the domestic service to refer to terrorists in Northern Ireland... but the policy of the World Service is not to refer to anyone in those terms." According to BBC Newshour duty editor Maya Fish, "In BBC World Service reporting the word 'terrorist' is not used, no matter who plants bombs, kills or murders."
Rule 3. Blame it on the settlements.
Mitigate Palestinian aggression and attacks by labeling Israeli victims as "settlers" and the locations of the attacks as "settlements" or "occupied territories." Label the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Gilo and French Hill as "settlements" and "settler enclaves" -- even though they have been part of Jerusalem for 30 years and house tens of thousands of middle class Jewish families. [CNN, Reuters, AP, and others]. When possible, call Israeli towns within the Green Line, such as Sderot, "settlements," as well. [Guardian, April 17].
Further, refer to all Jewish victims in the territories as "settlers" -- whether a 14-year-old boy or a 10-month-old baby.
Label Israeli residents in areas of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza as some new non-civilian entity, as in The New York Times’ reference to Israeli "soldiers, settlers and civilians." [March 10]
Rule 4. Deprecate Israeli leaders; sympathize with Arafat.
Always refer to Ariel Sharon as "hard-line," "war criminal," "vilified by Arabs," or "The Bulldozer."
Never refer to Yasser Arafat as "the former terrorist" or bellicose, corrupt, or despotic. Whenever possible, solicit sympathy by referring to Arafat's old age or as "Parkinson's-haunted" [The Independent, UK, April 17, 2001]
Rule 5. Blame Israel for all Palestinian casualties.
Blame Israel, whether for "work accidents" in Palestinian bomb factories, Palestinian demonstrators hit by Palestinian snipers aiming at Israeli soldiers, or Arabs injured in Israeli crowds during a suicide bomb or bus bombing.
Arab auto accidents may also be blamed on Israel. In early October 2000, several stories blamed Israelis for the beating death of Issam Judeh Mustafa Hamed. On November 2, pathologists brought in by the Palestinian Authority, concluded that Issam Judeh died in a traffic accident. It is unknown how many of the Palestinian "martyrs" died of natural causes, accidents, or intra-Palestinian fighting.
In addition, refer frequently to Palestinian children as traumatized, orphaned, killed or severely injured -- even if at the hand of Palestinians' own bombs and bullets. Make no mention of Israeli children also victimized by Palestinian attacks
Rule 6. Active and passive verb usage.
Use active verbs to describe Palestinian casualties -- i.e. Palestinians are "shot dead" or "gunned down" by Israeli soldiers.
On the other hand, use passive verbs to avoid blaming Palestinians for Israeli casualties. Say that shooting " broke out." The headline reporting 10-month old Shalhevet Pass shot and killed by a Palestinian sniper read: "Jewish Toddler Dies in West Bank." [Associated Press, March 26]
When possible, juxtapose two deaths, blaming the Israeli's for one death, and leaving the Palestinian blame unstated. For example: "During clashes near the West Bank village of Dura, an 11-year-old Palestinian boy was shot dead by Israeli troops. One report said the boy had been watching Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunman exchange fire when he was hit in the chest. On Monday, a 10-month-old Israeli baby was killed by gunfire in nearby Hebron." [BBC, March 27]
Rule 7. Offset an Israeli death by mentioning some unrelated Palestinian death.
Offset a Palestinian atrocity such as a bus bombing, by reporting on the tragic Palestinian death of an elderly woman or child, even if the Palestinian death occurred long before.
In reporting on the shocking discovery of two butchered Israeli teens near Tekoa, the CNN article entitled "Two Israeli teenagers found dead" carried a photo underneath the headline of a Palestinian baby shot and buried earlier in the week. [May 9]
On May 1, CNN reported: "An Israeli was killed and another injured in shooting attacks on West Bank roads Tuesday. The attacks followed explosions and clashes in Gaza and the West Bank which claimed seven Palestinian lives." This was reported even though the fatal explosions in Gaza were a "work accident’ in a Palestinian bomb factory.
Rule 8. Invoke Arabic terms for holy sites.
Use Arabic terms for holy sites, even if the Jewish term is standard reference in any encyclopedia, university textbook, diplomatic document, or other acceptable Western source.
Avoid referring to the Temple Mount as "Judaism's holiest site," or "as the Jewish capital for 3,000 years." References to the Temple Mount should be qualified as mere claims, e.g.: "which Israel claims to have been the site of the First and Second Temple." [New York Times]
Preferably refer to the Temple Mount as "Haram al Sharif, the third-holiest Moslem site," or "the holiest Moslem site in Jerusalem." By contrast, never refer to Hebron, where the Jewish matriarchs and patriarchs are buried, as "Judaism's second-holiest site," nor to the Tomb of Rachel near Bethlehem as "Judaism's third-holiest site."
When necessary, drudge up obscure Arabic terms, such as referring to Jaffa Gate, the main western entrance to Jerusalem's Old City, as "Bab al-Khalil." [CNN, January 8, 2001]
While not a "conspiracy," an anti-Israel press "convention" has emerged, and clear biases are evident.
What will this stylebook look like in another six months? It all depends on the outcome of this ongoing battle of the media war.
Excerpted from remarks made before the American Jewish Committee's Annual Meeting in Washington D.C., May 1, 2001.