Since the start of violence in September 2000, media bias against Israel has proliferated. One question remains, however: Why have reporters and correspondents adopted these biases? Do they have a political agenda? Is it because they are anti-Israel or anti-Semitic? Is there a media conspiracy?
Here are six possible explanations for anti-Israel bias in the media:
1. Some reporters just don't know the facts.
Most reporters parachute into the region and have to learn the terrain quickly. It is relatively simple to pick up the conventional "shorthand" used by their colleagues. They can choose a few choice landmarks like the Palestinian press office at the American Colony Hotel and start to navigate. But few journalists truly know the area's history, religious background, or diplomatic record.
The correspondent thinks, "This Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo was built over the 'Green Line,' right? Therefore it must be a settlement built on Palestinian land. And that's how my predecessor described it, right?"
Wrong. Few reporters know the background of UN Resolution 242 and other international laws dealing with the return of territory. They've bought the Palestinian line that 242 obligates Israel to return all of the land, and that Israelis are prohibited from settling there. That, of course, is not the case.
Similarly, it is clear that few reporters actually read the recent "Mitchell Report." Many reporters wrote that Israel was obligated to freeze settlement activity in return for a Palestinian ceasefire. The Mitchell Report clearly called for a cessation of violence first, only then to be followed by a series of confidence-building measures.
2. Some reporters run in packs. But that doesn't mean there's a conspiracy.
For some reporters, it is easier to file the same story as their colleagues. They can share the research, the cab fare, the information, and the work -- and in some cases the ignorance. This phenomenon is called "Pack Journalism." Reporters are not supposed to copy from handouts they are given by Palestinian sources or to plagiarize from each other, but it happens.
In some cases, members of the "pack" simply "go with the flow." If BBC or Associated Press decides as a matter of policy to stop calling Palestinian suicide bombers "terrorists," other reporters follow suit.
The veteran correspondent Marvin Kalb described "Pack Journalism" this way:
"For those who still see conspiracy in examples of overlapping reporting, there is a possible explanation in what is called 'pack journalism,' reporters who band together and cover the same story, the same sources, in the same way. Covering a campaign or the White House or any other story where a horde of journalists rush after a single source can often yield the meager one-dimensional news product associated with 'pack journalism.' But, though a number of prominent news organizations may highlight similar stories, using virtually identical sources, this is not to be mistaken for conspiracy. It is only lazy journalism." (The Nixon Memo)
Perhaps it was just coincidence that led both Deborah Sontag of The New York Times and Suzanne Goldenberg of the Guardian (UK) to a Ramallah shrine in memory of Palestinians killed in the current uprising. In February 2001, on consecutive days, they both filed stories with identical use of the uncommon word "totem" to describe objects at the shrine. That might be dismissible as coincidence, but note the nearly identical language of both reports:
SONTAG: "Israeli critics would say that the exhibit, '100 Martyrs – 100 Lives,' glorifies death and encourages the cult of the shaheed, or martyr."
GOLDENBERG: "Israeli critics would argue that the exhibit glorifies violent death, and promotes a cult of martyrdom."
The "pack" phenomenon helps explain the five reporters who traveled to the West Bank village of Kibya a few days before the 2001 Israeli election to report on a military raid led by Ariel Sharon 48 years ago. Reporters from The Washington Post, the Observer (UK), Newsday, Agence France Press, and Salon.com all presented a detailed account of the 1953 raid, and all quoted officials from the Peace Now organization.
3. Some reporters do have a political agenda.
Consumers expect media objectivity. In reality, while writers and editors may attempt to be fair, they all have personal opinions and biases. Particularly in European and Israeli newspapers, publishers, editors and reporters frequently have a political message they wish to convey. "Advocacy journalism" is their avocation.
Fiamma Nirenstein is an Italian journalist who covers the Middle East for La Stampa. Earlier this year she filed a story on "The Journalists and the Palestinians" (translated in Commentary, January 2001):
"The culture of the press is almost entirely Left. These are people who feel the weakness of democratic values; who enjoy the frisson of sidling up to a threatening civilization that coddles them even while holding in disdain the system they represent."
The practitioners of biased political reporting will sometimes even admit their prejudices. For example, Paul Foot's column in the Guardian (UK) in praise of "indignant" journalism (February 2001):
"Anti-Arab, pro-Israel prejudice in the US is as powerful as ever, but in Britain, I would say, it is on the wane. This is thanks at least partly to strong and indignant journalism, including the commentaries from David Hirst and the recent reports from the occupied territories by the Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg. Robert Fisk of the Independent has been gloriously and contemptuously furious at the [Israeli] bombings..."
4. Anti-Semitism may also play a role.
I am very reluctant to use the term "anti-Semitic." Criticism of the actions of Jews or of Israel does not make the critic an anti-Semite.
If, however, a reporter or editor denies Israel and Jews the same rights given to other nations and peoples, or if the Palestinians and Arabs are given preferential treatment, then perhaps the discrimination is motivated by anti-Semitism.
In this respect, double standards -- bending over backward to create a false sense of "even-handed" reporting -- smacks of anti-Semitism. For example, many reporters equated a Palestinian gunman's premeditated sniper shooting of 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass, with the accidental death of a Palestinian child at the hands of an Israeli soldier firing back at Palestinian gunmen.
Most reporters and correspondents would vehemently deny holding anti-Semitic prejudices. La Stampa's Fiamma Nirenstein, however, argued: "The truth is that Israel, as the Jewish state, is also the object of a contemporary form of anti-Semitism that is no less real for being masked or even unconscious."
Surprisingly, even Jewish journalists can have an anti-Israel agenda. In fact, the correspondents' Judaism may be a conscious or subconscious factor in the writers' desire to be "even-handed." They may feel they have to show colleagues that their faith does not deter them from being critical of Israel. They may also feel that only by being critical of Israel can they "get the story" on the Palestinian side of the border. Their job and life may depend on it.
5. Palestinian harassment leads to biased reporting.
Reporting from a war zone can be dangerous business. Around the world, correspondents have been harassed, wounded, kidnapped and killed.
In the recent violence, a few journalists have been accidentally shot by Israeli soldiers. But here's the difference. The Israeli Government does not have a policy to threaten or intimidate journalists. An Israeli soldier firing on an unarmed reporter would be court-martialed and sent to prison.
The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, has a long-standing policy of intimidating journalists, from its PLO antecedents in Beirut, when journalists were assassinated for writing articles critical of the PLO and Arafat. Today, at least four human rights watchdog groups -- Amnesty International, Freedom House, U.S. State Department Human Rights Report, and the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group -- have all published reports on Palestinian harassment, arrest and torture of journalists. All four reports conclude that for the sake of self-preservation Palestinian reporters practice "self-censorship."
Over the course of the Palestinian uprising, foreign crews have had their film confiscated when covering events that put the Palestinians in a bad light. The film of the lynching of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah had to be smuggled out for broadcast, and another Italian journalist apologized to the Palestinian Authority after the film was broadcast.
More recently, a Newsweek correspondent and photographer were kidnapped by Palestinians in Gaza.
Either subtly or overtly, reporters are restricted from doing a hard-hitting story on Palestinian corruption, brutality, or violations of Oslo agreements -- without jeopardizing future access to Palestinian sources, and without risk to their lives.
6. Reliance on Palestinian stringers and cameramen means biased reporting.
Because of such restricted access to Palestinian sources, Western news agencies rely on their Palestinian staffers, stringers, researchers, facilitators, and film crews for translations, access to Palestinian leadership, and getting the stories and films that are too difficult or dangerous for the foreign correspondent.
Of course, the materials supplied by Palestinian sources are biased. Most of the "suppliers" are anti-Israel and fervent supporters of the Palestinian "cause." And all of them must practice self-censorship for their own safety.
Ehud Ya'ari, a veteran Israeli television analyst and Arab affairs expert, recently wrote in the Jerusalem Report:
"...[O]ver 95 percent of the TV pictures going out on satellite every evening to the various foreign and Israeli channels are supplied by Palestinian film crews. The two principal agencies in the video news market, APTN and Reuters TV, run a whole network of Palestinian stringers, freelancers and fixers all over the territories to provide instant foot-age of the events.
"These crews obviously identify emotionally and politically with the intifada and, in the 'best' case, they simply don't dare film anything that could embarrass the Palestinian Authority. So the cameras are angled to show a tainted view of the Israeli army's actions, never focus on the Palestinian gunmen and diligently produce a very specific kind of close-up of the situation on the ground."
Like an infectious disease, biased reporting cannot be eradicated. But at the same time biased reporting should not be ignored or treated with placebos.
It is time for frustrated consumers to recognize that they have consumer rights and recourse. If you bought a carton of milk that was spoiled, you might ignore it once or twice. But by the third time, you'd go back to the store and demand a satisfactory product, or else you'd switch to a more reliable supplier.
As consumers of the news, we have the right to demand an honest product. But first we have to know spoiled milk when we smell it. That requires educating ourselves about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the basis of Israeli and Palestinian claims, and current diplomatic complexities.
As consumers who care about the future of the State of Israel, we must educate ourselves so that we can demand an accurate and unbiased media product. To paraphrase Sy Symms, the great clothing salesman: "The best news customer is an educated consumer."
Excerpts from a speech given to Amit Women, May 30, 2001