The Media and Israel: Biased or just dumb?

Is it newsworthy?If you are a supporter of Israel, you don’t need convincing that most of the mainstream media is (at best) suspicious of and (at worst) openly hostile to the Jewish state.

If you are not a supporter of Israel, it is very likely that you would dismiss such assertions as paranoia. Most media consumers suppose that the information they are given, though it may lean slightly to the right or the left, is more or less balanced.

There is a clear discrepancy between the way Israel’s supporters view the media and the way everyone else does. What is the reason for this? Part of the explanation is that much of what we supporters of Israel perceive as bias is only discernible if you know quite a lot about the Middle East.

A generally well-informed reader, viewer, or listener might find nothing problematic in, for example, the following extract from an overview of the history of the Middle East in the newspaper USA Tody. Describing the events of November 29, 1947, the journalist writes:

The United Nations votes to Partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem an International zone. The Palestinians reject the plan.[1]

One would have to be fairly well-informed to spot that although the Jewish residents did accept the UN partition plan, it was rejected not only by local Arabs, but all of the regional Arab powers (the term “Palestinians”  for Arabs wouldn’t emerge for another decade). The blanket rejection of Israel’s right to exist by the whole Arab world would be central to all further developments ― but it is absent from this account.[2]  With no obvious falsehoods, the description would pass muster as fair, unless you know that it is leaving out significant facts. Drawing attention to this sort of thing can look like nitpicking if you don’t understand the significance of the missing information, and you can only understand that if you are reasonably well informed.

This begs the question why the media consuming public are so ignorant of the background to the Arab-Israel conflict that they can’t spot this sort of thing. One of the answers is that the media doesn’t keep them better informed! (Someone once said that one of the advantages of circular arguments is that they are, at least, consistent!)

Some supporters of Israel will sniff a conspiracy here, and it’s easy to get the impression that the media people must hold a conference call every morning to decide what they can do to upset the Jews today.

However, the real causes of Israel’s problems with the media are both more, and less, sinister than an antisemitic plot.

Don’t Worry, Make Money

In a free-market, democratic society (like the United States) the production of news media is, overwhelmingly, a commercial activity. Whether print, broadcast, or Internet, almost everyone producing news for mainstream audiences is doing it to make money. They may have other objectives as well, including the well-worn journalistic ideals of informing and educating the public, but if they don’t make money, they will not stay in business long enough to fulfill their other aims.

Western reporting tends to be superficial, especially when it comes to the very influential electronic media, particularly TV. The reason it is superficial is that viewers, on the whole, don’t want much depth. There are instances of anti-Israel animus in the media, but most of the problems the Jewish state faces in reportage are due to superficiality not malice.

One can perhaps forgive the media for missing the founding of al Qaeda, in 1988. It was, then, only one of many obscure splinter groups, whose unique significance would only become apparent years later. Even its “re-launch” in 1998, as the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, might have reasonably gone unnoticed. Yet today, more than two decades after it began, and a decade after the September 11 attacks, how much have we learned from the media about Osama bin Laden’s organization? How many people can describe the Salafist ideology that animates it, or distinguish it from the Salafi ideology that preceded it? Who knows what influence it bears on mainstream Islam? Surely these are the key questions that would help form a public policy toward the Islamist threat to the West, so why doesn’t the media cover them?

The answer is as frightening as it is simple: people aren’t interested. If faced with a choice between a one-hour-long “talking heads” show about the first three generations of Islam and their significance on the world today, and a “reality” show, most normal people opt for news from the “Big Brother House.” The media is superficial because that is what most of its consumers want.

The pro-Israel media watcher who notices superficial and sloppy reports should bear in mind that this is also probably true of almost any other story that the media is covering. It’s just that we tend to notice it when the issue is Israel. Talk to some of your friends who are sensitive to other issues (feminists, members of racial minorities, believers in other religions) and you will often find that their concerns about media bias mirror ours. It leaves you wondering if the media can be wrong about everything?

I’ve come to the conclusion that, with the possible exception of sports reports and the closing prices, they can indeed.

(Don’t think that that means that I view the situation as hopeless. In a future blog I’ll write about possible strategies for dealing with this problem.)

[1] The Mideast Conflict: A look at the region’s history, http://www.usatoday.com/graphics/news/gra/gisrael2/flash.htm as of August, 2004

[2] Analysis by Honest Reporting.com, http://www.honestreporting.com/articles/45884734/critiques/USA_Todays_Deceptive_Backgrounder.asp as of August 2004.

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