Myths & Facts Online
coverage of Israel is proportional to its importance
in world affairs.
“Press coverage of Israel is proportional to its importance in world affairs.”
It is hard to justify the amount of news coverage given to Israel based on that nation’s importance in world affairs or American national interests. How is it that a country the size of New Jersey routinely merits top billing over seemingly more newsworthy nations likesuch as Russia, China and Great Britain?
Israel probably has the highest per capita fame quotient in the world. Americans know more about Israeli politics than that of any other foreign country. Most of Israel’s leaders, for example, are more familiar in the United States than those of America’s neighbors in Canada or Mexico. In addition, a high percentage of Americans are conversant on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
One reason Americans are so knowledgeable about Israel is the extent of coverage. American news organizations usually have more correspondents in Israel than in any country except Great Britain.
“Israel receives so much attention because it is the only country in the Middle East that affects U.S. interests.”
The Middle East is important to the United States (and the Western world) primarily because of its oil resources. Events that might threaten the production and supply of oil affect vital U.S. interests. The United States also has an interest in supporting friendly regimes in the region. Attention is warranted because the Middle East is the scene of repeated conflagrations that directly or indirectly affect American interests. Events in countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Iran have required the intervention of U.S. troops, and nothing focuses the attention of the public like American lives being endangered abroad. The United States has been deeply involved in each of the Arab-Israeli wars, but has also had its own independent battles, most notably the Gulf War with Iraq in 1991 and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in 2003. The media is now very focused on Iraq because of the continuing U.S. troop deployment there.
On the other hand, Americans are not typically interested in the fratricidal wars of people in distant lands when the fighting does not appear to have any bearing on U.S. interests. This is true in Africa, Latin America and even the Balkans. Similarly, inter-Arab wars have not generated the kind of interest that Israel’s problems have. However, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — two people fighting over one land — is a particularly compelling story. It is made all the more so by the fact that it is centered in the Holy Land.
Another explanation for the disproportionate coverage Israel receives relative to Arab countries is that few correspondents have a background in Middle East history or speak the regional languages. Journalists are more familiar with the largely Western culture in Israel than the more alien Muslim societies.
“Media coverage of the Arab world is objective.”
When journalists are allowed to pierce the veil of secrecy, the price of access to dictators and terrorists is often steep. Reporters are sometimes intimidated or blackmailed. In Lebanon during the 1980s, for example, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had reporters doing their bidding as the price for obtaining interviews and protection. During the Palestinian War, Israeli journalists were warned against going to the Palestinian Authority and some received telephone threats after publishing articles critical of the PA leadership.1
When asked to comment on what many viewers regard as CNN’N’s bias against Israel, Reese Schonfeld, the network’’s first president explained, “When I see them on the air I see them being very careful about Arab sensibilities.” Schonfeld suggested the coverage is slanted because CNN doesn’t want to risk the special access it has in the Arab world.2
In Arab countries, journalists are usually escorted to see what the dictator wants them to see or they are followed. Citizens are warned by security agencies, sometimes directly, sometimes more subtly, that they should be careful what they say to visitors.
In the case of coverage of the PA, the Western media relies heavily on Palestinian assistants to escort correspondents in the territories. In addition, Palestinians often provide the news that is sent out around the world. For example, at least two journalists working for Agence France-Presse simultaneously worked for PA media outlets. An Associated Press correspondent also worked for the PA’s official newspaper. One veteran journalist said, “It’s like employing someone from the [Israeli] Government Press Office or one of the Israeli political parties to work as a journalist.”3
“By my own estimate,” journalist Ehud Ya’’ari wrote, “over 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 principle 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 footage 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.”4
A particularly egregious incident occurred in October 2000 when two non-combatant Israeli reservists were lynched in Ramallah by a Palestinian mob. According to reporters on the scene, the Palestinian police tried to prevent foreign journalists from filming the incident. One Italian television crew managed to film parts of the attack and these shocking images ultimately made headlines around the world. A competing Italian news agency took a different tack, placing an advertisement in the PA’s main newspaper, Al Hayat-Al-Jadidah, explaining that it had nothing to do with filming the incident:
If a news organization strays from the pro-Palestinian line, it comes under immediate attack. In November 2000, for example, the Palestinian Journalist’s Union complained that the Associated Press was presenting a false impression of the Palestinian War. The Union called AP’s coverage a conscious crime against the Palestinian people and said it served the Israeli position. The Union threatened to adopt all necessary measures against AP staffers as well as against AP bureaus located in the PA if the agency continued to harm Palestinian interests.6
“Journalists covering the Middle East are driven by the search for the truth.”
It will come as no surprise to learn that journalists in the Middle East share an interest in sensationalism with their colleagues covering domestic issues. The most egregious examples come from television reporters whose emphasis on visuals over substance encourages facile treatment of the issues. For example, when NBC’s correspondent in Israel was asked why reporters turned up at Palestinian demonstrations in the West Bank they knew were being staged, he said, “We play along because we need the pictures.”8 The networks can’t get newsworthy pictures from closed societies such as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Libya.
Israel often faces an impossible situation of trying to counter images with words. “When a tank goes into Ramallah, it does not look good on TV,” explains Gideon Meir of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “Sure we can explain why we are there, and that’s what we do. But it’s words. We have to fight pictures with words.”9
The magnitude of the problem Israel confronts is clear from Tami Allen-Frost, deputy chairman of the Foreign Press Association and a producer for Britain’s ITN news, who says “the strongest picture that stays in the mind is of a tank in a city” and that “there are more incidents all together in the West Bank than there are suicide bombings. In the end, it’s quantity that stays with you.”10
“Israel gets favorable coverage because American Jews control the media and have disproportionate political influence.”
If Jews controlled the media, it’s not likely you’d hear Jews complaining so much about the anti-Israel bias of the press. It is true that the amount of attention Israel receives is related to the fact that the largest Jewish population outside Israel is in the United States, and that Israel greatly concerns American Jews. Large numbers of Jews do hold significant positions in the media (though they by no means “control” the press as anti-Semites maintain), and the Jewish population is concentrated in major media markets such as New York and Los Angeles, so it is not surprising the spotlight would be directed at Israel.
Politically, Jews wield disproportionate power in the United States and use it to advocate policies that strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship; however, there is no evidence this has translated into favorable press coverage for Israel. It is possible to argue the pro-Arab lobby has as much or more influence on the media and encourage an anti-Israel bias.
“Arab officials tell Western journalists the same thing they tell their own people.”
Arab officials often express their views differently in English than they do in Arabic. They express their true feelings and positions to their constituents in their native language. For external consumption, however, Arab officials have learned to speak in moderate tones and often relate very different views when speaking in English to Western audiences. Long ago, Arab propagandists became more sophisticated about how to make their case. They now routinely appear on American television news broadcasts and are quoted in the print media and come across as reasonable people with legitimate grievances. What many of these same people say in Arabic, however, is often far less moderate and reasonable. Since Israelis can readily translate what is said in Arabic they are well aware of the views of their enemies. Americans and other English-speakers, however, can easily be fooled by the slick presentation of an Arab propagandist.
To give just one example, Palestinian peace negotiator Saeb Erekat is frequently quoted by the Western media. After the brutal murder of two Israeli teenagers on May 9, 2001, he was asked for a reaction. The Washington Post reported his response:
Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian official, said in English at a news conference that “killing civilians is a crime, whether on the Palestinian or the Israeli side.” The comment was not reported in Arabic-language Palestinian media.11
The unusual aspect of this story was that the Post reported the fact that Erekat’’s comment was ignored by the Palestinian press.
Over the years Yasser Arafat was famous for saying one thing in English to the Western media and something completely different to the Arabic press in his native tongue. This is why the Bush Administration insisted that he repeat in Arabic what he said in English, in particular condemnations of terrorist attacks and calls to end violence. It is more difficult for Arab leaders to get away with doubletalk today because their Arabic remarks are now translated by watchdog organizations and disseminated in English.
“Journalists are well-versed in Middle East history and therefore can place current events in proper context.”
One cause of misunderstanding about the Middle East and bias in media reporting is the ignorance of journalists about the region. Few reporters speak Hebrew or Arabic, so they have little or no access to primary resources. They frequently regurgitate stories they read in English language publications from the region rather than report independently. When they do attempt to place events in historical context, they often get the facts wrong and create an inaccurate or misleading impression. To cite one example, during a recitation of the history of the holy sites in Jerusalem, CNN’s Garrick Utley reported that Jews could pray at the Western Wall during Jordan’s rule from 1948 to 1967.12 In fact, Jews were prevented from visiting their holiest shrine. This is a critical historical point that helps explain Israel’s position toward Jerusalem.
“Israelis cannot deny the truth of pictures showing their abuses.”
A picture may be worth thousand words, but sometimes the picture and the words used to describe it are distorted and misleading. There is no question that photographers and television camera crews seek the most dramatic pictures they can find, most often showing brutal Israeli Goliaths mistreating the suffering Palestinian Davids, but the context is often missing.
In one classic example, the Associated Press circulated a dramatic photo of an angry baton-wielding Israeli soldier standing over a bloody young man. It appeared the soldier had just beaten the youth. The picture appeared in the New York Times14 and spurred international outrage because the caption, supplied by AP, said, “An Israeli policeman and a Palestinian on the Temple Mount.” Taken at a time when Palestinians were rioting following Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to the al-Aksa mosque, the picture appeared to be a vivid case of Israeli brutality. It turned out, however, the caption was inaccurate and the photo actually showed an incident that might have conveyed almost the exact opposite impression had it been reported correctly.
In fact, the victim was not a Palestinian beaten by an Israeli soldier, it was a policeman protecting an American Jewish student, Tuvia Grossman, who had been riding in a taxi when it was stoned by Palestinians. Grossman was pulled out of the taxi, beaten and stabbed. He broke free and fled toward the Israeli policeman. At that point a photographer snapped the picture.
Besides getting the victim wrong, AP also inaccurately reported that the photograph was taken on the Temple Mount.
When AP was alerted to the errors, it issued a series of corrections, several of which still did not get the story straight. As is usually the case when the media makes a mistake, the damage was already done. Many outlets that had used the photo did not print clarifications. Others issued corrections that did not receive anywhere near the prominence of the initial story.
Another example of how pictures can be both dramatic and misleading was a Reuters photo showing a young Palestinian being arrested by Israeli police on April 6, 2001. The boy was obviously frightened and wet his pants. Once again the photo attracted worldwide publicity and reinforced the media image of Israelis as brutal occupiers who abuse innocent children. children.
In this instance it is the context that is misleading. Another Reuters photographer snapped another picture just before the first one was taken. It showed the same boy participating in a riot against Israeli soldiers. Few media outlets published this photo.
“The press makes no apologies for terrorists.”
The media routinely accepts and repeats the platitudes of terrorists and their spokespersons with regard to their agendas. The press gullibly treats claims that attacks against innocent civilians are acts of “freedom fighters.” In recent years some news organizations have developed a resistance to the term “terrorist” and replaced it with euphemisms such as “militant” because they don’t want to be seen as taking sides or making judgments about the perpetrators.
For example, after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a pizza restaurant in downtown Jerusalem on August 9, 2001, killing 15 people, the attacker was described as a “militant” (Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, NBC Nightly News) and “suicide bomber” (New York Times, USA Today). ABC News did not use the word “terrorist.” When a Palestinian woman walked into a crowded beach restaurant in Haifa and detonated a bomb that killed 21 people, including four children on October 4, 2003, the Reuters account said she had waged an “attack” in retaliation for previous Israeli army actions and that the bombing showed that Palestinian officials had failed to “rein in the militants.”15
Clifford May of the Middle East Information Network pointed out the absurdity of the media coverage: “No newspaper would write, ‘Militants struck the World Trade Center yesterday,’ or say, ‘They may think of themselves as freedom fighters, and who are we to judge, we’re news people.’” 16
One of the best examples of how the press sometimes distinguishes terrorist attacks against other nations was a list of “recent terror attacks around the world” disseminated in November 2003 by the Associated Press, probably the most influential news service in the world. The list cited 15 terrorist incidents during the five-year period between August 1998 and August 2003. During that period, more than 800 Israelis were murdered in terrorist attacks, but not one of the incidents in Israel made the list.18 Similarly, when AP released its Year in Photos 2003, six of the 130 photos chosen related to human suffering in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All six were of Palestinians.
In a memo to the New York Times foreign desk, former Jerusalem bureau chief James Bennet criticized his paper’s reluctance to use the word “terrorism.” He said, “The calculated bombing of students in a university cafeteria, or of families gathered in an ice cream parlor, cries out to be called what it is….I wanted to avoid the political meaning that comes with ‘terrorism,’ but I couldn’t pretend that the word had no usage at all in plain English.” Bennett acknowledged that not using the term was “a political act in itself.”19 [FN quoted in Daniel Okrent, “The War of the Words: A Dispatch From the Front Lines,” New York Times, (March 6, 2005).]
Rather than apologize for terrorists, the media sometimes portrays the victims of terror as equivalent to the terrorists themselves. For example, photos are sometimes shown of Israeli victims on the same page with photos of Israelis capturing terrorists, giving the sense, for example, that the Palestinian held in handcuffs and blindfolded by a soldier is as much a victim as the shocked woman in being helped from the scene of a suicide bombing.
In one of the most egregious examples, after a suicide bombing in Petah Tikva on May 27, 2002, CNN interviewed the mother of the bomber, Jihad Titi. The parents of a 15-month-old girl killed in the attack, Chen and Lior Keinan, were also interviewed. The interviews with the Keinans were not shown on CNN international in Israel or elsewhere around the world until hours after the interview with Titi’s mother had been broadcast several times.
This was even too much for CNN, which subsequently announced a policy change whereby it would no longer “report on statements made by suicide bombers or their families unless there seemingly is an extraordinarily compelling reason to do so.”20
The media routinely accepts and repeats the platitudes of terrorists and their spokespersons with regard to their agendas. The press gullibly treats claims that attacks against innocent civilians are acts of “freedom fighters.” In recent years some news organizations have developed a resistance to the term “terrorist” and replaced it with euphemisms like “militant” because they don’t want to be seen as taking sides or making judgments about the perpetratorMYTH
“The Palestinian Authority places no restrictions on foreign reporters.”
A case study of the Palestinian Authority’s idea of freedom of the press occurred following the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States. An Associated Press cameraman filmed Palestinians at a rally in Nablus celebrating the terror attacks and was subsequently summoned to a Palestinian Authority security office and told that the material must not be aired. Yasser Arafat’s Tanzim also called to threaten his life if he aired the film. An AP still photographer was also at the site of the rally. He was warned not to take pictures and complied.
Several Palestinian Authority officials told AP in Jerusalem not to broadcast the videotape. Ahmed Abdel Rahman, Arafat’s Cabinet secretary, said the Palestinian Authority “cannot guarantee the life”“ of the cameraman if the footage was broadcast.21
The cameraman requested that the material not be aired and, AP caved in to the blackmail and refused to release the footage.
More than a week later, the Palestinian Authority returned a videotape it confiscated from AP showing a Palestinian rally in the Gaza Strip in which some demonstrators carried posters supporting Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden. Two separate parts of the six-minute tape involving “key elements“” were erased by the Palestinians, according to an AP official.22
Israel Radio reported September 14,
2001, that the Palestinian Authority seized
the footage filmed that day by photographers from
various international (including Arab) news agencies
covering Hamas celebrations of
the attacks against America held in cities across
the West Bank and Gaza by
In October 2001, after the United States launched attacks against Afghanistan, Palestinians supporting Osama bin Laden staged rallies in the Gaza Strip that were ruthlessly suppressed by Palestinian police. The PA took measures to prevent any media coverage of the rallies or the subsequent riots. The Paris-based Reporters Without Frontiers issued a scathing protest to the PA. “We fear the Palestinian Authority takes advantage of the focus of international media on the American riposte to restrain more and more the right to free information,”“ said Robert Menard, general secretary of the journalists’ organization. The group also protested Palestinian orders not to broadcast calls for general strikes, nationalistic activities, demonstrations or other news without permission from the PA. The aim of the press blackout was expressed by an anonymous Palestinian official, “We don’’t want anything which could undermine our image.”“24
In August 2002, the Palestinian journalists’ union banned journalists from photographing Palestinian children carrying weapons or taking part in activities by terrorist organizations because the pictures were hurting the Palestinians’ image. The ban came after numerous photographs were published showing children carrying weapons and dressing up like suicide bombers. Shortly before the union acted, six children were photographed carrying M16 rifles and Kalashnikovs during a pro-Iraq rally in the Gaza Strip. Another group, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, issued a similar ban that included photographing masked men. The Foreign Press Association expressed “deep concern”“ over the effort to censor coverage, and the threats of sanctions against journalists who disregarded the ban.25
In July 2004, as Gaza became increasingly unstable, and protests were being mounted against corruption in the Palestinian Authority and the leadership of Arafat, Palestinian journalists covering the crisis received death threats. They were told, for example, to stay away from a rally in Gaza to protest Arafat’s decision to appoint his cousin as the commander of the PA security forces. One reporter who works for an international news organization said journalists were told that anyone who went to the rally would suffer the same fate as a Palestinian legislator who was shot after he called for reforms in the PA in a television interview. The Gaza rally was subsequently either downplayed or ignored by the Palestinian media.26 In July 2005, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate in the Gaza Strip called on Palestinian journalists to celebrate Israel’s “retreat” from Gaza and to refrain from covering covering clashes between rival Palestinian groups.27[FN Khaled Abu Toameh, “PA to journalists: All slain Palestinians are martyrs,” Jerusalem Post, (January 12, 2004) and “PA journalists urged to celebrate Gaza ‘retreat,’” Jerusalem Post, (July 27, 2005).]
Journalists from Arab nations are also subject to censorship. In January 2003, for example, the PA’s General Intelligence Service arrested a correspondent for al-Jazeera television. The journalist was accused of harming the national interests of the Palestinian people by reporting that Fatah had claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. In January 2004, journalists working for Arab satellite TV stations were told to refer to all Palestinians killed by the IDF as shaheeids (martyrs).
Numerous incidents have also been reported of physical attacks on journalists who offended PA officials. A reporter for a Saudi-owned news channel was wounded by gunfire when he was driving through the Gaza Strip. He was then dragged from his car and beaten because his station had allowed criticism of Yasser Arafat and other officials. A week later, 100 Palestinian journalists went to Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah to pledge allegiance to him.28
“The media carefully investigates Palestinian claims before publicizing them.”
Palestinians have learned that they can disseminate almost any information to the media and it will be published or broadcast somewhere. Once it is picked up by one media outlet, it is inevitably repeated by others. Quickly, misinformation can take on the appearance of fact, and while Israel can present evidence to correct the inaccuracies being reported, the damage is usually already done. Once an image or impression is in someone’s mind, it is often difficult, if not impossible to erase it.
For example, a Palestinian boy was stabbed to death in a village near a Jewish settlement. The media repeated Palestinian claims that the boy was attacked by settlers when in fact it was later revealed that he had been killed in a brawl between rival Palestinian clans.29 On another occasion, a 10-year-old Palestinian girl was allegedly killed by IDF tank fire. This time it turned out she died as a result of a Palestinians shooting in the air to celebrate the return of Muslim worshipers from Mecca.30
It is said that there are three types of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics. One staple of Palestinian propaganda has been to distribute false statistics in an effort to make Israeli actions look monstrous. For example, if an incident involves some death or destruction, they can grossly exaggerate the figures and a gullible media will repeat the fabricated data until they become widely accepted as accurate. This occurred, for example, during the Lebanon War when Yasser Arafat’s brother claimed that Israel’s operations had left 600,000 Lebanese homeless. He made the number up, but it was repeated by the International Committee of the Red Cross and publicized in the media. By the time the ICRC repudiated the figure, it was too late to change the impression that Israel’s military operation to defend itself from terrorist attacks on its northern border had created an unconscionable refugee problem.31
This happened again after Israel’s operation in Jenin in April 2002 when Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat told CNN on April 17 that at least 500 people were massacred and 1,600 people, including women and children, were missing. It was a fabrication as the Erekat could produce no evidence for his claim and, in fact, the Palestinians’ own review committee later concluded. reported a death toll of 56, of whom 34 were combatants. No women or children were reported missing.32
What is perhaps more outrageous than the repetition of Erekat’s lie is that media outlets continue to treat him as a legitimate spokesperson, giving him access that allows him to regularly disseminate misinformation. If an American official was ever found to have lied to the press, they would lose all credibility and would have little or no chance of being given a forum to express their views.
(May 7, 1991).
19qQuoted in Daniel Okrent, “The War of the Words: A Dispatch From the Front Lines,” New York Times, (March 6, 2005).
20Forward, (June 28, 2002).
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