There’s an article coming out in the next issue of Communication Research that tries to untangle how and why foreign countries get covered by U.S. news outlets in general, and by NBC and the New York Times in particular. The peer-reviewed piece is a collaboration between researchers spread across Washington state and two Dutch universities, and – like all good academic work – has a soporific title, Foreign Nation Visibility in U.S. News Coverage: A Longitudinal Analysis (1950-2006).
The long timeline means that even regional wars get pushed down the list by Cold War and global diplomacy coverage. So the USSR, China, Britain, and France are all prominent because they’re nuclear powers on the Security Council. Germany and Japan show up a lot because we had just finished fighting them and had troops on their territory.
And then there’s one other distant country with which the U.S. press seems to be preoccupied, above and beyond any country except the USSR:
The first step in our analysis was to examine which countries were most visible during each of the four geopolitical eras analyzed. Table 1 lists the top ten most mentioned foreign nations in the NYT and on NBC during the early Cold War era (1950-1973), the late Cold War era (1974-1991), the post–Cold War era (1992-2001), and the post-9/11 era (2002-2006). Notably, nine countries were among the top ten most mentioned countries in at least four of the eight series analyzed. Specifically, Russia (USSR) and Israel received the most consistent news coverage—followed closely by Britain, China, France, Japan, Germany, Iraq, and Mexico.
The authors go on to suggest coverage of Israel is so obsessive because the Jewish State is a close U.S. ally and has nuclear weapons. That’s historically a little dicey – certainly the U.S.-Israel relationship was rocky throughout the 1950s and 1960s – and it certainly doesn’t account for why coverage of Israel is greater than of Britain. But it’s also in direct tension with the study’s actual conclusions, which is that coverage is driven by distance, U.S. troop deployment, economic power, and population. To explain the media’s obsession with Israel, it seems, requires something a little more sociological.
The findings put into perspective the lame excuse trotted out by NYT public editor Arthur Brisbane, which is that the Times gets criticism from both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel advocates and so must be doing something right. Before getting to that though, here’s a sense of the Times’ coverage leading up to, and immediately following, Brisbane’s claim:
* In July, the newspaper published context-less Hamas positions about the history and purpose of Israel’s Gaza blockade, along the way ignoring the announced blockade-busting goal of the recent Gaza flotilla. The flotilla, of course, was the central Israel story of the month.
* In June ,the newspaper published an AP report about how two out of three Israeli soldiers were charged with taking inappropriate snapshots of Palestinian prisoners, a story that Times editors headlined “Israel: No Charges Over Prisoner Photos.” The degree to which Israeli courts punish Israeli crimes has recently become a focal point of anti-Israel delegitimizers, who are attacking the Jewish State’s judicial competence in the hopes of internationalizing trials.
* In May, the newspaper laughingly asserted that “Israelis see Netanyahu trip as a diplomatic failure,” which flew in the face of every Israeli poll but reflected a reality the Times really wanted to be true. Obama’s broadside of Netanyahu and the president’s agreement-abrogating 1967 borders position were, of course, the central diplomatic dramas of that month.
* Also in May, the newspaper editorialized that Hamas leader Khaled Meshal was “fully committed” to a two-state solution. That editorial was an echo of a news story, published just days before, which was from the previous week headlined “Hamas Leader Calls for Two-State Solution, but Refuses to Renounce Violence.” The second part of the headline was technically true in the sense that Meshal refused to renounce violence, but in that story the Hamas leader declared a Palestinian state would not prevent Hamas from continuing to try to destroy Israel – which is kind of the definition of a two-state solution.
And then of course there was the Times’ surreal coverage of the first Gaza flotilla, where the Newspaper of Record asserted that “angry Israeli commandos” had turned “a ship of protesters in international waters into a bloodbath.” That characterization – like the rest of the Times’ Israel journalism – crosses over into bias even if lunatic anti-Israel partisans complain that it’s not harsh enough.
But let’s ignore all of that. Even if the Times is balanced, that doesn’t justify their obsessive focus on Israel, something that has now been verified by an in-depth examination of their coverage spanning more than half a century. The newspaper, along with huge swaths of the media, doesn’t just indulge in anti-Israel propaganda on their editorial and news pages. They do so in a determined drip drip drip way that plays into the hands of delegitimizers. Maybe anti-Israel activists will complain it’s not enough, and then it’ll be alright.