The relentlessly negative coverage of Israel in the Western press over the last few years has centered on the flawed assumption that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been on the verge of ordering a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, any day now, since the moment he took office three years ago. This has resulted in coverage of Israel and Israeli politics that is utterly divorced from reality.
Reporters credulously published rumors, seemingly completely unaware they were being spun by those trying to shape public policy, and opinion writers sounded the alarm. This created the effect of the media—not Netanyahu—swearing war was imminent and then attacking Netanyahu for the impending doom they insisted was coming. All the while Netanyahu did what he has been doing all along: concentrating on sanctions. The Obama administration continued to act as the primary obstacle to tough sanctions—first delaying them, then watering them down over Congress’s objections, then handing out exemptions like candy—making a military strike more likely by not fully utilizing other means to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the last two weeks, two media events have displayed what should represent—one can only hope—the bottoming out of the coverage before it bounces back up closer to reality.
The first was the publication in Foreign Affairs of a particularly insidious accusation against Netanyahu and Israel: the claim by Michael Desch that “Netanyahu is trying to commit the United States to fighting a preventive war on Israel’s behalf.” The second was when Netanyahu held up a picture of a bomb at his UN General Assembly speech and the media lost its collective mind, with liberal opinion writers so distressed by the fact that the bomb was drawn in anachronistic style that they were left mumbling incoherently to themselves about children’s cartoons. That latter story faded quickly when Netanyahu’s picture soon accompanied the front-page story of nearly every major news service, and Buzzfeed patiently explained to the outraged writers how modern media works, revealing that the joke was on them.
But the former story is a pernicious belief in the theory of the shadowy “Israel Lobby” willing to sacrifice American lives for Israel’s security. On that front, we received some good news yesterday when the results of the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll were released, showing that Americans do not buy into the idea that the budding Iranian nuclear weapons program is a threat only to Israel and that Israel is on its own. The poll asked the following question: “If Iran continues with its nuclear research and is close to developing a nuclear weapon, do you believe that the United States should or should not initiate military action to destroy Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons?” A majority of 58 percent said the United States should initiate military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program, with 33 percent opposed. As the following chart accompanying the poll shows, those numbers are a high and low respectively on this question since 2006:
Leftist journalists may mock Netanyahu’s sometimes simplistic visual devices, but no one has worked harder over the last fifteen years to raise the issue of Iran’s nuclear program in the West and keep it on the press’s radar screen. Netanyahu has also been the most consistent proponent of sanctions—not military action—to stop the program. Yet the media has largely missed that story while beating the drums of war. On that note, we have seen in the last two weeks another story crop up: that Netanyahu has suddenly decided to support sanctions. As Jonathan noted, both Haaretz and the New York Times made this mistake, and the Times does so again in today’s paper.
Netanyahu will be visiting European capitals to push for more sanctions, and the media thinks his dedication to sanctions is new. It’s not. Netanyahu has always preferred a diplomatic solution to the Iranian threat; he believes, however, that a credible threat of force will boost the diplomatic strategy, and that if all else fails, no option should be taken off the table to stop Iran. President Obama has said the same thing. As such, it’s a bit disconcerting to watch the media argue that Netanyahu and Obama are on the same page in terms of strategy and toughness on Iran, but also that Obama is patient and careful while Netanyahu is supposedly an out-of-control warmonger for agreeing with the Wise Man of Peace Obama.
That cognitive dissonance is largely the product of reporters allowing their personal preferences and emotions to dictate the tone of their reporting. Sometimes this results in embarrassing Twitter tantrums, such as the one during the UNGA. Most of the time, however, it manifests in lousy reporting that bounces off the walls of the media’s echo chamber. In the age of new and alternative media, it seems, the American public has become increasingly inured to such histrionics and able, as the WSJ/NBC poll shows, to see things as they are.