Anybody who has worked in an actual newsroom knows that mainstream media bias–most pungently against conservative cultural mores and the State of Israel–is real and pervasive. The question that crops up time and again is: Why? Where does the bias come from, why can’t it be corrected? Yesterday Matti Friedman, in an in-depth piece on media coverage and the Arab-Israeli conflict, gave an answer, at least with regard to media bias against Israel. He’s right. And much of the pro-Israel world wishes he weren’t.
Friedman worked for the Associated Press, and saw firsthand how the Western media operates when the subject turns to Israel. It’s an experience shared by all but the most liberal reporters, who don’t notice the bias because of their cloistered worldview. In fact, Friedman considers himself “a liberal, and a critic of many of my country’s policies.” It’s just that he has an affinity for the truth and a belief in the noble role the media can and should play in disseminating the facts.
As a prelude to a rundown of examples of how the AP and other major news organizations omit much of importance in service to their blame-Israel narrative, Friedman writes:
A reporter working in the international press corps here understands quickly that what is important in the Israel-Palestinian story is Israel. If you follow mainstream coverage, you will find nearly no real analysis of Palestinian society or ideologies, profiles of armed Palestinian groups, or investigation of Palestinian government. Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate. The West has decided that Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel, so that opinion is attributed to them as fact, though anyone who has spent time with actual Palestinians understands that things are (understandably, in my opinion) more complicated. Who they are and what they want is not important: The story mandates that they exist as passive victims of the party that matters.
After listing much of what is missing from coverage of the conflict, he gives a particularly glaring example:
The fact that Israelis quite recently elected moderate governments that sought reconciliation with the Palestinians, and which were undermined by the Palestinians, is considered unimportant and rarely mentioned. These lacunae are often not oversights but a matter of policy. In early 2009, for example, two colleagues of mine obtained information that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had made a significant peace offer to the Palestinian Authority several months earlier, and that the Palestinians had deemed it insufficient. This had not been reported yet and it was—or should have been—one of the biggest stories of the year. The reporters obtained confirmation from both sides and one even saw a map, but the top editors at the bureau decided that they would not publish the story.
Some staffers were furious, but it didn’t help. Our narrative was that the Palestinians were moderate and the Israelis recalcitrant and increasingly extreme. Reporting the Olmert offer—like delving too deeply into the subject of Hamas—would make that narrative look like nonsense. And so we were instructed to ignore it, and did, for more than a year and a half.
This decision taught me a lesson that should be clear to consumers of the Israel story: Many of the people deciding what you will read and see from here view their role not as explanatory but as political. Coverage is a weapon to be placed at the disposal of the side they like.
It was a big story (when it was finally revealed), and it really would have been quite a scoop. Many observers would be frankly shocked to learn about the proclivity of editors to lose out on an important scoop because the facts of the story aren’t anti-Israel enough. But that’s the reality of the international, especially Western, media.
And seemingly minor stories can also make a big difference. A good example came in late 2012 from New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, whose tenure thus far has been undeniably disastrous. Slanting a story is one thing, but Rudoren has taken to simply redrawing maps. She wrote a patently ridiculous story asserting that building in the E-1 corridor near Jerusalem would divide the West Bank in two. The article contained even more errors than that, and they were mistakes that could have been prevented by glancing at a map.
Does the Times have access to a map? Has anyone at the Times looked out a window while in Jerusalem? Of course. What’s happening is not a series of slip-ups–no one with any experience in the matter could possibly make Rudoren’s claims with a straight face. What’s happening is bias-as-policy, as Friedman points out.
Rudoren’s story is just one of many examples. But the point is that while defenders of the anti-Israel press tend to think Israel’s defenders read the coverage of the conflict in the hopes of finding bias wherever and whenever possible, the opposite is true. Israel and her defenders, in general, wish fervently that Friedman’s assessment is wrong.
That’s because if the unreliable reporting were simply a matter of inexperience and ignorance, it could be remedied. Israel has made far more effort in recent years to get its side of the story out. If the media were truly interested in getting the story right, this would make a difference. It isn’t, and so it hasn’t. That’s the bleak reality of the mainstream media’s coverage of Israel.