Commentary Magazine


The Media and the Middle East

The task of the historian is often not to ascertain what the press says, but to go behind the face of the returns and to determine why it says what it says, when it says it, and what is the effect of what it has said.

—Lucy Maynard Salmon, The Newspaper and the Historian (1923)

American press coverage of the 1982 war in Lebanon rightly provoked a storm of criticism. As a variety of analysts have shown, many errors were made in the reporting of facts, and anti-Israel bias was rampant. But falsehood and prejudice, if they were the outstanding media problems in 1982, are not usually the main source of inaccuracy regarding the Middle East. That arises out of the subject matter chosen for coverage.

Put simply, American journalists are interested in only two topics in the Middle East: Israel and the United States. Whatever takes place that is related to these countries is amplified and broadcast to the world; whatever does not is virtually ignored.1

A few statistics will serve to make the point. Taking news coverage by ABC, CBS, and NBC from 1972 to 1980, we find that the average number of minutes per year devoted to Israel was 98.4. In contrast, Egypt received only 54.7 minutes, the PLO 42.4, Syria 25.7, Lebanon 18.4, Saudi Arabia 12.7, Jordan 8.5, and Iraq 7.2. As for the United States in the Middle East, the average coverage over the nine years was 152.7 minutes while coverage of the Soviet Union was limited to 19.4 minutes and of Europe to 13.

Media fascination with the U.S. shows up most dramatically in the case of Iran. From 1972 to 1978 Iran’s presence on the network news came to a mere 9.6 minutes a year; then in 1979-80 the hostage crisis caused interest in Iran to jump 39 times, to 375.2 minutes. As William C. Adams, the author of a study from which these figures derive, concludes:

Overall, the stress on the Arab-Israeli conflict has skewed Middle East news away from the parts of the region that are not contiguous to Israel. At the same time, emphasis on the U.S. policy and its role has skewed news away from the relations of the world to the Middle East. . . . Until the events in Afghanistan and Iran in 1979 and 1980, Middle East news was mostly about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the U.S. role in the region.

This preoccupation with just two parts of a much larger whole gives rise to an extreme narrowness of vision, which in turn accounts for the great number of distortions and mistakes of American journalism with regard to the Middle East.

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II

Despite Israel’s small size and great distance, Americans know more about its political life than about any other foreign country. More of Israel’s leaders, for example, are familiar by name in the United States than those of any other government, including Great Britain and the USSR. Many Americans can converse with facility about the latest developments in Israel’s conflict with the Arabs or can articulate specific views on current Israeli policy. In brief, Israel has what may be termed the highest per-capita fame quotient in the world. (India has perhaps the lowest.) No other country of comparable size—Benin, Laos, Norway, Paraguay—commands even a fraction of Israel’s familiarity in the U.S.

This intimacy is to a great extent the result of the special interest taken in Israel by the press. American news organizations have more correspondents in Israel than in any other foreign country except Great Britain. Nothing concerning Israel, it seems, is too small for coverage in the U.S.; and anything can make headlines. In addition to the major events that occur with stunning regularity—warfare, terrorism, UN resolutions, and the like—many features of daily life, when they take place in Israel, hold international attention. From which other small country does the rate of inflation or land-settlement policy get reported so often and with such prominence? Even the most minor events, of the sort usually ignored by the American press—a doctors’ strike or municipal frictions between religious and nonreligious factions—are of interest in the case of Israel.

The same holds on the international level. During the Falkland Islands crisis of 1982, newspaper stories appeared on Israel’s arms sales to Argentina. Israel’s supplying of weapons to Iran is also a constant topic. Liberia, when it restored full relations with Israel in 1983, caught the attention of a press which had hitherto ignored it altogether. Simply put, Israel and everything associated with it is newsworthy.

To be sure, consistent and in-depth reportage about Israel is in and of itself commendable. Americans are in general too little exposed to the world beyond their borders, and coverage of Israel does, to a degree, help to remedy this deficiency. Indeed, Israel’s circumstances are so different from America’s—from its small size and its position among aggressive neighbors to its multilingual culture and 200-percent inflation rate—that learning about Israel willy-nilly educates Americans about much else in the world.

But there are costs as well. The emphasis on Israel fundamentally distorts the way Americans perceive the Middle East and makes it harder rather than easier to comprehend developments between Israel and the Arabs.

To begin with, the extraordinary prominence given to things Israeli conveys the impression that Israel is the key factor in all aspects of Middle East politics. Whatever the issue—oil prices, Persian Gulf security, U.S. and Soviet relations with the Arabs—Israel always seems to have a lead role. Not only does this downplay other important factors, such as Islam and pan-Arabism, but it also narrows the complexity of Middle East politics to a single dimension. The truth is that Israel does not account for the volatility of Arab politics, the anti-Western policies of OPEC, the Iraq-Iran war, the civil war in Lebanon, or the pro-Soviet alignment of the Syrian government. Were not the media so preoccupied with Israel, Americans would have a more correct and balanced view of its role in the Middle East.

A second distortion follows, somewhat paradoxically, from the first: since what concerns Israel gets reported in banner headlines, and what does not is at best buried in the back pages, Americans tend to miss the extent to which Israel’s political problems are typical of the Middle East. For example, almost every boundary in that part of the world, from Libya to Pakistan, from Turkey to Yemen, is either ill-defined or in dispute. Some of these boundary problems have led to war (such as over Iraq’s differences with Kuwait and Iran). But Americans tend to know only about Israel’s border problems and do not realize that these fit into a pattern that recurs across the Middle East. As a result, Americans tend, mistakenly, to see Israel’s case as unique.

Media preoccupation with Israel also leads to exaggerating the importance of one Arab actor, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Unlike the Arab states, which are integral nations with domestic policies and identities separate from Israel, the PLO is by nature bound to Israel. As the organization that exists to destroy Israel, its fate is inextricably tied to that of the Jewish state. As Israel’s counter-ego, it too receives excessive coverage from the American media. The remarks of every minor Palestinian leader are noted with the same care given to those of minor Israeli political figures. Like Israel, the PLO is imagined to be more powerful than it really is because it is watched so closely.

For similar reasons, Palestinian refugees are accorded attention out of proportion to their numbers or distress. Long after other displaced peoples of a generation ago have disappeared from American consciousness—Crimean Turks, eastern Germans, Koreans, Indians, Pakistanis, Jews from Arab lands—the Palestinians remain vivid. In an era when much larger numbers of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Afghan, and Somali refugees are undergoing far worse tribulations, the preoccupation with Israel has led many observers wrongly to conclude that the Palestinians’ circumstances are the most worthy of their attention.

Reporting on Israel’s neighbors is skewed by the emphasis on their relations with Israel. Only a fraction of news about the political life of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt reaches the American audience, that fraction referring to Israel. For example, key issues in Egypt, such as the endemic economic problems, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and the looming population crisis, attract press attention largely insofar as they might affect relations with Israel. Anwar Sadat became a media star in the U.S. because he took the step to end the state of war with Israel; Hosni Mubarak remains obscure to Americans because he has taken no major initiative vis-à-vis Israel.

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If seeing Egypt in terms of its relations with Israel does an injustice to its political life, this is even more the case with Lebanon. Civil war began in that country in April 1975 and continues to this day. It became a major topic in the American press only in 1978 when Israel launched an operation into southern Lebanon. Then attention lapsed again, to be resumed only with the second Israeli incursion in the summer of 1982. In terms of news, Lebanon is an appendage of Israel.

Coverage of massacres in Lebanon makes this point starkly. A number of massacres took place during the years of civil war, some of them (such as at Tel al-Zataar and Damur) counting thousands of victims. These made only the slightest impression on the U.S. media; they were duly reported, but tended to get lost in the fog of claim and counter-claim. Awful things were taking place, but Americans hardly knew the nature of the conflict, much less the identity of the combatants or the reasons for their murderousness. Then came the killings at Sabra and Shatila, which dominated news coverage in the United States for weeks on end in September and October 1982, followed by discussion and controversy for months afterward. In this case, the media initiated major investigative reports into every detail of the deaths, tracked down the perpetrators, and speculated on the distribution of guilt.

What was the difference between earlier massacres and the one at Sabra and Shatila? Not the number of lives taken, or the brutality of the killers. Sabra and Shatila stood out because Israel was in some way implicated. Arabs butchering one another on their own is not newsworthy; Israel’s presence turns the same occurrence into a media spectacular. Yet the neglect of earlier horrors and the total absorption with the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, as if it were sui generis and not one event in a long sequence, leads once again to distortion, and to a seriously mistaken view of Arab history and politics.

Obsession with Sabra and Shatila had a yet more disturbing effect. International coverage was so focused on Israel that anyone not paying close attention would have thought that Israeli soldiers had perpetrated the killings (though their culpability was in fact limited to giving the Phalangist militia access to Palestinian camps and then not intervening to stop them). In the succeeding months, American attention followed the Israeli commission of inquiry, not its desultory and inconclusive Lebanese counterpart, further confirming the impression that Israel alone deserved to be in the dock. Lebanese had killed Palestinians, and American public opinion condemned Israelis. In this case, overemphasis on Israel caused the very record of what had happened to be falsified.

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Finally, Israel’s overexposure leads to its being held to impossible moral standards. Israelis themselves, of course, accept the same standards as the Western democracies and also aspire to live up to the moral code contained in the Jewish religion. Moreover, as major beneficiaries of U.S. aid, Israelis must and do accept the demanding criteria Americans apply to their allies. This much is fair. But for the media Israel looms so large, and its enemies so small, that it is judged not in relation to them or other states but in relation to abstract ideals. The rest of the world is seen in the context of its time and place; Israel is viewed in isolation.

Examples are not hard to find. Almost no journalists analyzing Israeli rule on the West Bank include information in their reports about Jordanian rule there from 1948 to 1967, nor do they offer comparisons with other parts of the Arab world. Although a proper assessment of Israeli governance of Arabs must take the Arab record into account, media preoccupation with Israel effaces the Arab presence, and thus removes today’s West Bank situation from all considerations of time and place.

Similarly, Israel’s military actions are often judged without regard to the actions of its enemies. During the siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982, many American journalists excoriated Israel for killing innocent Beirutis; but they usually neglected to note that civilians had been exposed to danger in the first place by the PLO strategy of using the population of Beirut as hostages to protect them from an Israeli onslaught. Discussions of PLO morality have never caught American interest as do discussions of Israeli morality; and if Israel’s behavior is in the end found superior to that of its opponents, it hardly matters. The real test comes down to the discrepancy between Israel’s actions and Israel’s ideals, both of which make better copy than those of the Arabs.

In every one of these cases, media obsession with Israel severely impairs the American understanding of Israel as well as of the other actors in the Middle East. Israel is not, in fact, the key to regional issues; the PLO has little scope for independent action; the importance of Egypt goes well beyond its relationship with Israel; Sabra and Shatila were not a novel event in Lebanon; the killings there were committed by Lebanese and not by Israeli soldiers; and final responsibility for the siege of Beirut lies with the PLO. So stated, these assertions appear obvious, yet too often they have become lost in the barrage of attention paid to Israel and to Israel virtually alone.

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III

What explains Israel’s newsworthiness? It derives in part from the fact that Israel is the major American ally in an ongoing, dramatic, and momentous regional conflict. In this sense, Israel can be compared with South Vietnam, which in its time also suffered from excessive press scrutiny—and which was also judged according to abstract moral principles, not in relation to its enemy. But Israel exercises a fascination of its own that goes beyond its position as a major U.S. ally. Even developments that hardly touch on the Arab-Israeli conflict, such as the shutdown of El Al or disputes over archeology, make news abroad, in a way that analogous information about South Vietnam never did, or analogous information about Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia still does not.

To comprehend this fascination requires stepping back from the flow of daily events and recalling some cultural facts. For both the American press and its consumers, the most important reason for placing emphasis on Israel is the fact that it is the Jewish state.

Israel greatly concerns American Jews, who sense a connection between its destiny and their own, and also have an appetite for detailed information about the country and everything touching on it that probably has no parallel among other groups in the United States. The presence of large numbers of Jews in the media contributes further to the preoccupation with Israel, as does the fact that Jews are concentrated in the large cities where the major media are based—especially New York.

Even more important, however, is the inexhaustible fascination of Christians with Jews, deriving in roughly equal parts from theology and history. The fact that Christianity developed from Judaism has created an enduring tension between the two religions whose points of contact are many and intricate. Jesus was a Jew who rejected many Jewish practices; in turn, Jews rejected Jesus as the messiah. Christians often held Jews responsible for the death of Jesus and believed that the Second Coming of Christ awaited the conversion of all the Jews. Christians regard the Hebrew Bible as holy but read it differently from the Jews. For these and other reasons, Jews have a unique place in Christian theology and therefore too in Christian civilization. Over the centuries, what the Jews do has always been a topic of central interest to Christians.

History accentuated this interest. Through most of medieval and modern times, Jews were the only non-Christians most Europeans ever encountered. And they stood out: they dressed differently, practiced alien religious customs, and lived in separate communities. As a conspicuous religious minority with a crucial role in Christian theology, the Jews, up until the culminating Nazi assault on them, were always disproportionately prominent in Europe.

Two developments took place in recent times to modify this picture. First, the United States inherited, with certain modifications, the European interest in Jews. Second, Israel inherited the conspicuousness attached to the Jewish people of Europe. Yet whereas the Jews of Europe attracted attention by being different, the Jews of the Middle East, ironically, attract attention by being familiar. Israel, founded by settlers coming from Europe, is the most Western nation of its region. Consequently, to an American, it is the most comprehensible country in the Middle East. (The emerging Oriental majority in Israel does not change this, for the dominant political culture remains the one established by the pioneers early in the century.) The hopes and fears of Israelis are much more accessible to Americans than are those of their neighbors.

The relative familiarity of Israel makes all the more difference to journalists lacking expertise in the Middle East. The media are no exception to the general rule that American institutions cultivate generalists. An employee rises in his organization by rotating frequently and showing ability at many jobs. Accordingly, American reporters sent to the Middle East are invariably new to the subject and to the culture of the area they are to cover. The familiarity of Israel, in contrast to the alien quality of Muslim life, makes the Jewish state all the more alluring; here is one country journalists feel they can understand.

Also, Israel has the only democratic government and open society in the Middle East; as such, it provides the international media with opportunities not available elsewhere. (Lebanon’s government has been more or less democratic, depending on circumstances; the press could act freely, within the bounds set by the Syrian government and the PLO.) Israeli journalists, being themselves independent-minded and active, provide their American colleagues with many ideas for reports. Because many American journalists are lazy when it comes to pursuing all sides of the Middle East conflict, they concentrate on Israeli matters. In the Arab states (sometimes known to journalists as “the arc of silence”), they are normally under stringent state control. The Syrian government of Hafez al-Assad could devastate one of its own cities, Hama, without a photograph getting out. In Saudi Arabia, secrecy about the royal family prompted one U.S. embassy official to claim that “Learning the arcane language of the wall posters in Peking, or quantifying the May Day pictures in Moscow to see who’s in and who’s out—that stuff is lots easier work than Saudi Arabia.” Years after it took place, the takeover of the Great Mosque in Mecca in November 1979 remains an enigma. Who were those people and what did they hope to achieve? Accounts of the event ascribe it to everyone from Marxists to Islamic fundamentalists. Facts are elusive in the Arab states, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the language and culture.

For all these reasons and more—the drama of its birth, the resurrection of Hebrew, the ingathering of Jews from around the world, the age-old religious associations of the land—Israel commands disproportionate attention from the American media.

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IV

The second focus of U.S. media interest—the United States itself—requires little explanation. Americans have huge economic, political, and military interests in the Middle East. Energy companies do business in most countries of the area and their petroleum equipment is nearly ubiquitous. About three-quarters of all U.S. foreign aid goes to just three Middle East countries, Turkey, Israel, and Egypt. American institutions of higher learning are located in Istanbul, Beirut, and Cairo. Huge quantities of U.S. weapons have gone since 1971 to Israel, its neighbors, and the Persian Gulf region. A central command was set up in 1980 to coordinate U.S. rapid-strike forces in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean areas. Strategic-cooperation agreements were signed with Israel in 1981 and 1983. U.S. Marines and the ships and planes to protect them were in Lebanon from 1982 until recently.

The presence of a home team far away from home distorts the way U.S. journalists cover the Middle East. They pursue their country’s interests in a way that, say, Canadian journalists cannot do for Canada. Problems arise when the U.S. angle comes to dominate; Americans find it more interesting to read about themselves than about foreigners. It is fearfully easy for them to lose track of the larger question in favor of the U.S. role. Journalists are the first to fall into this trap.

For example, when American journalists were polled on the biggest news story of 1983, they chose by a wide margin the October 23 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that left 241 dead. This makes sense from an American perspective: it was the largest single loss of life by the U.S. military since the Vietnam war. But from a Middle Eastern viewpoint, it is a startling choice. The Marine bombing, however tragic, caused just a few more deaths in a civil war that has lasted nine years. The deaths were significant only to the degree they shook U.S. resolve to retain ground troops in Lebanon. American journalists were far less interested in stories that did not touch on the U.S., even if they were much more important to the Middle East—the peaceful transition to democracy in Turkey, the failure of the national reconciliation talks in Lebanon, the resignation of Prime Minister Begin in Israel, the Arafat-Mubarak meeting in Egypt, King Hussein’s refusal of the Reagan plan, the break-up of the PLO, the placement of the SA-5’s and Soviet technicians in Syria, to mention just a few.

When American journalists concentrate on their country’s direct involvement, they encourage the rest of the country to do likewise. This causes two problems. First, international arguments become domesticated. What begin as disagreements between the U.S. and foreign governments end up as intramural squabbles. After the Marines took on an active role in Lebanon in September 1983, the main question in the U.S. came to center on their deployment. With every soldier’s death, the internal debate (over the War Powers Resolution and related matters) took on greater importance and the international questions receded. Within a few months the Lebanese ambassador to the United States, Abdallah Bouhabib, noted with despair that American leaders had become “only interested in discussing the Marine issue. They don’t discuss Lebanon anymore: national reconciliation, strengthening the government. . . . The issue has become just the Marines, not Lebanon.” Turning Middle East issues into domestic debates hobbles U.S. efforts to formulate an effective policy; as Americans pay less attention to ends and more to means, the fewer the goals they attain.

Secondly, focus on the U.S. means seeing Middle East developments through the prism of American interests. From January 1978 to January 1981, the press seriously misled its audience by portraying events in Iran in light of the U.S. involvement there. As the Shah’s regime tottered, the safety of American citizens living in Iran became a first concern. Then the effect of the Shah’s fall was assessed in terms of American business, American military capabilities, American relations with the USSR, and oil prices in the U.S. The press also debated at length the role of the U.S. government in the Shah’s regime and what Washington could have done to prevent his fall. Whatever Iranians did, U.S. interests always remained in the foreground.

Seizure of the U.S. embassy in Teheran in November 1979 then pushed all other issues in Iran to the side. For fifteen months, the hostage story dominated every aspect of reporting from Iran. Worse than the excessive attention to such matters as who saw the hostages and what food they ate on Christmas was the tendency of the U.S. media to present everything happening in Iran as revolving around the hostage issue. The embassy drama, which was a symptom (and not a cause) of a great struggle for power in Teheran, was seen by Americans as an end in itself—indeed, as the central issue of Iranian politics. Direct American involvement led in this case, and not for the first time, to a profoundly wrong understanding of events in the Middle East.

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The opposite pitfall is just as dangerous. Should Americans not be directly involved in an issue, it disappears from the press. The Iraq-Iran war and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are two long-lasting conflicts taking place in the absence of U.S. military participation or even a major U.S. diplomatic role. Predictably, both have been neglected by the American press. In terms of lives lost, the war between Iraq and Iran is by now probably the fourth most costly of the 20th century (following the two world wars and the Indochina conflict). Iranian leaders threaten to blockade oil exports from the Persian Gulf, which would lead to a shortfall of several million barrels of oil a day on the world market. But lives lost and oil security are remote when the U.S. is not involved; newspapers report the war so perfunctorily (usually nothing more than cursory accounts of casualties in obscure towns) that even the most devoted readers lose interest. As for Afghanistan, American journalists did flock there right after the Soviet invasion, in part perhaps because they anticipated a direct U.S. role; when that did not materialize, the press lost interest in the story of villagers fighting Soviet troops.

Difficulties of access to the fighting in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan do not explain this paucity of news. When journalists take an interest in an issue they are not deterred by government restrictions. In Iran, for instance, after U.S. reporters were expelled in the third month of the hostage crisis, the U.S. media maintained coverage almost without interruption by relying on non-U.S. citizens. And in Afghanistan, for anyone determined to cover the war, there is the route by foot from Pakistan. The level of American interest in these two conflicts would probably remain about the same were an ally like France to back the Iraqi regime militarily or airlift weapons to the Afghan rebels. But if the U.S. took either of these steps, interest would soar—showing once again that the fact of U.S. involvement is more newsworthy than the reason for the involvement.

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V

The role of the U.S. media in shaping American public opinion and in influencing Washington’s policies needs little elaboration, but their impact outside the country is less well known. To a great extent, they set the agenda for the rest of the world. What the British or Japanese report does become news in a few other countries, but for an event to attain international prominence it must be reported by the major U.S. press organizations. News stories, no less than sopranos, have to make it in New York. No matter what the provenance, an American seal turns a story into a world-class event.

Thus, the Teheran embassy seizure made headlines everywhere because it was so heavily reported in the United States. In Iran itself, the embassy occupation took on a much larger significance because of U.S. attention. By contrast, when 66 Czechoslovaks were captured by UNITA forces in Angola in March 1983, press coverage outside Czechoslovakia was virtually nil. When asked about the contrast with the attention paid the U.S. hostages, the foreign editor of Czechoslovakia’s leading paper grumbled about “the egocentrism of the American mass media” and noted that a single American captive constitutes a major story, “but not when 66 Czechs are held hostage. We felt that if the international press were more active, [UNITA] would have released the hostages much sooner.”

The whole world is influenced by the way the American press reports the Middle East. Overemphasis on Israel and the United States spreads to other regions too. Even the Chinese—who have no historic interest in Israel and who are more concerned about Soviet actions than American ones—tend to dwell on Israel and the U.S. The peoples of the Middle East themselves, whom one would expect to have their own views of regional affairs, are deeply influenced by their exposure to the American media; they too dwell on the same two topics.

In this way the media do not just report Middle East news, they also create it. Weeks of attention to Sabra and Shatila exacerbated a crisis for the government of Israel. The paucity of attention to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has helped to doom the resistance forces there. The twin preoccupations of the American press have turned the attention of the U.S., its allies, and its friends from great matters to small ones, and this has had many harmful effects.

For the historian of the Middle East, much of what the media find significant must be discounted. The historian can discern a rough draft among the materials journalists make available, but must carefully ignore their emphases and interpretations, which so often turn out to be misguided, or worse.

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Footnotes

1 The better newspapers and educational radio do make more information available. But in this essay I am focusing on the most prominent coverage: front pages of dailies, cover stories of newsweeklies, the television evening news, the hourly news on radio.

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