Media Beat ~ Bias And Fear Tilting Coverage Of Israel
04-20-01: Media Beat: Bias and fear tilting coverage of Israel
By Norman Solomon
April 20, 2001
When the New York Times finally printed the name of a 12-year-old
organization called Rabbis for Human Rights, the mention had to be bought
-in a full-page ad expressing support for actions by the group, which is
"the only Israeli rabbinic association that includes Orthodox, Reform,
Reconstructionist and Conservative rabbis."
Days before the advertisement appeared on April 8, the executive director
of Rabbis for Human Rights had been arrested while participating in
nonviolent civil disobedience against Israeli demolition of houses.
"Palestinian homes are being systematically bulldozed all over the West
Bank," said a bulletin from Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom
Center in Philadelphia. "In this case, there isn't any pretense of
'security interests' or 'military targets.' The houses destroyed yesterday
and today belong to ordinary Palestinian citizens whose only crime is the
wish to have a roof over their heads."
Groups like Rabbis for Human Rights, and Jewish American activists like
Rabbi Waskow who vocally oppose Israeli policies, get short shrift in U.S.
news outlets. Meanwhile, the reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian cycle of
violence is badly skewed by an endless cycle of media bias.
Searching the Nexis database of U.S. media coverage during the first 100
days of this year, I found several dozen stories using the phrases
"Israeli retaliation" or "Israel retaliated." During the same period, how
many stories used the phrases "Palestinian retaliation" or "Palestinians
Both sides of the conflict, of course, describe their violence as
retaliatory. But only one side routinely benefits from having its violent
moves depicted that way by major American media. The huge disparity in the
media frame is a measure of the overall slant of news coverage.
To help maintain pressure for a favorable media tilt, supporters of Israel
have a not-so-secret weapon, brandished most effectively as a preemptive
threat-the charge of anti-Semitism. Any Americans who speak out against
Israel's extreme disregard for human rights are liable to be in the line
Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, is a reminder
that victims of tyranny are capable of later aligning themselves with
perpetrators of enormous cruelty. In March, he delivered a speech to a
national conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one
of Washington's most powerful lobbying groups. Wiesel declared that anyone
"who uses their Jewishness as a context to attack or condemn Israel-
that's something I'm against." And he denounced criticisms of Israel as
"anti-Semitism in Jewish leftist circles."
Such salvos are warning shots that Joseph McCarthy would have understood.
To quash debate, just smear, smear, smear.
Instead of trying to refute critiques of Israeli policies, it's much
easier to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism-a timeworn way of
preventing or short-circuiting real debate on the merits of the issues. It
is absurd and dangerous to claim that bigotry is at the root of calls for
adherence to basic standards of human rights. But the ongoing threat of
the "anti-Semitic" label helps to prevent U.S. media coverage from getting
out of hand.
Last year, I had an interesting experience with one of Florida's daily
papers, the Palm Beach Post. A reader's letter, published in early June,
charged that a column I'd written "had an anti-Semitic undertone" because
it criticized media spin for Israel. Eleven weeks later, on Aug. 25, the
newspaper printed a second letter from the same reader, objecting to a
column I wrote about Sen. Joseph Lieberman. This time the letter was more
emphatic and sweeping, though less specific: "I have noticed in some of
his previous columns, he is apt to express anti-Semitic views."
The Palm Beach Post printed my weekly syndicated column 30 times during
2000-for the last time on Aug. 19, six days before publication of the
second letter accusing me of being "anti-Semitic." After that letter came
off the press, my column never again appeared in the Palm Beach Post. When
I inquired, the newspaper's opinion-page editor told me: "There was no
Whatever the case may be, there's no doubt that journalists generally
understand critical words about Israel to be hazardous to careers. "Rarely
since the Second World War has a people been so vilified as the
Palestinians," comments Robert Fisk, a longtime foreign correspondent for
the London-based daily Independent. "And rarely has a people been so
frequently excused and placated as the Israelis."
Fisk is asking his colleagues to search their consciences: "Our
gutlessness, our refusal to tell the truth, our fear of being slandered as
'anti-Semites'-the most loathsome of libels against any journalist- means
that we are aiding and abetting terrible deeds in the Middle East."
Anti-Semitism is a reality in the world. Like all forms of religious and
racial bigotry, it should be unequivocally opposed. The effectiveness of
such opposition is undermined by those who cry wolf, using charges of
anti-Semitism as a weapon in a propaganda arsenal to defend Israel's
indefensible crimes against Palestinian people.
Norman Solomon's book "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media"
won the 1999 George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution
to Honesty and Clarity in Public Language, presented by the National
Council of Teachers of English.
Norman Solomon's archived columns may be found at
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