Crisis in the Middle East

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Media Bias Against Israel:
Perception or Reality?
By Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

As the violence in the Middle East was raging, CNN announced that it had conducted a survey of American public opinion toward the Palestinians and Israelis. The findings: 43% of Americans expressed greater sympathy with Israel, 11% with the Palestinians. This was reassuring and astonishing on its face because of the perception that media coverage of the latest Middle East crisis, particularly television, has not portrayed Israel in a positive light.

The question arises: is this support for Israel in spite of the media coverage, or is the relationship of the media to public opinion on the Arab-Israeli conflict more complicated than some would assume?

Clearly, there are elements of what has appeared in the media over the weeks of the crisis, which hurt Israelís image. Some of it is in the nature of the conflict -- Israel is the party with the heavy weapons, Israel is suffering fewer casualties, the Palestinians have long been seen as victims looking for a state of their own. Some of it is deliberately orchestrated by the Palestinians and too often the media allow what is visual to explain things rather than going into analysis and motivation. Thus, we have the image of young Palestinian boys being shot at by Israeli troops, and only rarely does the reporter ask the question why the Palestinian authorities and parents are placing their children in such jeopardy.

Other times media get the basic facts wrong, leaving Israel with a much darker image than it deserves. Three examples of this, about which ADL complained to the networks, are instructive. Garrick Utley of CNN was giving a history of the Holy Sites in Jerusalem and said that until 1967, when Israel gained East Jerusalem, Jews were able to pray at the Western Wall. In fact, between 1948 and 1967, when Jordan held the Old City, Jews not only could not pray at their holy site, they could barely view it from a distance. And this reality is critical to any current understanding of who should be in charge of the Holy Places.

Secondly, CNNís Andrea Koppel was recapitulating events leading up to the violence and said that the Palestinians, after the breakup of Camp David, turned to violence "in despair". In fact, Israelís offer at Camp David gave the Palestinians every opportunity to realize a state on 95% of the land, overlooking mixed sovereignty in Jerusalem. Despair was hardly the issue.

Fox News aired a blatantly inaccurate and misleading report on the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict, implying that Israelís very existence is to blame for the conflict and the old propaganda that Palestinians were left without a country of their own because Jews displaced them. Nothing was said at all about Arab rejection of the partition which would have produced a Palestinian state and the launching of a war against Israel.

Despite these troublesome areas, one should not view media coverage as solely negative. As time went on, there was greater and greater understanding of Israelís position. Editorial opinion in major newspapers was strongly in Israelís favor, questioning Arafatís turn to violence and continued encouragement of violence despite Israelís offer at the peace table.

The point is that here in the United States, as opposed to Europe where the coverage overall is far worse and which can only be described as more biased against Israel than not, the media is not the enemy. The fact is that it is the media, together with successive American Administrations, which, for decades, have helped to mold the essential and accurate view for Americans toward Israel: that it is a democratic state, an ally of the United States, committed to similar values that we have, and that it wants to exist in the Middle East alongside its neighbors in peace and security. Despite the many problematic images that have entered the homes of Americans about Israel, through the war in Lebanon, the Intifada and during the current crisis, Israel still is seen through the prism of those broader values that have been communicated to America.

What this means is that we should challenge the media when there are factual errors. We should urge that proper context be given to video images that only tell part of the story. We should insist that when interviews are done, there be a true balance between Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints. And we should offer to work with reporters and broadcasters so that they can get the fullest picture of Israel and its meaning to the Jewish people.

We need to recognize that some of the coverage we donít like is inevitable. That there is still much about the mediaís coverage of Israel which makes clear how different it is from the authoritarian, undemocratic states that surround it.

Finally, we must remember that Israel has to do what it has to do to ensure its safety in the face of dangerous foes. Golda Meir said it best: "Better a critical editorial than a praiseworthy obituary."

This op-ed originally appeared in the Atlanta Jewish Times on November 3, 2000, and has subsequently appeared in the Jerusalem Post and other newspapers.
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