Adding Fuel to the Fire

The pernicious role of the media in the Middle East's struggle for peace

As I walked down the golden streets of Jerusalem this summer, through the twisted market alley and by the holiest sites of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, I did not feel the exuberance of my first trip to Israel four years ago. What changed in those four years? In part, traveling with an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) trip for newspaper editors, I felt a more serious task of learning about the Middle East political situation than when I was touring at age sixteen. But Israel too had changed. While there was war then, there was also hope for peace.

Yet now, after years of terrorism, mutual distrust, riots and border closings, it seems the peace which was almost at hand with the signing of the Oslo Agreements is now an optimist's dream.

Part of the purpose of the ADL's trip to Israel was raising awareness among campus editors about the sensitive nature of the Middle East political situation. As someone who follows news on the Middle East quite closely, I was surprised by the dearth of useful information regarding the region available in the American media.

News articles, particularly those about Israel, often lack or misrepresent critical factual information. The coverage of each successive incident in the Middle East portrays Israelis and Palestinians as alternately aggressors and victims, leaving both sides to believe the media is biased against them.

Reading The Crimson during the past month, for example, I was struck by this pattern of bias and misrepresentation in Middle East reporting. On September 18, a short article concerning protests and violence in Jerusalem over Israeli construction in East Jerusalem appeared. A few short paragraphs were accompanied by a picture nearly twice the size of the article with a caption reading, "More Hostility in Jerusalem: A Palestinian child screams as an Israeli Border Police officer beats him with a club."

Four days later, the co-chairs of Harvard Students for Israel responded with a letter criticizing the article as a distortion, charging that The Crimson "chose to ignore completely the Israeli government's successful procurement of the removal of the Jew from the disputed apartment building," and continuing to note that, "it is unfortunate that The Crimson chose to so visibly promote an unfairly negative impression of Israel."

In response, members of Harvard's Society of Arab Students shot back a missive claiming the article was justified, representing a move toward more balanced coverage from a media generally skewed toward the Zionist perspective.

Can fair coverage mean printing articles skewed alternately toward each side of a conflict? Does more balanced coverage include articles clearly spun toward a particular viewpoint in hopes of outweighing a generally perceived media bias?

Responsible reporting cannot mean the constant demonization, dramatization and simplification of complicated and sensitive incidents. What was so marked about the series of letters about Israel was the degree to which basic facts on populations, dates, territories and written agreements were contested. The lack of agreement on even the most basic of historical facts reflects more than anything the media's constant simplification of the overall political situation.

It was not until I took a trip to Israel with the express purpose of learning about the current political situation that I understood the complexity of the Oslo Agreements and had the opportunity to read the two inch thick document for myself.

For all the articles I have read in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Crimson about the Middle East, I had only a basic idea about the history of land exchanges in the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. And in meetings with top level political advisors, activists and journalists in Israel, it became apparent that even they had wide discrepancies in their understandings of the accord.

When we, as readers, do not even have the factual information as a necessary starting point for rational discourse, we are vulnerable to believing propaganda and false reporting. And by participating and encouraging the verbal battle, the press is doing its part to destroy the now vital peace process. Reading The Crimson, talking with West Bank settlers and Palestinian rights activists and visiting army bases where boys barely eighteen carry M-16s, have made me less than optimistic about the chances for peace in the Middle East.

Peace will come only when Palestinians and Israelis no longer see themselves as enemies but as neighbors; when a hope for peace is not offered in the same breath as a call to arms; when building a house is seen as an act of life, not an act of war. The foundation of Oslo was an attempt to foster mutual understanding and trust. Thus far it seems to have caused only suspicion.

To forge a new peace, a real peace, this elusive trust must be built anew. But when the media serves only to pit two sides against one another instead of offering balanced information and fair reporting, it serves only to fuel prejudice, the true enemy of peace, trust and understanding.

Lana Eisenstein '99 is an editor at the Harvard Political Review.