Reviving Ethical Journalism
The situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is bad, and it is unlikely to improve in the near future. Or so the international media would have us believe. After all, as the axiom goes, bad news makes good copy. While the tragic events of recent months have fully justified such dismal assessments, they have hardly substantiated the media's consistently-and grossly-distorted portrayal of the conflict. Inflammatory headlines, manipulated photographs and utterly unprofessional articles tell a tale of the righteous outrage of the Palestinian masses, long oppressed at Israel's bloody hands, whose innocent children are now slaughtered by the dozens in cruel Israeli reprisals for what are justified acts of violence against an "apartheid regime."
Ironically, Palestinians and their supporters seem to see precisely the opposite bias in the media. They claim that the terms in which the news is presented are uneven, degrading to Arabs, not harsh enough for Israel's current hawkish leadership and representative of an implicit bias against Islam in the desire to paint the conflict as a religious war. They are certainly entitled to their interpretations. Yet to discern the world media's consistent and deliberate slander against Israel, one need not interpret terminology either way: It is evident simply in what the press chooses to report and to omit in its coverage of the conflict.
Over the airwaves nationwide, National Public Radio has long promoted blatantly pro-Palestinian interests, while providing Israel's supporters little or no opportunity to respond. The majority of speakers quoted in the station's middle east news programs last year were Palestinian or pro-Palestinian outsiders, while a grossly disproportionate number of Israelis quoted were from the country's farthest pro-Palestinian left. Even worse, pro-Palestinian segments received roughly four times the airtime of those on pro-Israeli issues.
The imbalance continues over the television airwaves. In Dec., 2000, ABC's World News Tonight ran its segment "A Closer Look" on Palestinian children injured in clashes with Israeli soldiers. Nowhere in the program was there any mention of the Palestinian Authority's role in promoting this recurring tragedy. After all, a natural question might be why children are even present at such clashes, often during school hours. The mother of one injured Palestinian boy revealed what ABC would not: "When school finishes, Palestinian Authority security cars go around collecting children from the streets and sending them to the killing fields." Meanwhile, a Palestinian group, the Tulkarm Women's Union, has braved condemnation for treachery and violent reprisals by its frank words in a letter to Yasser Arafat: "We urge you to issue instructions to your police force to stop sending innocent children to their death." Yet somehow ABC considered this side of the story irrelevant.
CNN, the world's leading cable news network, is also among the most blatant and consistent manipulators of news regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1998, for example, the network reported that Jerusalem's Arab population was dwindling as a result of oppressive Israeli policies. In fact, the city's Arab population has been and is growing at a rate several times that of its Jewish population. Moreover, CNN's immensely popular website describes the terrorist organization Hamas as "known for...humanitarian efforts," and places the death toll from the group's suicide bombings at "dozens of Israelis." In fact, a single Hamas bombing on Feb. 25, 1996 killed dozens of Israelis, while three more that followed within a week killed another 33. In total, the group has killed hundreds of Israelis and wounded hundreds more.
The media has even manipulated visual images of the conflict, which convey its desired message vividly and succinctly to the widest possible audience. During the early days of the most recent wave of Palestinian violence, for example, newspapers across the world, including The New York Times and the Boston Globe, published a photograph of a bloodied man crouching before a baton-wielding Israeli policeman, beneath which the following caption appeared: "An Israeli policeman and a Palestinian on the Temple Mount." In fact, it was later revealed that the "Palestinian" was actually an American Jewish student, Tuvia Grossman, who had been visiting the Old City with friends when their cab was stopped by a Palestinian mob, and the boys were dragged out, beaten and stabbed. Grossman broke free and ran for protection to the policeman, who, wielding his baton to ward off the attackers, probably saved the boy's life.
Ultimately, the imbalance in media coverage probably derives from a simple, understandable calculation: Reporting on events considered harmful to the Palestinian side results in immediate restriction of access to Palestinian Authority sources and even jeopardizes the physical safety of correspondents in the region. Events surrounding the Oct. 12, 2000 lynching of two Israeli reservists by a Palestinian mob in Ramallah illustrated this intimidation perfectly. RAI, Italy's state television news network, which the Palestinian Authority believed had released the now-famous footage of the murders, attempted to reassure Arafat's government, claiming in a letter, "We always respect the journalistic rules of the Palestinian Authority for work in Palestine...you can be sure that this is not our way of acting, and we would never do such a thing." In fact, the footage had been shot by a competing Italian agency, Mediaset, which subsequently recalled its correspondent for her own safety.
Even journalists known by all sides to be unswervingly pro-Palestinian face intimidation and violence when they come to close to an honest portrayal of events. One such British photographer, Mike Seager, wrote of the lynching: "I reached for my camera. I was composing the picture when I was punched in the face by a Palestinian. Another Palestinian pointed right at me shouting 'no picture, no picture!', while another guy hit me in the face and said 'give me your film!'. I tried to get the film out but they were all grabbing me and one guy just pulled the camera off me and smashed it to the floor...I was scared for my life." A Palestinian ABC producer, Nasser Atta, experienced a similar assault when he tried to film the scene: "Youths came to us and they stopped us with some knives, some beating." Faced with such violence and intimidation, it is small wonder the world media consistently decides to play it safe and stay away from material harmful to Palestinian interests.
While the conflict itself may not soon be resolved, there is some hope for the revival of ethical journalism. By monitoring as wide a range of sources as possible, remaining alert for bias resulting from intimidation and prejudice and consistently asserting the importance of honest coverage, we can hope to persuade the media to live up to its crucial responsibility.
Matt A. Rojansky '02 is a history concentrator in Eliot House.