A free press is foundational to a vibrant democracy. Each day, citizens read the media’s exposition of injustice and are ready to elect the candidate with ethical policies and standards. As the world “flattens” and citizens across the world play a role in the global community, the media also functions as the harbinger of international news, informing citizens’ decisions about foreign policy. Or so goes the theory.
In the U.S., the press enjoys a constitutional right to function freely. It is stocked with some of the country’s best minds, while a large wealthy population funds expansive coverage. Viewers, readers, and listeners receive a broad range of opinions with access to a huge variety of sources; all the makings of that idyllic system.
But the consistency of underreporting, political pandering, and a troubling lack of curiosity in stories critical to the national ideal undermine the U.S. media’s self-proclaimed purpose: to hold leaders responsible for shaping policies demonstrative of American values.
Particularly when it comes to international affairs, media self-censorship is in thick supply while national values are frequently flouted. Americans may be lucky to have the luxury of caring about international affairs, but involvement in and concerns about foreign policy are major drivers come election time.
That’s a pretty troubling fact given that it’s not hard to think of multiple examples where the public was blindsided by egregious failures in the country’s media. And virtually every time it occurs, it’s one of the nation’s proudest principles being ignored.
Take the country’s foreign policy toward the Middle East, an issue likely to cause some changing allegiances during the upcoming elections. Since the Second World War, America’s stated economic and geo-political objectives in the region have often occasioned ethical memory-lapses by U.S. leaders—overthrowing democratically elected governments, supplying dictators with chemical weapons, supporting Islamic fundamentalism.
The same behavior continues today, but its occurrence is far from decried in the press, leaving most voters blissfully unaware. The reporting on Israel’s conflicts with Palestinian Gaza and Lebanon this summer provided yet another example of media malpractice. One small, discrete example from the war demonstrates how easily public opinion is shaped by the incomplete presentation of facts, and questions entirely the validity of American media coverage of the conflict.
The crisis, so the media’s story went, began with an act of brazen aggression on June 25 when Hamas militants tunneled under the Israeli border and attacked an Israeli military post, killing two soldiers, wounding four, and kidnapping one. Israel immediately invoked the language of “just war,” asserted their right to retaliation, and began air-strikes and an invasion of Gaza.
Several days later, The New York Times opined in a June 29 editorial, entitled “Hamas Provokes a Fight,” that “the responsibility for this latest escalation rests squarely with Hamas…[and] was a follow up to a declaration this month by Hamas’ political leadership that the group’s 16-month intermittent cease-fire would no longer be observed.”
Joining The New York Times were publications like CNN.com and The Washington Post, both of whom printed timelines where June 25 was the date of provocation they said justified the Israeli onslaught.
All of this was, to put it bluntly, pure nonsense. As reported in the BBC and shoved onto page A20, “World in Brief,” of The Washington Post, Israeli troops had entered Gaza on June 24 to kidnap two civilians, Osama and Mustafa Abu Muamar, the two sons of a Hamas member and political activist. The breach of Palestinian territory came after two weeks of Israeli air-strikes in which 14 civilians were killed. No doubt, the Palestinian militants on June 25 felt they were defending their state, reacting to Israel’s aggression in kind.
The Washington Post tried to give some lip-service to the Palestinian position but made the astonishing suggestion, in a July 1 editorial, “Hamas’s War,” that “Hamas government officials endorsed the militants’ demand that Israel release Palestinian prisoners it has legally arrested in exchange for a soldier who was attacked while guarding Israeli territory.” Quite how kidnapping and abduction of civilians from foreign territory can be described as “legal” was a topic the editorial did not address.
Of course, the entire Arab-Israeli conflict, like all wars, is plagued by the chronic accusations of “they attacked us first,” when realistically, everyone shares the blame. Palestinian militants and the Israel Defense Forces are equally responsible for attacks on civilian areas and, in doing so, both breach international law.
The point here is not to find a new culprit to blame for the start of the conflict, but rather to admonish the dishonest proposition in the U.S. media that Israel justifiably responded to an unprovoked act of aggression from Hamas. That simply was not the case. And by presenting a fraudulent timeline of events, each media outlet holds responsibility for fundamentally altering how the conflict was perceived.
It’s a pretty disappointing example of media incompetence, intentional or otherwise, but the most troubling element is the frequency with which it occurs. This individual case is unlikely to change voter attitudes, but it shows convincingly how much a minor factual omission changes perspective. The U.S. electorate deserves better coverage; otherwise the true nature of American actions abroad will never be exposed and evil will continue to be dishonestly perpetrated in America’s name.
Bede A. Moore ’06-’07 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.