Spinning a War

A few weeks into the Palestinian uprising, which flared up during the fall of 2000, Israeli officials concluded the "media war" wasn't going their way.

Nachman Shai, the Israeli spokesman during the Gulf War, hastily organized a special media unit, not long after the UN Security Council last October condemned Israel for excessive use of force. "We assumed that the U.S. media would be on our side," Shai told a group of Israeli officials in a teleconference, according to the May issue of Harper's magazine.

But instead, Israeli government officials had major problems with U.S. media coverage, he told the group. They were especially upset with CNN's coverage. The network employs two Palestinian reporters, Shai said. "And we are putting real pressure on the heads of CNN to have them replaced with more objective, pro-Israeli reporters."

It's little wonder Shai assumed the U.S. media would be on "their" side. American coverage of the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has almost always been sympathetic to Israel. For most U.S. news organizations, "objective" has long meant "pro-Israeli." That's something that journalists from a range of publications including the Washington Post and Newsweek struggle with every day.

The Israeli Story Line

The U.S. media have historically reported on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the Israeli lens. Call this lens what you will -- the conventional wisdom, the dominant interpretation, or the story line -- it is the Israeli version that has framed how American news editors and producers view and interpret the conflict. Any presentation that does not enhance Israel's image is labeled biased.

Most reporting on the uprising has implied that Israel is a peace-loving democracy that made generous concessions to the Palestinians at the Camp David negotiations in 2000. The unreasonable Palestinians rejected the offer and turned to terrorism to achieve their goals, press reports inferred. The U.S. State Department, powerful Jewish-American organizations, and the well-oiled Israeli media machine tightly adhered to this narrative.

On CNBC's May 21 broadcast of "Hardball," host Chris Matthews said in his opening remarks about Camp David: "I look at the Israelis offering the best possible deal to the Palestinian side under Barak," he said. "They turned him down. It looks to me like Yasser Arafat doesn't have the political power or the will to cut a reasonable deal with Israel."

Former U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, and Israeli Consul General in New York Alon Pinkus, both guests on the show, reinforced this description of events. "We thought it was the most fair, honorable and equitable deal not just -- not just in town, but -- but in history, for that matter, for the Palestinians, yet, Arafat rejected it," Pinkus said. Haig's comments were similar. "From that point on, whether it's Wye or the two Camp Davids or the December meeting in the Oval Office, we extracted concession after concession from Israel," he said. Wye refers to the 1998 accord mediated by then-President Bill Clinton between Israel and the Palestinian government at a plantation in Maryland.

In fact, there was nothing the journalist and his two guests disagreed on. Matthews simply affirmed his guests' statements. If this is what passes for "Hardball" journalism, the profession needs a hefty dose of Viagra.

Lost in the rhythm of nodding heads is any analysis of why the Palestinians rejected the Camp David "concessions." Palestinian officials and independent analysts say Israel's offer of only 75 percent of the West Bank (not 90 percent as widely repeated, because Israel excluded metropolitan Jerusalem and the fertile Jordan valley) was untenable. This would have bisected the proposed Palestinian state with blocs of Israeli settlements, which are illegal but have been springing up since the late 1960s. In addition, Camp David did not address whether Palestinian refugees who have been living in temporary camps in neighboring Arab countries for more than 50 years, would be allowed to return to their homes in what is now Israel. Nor did it solve sovereignty over the important Haram al-Sharif Palestinian holy site. This angle is rarely touched on in the U.S. media.

The Palestinian point of view might challenge the "special relationship" the U.S. has with Israel. Then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright showed her own bias early in the uprising on NBC's "Meet the Press," when she stated "those Palestinian rock throwers have placed Israel under siege."

Many American reporters arrive in Tel Aviv imbued with this one-sided view. The Washington Post's Keith Richburg says he strives to accurately report what he sees. What he and other reporters see is an impoverished Palestinian people frustrated by 30-plus years of military occupation, fighting with stones, a few snipers and suicidal Islamists, and who are overseen by an inept Palestinian Authority. On the other side reporters see Israel, the world's fourth most powerful military, deploying tanks, missiles, helicopter gunships, and F-16 fighter planes, backed by a highly sophisticated spin machine and the United States.

Cox News Service correspondent Larry Kaplow had to convince his editors about Israel's lethal use of force early on in the intifadah, which resulted in a high number of Palestinian deaths. "I started writing e-mails back saying, 'Look, you know, I didn't believe this at first either,'" says Kaplow. "It doesn't do any good to reinforce the conventional wisdom. I mean, what are people learning?"

To many reporters the notion that Israel is under siege is simply absurd. Palestinian children are shot by well-equipped Israeli soldiers; Palestinian leaders are systematically assassinated; Palestinian houses, orchards and fields are bulldozed by Israelis; and Palestinian cities are surrounded by Israeli military checkpoints that block even food and medical supplies. There is simply no comparison between the daily brutality Palestinians endure and the near-normal daily life experience of Israelis.

Those reporters who try to report accurately find themselves going against the grain. Two months into the conflict, Richburg, who backs up Lee Hockstader, the Post's regular Jerusalem reporter, wrote a story on November 30, about the 7,000-plus Palestinians who had been wounded (it is now more than 20,000). Richburg says he wanted to see the faces and hear the stories behind that enormous statistic. To ensure balance, he carefully included Israeli statements saying they only fire live ammunition when soldiers' lives are threatened. His article also repeated Israeli claims that Palestinians send youth to the frontlines while their gunmen lurk behind. But Richburg then cited a Physicians for Human Rights report documenting Israel's excessive use of force, and detailing several personal stories, such as the ambulance medic shot in the leg while trying to assist an injured man.

The story earned Richburg nearly 2,500 e-mailed messages within an eight-hour period -- more letters than the Post had ever received in such a short time period, the paper's web administrator told him. And one was even positive, Richburg jokes.

Meanwhile, Back Home ...

To be sure, journalists are under a great deal of pressure to stay ahead of the pack. They often churn out articles every day, five or six days a week -- with hardly enough space to include sufficient background to enable readers to understand the complex conflict or even time to analyze wording. "You write what you think is this innocuous phrase in paragraph 16," says a wire service reporter who spoke on condition of anonymity, "and somebody writes a letter, and it seems to have all these weighted implications you might not have intended."

Once written, the story is then zapped to the U.S. where several editors chop up the copy, add the headline, choose a photo and write the caption. Usually reporters do not see the changes, the headline, or the photo before it is published. Many say they are often shocked at the results.

Reporters who work for weekly or monthly publications may have the chance to see their text after it has been edited. One Newsweek reporter says that since the uprising began, most of his articles have been so badly warped by New York editors, that he has repeatedly requested to have his name taken off stories.

Reporters and editors, readers and news organizations often squabble over wording. One word choice over another can skew an entire article: settlement or neighborhood; occupied territories, administered territories, or land captured by Israel in 1967; the holy site that Jews call Temple Mount, but Palestinians call Harem al-Sharif.

The latter example offers a good case in point. When Ariel Sharon made his now-historic visit to the holy site that triggered the current uprising, reporters almost routinely called the site by the Israeli name, the Temple Mount. There is evidence that early Jewish temples lie deep inside the hill in the Old City in Jerusalem. But on top of the hill are the current functioning al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, which is the third holiest site in Islam. Palestinians were infuriated when Sharon, whom many consider a war criminal, visited the site accompanied by more than 1000 security forces.

The whole area is called the Harem al-Sharif in Arabic, or Noble Sanctuary in English. Many readers, viewers and Palestinians quickly pointed out to news organizations how ludicrous it was to ignore the name that refers to a site's current use and refer instead to the name of a centuries-old archeological site. After a long tussle many news organizations settled on twisted boilerplate language, the Harem al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, known to the Jews as the Temple Mount.

Once an article gets past editors, it must pass muster with vigilant readers. Print reporters say they have never felt as much pressure on their reporting as when they are covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "You feel watched and scrutinized," says the anonymous wire service reporter. "I mean scrutinized."

Michael Lerner, editor of the U.S.-based Jewish magazine Tikkun, wrote in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece that he received a "flurry of death threats," after his magazine called for ending the Israeli military occupation and dismantling the settlements. A website even published Lerner's home address with instructions on how to drive there. The FBI was quickly notified.


Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak had a reputation for shutting out the foreign press. But early in the uprising, the government realized the importance of spinning the media. "Engaging in a successful PR campaign is part of winning the conflict," an official with the Israeli consulate in New York told the Jerusalem Post.

"It's a media war," says Hugh Dellios, a reporter with the Chicago Tribune. "It's a parallel conflict. Actually, they're the same conflict."

Part of that campaign was the creation of Israeli spokesman Shai's special public relations team, which included a dozen or so former Israeli ambassadors, who were made easily available to field reporters' inquiries. But the special team was not enough. In early February, the Israeli Foreign Ministry hired the high-powered American public relations firms, Rubenstein Associates, and Morris, Carrick and Guma, to "enhance Israel's image," according to the Jerusalem Post.

Housed in a slick hotel in downtown West Jerusalem, the Israeli government press office daily cranks out reams of paper, faxed reports, e-mailed press releases, videotapes of Palestinian violence, and lists of government and academic sources ready to provide a well-packaged sound bite. Representatives of Israeli settler organizations regularly call major news reporters after an incident to offer a quote.

"They've mastered the game," the Washington Post's Richburg says. "The minute an Israeli is killed you've got their whole biography being faxed over to you."

In contrast, Palestinian public relations is dismal. "You've got to work harder with the Palestinians," the Chicago Tribune's Dellios says wryly.

Journalists and Palestinians themselves frequently complain about the Palestinian Authority's seeming disinterest in providing Western reporters access to official information.

Where the leadership has failed, Palestinian human-rights groups and other non-governmental organizations such as the Jerusalem Media & Communication Center and the Palestinian NGO Network, have stepped in to fill the gap. With a high-tech and pretty efficient, if informal, system of listservs and e-mail messages, these groups inform reporters of demonstrations, funerals, and press conferences. They also carefully tally numbers of dead, houses bulldozed, trees uprooted, settler attacks and blockaded areas.

Still, there are precious few official sources to provide or confirm basic information, and reporters prefer to rely on official Israeli sources rather than unofficial Palestinian sources. "Try calling the Palestinian Authority and asking what was the name of the 12-year-old boy killed in Hebron," Richburg says. "Who do you call? Who knows?"

Given the Israeli media offensive and the absence of a Palestinian counteroffensive, it is little wonder that a Gallup poll found that the percent of Americans who felt more sympathy for Israelis than for Palestinians rose from 41 percent in October to 51 percent by February 2001.

How the War Fares

"The challenge of being here is to try and sort through it all and find the truth in between," says the Chicago Tribune's Dellios, who's been based in Jerusalem for two years.

Indeed, the challenge for journalists working in conflict areas has always been to slog through the propaganda and rhetoric and come out with an independent assessment, or at least to provide a fair and accurate description of events for readers or viewers.

In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, powerful currents pull reporters away from producing an independent assessment. They must break through the accepted story line and then resist the onslaught of Israel's spin machine. Finally, journalists must dive deep to pull information from the Palestinian Authority. But swimming against the tide is exactly what professional ethics demands of journalists. The few reporters able to successfully navigate this media war are a tribute to their profession -- simply because they do their jobs right.

Maggy Zanger teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo. She is the former publications coordinator at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, and former assistant editor of Middle East Report magazine.


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