Beating Up the Press

When you don't like what's in the news, attack the media.

When people are passionately involved with the stories in the news, as they are over the Middle East, the media takes a beating. Those who are sympathetic to the Palestinian side believe intensely that the media is pro-Israeli. And until recently, this has been obvious, with Arabs generally caricatured as cartoon villains. But now partisans of Israel are accusing the media of becoming pro-Palestinian.

Should a reporter smile at Arafat and then ask Sharon a hard-ball question, then that's taken as evidence of a deliberate distortion. Should a story describe the Palestinians as having a legitimate grievance, then the reporter, or the paper, is accused of an anti-Israeli bias. A group of rabbis in New York have even called for a boycott of the New York Times.

Criticism of the press is commonplace, but the current brouhaha also reflects a technological revolution that is changing the relationship between journalism and the public. I'll get to that later.

Israel has long gotten a free pass from the American media. The narrative of Israeli existence has been defined by certain core themes: the survivors of the holocaust; the biblical claim to the holy land; a brave and heroic people making the desert bloom; the only democracy in the Middle East in which Arab citizens are free to vote and practice their religion. This is the Israel of the American media.

There is another side, of course; one that is rarely presented. This story includes the use of terrorism by some of the leaders of the (now) ruling Likud Party; the forced removal of many Palestinians from their land; the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank with accompanying military checkpoints and installations; the inadequacies of the bold, but (in retrospect) insufficient Camp David "land for peace" offer; Ariel Sharon's deliberate provocative visit to the Temple Mount; the misery of Palestinian existence under Israeli occupation; Israel's complicity in the current carnage.

Until the current uprising, the American media generally presented the inspiring side of Israel's history. The Palestinian side was under-reported. Because the daily conditions of the Israeli occupation were rarely described, the Palestinians became invisible, out of sight and out of mind. In a world saturated with breaking news, what is not news is non-existent. Terrorism alone has gotten them attention.

The Palestinian story is now being reported, but because balanced reporting is so new in this area, partisans of Israel take it as a decisive shift towards the Palestinian perspective. But the presence of new satellite TV technology and the spread of the Internet has blown open the narrow bounds of the pro-Israeli narrative. For the first time, the Arab world has its own independent television stations. The Western press may be barred from the Israeli incursions, but the Arab world is viewing the battle scenes as the Palestinian experience. The West, in other words, has lost its monopoly -- its ability to frame a story -- over TV journalism. The consequences of this are staggering. Sharon may win the military battle on the ground (though in terms of long-term Israeli security, his strategy is more likely to bring catastrophe), but in the Arab world, the Palestinians are winning the propaganda battle.

The Internet is also changing the way people get news. Until the 1960s, the public got the news that was handed to it, by mainstream newspapers and network television. Radical publications, presenting an alternative reality, were marginal. A technological revolution that lowered the cost of offset printing enabled underground (alternative) newspapers to be mass-produced. Dissident journalists who couldn't get their views into the mainstream media now had access to a popular medium. But this revolution was rather modest. Editorial boards still screened what got published. Readers familiar with the medium knew the political position of each paper.

The Internet revolution has diminished the screening process. Readers now have instant access to the international press, think tanks, and special interest and propaganda web sites on every subject. I sit at my computer and get instant news updates from Yahoo Full Coverage. I read on-line newspapers from all over the world. I read compendiums of political thinking across the political spectrum. My inbox is flooded with Israeli and Palestinian pleadings, each claiming that their side is wholly in the right and the other side is all evil. In my Internet discussion groups, the controversy rages.

What to make of all this information, more than I can ever read or use? There are a select group of journals and journalists whom I absolutely trust, even if I disagree with their overall perspective. Some of the propaganda is useful in understanding what one side or the other is up to. I found it shameful that Israeli web sites slandered the Palestinian moderate, Sari Nusseibeh, as soon as he got some press coverage. One Zionist web site went so far as to claim that Nusseibeh, a man who has spoken out against Palestinian terrorism and joins Israeli peace activists in joint speaking engagements, was a spy for Iraq. Just as offensive are the Arab web sites accusing Israel of committing massacres and genocide. A people whose principle political weapon has been the murder of innocent civilians praying, dancing, shopping or dining has no right to wear the mantle of victimization. In recent weeks I've received dozens of messages from activists in the West Bank with horrid stories of Israeli atrocities. I honor their commitment but suspect their reporting.

The starting point for all journalists, no matter what their ideological bent, is to get the facts, to be seekers of the truth. Government press officers lie and so does the opposition. Writers who whitewash the facts in order to present their side of a story don't do anyone any good, least of all their own followers. People and countries that believe their own propaganda make policy out of delusion. There's nothing inherently honest about being in the middle, but journalists in this particular conflict who don't have both sides in their vision aren't getting the full story.

Marty Jezer's books include "The Dark Ages: Life in the U.S. 1945-1960" and "Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel." He writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at mjez@sover.net.

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