Filling in the gaps

The Middle East dispatch list: an explanation

By Tom Gross



This email list was begun in the late 90s to correct what I saw as a serious and growing imbalance in the way the Middle East was being covered by many, indeed most, Western journalists.

Such bias, I believed, was not only wrong in itself but seriously detrimental to international efforts to bring about peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Working as a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem, following the conflict very closely as I did, I saw how the Western media’s misreporting was actually contributing to the failed policies of foreign governments; how European diplomats and politicians, as well as a number of senior members of the Clinton administration, were basing some of their statements and policies on what they had seen on TV or read in the papers.

THE POINTLESS INTIFADA

The failure of Western media in the 1990s to report properly on the corrupt, dictatorial and duplicitous ways of Yasser Arafat and his clique, and of his dozen different security forces – and their failure to report on the opposition to this among ordinary Palestinians – undoubtedly contributed to the high esteem in which Arafat was held not just in Paris, where he was given red carpet treatment, but in Washington too. (He became the most frequent foreign guest at the White House during the eight years of the Clinton presidency.)

If Arafat had been held to account, and if journalists had told the truth about the way he was allowing European and American aid money to be diverted not just to Swiss bank accounts but to build up a suicide bomb-making industry, the Intifada might never have been launched, and the Palestinians might already have been living for some years in freedom and prosperity in an independent state.

“SURELY THE JEWS MUST HAVE DONE SOMETHING TO PROVOKE THE GERMANS?”

Even in those pre-Intifada days, it was already fairly clear to me that most Western correspondents based in Jerusalem harbored anti-Israeli feelings, not only in their public reporting, but even more so in private. What distressed me too was the creeping anti-Semitism that some of them had begun to manifest at that time. It wasn’t just, for example, one former senior correspondent remarking that ultra-orthodox Jews “were like cockroaches”; it was the fact that the other journalists present, far from reprimanding him, laughed along with him.

There was also the well-known British print journalist who at a soiree for British correspondents at the UK ambassador’s residence in Tel Aviv, remarked to a colleague of mine (who is a British Jew, though not I add for the sake of clarity, also an Israeli), “What are you doing here? This is for English people.”

Sometimes the anti-Semitic remarks seemed to be almost as much the product of sheer ignorance as of deliberate malice. For instance, there was the former BBC Middle East correspondent who remarked at a Jerusalem dinner party: “Surely the Jews must have done something to provoke the Germans?”

There were also some Jewish journalists who bent over backwards to criticize Israel even more harshly, in an effort to curry favor with their colleagues.

NO SPACE FOR SUICIDE CAMPS?

I wondered why, among the acres of space devoted to covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not a single foreign journalist wrote about the summer camps Arafat organized throughout the late 1990s for tens of thousands of Palestinian kids, teaching them the virtues of “martyrdom” and praising suicide bombers. (I was the only foreign journalist who reported on these camps, which I did for the London Sunday Telegraph in 1998, up until the summer of 2000, when The New York Times finally ran a piece on them, just before the outbreak of the Intifada.)

During this period an increasing number of my friends abroad (and a large proportion of my friends are journalists) became aware that they only seemed to be receiving one side of the story from much of the foreign media in Jerusalem. They began asking me to send out by email not only my own articles but other items of interest too.

For example, while the important translation work from the Arab media by Memri is now fairly well-known, at that time, when I passed it on to my journalist colleagues abroad, it was a revelation to them. And I remember Yigal Carmon, the founder of Memri, telling me in 2000 that not only would the foreign press not touch his material, but that Israeli papers like Ha’aretz were so intent on not rocking the false god of the “peace process” that they wouldn’t use it either.

THE WAY THE MEDIA WORKS

So this “Middle East mailing list” was begun in order to fill in some of the gaps in reporting elsewhere. It is intended to supplement the mainstream international news media coverage of the Middle East, and to draw attention to significant stories or trends in opinion that may not appear (or have not yet appeared) in the mainstream European and American media. Related issues such as Jewish and Moslem affairs in the wider world have also been covered, as have items throwing light on the way in which the media itself works.

I don’t of course endorse or agree with every piece I send. But in formulating my dispatches, I have tried to bring to bear my experience, connections, knowledge and editorial judgment as a journalist. Rather than flooding recipients with an unwieldy mass of words, I have attempted to select and pinpoint key articles and arguments in a focused and balanced way.

BIAS IN A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN

There were and are exceptions to the prevailing anti-Israel prejudice – among some editorial-writers, for example – and some of the criticism leveled at Israel is of course justified. Nor should one forget that the media is full of stereotypes and mistakes about other issues. Yet when every allowance has been made, the sustained bias against Israel was and, despite some improvements recently still is, in a league of its own.

As the Intifada raged, it also became clear that there was a link between inflammatory reporting about Israel and physical attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in the countries where the reports were published or broadcast. Correspondents may not realize it, but their unfair reporting plays into pre-existing anti-Semitic feelings.

I am not for one moment suggesting that Israeli misdeeds should not be fully and unsparingly reported on (and indeed Israel being a vigorous democracy, such misdeeds are widely reported on in the Israeli media itself, and debated in the Israeli Knesset). But propagating the falsehoods of the Palestinian Authority’s propagandists has done nothing to further the legitimate aspirations of ordinary Palestinians, any more than parroting the lies of Stalin helped ordinary Russians.

As suicide terrorism has spread elsewhere, and people have realized what it is like to be on its receiving end, I believe the media coverage of Israel has grown a little more balanced. At the same time regimes of the kind to be found in Damascus, Riyadh and Teheran have been placed under greater scrutiny. But there is still a great deal wrong with the coverage, and enormous room for improvement.

My friend and fellow journalist Melanie Phillips wrote recently that independent lists of this kind are necessary because “the media refuse to open up the debate over their coverage of Israel since the prejudice is omnipresent.” I wouldn’t myself call the bias “omnipresent,” but it is certainly very widespread indeed.

A MEDIA-BASED LIST – AND BEYOND

A large proportion of my friends and family work in the media, and I also know a fair number of people who work in government, so initially this list mainly served as a resource for journalists, commentators and government officials. Later the subscription list widened to include (among others) diplomats, academics, students, and employees at NGOs and think tanks. An increasing number of dispatches have been translated by bloggers into French, German, Italian and other languages.

The subscription list grew through word of mouth, with particularly high numbers of people requesting to join in the wake of major events, such as the Camp David talks in 2000, the outbreak of the Intifada, the September 11 attacks, the blood libels leveled against Israel over the alleged (but non-existent) massacre in Jenin, the suicide attacks in Madrid and London, and so on.

Recipients of my dispatches come from around the world. While the bulk of subscribers are located in North America, Europe and the Middle East, the current subscription-list also includes people of influence from as far afield as Chile and New Zealand, Brazil and South Korea, India and Russia, Iran and Turkey.

A GUIDE THROUGH THE LABYRINTH

I have decided to put future dispatches on line, along with past ones, not only because I can no longer cope with the sheer numbers of people writing requesting to join what has up to now been a private email list, but also because during recent months a growing number of students and scholars of the Middle East and of communications, in America, Europe and Israel, have asked me for a back-catalog of dispatches to use as a resource in their research. So have a number of authors specializing in the same fields.

The dispatches are intended in the first place as a day-to-day commentary of the way in which the media covers the Middle East and related affairs. But I hope they will also provide a valuable database now and in the future for those working in the media, public relations, government and diplomacy. I also trust that they will be of permanent value to future scholars and academic researchers, especially since the material, though focused on Israel and the Palestinians, has broad international significance too.

Above all, I believe, the dispatches offer a guide through the labyrinth. By performing the primary job of analyzing, sorting, sifting and highlighting significant material, they will hopefully clear a path for commentators and researchers, who would otherwise be in danger of being overwhelmed by the enormous amount of material with which they are faced.

-- Tom Gross, November 2005

Click here for journalists’ feedback
Click here to return to the Mideast Dispatch Index

[Note: A number of further dispatches from 2001, 2002 and 2003 will be added to the archive in coming weeks. Dispatches before November 2001 are, alas, on former computers I no longer have, and inaccessible.]


Above piece © Copyright Tom Gross. If using material from this website, please credit the site.