The Media and the Middle East: The view from Jerusalem

March 03, 2002

I attach an important editorial from today's Jerusalem Post.

-- Tom Gross


The media and the Middle East
The Jerusalem Post
March 3, 2002

The question of how the international media choose to cover events in the Middle East has long been an irksome issue for Israel and its supporters. Home to one of the largest contingents of foreign journalists in the world, Israel all too often finds itself under the media's magnifying glass, a frequent subject of unflattering, and even biased, coverage. While there are many reporters who work hard to provide balanced and objective views of the situation on the ground, others sadly seem to employ willful misrepresentations and even distortions, in the process betraying not only their craft, but their audiences as well.

Unfortunately, examples of such chicanery abound. After Wafa Idris, a female Palestinian suicide bomber, blew herself up in downtown Jerusalem on January 27, murdering an 81-year old Israeli man and wounding over 150 others, New York Times reporter James Bennet wrote a profile of Idris which seemed designed to elicit sympathy for her. It describes Idris as someone who "raised doves and adored children" and who had "chestnut hair curling past her shoulders." Bennet's account portrays Idris, whose goal was to murder as many innocent Israelis as possible, as a victim of "hardship," and closes with a description of her mother bursting into tears. Rarely, it should be noted, have such moving accounts appeared about any of the nearly 300 Israelis killed by Palestinian terrorists in the past 17 months.

In addition to sins of commission, the media frequently commit sins of omission, when important contextual facts are left out, either through sloppiness or by design. An article posted on the CNN Web site on February 17, for example, reported that "Israeli police shot and killed a Palestinian in a gun battle Sunday near an army base in northern Israel, and another Palestinian died nearby when a car exploded, a police spokesman said." What the article failed to note was that the two Palestinians in question were in fact terrorists attempting to carry out a double-suicide bombing, which was fortunately thwarted by the police. This detail, when left out of the story by CNN, leaves the reader with an entirely different understanding of what occurred. Similar shenanigans can also be found in other prominent news outlets as well. On January 28, a Palestinian driving a stolen vehicle went on a rampage for several hours, intentionally running down a soldier and a policeman before being shot after a high-speed car chase. The headline in the Times of London the next day read, "Palestinian shot dead in Tel Aviv," giving the cursory reader the false impression that yet another innocent Palestinian had been killed by those nasty Israelis.

It is easy to dismiss such occurrences as inconsequential, for why should it matter what people abroad may think about how Israel handles the crisis with the Palestinians? Such an approach, however, is both short-sighted and self-defeating. Words and ideas are what move people to action, and in this respect the media enjoy immense power to shape attitudes and policy, often wielding considerable influence over decision-makers in Washington and elsewhere. For many years, Israel devoted far too little effort to polishing its image in the Western media, leaving the playing-field open to the Palestinians, who have succeeded in exploiting it to their advantage. The government must redouble its efforts in this regard, and work more aggressively to counter anti-Israel propaganda and media bias abroad.

An important conference being convened today at the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel addresses just this issue. Titled "Media Accuracy and the Middle East," the conference is being held in honor of former Jerusalem Post editor and media critic David Bar-Illan, who was one of the pioneers in exposing and combating media bias toward Israel. The conference is a fitting tribute to Bar-Illan, whose regular "Eye on the Media" column took aim at media inconsistencies, inventions, and injustice, setting the record straight when others refused to do so.

While his insistence on truth and accuracy in reporting was not always welcome by the subjects of his columns, Bar-Illan was unwavering in his commitment, never shying away from a good, old-fashioned exchange of views. Though Bar-Illan's pen has been silenced due to illness, the launching of this conference, which aims to become an annual event, will ensure that the cause which David Bar-Illan championed with such passion and skill that of monitoring the media and keeping them honest will endure.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.