Media news 8: “First impressions are not the same as thoughtful commentary”

April 06, 2006

* This is another in the occasional series of dispatches about the news media itself. Included are articles from America, Australia and Britain.



1. Al-Jazeera International launch postponed until September
2. Half the story
3. Robert Fisk claims 9/11 may have been the work of… Americans
4. “First impressions are not the same as thoughtful commentary”
5. More on Ghada Jamshir
6. “Aggressors and victims on both sides of the wall” (By Vincent Graff, IoS, April 2, 2006)
7. Letter to the Independent by Arnold Roth
8. “Are they all mad?” (By Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun, Australia, March 29, 2006)
9. “Hold that opinion” (By Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe, April 5, 2006)
10. “Micklethwait to edit Economist” (Guardian, March 23, 2006)

[Note by Tom Gross]


The launch of Al-Jazeera International has been postponed again – my sources tell me until September. This follows all the recent press saying May was the launch date, following the January postponement.

The New York Times recently (Sunday, March 26, 2006) devoted almost 3000 words in two articles publicizing the launch of Al-Jazeera International. The Times described Al-Jazeera as “a uniting voice for the Arab world” and claimed its international launch was “the most ambitious television network start-up in recent years.”

Following in the footsteps of Sir David Frost (the leading former BBC presenter) and Rageh Omaar (the former BBC world affairs correspondent), among the latest western journalists to be lured by Al-Jazeera’s increased pay offers is Lucia Newman, CNN’s first and only correspondent in Havana, who has jumped to the new Al-Jazeera International network.


The Sunday version of the British newspaper, the Independent, last weekend ran a piece on the western media’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dubiously claiming that both sides are equally sinned against by media misreporting.

Arnold Roth, whose 15-year-old daughter Malki, was murdered in the Sbarro pizzeria suicide bomb in Jerusalem, tells The Independent: “In Western countries, the broad perception of Israel is of it being powerful and privileged… For someone like me, whose daughter was murdered by people who danced in the street afterwards, it is hard to take that viewpoint.”

In the same article, David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, cites the Israeli security barrier as an example of how the media only cover half the story. “Newspapers never talk about the thousands of Israeli children whose lives it has saved,” says Horovitz, who adds that “certain parts of the media are in the grip of an extreme misconception about who is the aggressor and who is the underdog.”

(Please note that attached after the Independent article below is a letter to the paper by Arnold Roth, who is a subscriber to this email list. The letter has not yet been published. For more on Malki Roth, see Zionists “secretly control” both Al-Jazeera and the National Geographic (December 15, 2004).)


Andrew Bolt, writing in the Australian newspaper the Herald Sun, praises Tony Blair on his recent trip to Australia and suggests that the British prime minister appears “sane” because “much of the rest of the Left sounds so mad.”

Bolt highlights Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent, as indicative of “madness in the Left”. Bolt asks “did you hear writer Robert Fisk, in a special ABC broadcast of his speech just the night before, suggest the September 11 attacks may have been the work of... Americans?

“What on earth has happened to the Left when it has made a conspiracy monger like Fisk one of the hottest speakers on our literary and activist circuit, and a best-selling author and much-petted guest on the ABC?”

For more on Fisk, see “The dangers of Fisking” (November 14, 2003).


In the penultimate article below, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes on the release of Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor reporter released last week in Baghdad, and the rush to judgment that followed it. Jacoby wonders if the emphasis on speed within opinion journalism today is leading to “shallow, half-baked, or unfair commentary.”

Jacoby warns that “the pressure to generate instant reaction is only going to grow more intense… But it is an unhealthy impulse, and commentators – in every medium – should resist it. First impressions are not the same as thoughtful commentary. It’s nice to be first. It’s better to be right.”

The final article below profiles John Micklethwait, who has been appointed editor of the influential weekly, The Economist. Micklethwait was previously its U.S. editor and aims to give the magazine a “higher profile.”

I attach five articles below.

-- Tom Gross



In yesterday’s dispatch on Bahraini women’s rights campaigner Ghada Jamshir, I asked why the Western media wasn’t doing more to report on the abuse of children, women and others in the Muslim world. BBC World Service presenter Robin Lustig (one of several BBC staff who subscribe to this list) points out that he did actually interview her last September, as part of a documentary series called “Looking for Democracy.”

Here is an extract from that interview:

BBC (Robin Lustig): One of the ironies of Bahrain’s experience is that with a substantial traditionally-minded Muslim population, more democracy here might mean less freedom for women. I’m in a different part of town now, in a discreetly located coffee shop, and I’m with Ghada Jamshir. She’s one of Bahrain’s most outspoken women’s rights campaigners. She’s being prosecuted for insulting the judges of the traditional religious courts, the Sharia courts, which even after all the reforms introduced by the king after he came to power six years ago, still have sole jurisdiction over family cases such as divorces and children’s custody disputes. Ghada: why do you object to the Sharia courts?

JAMSHIR: The Sharia judges, they make the judgements from their brain.

BBC: There’s no written law?

JAMSHIR: No, there is no family law in Bahrain. Because there is no law, so every judge, he thinks something different than the other. So they just make judgements from their mind. So we don’t accept it. We are in twenty-first century and I feel these judges still they didn’t enter the twenty-first century.

BBC: Give me an idea what kind of men we’re talking about, these judges in the Sharia court. I mean, if one of them were to walk in here now, into this coffee shop, and saw you sitting here with me – you’re not married to me, I’m not a relative, I’m a strange man – what would they think?

JAMSHIR: They will think that I am un-straight woman.

BBC: An un-straight ... a bad woman?

JAMSHIR: Yeah, they will think like this. They think women are only for sitting in the home, to get pregnant, to take care of the children, to cook food. That’s it. They think the woman only for kitchen.

BBC: So what are you saying? Are you saying that women simply cannot get a fair hearing in front of a Sharia judge? Is that what you’re saying?

JAMSHIR: Yes, we don’t have rights in the Sharia courts. For example, if the woman wants to divorce her husband, the judge, he ask her to give the man a lot of money – two, three-thousand dinars, four-thousand dinars, it depends. But if the man, he wants to divorce the woman, he just pay like a hundred-and-twenty dinar and this is unfair. They shout to the women and they said to the women, you have to wear hijab, you have to cover your head. OK, if they don’t like our hair, I don’t like, for example, their beards.



Aggressors and victims on both sides of the wall
In election week, Israelis and Palestinians agree on one thing: the Western media is biased
By Vincent Graff
The Independent on Sunday
April 2, 2006

Arnold Roth did not choose to become entangled with the international media. That decision was taken for him by Izzedine al-Masri, a Palestinian man who walked into a Jerusalem restaurant four-and-a-half years ago with a bag containing nails and explosives strapped to his body. When al-Masri blew himself up, he took Roth’s 15-year-old daughter, Malki, and 14 other people with him.

Today, Roth is often approached by news gatherers from abroad looking for his reaction to the latest development in Israeli politics. He is considered and thoughtful but he objects to the fact that, as he sees it, media organisations from abroad paint Israel as a bully. “In Western countries, the broad perception of Israel is of it being powerful and privileged,” said Roth. “For someone like me, whose daughter was murdered by people who danced in the street afterwards, it is hard to take that viewpoint.”

I met Roth in Palestinian East Jerusalem last week. We were standing in the shadow of the 8 metre-high concrete wall Israel has built to protect itself from suicide bombers – sparking condemnation worldwide. Roth had been invited there by Sky News, to talk terrorism and democracy with its Middle East correspondent, Emma Hurd.

I spent much of last week with Hurd, her producer and crew as she attempted to report Israel’s election to a British audience. We travelled to West Bank settlements, to Arab East Jerusalem, and secular Jewish Tel Aviv. Hurd asked tough questions, dissecting a complicated political landscape. And I never heard anyone complain about bias in Sky’s coverage of the Middle East.

But when I talked in general terms to Israelis about the press and broadcasters, the story was always the same. Not one of them thought Israel’s image abroad was good. Most blamed the media. Interestingly, nor did I find one Palestinian who was happy with the media. When the injustice of one’s own life feels so overwhelming, one is tempted to think outsiders should pay more attention – and that they are ignoring you for a reason.

I should lay my cards on the table. I am many things: a journalist, British, Jewish though not religious. I was last in Israel was 20 years ago. I would not describe myself as a Zionist but I respect the fact that Israel is a democracy in a sea of dictatorships and I am certain the country ought to exist. I also recognise that Israel is surrounded by many nations that do not share that view.

David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, believes journalists from outside Israel rush to snap judgements. Take the security barrier. It has made Palestinians’ lives more difficult, but that is only half the story, said Horovitz. “Newspapers never talk about the thousands of Israeli children whose lives it has saved.” Nor can they show the pictures of these children – unlike the Palestinian youngsters who have been injured or killed by the Israeli army. “Certain parts of the media are in the grip of an extreme misconception about who is the aggressor and who is the underdog,” said Horovitz.

His argument deserves house room. But it is also true that Israeli deaths receive more coverage than Palestinian ones. This may be because Jewish fatalities tend to occur in large groups, in everyday situations. Palestinian deaths tend to happen one or two at a time, at the hands of soldiers or police.

Every time a Palestinian or a Jewish Israeli expressed their dismay at the portrayal of their people and plight, I asked the same question: why is the media biased against you? The answers were depressing.

Listen to the words of Arye, a Jewish settler on the West Bank and Nisreen, a Palestinian housewife who lives a few miles from him in East Jerusalem. “Maybe it’s because of all the Arab oil,” said Arye. Nisreen countered: “The Jews are very powerful, in London and across the world.”

They would not admit it, but these two people, who wear different clothes, eat different foods and pray to different Gods, have more in common than they think.



(Tom Gross adds: Arnold Roth, who is referred to in the article above and, like David Horovitz, is a longtime subscriber to this list, tells me that he sent the following letter to the editor of the Independent in response to the article. Thus far, it has not been published.)

To the Editor
The Independent

It may lack significance to some, but Vincent Graff’s description (“Aggressors and victims on both sides of the wall” April 2, 2006) of my daughter’s murderer with “a bag containing nails and explosives strapped to his body” is inaccurate.

Perhaps you need to be the parent of a murdered child to be sensitive to the distinction. But the fact is he was carrying a guitar case. Inside the guitar case was a real guitar, and inside of that was a deadly load of explosives and nails. That is what he exploded when he went to his seventy-two virgins, ending my daughter’s life as well as the lives of fourteen other innocent visitors to a restaurant. 130 other people were maimed and injured, by far most of them women and children.

Two things about that massacre need to be understood in order to make sense of Mr Graff’s article’s title.

First, the name of my daughter’s killer has appeared on every published list of Palestinian “martyrs” since August 2001. When numeric comparisons are made between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs killed since the start of the Arafat War in 2000, my daughter’s murderer – along with many other murderers – is in the list of the Palestinian victims.

Secondly, Israel’s policy of having soldiers at crossover points check into whether musical instruments carried by Palestinian Arabs are real has been severely criticized in the past two years. That criticism, which I consider to be mostly unfair and wrong, takes on a different meaning when you know that one of the many massacres of Jews in Jerusalem was done via a booby-trapped guitar. Many people simply don’t know about it, which is why I am pointing it out here.

Arnold Roth



Are they all mad?
By Andrew Bolt
Herald Sun (Australia)
March 29, 2006,5478,18636966%5E25717,00.html

Many of Tony Blair’s former comrades defend not democracy but mass-murdering fascists and head-lopping Islamists.

YES, Tony Blair did sound good when he spoke to our Parliament on Monday about Iraq.

No wonder the commentators were awed. But here’s his trick: it’s easy for the British Labour Prime Minister to sound so sane, because much of the rest of the Left sounds so mad.

I mean, did you hear writer Robert Fisk, in a special ABC broadcast of his speech just the night before, suggest the September 11 attacks may have been the work of... Americans?

What on earth has happened to the Left when it has made a conspiracy monger like Fisk one of the hottest speakers on our literary and activist circuit, and a best-selling author and much-petted guest on the ABC?

To contrast him here to Blair is to see that the true icon of the Left is now not the red flag but the white coat.

Poor Blair, who thought he was of the Left himself, has trouble understanding why many of his former comrades now defend not democracy, but mass-murdering fascists and head-lopping Islamists.

In his speech to the joint sitting of our Parliament, he rightly said Islamist terrorists were ideologues “at war with us and our way of life”.

But in a little-noted aside, he added: “Their case is that democracy is a Western concept we are forcing on an unwilling culture of Islam. The problem we have is that a part of opinion in our own countries agrees with them.”

He’s talking of his own Left here, and warns: “The strain of, frankly, anti-American feeling in parts of European and in world politics is madness when set against the long-term interests of the world we believe in.”

Madness? That brings me to Fisk, the ABC darling. But let me first describe the rank garden in which he thrives.

It was always going to be hard for Leftists to find ways to excuse the terrorists with whom we in the capitalist West are now at war. For many this strain of excusing the inexcusable has become just too much.

At first the cracks appeared only on fringes of the rational world, like France, where Thierry Meyssan, head of a Left-leaning think-tank, in 2002 wrote a book suggesting it wasn’t a plane at all that hit the Pentagon on September 11. No, it was a cruise missile.

And the planes that hit the World Trade Centre weren’t hijacked but piloted by remote control. And, you guessed it, it was all the work of people “from inside the American state apparatus”.

The claims of his L’Effroyable Imposture (The Frightening Fraud) were easily disproved – see, for instance, – but of course the facts didn’t matter.

This wasn’t about reason but hate, so the book quickly sold 200,000 copies in France alone and is now translated into 28 languages. The fantasy it spun span like a dervish in Muslim countries.

American activist filmmaker Michael Moore then produced his own blame-America fantasy in Fahrenheit 9-11, showing President George W. Bush as a shyster who’d been bought off by Saudi oil tycoons, and thus didn’t chase the real villains of September 11. And they weren’t al-Qaida, but... his Saudi mates.

As for Iraq, what a peaceful, loving place it was under Saddam Hussein. See the children playing before the Americans bombed them!

This sleazy stuff went down so well that Moore won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and was given a seat in the box of former US president Jimmy Carter at the Democrat convention.

It seemed you could tell any crazy lie to smear the US, and you’d be praised as a truth-teller. And so our own SBS ran a French documentary, The World According to Bush, arguing that Bush attacked Iraq just “for the benefit of Israel”, because he was a “political whore” who was a puppet of Jews and Christian Zionists. Goebbels couldn’t have put it better.

When such mad material is circulated even by state-funded broadcasters in the West, it’s no surprise to find the same lines turning up in the mouths of “politically aware” actors.

Cue Charlie Sheen, the Spin City star, who this month hinted darkly that the September 11 attacks were really an inside job, with Bush perhaps in on “some sort of rehearsal”.

“It seems to me like 19 amateurs with boxcutters taking over four commercial airliners and hitting 75 per cent of their targets, that feels like a conspiracy theory,” he said.

Consider the first plane to hit the World Trade Centre: “There was a feeling, it just didn’t look like any commercial jetliner I’ve flown on any time in my life and then when the buildings came down later on that day I said to my brother, ‘Call me insane, but did it sorta look like those buildings came down in a controlled demolition?’”

Of course, Sheen is just a dumb actor, right? No serious person of the Left would say he’d speak for them.

Robert Fisk, however, is a veteran British foreign correspondent and author living in Beirut and now working for the London Independent.

He has countless fans among the Left, especially in Australia, where he is a regular on ABC programs such as Lateline and Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live.

Just this month he was a guest of Adelaide’s Writers Festival and gave a long lecture at Sydney University that was broadcast in full on the ABC on Sunday.

Osama bin Laden would be delighted, I’m sure, since the al-Qaida leader in 2004 urged us to listen especially to Fisk because “I consider him to be neutral”. And he’d be even happier to hear Fisk’s message to us.

Apparently every bad thing in the Middle East is our fault. Said Fisk: “I see this immense world of injustice... and I must say given our constant interference in the Middle East, I’m amazed that Muslims have been so restrained.”

In fact, so “restrained” are they that Fisk isn’t sure how much they can be blamed even for September 11.

He often spoke in the US, he said, and “more and more people in the audience believe the American administration had some kind of involvement”.

“I have to say before you clap (indeed, some in his audience were applauding) I don’t have any proof of that.

“I mean, the worst I can envisage is that they know something was coming and they preferred it to happen so that their strategy could be put into place.”

(Hmm. What sinister strategy would that be, Bob?)

But Fisk could not leave it even at that: “Serious people across the States are asking – people in Iowa, for God’s sake – are asking me in letters, ‘What really happened? How did those buildings fall so neatly down?’

“And I can’t answer them except to say I am in Beirut and not New York and I can’t investigate this. But there are a lot of things we don’t know, a lot of things we’re not going to be told.”

Like this, perhaps: that although we’ve read that United Airlines flight 93 crashed when its passengers tackled their hijackers, Fisk thinks “perhaps the plane was hit by a missile”. An American missile.

“We still don’t know,” he claimed.

Don’t think such insidious conspiracy mongering is new to Fisk. Only a month ago he told Lateline it was “not logical” to believe Iraqis were killing Iraqis, and that “the real question” was “who are these people trying to provoke civil war?”.

Fisk’s hint? “Who pays the militia men who make up the death squads? We do, the occupation authorities.

“I’d like to know what the Americans are doing to get at the people who are trying to provoke the civil war. It seems to me not very much.” Those evil Americans again.

Unlike Sheen, Fisk can’t be dismissed as just another crank who represents no one.

He is welcome in almost any ABC studio even today, his documentaries are reverentially presented on SBS, his books sell well in modish shops, and even at the end of his bizarre Sydney speech, the audience gave him a long and loving ovation.

This is the kind of madness in the Left that so worries Blair. And if it worries even a leader of that Left, it sure frightens me.



Hold that opinion
By Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
April 5, 2006

For obvious reasons, journalism places a premium on speed. When news breaks on Tuesday, reporters spring into action, intent on getting the story into the paper on Wednesday – and maybe even online or on the air by Tuesday night.

For reasons that are rather less obvious, opinion journalism – the business not of reporting what happened, but of commenting on it – also tends to place a premium on speed. When that story breaks on Tuesday, members of the pundits’ guild spring into action as well. Editorial writers and columnists tell their readers what the news means. TV talking heads and radio pontificators pass judgment. Internet bloggers – the commentariat’s newest, increasingly influential players – scramble to weigh in. And the more compelling or startling the news, the more immediate, and often the more adamant, the opinions expressed.

All of this is very democratic and robust; it certainly makes for a noisy and bustling marketplace of ideas. But does it make for a more thoughtful one?

I have always believed that racing to report a story makes a lot more sense than racing to express a point of view about it. No doubt there are some sages who don’t need time to reflect – or to wait for more facts, or to see how a story turns out – in order to generate some well-chosen words of genuine wisdom. My own experience is that insight and good judgment don’t usually work that way. I find that thought and a bit of distance vastly improve the odds of coming up with something worth saying – and that rushing to tell the world what to think of the latest headlines makes for shallow, half-baked, or unfair commentary.

Case in point: the release of Jill Carroll.

When the Christian Science Monitor reporter was set free in Baghdad last week, she insisted at first that her captors had not harmed her. “I was treated very well; it’s important people know that,” she said in an interview conducted by the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Sunni organization into whose hands she was released. “They never threatened me in any way.”

On the same day, a videotape made before she was freed was posted on the Internet. In it, Carroll denounced the United States and praised the insurgents as “good people fighting an honorable fight.” Asked by the interviewer if she has “a message for Mr. Bush,” her answer was one-sided and hostile:

“Yeah, he needs to stop this war. He knows this war is wrong. He knows that it was illegal from the very beginning. He knows that it was built on a mountain of lies... and he doesn’t care about his own people.”

To some people hearing this, it was plain that Carroll could only have been speaking under duress. “Jill Carroll forced to make propaganda video as price of freedom,” the Monitor headlined its story the next day. Anyone tempted to accuse Carroll of some other motive, cautioned Ellen Knickmeyer of The Washington Post, “should think about what they would do (after) three months with machine guns held to their heads.”

But others, in their haste to express an opinion, pronounced Carroll guilty of collaboration.

“May as well just come right out and say she was a willing participant,” one conservative blog announced. Declared another: “She was anti-America when she went over there and I say the kidnapping was a put up deal from the get go.” The executive producer of a prominent radio/television talk show described Carroll on the air as “the kind of woman who would wear one of those suicide vests. You know, walk into the – try and sneak into the Green Zone.... She’s like the Taliban Johnny or something.”

At a popular site on the left, meanwhile, there was scorn for the “totally inappropriate” assumptions that Carroll’s warm words about her captors could be “motivated by anything other than a desire to tell the truth.”

Yet one day later, once she was safely out of Iraq, Carroll issued a statement repudiating the “things that I was forced to say while captive.” She bitterly labeled the men who kidnapped her and murdered her translator, Alan Enwiya, as “criminals, at best.” What she thought of the opinionated prodigies who couldn’t wait to climb on their soapboxes and tell the world what to think about her, Carroll didn’t say. Perhaps she was being polite. Perhaps, unlike them, she prefers to think before she vents.

With the swelling influence of the Internet and the blogosphere, the pressure to generate instant reaction is only going to grow more intense. Dozens of traditional news outlets, for example, now maintain blogs of their own. But it is an unhealthy impulse, and commentators – in every medium – should resist it. First impressions are not the same as thoughtful commentary. It’s nice to be first. It’s better to be right.

(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)



Micklethwait to edit Economist
By Stephen Brook
The Guardian
March 23, 2006,,1738229,00.html

John Micklethwait was appointed to one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism tonight, the editorship of the Economist.

Mr Micklethwait, the US editor of the news and business weekly periodical, becomes the 16th editor since it was first published in 1843.

He beat Ed Carr, the business affairs editor, to the top job after the Economist Group board – chaired by Sir Robert Wilson, the former chairman of Rio Tinto – met in the afternoon to interview the candidates.

The outcome was not announced until the trustees, chaired by Sir Campbell Fraser, met to ratify the decision at about 5.30pm.

Described as charismatic and a good television performer, the new editor is expected to give the magazine a higher profile than outgoing editor Bill Emmott, who preferred to let the magazine speak for itself.

Mr Micklethwait was described by one source close to the Economist as being “a bigger thinker” than Carr, who supervises the business, finance and science sections in the back half of the publication and whose career was said to more closely resemble that of Emmott when he was appointed 13 years ago.

The magazine’s international circulation now dwarfs its UK circulation, which is around 150,000.

The Economist deputy editor, Emma Duncan, has told colleagues she will stay despite missing out on the chance to become the magazine’s first female editor.

The appointment was announced to staff after a day of speculation at the company.

Mr Micklethwait has co-authored a number of books, including The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea. He was fancied to win the top job after he was linked to the editorship of the Spectator, which eventually went to Matthew d’Ancona.

Carr, a former news editor of the Financial Times who rejoined the Economist after five years last April, was regarded as a rising star at the 163-year-old title, which is thriving in the era of instant news and declining daily newspaper sales.

Emmott recently decided to stand down after doubling the publication’s worldwide circulation to 1,038,519.

Pearson, the owner of the Financial Times, owns 50% of the financial weekly.

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