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Spinning the Occupation


The mild pressure that President Obama is placing on Israel to curtail its settlement expansion is worth examining in light of the debate over U.S. media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Anecdotal evidence from the last few weeks suggests an American-Israeli monopoly over media reporting.  A piece published in the New York Times on July 30, for example, discusses the Israeli settlements in the West Bank through the eyes of the settlers.  The story, “West Bank Settlers Send Obama a Defiant Message,” fails to quote a single Palestinian, relying exclusively on Israeli settlers.  The fact that the occupation of the West Bank is universally considered illegal by the international community and under international law is also absent from the piece.  No admission is provided that the settlements prohibit the emergence of a contiguous Palestinian state.  The settlers are only vaguely referred to as a “challenge” to peace.  Although U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross is cited, his role in denying the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state during the 2000 Camp David talks is also neglected.

 

Another story from the July 27 issue of Time magazine is instructive as well.  Titled “Two Views of the Land,” the piece allocates a mere paragraph to exploring the hardships of Palestinian families in the West Bank, while spending nine paragraphs chronicling the lives of those families who live in the settlements.  The Time piece fits comfortably within a larger political debate [led by Obama] seeking only to stop the expansion of the settlements, not to dismantle them.  This limitation of media debate to two options – keeping the status quo or allowing for the settlements’ expansion – represents an impressive victory for U.S. and Israeli propaganda.

 

Establishment scholars and Pro-Israel groups such as CAMERA, AIPAC, and the Anti-Defamation League routinely dismiss U.S. coverage as biased against Israel.  Progressive critics attack the press as an apologist for Israeli war crimes.  Hebrew University’s Gadi Wolfsfeld argues that U.S. coverage of Israel can be explained by simple “frames” which aid Palestinians in “win[ning]” ideological battles with Israel.  He concludes that New York Times’ coverage of the First Intifada systematically favored Palestinians by emphasizing Palestinian suffering, injuries, anger, defiance, and condemnations of Israel.

 

Similarly, Harvard’s Marvin Kalb feels that U.S. reporting on the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war was effectively hijacked by Hezbollah’s “propaganda.”  He maintains that the media disproportionately emphasized Israel’s military response, in contrast to Hezbollah’s military actions.  Kalb targets the three nightly news networks, which were more critical of Israel than of Hezbollah…More than half of their stories (133) focused on Israeli attacks against Lebanon, 89 of them Hezbollah attacks against Israel.”

 

Many feel that pro-Israel lobbying groups exert considerable pressure on American journalists to take a pro-Israeli bias.  Paul Findley’s classic book They Dare to Speak Out documents various political figures that were targeted by pro-Israel groups for challenging Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  Findley documents how complaints of media bias led the editors at the Washington Post to appoint a representative from a pro-Israel group to monitor reporters’ conduct in the newsroom.  No representative of Palestinian interests was allowed to take part in the assessment.

 

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt document in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy the many attacks by pro-Israel groups against reporters.  It is not uncommon, for example, for CNN editors to receive up to six thousand emails in a single day from those outraged about allegedly biased coverage of Israel.  Mearsheimer and Walt also discuss the dominant position of pro-Israel pundits at papers such as the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Sun Times, and Washington Times.

 

Any systematic analysis of media bias should first begin by addressing the claims of those who criticize media coverage as anti-Israeli.  As prominent scholars, Kalb and Wolfsfeld’s works are a good starting point.  The evidence cited by Kalb and Wolfsfeld does not indicate a pro-Palestinian bias.  Bias can only be demonstrated by documenting reporting on a political issue that is in contradiction to some observable reality.  In the case of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war Kalb makes baseless claims that U.S. networks were biased because they devoted 49 percent more coverage to Israeli attacks on Lebanon than to Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel.  Considering that 27 times as many Lebanese civilians were killed than Israeli civilians, coverage of Lebanese deaths should have been far larger, and certainly should not have been covered less (1,191 Lebanese civilians died, compared to 44 Israeli civilians).

 

There is a similar problem in the case of Wolfsfeld’s findings regarding the First Intifada.  Attention to the deaths and suffering of Palestinian civilians doesn’t constitute a bias or a one-sided “framing” if Palestinian civilians were nearly 7 times more likely to die than Israeli civilians (1,087 Palestinians died, compared to 160 Israelis). Apologists for Israel may be right that U.S. reporting is biased against Israel, but only if one defines bias as the acknowledgement that Palestinians die under a violent occupation.  Reporters could tailor their coverage to omit or further downplay Palestinian deaths, but their stories would be so propagandistic that few would take them seriously.

 

Evidence from other studies demonstrates that no pro-Palestinian bias exists.  If anything, a monopoly by Israeli voices is the norm in reporting.  Veteran Israeli journalist Jim Lederman reports in Battle Lines that “the images presented on U.S. commercial television during the first few weeks of the [First Intifada] understated and underplayed what was actually occurring…TV did not tell the story, for example, of Israeli helicopters dropping tear gas into Gaza’s Shifa hospital on the first day of rioting.”  Networks news refrained from depicting the “blood and gore during the dinner hour,” thereby saving Israel from further embarrassment.  My re-examination of the period originally studied by Wolfsfeld (from December 10-31, 1987) finds that New York Times stories were 69 percent more likely to report headlines that emphasized the actions of either Israeli officials, the military, or Israeli civilians, as compared to headlines that emphasized the actions of Palestinian civilians or political representatives.  A closer look at the December stories finds that 65 percent of them are filed from within Israel itself, as compared to just 19 percent that were filed from within the Palestinian occupied territories. 

 

Even if one was to accept Wolfsfeld’s claim that Times stories on Israel provide at times an unflattering image of Israel, this does not constitute evidence of independence from U.S. and Israeli officialdom.  At the time of the First Intifada, American officials publicly complained “about Israel’s use of lethal, live ammunition [against Palestinian civilians] for crowd control purposes,” and that the State Department urged Israel to reduce its reliance on this practice in light of critical international pressure.  This is not a case of journalistic independence from Western officialdom, considering that U.S. leaders provided the media with the breathing room to report Palestinian casualties.

 

A tremendous amount of evidence has been gathered suggesting a continuation of Israel’s monopoly position.  One study of the Times, Associated Press, NBC, CBS, and ABC published by Project Censored found that, while the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths from 2001 to 2004 was a staggering 8:1, these outlets reported Israeli deaths twice as often as Palestinian ones.  This is serious evidence of a profound bias toward Israel.

 

Richard Falk and Howard Friel provide invaluable analyses of the Times’ coverage of Israeli.  In Israel-Palestine on Record, they uncover evidence of the Times’ contempt for progressive left critics of the occupation, including figures such as Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk, who are written off as extremists.  In contrast, the work of known Israeli apologist Alan Dershowitz receives a favorable review.  Dershowitz’s distortions of the 2000 Camp David Peace dialogue are uncritically accepted by the Times (These distortions are documented at great length in Seth Ackerman’s FAIR article, “The Myth of the Generous Offer”).

 

One can provide plenty of other examples of distorted reporting.  Ethan Bronner, the paper’s reporter based in Israel, now refers to the occupied West Bank as “disputed land” (3/7/09), despite the fact that the illegality of the settlements and occupation are not disputed by any countries except the U.S. and Israel.  While the Times editors support a settlement freeze in their March 27 editorial, they make no reference to the illegality of the already existing settlements.

 

My comprehensive analysis of all the stories on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict filed by Ethan Bronner from January 1 – July 30, 2009 confirms the ideological biases described above.  The major stories during this period included the Israel-Gaza war in January and February, and the Obama administration’s pressure to curtail settlement building.  My analysis of Bronner’s stories finds that 63 percent of them were filed either from Israel or from settlement towns in the West Bank.  By contrast, just 32 percent of stories are filed from Palestinian towns.

 

A review of all of Bronner’s headlines shows that 37 percent contain references to Israeli officials and military actions, while references to Palestinian leaders and official actions appear in just 9 percent of headlines.  The Palestinian public is referenced in 30 percent of headlines, although this finding must be qualified.  While the Palestinian people are regularly referenced, they are discussed as a passive entity – one in which Israel is doing something to.  Seventy-one percent of all stories referencing the Palestinian people are dominated by an Israeli narrative.  Some examples put this trend into perspective: Israeli Accounts Allege Loose Rules of Engagement in Gaza,” “Accounts of Gaza Killings Raise Furor in Israel,” “Israel Confronts Deeper Isolation In Gaza’s Wake,” and “Outcry Erupts Over Reports That Israel Used Phosphorus Arms on Gazans.”

 

References to international law are meager in Bronner’s stories.  Just one of the 75 stories examined report Israel’s occupation as illegal under Israeli law; just one story discusses it as illegal under international law.  Only 8 percent of stories include references to Israel’s illegal actions in the Occupied Territories, while 2.6 percent contained claims that its actions are not illegal.  Bronner provides a number of reasons for why he privileges Israeli sources over Palestinian ones (see Marda Dunsky’s excellent Pens and Swords).  Bronner claims that the Israeli military often “close[s] off” various sites of violent conflict to reporters.  However, if military censorship is a serious concern, it is rarely discussed in U.S. media outlets.  This is yet another sign of the propagandistic levels in which media coverage has reached.

 

Unconvincing are Bronner’s claims that reporting the Palestinian perspective is difficult because Palestinians, when compared to Israelis, are less educated, and provide less sophisticated, overly-passionate descriptions of their experiences.  Bronner describes the Israeli government as utilizing a “more sophisticated structure for press relations,” as compared to Palestinian officials who are “not great” at public relations.

 

Few of the other reasons provided by Bronner for lopsided reporting are convincing.  Simply claiming that Israelis are privileged because they’re better at spin, better educated, and less angry says little about the professional integrity of the Times.  Reporting from war zones is never an easy thing, and relying on the path of least resistance when reporting doesn’t serve the interests of the public.  Taking the passion out of reports on atrocities committed against Palestinians prohibits readers from understanding the brutal nature of this conflict.  Those interested in peace should recognize the disservice that corporate media outlets commit by politicizing this conflict in favor of an Israeli narrative, and in favor of the fallacious notion that the U.S. is an “honest broker” in a conflict that it has worked to escalate for over forty decades – increasing military aid to Israel and consistently voting against U.N. resolutions seeking peace.

 

 

Anthony DiMaggio teaches U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University.  He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and When Media Goes to War (forthcoming February 2010).  He can be reached at: adimagg@ilstu.edu

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