When does a "journalist" presumably dispensing informative, dispassionate news morph into an analyst? Or, even beyond this, into a partisan advocate?
Watching NBC's Andrea Mitchell cover Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent trip to the US offers insight on that trajectory, as she belittled the Israeli leader in language and attitude she seems to reserve primarily for Israeli officials.
Palestinian leaders elicit far gentler treatment.
Her recent criticism of Netanyahu, during the May 22 airing of Meet The Press, regarding his press conference with President Obama, sounds more like partisan sniping than impartial journalism.
In referring to an exchange between these leaders about President Obama's reference to 1967 boundaries when the President said, "The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states," Mitchell and program host David Gregory had the following exchange:
DAVID GREGORY: At the same time, what's happening today, we want to take you live here in Washington, D.C., to the scene of AIPAC. This is the pro-Israel lobby, very powerful in the United States. The President will be speaking here, Andrea Mitchell, and this is on the heels of a rupture with Israel. The President said this week that any peace plan, a Palestinian state would have to go back to the borders of prior to the 1967 war. This was significant.
ANDREA MITCHELL: He did have language that said there would be land swaps to protect Israel's security, but it was taken as a red flag by Netanyahu. And what happened then was that even if this was implicit in things that previous presidents had said, Netanyahu seized on it. Even before he got on the plane, he criticized the President, and in such a fashion! He lectured him in the Oval Office. And if you look at that picture that you have up there right now, it was a stone-faced Barack Obama and Netanyahu basically treating him like a school boy. People even who work for Netanyahu, some Israeli officials, told him later that he went too far. That it was, it was really rude and that there would be blowback to this.
Mitchell here is simply echoing partisan critics of the Israeli Prime Minister rather than reporting on the actual issues. So, for example, she did not bother to pursue and report on why mention of the 1967 lines would raise a red flag for Netanyahu and provoke from him a concerned response; instead, she characterized Netanyahu's reaction as seizing on something unwarranted. Yet, in contrast, many thoughtful journalists and commentators explored Netanyahu's concerns and probed the meaning of 1967 to both Israelis and to Jews worldwide.
Tom Lister of CNN` did a May 24 piece entitled Maps, land and history: Why 1967 still matters. Quoting Netanyahu, Lister writes,
Remember that before 1967, Israel was all of 9 miles wide, half the width of the Washington beltway," he (Netanyahu) said. "And these were not the boundaries of peace, they were the boundaries of repeated wars because the attack on Israel was so attractive from them.
Lister goes on to write:
Successive Israeli leaders have rejected a return to the pre-1967 boundaries, starting with Golda Meir in 1969, who said it would be irresponsible for any Israeli government to support such a plan.
The Washington Post ran a May 26 piece by Charles Krauthammer in which he argues Obama's statement compromised Israel by abandoning the Bush assurances, legitimizing the '67 borders and refusing to reaffirm America's rejection of the right of return.
That '67 line runs right through Jerusalem. Thus the starting point of negotiations would be that the Western Wall and even Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter are Palestinian alien territory for which Israel must now bargain. The very idea that Judaism's holiest shrine is alien or that Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter is rightfully or historically or demographically Arab is an absurdity.
The Wall Street Journal included a piece from Dore Gold on May 21 in which he outlined the numerous difficulties of citing 1967 boundaries, writing, The cornerstone of all postwar diplomacy was U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, passed in November 1967. It did not demand that Israel pull back completely to the pre-1967 lines. He goes on to explain,
Prior to the Six Day War, Jerusalem had been sliced in two, and the Jewish people were denied access to the Old City and its holy sites. Jerusalem's Christian population also faced limitations. As America's ambassador to the U.N., Arthur Goldberg, would explain, Resolution 242 did not preclude Israel's reunification of Jerusalem. In fact, Resolution 242 became the only agreed basis of all Arab-Israeli peace agreements, from the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace to the 1993 Oslo Agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.
In the same segment of Meet The Press, Mitchell went on to insist Obama's statement was "implicit in things that previous presidents had said," omitting the Bush Letter of April 2004 in which the former president states, "it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion," a position that was then endorsed in the House and Senate in H. Resolution 460.
Mitchell's harping tone was also undeniable in the May 25, 2011 interview with Prime Minister Netanyahu after his warm reception by the United States Congress.
Mitchell casts US support as a manipulative game on Netanyahu's part, saying he has a home court advantage with the United States Congress. She states, You know every button to push with Americans, Democrats and Republicans.
Mitchell then goes on to prod Netanyahu in a manner that often shows itself when Mitchell interviews Israelis.
Mitchell: Prime Minister, there was a moment in the Oval Office on Friday. You and the President of the United States and so many of your early supporters, friends of Israel, said that you were lecturing him, that it went too far.
You disagree about borders, you did not like what he did, but, in fact, what he said was implicit in what previous presidents have said, they just haven't said it as explicitly and that you shouldn't be lecturing, taking such a hard line with the President of the United States.
In retrospect, do you think you went too far?
After Netanyahu answered the question, Mitchell went right back for a second round:
Mitchell: Why do you think he disagrees with you about the borders? He believes that with land swaps that Israel can be well defended, going back to the 1967 borders. What is it that divides you and Barack Obama? Why do you think that he has a different vision of what is required for Israel's security?
You don't think that he wants Israel to not be able to defend itself?
After Netanyahu attempts to answer her once again, Mitchell continues with critical badgering in the next exchange:
MITCHELL: He still thinks that those borders can be defended with appropriate land swaps.
NETANYAHU: Well, if you listened to his statement the next day, he said that the line would be different from the 1967 line. And I think that was an important emphasis on the President's part.
MITCHELL: Why were you so angry when you first heard about what he said?
NETANYAHU: Well ‑‑
MITCHELL: Issuing a statement before you even got on your plane.
Nor is this hectoring style reserved only for the Prime Minister. Mitchell took a similar stance in her interview with Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren in June of 2010. In this exchange regarding the flotilla that attempted to breach the blockade on Gaza, Mitchell challenged Oren on the Israeli soldiers' use of force to defend themselves, as well as, on Israel stopping the flotilla from reaching Gaza altogether.
MS. MITCHELL: Israel has now ‑‑ I mean, Egypt has now opened the Rafah Crossing. So you have Egypt now alienated by this. Egypt, who's been helping you keep or at least claims to be helping Israel keep supplies that could help any terror groups into Gaza. You've got Turkey alienated. Turkey, the one ally in the Muslim world who was negotiating and had joint military exercises with Israel has now kicked out your ambassador. We called their ambassador.
What prospect does Israel have at this stage?
AMB. OREN: Well, Andrea, you've asked me so many questions, I'll have to go back and back and back. For Egypt has opened its border to certain humanitarian goods. Our border has been always open to humanitarian goods. We have 100 trucks going in every day to Gaza with food and medicine, and there's no shortage of food and medicine.
If this flotilla had wanted to bring in humanitarian aid, they would have accepted our offer made repeatedly over the past few weeks, to transfer their cargoes to Israel, and we would then have conveyed it to responsible people within Gaza.
Ambassador Oren concludes his remarks by saying,
I'm saddened by this, but Israel, at the end of the day, has to make decisions to defend its citizens. That's what this country is about, what any country is about. I mean, the United States, I'm certain, would act no differently, and U.S. Coast Guard soldiers, men and women landing on a boat carrying dangerous materials into the United States would take whatever measures were necessary to defend themselves if they were attacked with guns, knives and irons bars.
Mitchell's response continues the theme of faulting Israel for complicating peace efforts:
MS. MITCHELL: The White House ‑‑ the Obama White House ‑‑ is not jumping to Israel's defense here as White Houses have in the past. The White House is asking for the results of the investigation, a noticeably cool response. This has all the makings of an issue which will exacerbate difficult relations and just as peace talks were sort of stumbling towards getting under way.
Mitchell takes a far gentler approach with Arab leader and advisor to President Mahmoud Abbas Nabil Shaath. In a September 2, 2010 interview, subsequent to the murder of four Israelis outside of Hebron and prior to the peace talks that were to take place in Washington between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, Mitchell fails to challenge Shaath on any issue that would implicate the Arabs as impediments to peace - such as Arab incitement and terrorism - choosing instead to echo Palestinian accusations that fault Israel. Indeed, Mitchell acts almost as an ally of her interviewee, repeating Mahmoud Abbas's assertion that settlements may derail talks-- but never challenging Shaath regarding terrorism"derailing" negotiations.She feeds the Palestinian official his lines, asking if settlement building is a "deal breaker."
MS. MITCHELL: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is calling on Israel to end Jewish settlements in the West Bank or risk derailing these fledgling peace talks before they even get under way. Joining me now one of the President Abbas's closest advisers, Nabil Shaath.
Mr. Shaath, you've seen this for decades. I've watched you through all of these twists and turns, but they are still at it and this is a longer conversation than any of us have expected. Is this a good sign to you?
MR. SHAATH: Well, we are still at it because the occupation is still there, because our people are not free and because there is no real peace in the area. And when the president of the United States, particularly this one, calls for negotiations and gives it his support, we think there is an opportunity, we'll try again.
MS. MITCHELL: The two leaders are still meeting today, longer than we thought they would be. Now, is it a deal breaker if Israel resumes building settlements September 26 as is now scheduled?
MR. SHAATH: It is a deal breaker. I mean, we are trying to run very fast to make as much progress as possible before the end of this month. If all of this effort is not appreciated, and if Israel still continues to grab more land while we are discussing land for peace, I think they will torpedo this opportunity which is a good one that should not be torpedoed.
When Mitchell does mention the Hebron attack, it is to quickly note the Palestinian denunciation of it, not to press Shaath in any way to take responsibility for the terrorism, or for the Arab incitement against Jews that spurs such attacks. On the contrary, Mitchell provided Shaath with an unhindered opportunity to diminish any Arab accountability. At first mention of the massacre, Mitchell, rather than Shaath, praised Abbas for his swift response:
MS. MITCHELL: President Abbas was very swift in condemning the violence that took place -- the lives of four Israeli settlers, including a couple that leaves six children orphaned and a seventh child with the person in the other car. So you have seven orphans now as a result of this violence in one day.
Mitchell then allows Shaath to have the last word where he creates moral equivalence between the point-blank murder of Israeli civilians, and the Arabs who were killed as part of the war in Gaza, a war which was the response to years of rocket fire from Gaza on the citizens of Israel.
Mr. Shaath: Also, I think what happened is tragic. Whenever you lose lives, it's extremely tragic, but that has been the case. That's why we are here; 1400 Palestinians were killed in Gaza during the attack that created so many orphans. I hope that this peace process will stop all the killing and create real peace in the area.
MS. MITCHELL: All right. We can always hope that. That is the hope of these talks, the first talks in nearly two years. Again, a meeting scheduled now for September 14 in the region to follow up on this with everyone facing that informal deadline of September 26 when Israel may or may not resume settlement construction.
There was not a single instance in the interview of Mitchell pressing Shaath on any of the issues that would suggest Arab culpability.
The contrast in the reporter's tough approach with Israeli officials and her deferential manner with the Palestinians is undeniable.
When covering a controversial issue prompts a journalist to employ such starkly different attitudes and standards in handling the contending parties, the reporter may just be too partisan to report objectively. Both the network and the reporter should take a hard look at their respective roles.