CAMERA Op-Ed: Media Self-Scrutiny? Not Yet.

The earthquake of public anger across America over inane, inaccurate and incendiary reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis has prompted notable reaction from journalism reviews and various media ombudsmen and commentators. With few exceptions, the journalistic take on the outcry has been self-justification, disparagement of critics and nearly non-existent substantive inquiry about issues raised.

The charge of bias has been rejected out of hand.

American Journalism Review‘s Sharyn Vane ( “Days of Rage” July/August 2002) authored a characteristic piece. Ostensibly looking at whether news organizations were “guilty as charged” of proffering “unfair coverage,” the article consisted of anecdotal complaints from defenders of Israel and pro-Palestinian advocates, and largely dismissive responses from various editors and institutes.

The stunning volume of e-mails from readers, viewers and listeners and the vehemence of emotion aroused were noted as having surprised and dismayed many newsrooms. While it was conceded journalistic mistakes have been made, Vane repeatedly emphasized, editors “to a one maintain …there’s simply no bias shaping coverage.”

In fact, John Schidlovsky, Director of the Pew International Journalism Program, declared that “most of [the complaining] is nonsense, predictable, politicized opinion-mongering.” The avalanche of complaint, it was averred, is completely unrelated to any actual problems of media failure and is nothing more than a function of the new frontier of the Internet giving people easy means to criticize.

The AJR article contained additional prattle about the importance of the media’s explaining how news is presented and inviting critics in for a talk – as though this is a substitute for serious inspection of the accuracy, balance, completeness and overall news judgement by America’s foremost media outlets in presentation of Middle East events.

There was not the slightest hint of a need to investigate any media outlet or to survey the coverage more deeply. (Although Vane, for example, repeatedly quoted National Public Radio ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, she omitted any mention of the extensive substantive complaints registered by CAMERA about the network’s reporting.)

The Columbia Journalism Review was no better. A piece by Steve McNally (“Caught in the Middle” February 2002) focused jarringly on the writer who chattily noted that snagging a job in Jerusalem was “a pretty good gig” and a “good career move” that “offers reporters unparalleled exposure.” The article about the trials of reporting on the conflict touched glancingly on the matter of dissatisfied news consumers, but was devoid of any assessment of the merit of public concerns.

Other media commentators largely followed suit in reporting on the outcry. The Boston Globe‘s Mark Jurkowitz skimmed entirely over the specific complaints raised by news consumers and concluded with a “bemused” editor from the Minneapolis Star Tribune dismissing any notion that the paper was derelict in any way or affected by a campaign among its readers. Jurkowitz omitted mention that the Tribune‘s doctoring of a New York Times story to remove references to terrorism had prompted widespread protest.

Felicity Barringer in the New York Times cited examples of the complaints by groups unhappy with her own paper, but offered no indication of their legitimacy.

The Los Angeles Times‘ David Shaw, often a thoughtful commentator on the media, gave a more sympathetic hearing to pro-Israel voices, including those critical of his own publication, but he too avoided weighing in with a judgement on the specifics.

At the Washington Post, Michael Getler, writing several columns on the public clamor, paid some attention to the content of protests. On May 5, for example, he admitted ever so carefully that the paper had done “less well providing context” than in other aspects of its otherwise “solid job recording this difficult and dangerous clash.” Generally, he repeated empty platitudes about veteran reporters devoted to “bringing … stories alive in a clear and honest way to readers.”

In one column, Getler undoubtedly stoked reader indignation by asserting that pro-Israel critics have a wish “to shift the focus of the coverage almost exclusively toward…terrorism and away from the occupation and despair, and the violence that it causes” (June 9).

His notion that “occupation and despair” – rather than years of calculated hate-indoctrination and rejection of political compromise – are the essential causes of suicidal violence is surely a window on the problems at the Post.

Yet the same publication’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, who also hosts CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” is among those who have given a forum to critics of the media’s slant against Israel. In an April 6 CNN segment, Newsweek‘s Lally Weymouth and National Review‘s Rich Lowry joined USA Today‘s Jack Kelley and CNN’s Michael Holmes in a discussion that included substance.

Weymouth defended Israel’s preventing reporters access to Ramallah during its military operation there, and Lowry said “anti-Israel” coverage has been particularly obvious in the benign treatment of Yasir Arafat that ignores his terrorist and anti-Semitic record. Kelley and Holmes disagreed.

The value for viewers was that in this all too rare instance there was none of the censoring out of what millions of news consumers also know – there are real problems in the media’s coverage of the Middle East conflict.


Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on July 26, 2002

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