Why the Media Never Gets the Middle East Right

On October 24, 1993, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) held a conference at Brandeis University titled: “The Media, the Message, and Middle East Peace.” Among the speakers at the conference was Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer. To honor his memory, we are republishing his speech. 

Let me begin with the good news. I brought with me a cartoon that ran in a major newspaper on July 31. It shows a bunch of people, including some children, with bombs exploding over their heads, running for their lives. Why? They are being chased by a large creature, a Tyrannosaurus Rex. But not your ordinary T Rex. This one is wearing an army helmet with a Star of David on it. This is a cartoon about Southern Lebanon. The caption reads: “Sixty million in the making, one week in destroying. Jewrassic Park, a.k.a. Southern Lebanon.” Jurassic is spelled Jew-rassic.

Why is this good news? Because it ran in the Irish Times. It is much harder to find that kind of thing in this country. However biased, unfriendly, and off-the-mark is American media coverage of the Middle East, it cannot hold a candle to the rest of the world and in particular Europe. After all, Ireland is not a country well known for its raging anti-Semitism. Yet this is your typical European view of the Israeli campaign in Southern Lebanon this summer in response to the Katyusha rocket attacks.

So my first piece of good news is this: It could be worse. (I always like to start talks with good news. Chesterton once said of Zola: “He was worse than a pornographer, he was a pessimist.” I’m here to cheer you up.)

My second piece of good news is that the anti-Israel bias in the media is, in my view, not primarily a function of malice. This is good news because malice is incurable. The bias in the media is, in my view, a compound of other factors, principally sentimentality, ignorance, laziness, and over-attention. And some of those – particularly ignorance – you can do something about.

My basic proposition is that in the mainstream American press anti-Semitism plays very little part in media bias on the Middle East. This, again, is in contradistinction to Europe, where, as the Irish Times cartoon indicates, Jew-baiting and Jew-hatred are a rather large – and accepted – part of anti-Israel press coverage.

Media bias in the American media starts with rank political sentimentality which dictates not just sympathy for but favoritism toward the underdog, whatever underdog happens to be under at that particular time.

 Let me give you an example that has nothing at all to do with the Middle East. It has to do with a former student at this university, Katherine Anne Power, a political radical who turned herself in to authorities 23 years after having participated in a bank robbery in which a Boston policeman was shot and killed. If you read the press coverage of her return you would have been appalled: long, sympathetic articles about her mental torment, her psychological struggles, her sadnesses, all that she had forfeited, all that she had lost, all that she had forgone during her 23 years underground. About the loss and sorrows of the nine children and widow that the murdered policeman left behind – very little.

One major magazine concluded its sympathetic cover story on Katherine Power thusly: “After all these years it’s hard to know whom to feel the most sympathy for: the [policeman’s] children who lost a father…[or] the young woman who lost her way in the tumult of the ‘60s.”

This amazing, jaw-dropping piece of unreflecting moral nonsense is important because it is akin to what afflicts Middle East coverage: a mindless victim-worship, sentimentality under which a victim, any victim, becomes an object of sympathy – and bias.

I would argue that this kind of sentimentalism extends to media coverage of most issues and most saliently to the Middle East.

In the Middle East as elsewhere the media looks to champion the underdog. For the first 20 or so years of Israel’s existence, Israel was the beneficiary of that prejudice. It got “Exodus”-type coverage – until 1967. Once the Jews were victorious, the coverage rapidly changed. The press discovered new underdogs, the Palestinians. They became the darlings of the press, hyped, promoted and excused from the normal rules of moral conduct.

I would like to stress again this sympathy for the Palestinians is largely a species of the sympathy for the historical underdog – perceived underdog – and not a form of anti-Semitism. After all, many commentators who have taken this position are themselves Jewish, and some are neither closet Jews nor self-haters. They have simply, blindly, followed their general liberal instincts and swooned for the newest officially-sanctioned victim.

But sentimentalism is not the only factor. A second important factor in explaining media bias in the Middle East is sheer rank ignorance. And when that ignorance is wed to the sentimentalism, it yields a very distinctive media phenomenon, namely immoral equivalence. Knowing very little about the history of the Middle East and seeing two peoples vying for the same territory, the media incessantly draw the two parties as morally equivalent.

One of the most striking features of the coverage of the Israel-PLO agreement in September was the little histories that would accompany the news stories. And these histories would invariably describe 50, 100, 1000 years of “mutual hatred” between Arabs and Israelis.

This all fits very nicely in the liberal category of everybody being equal. But it is just not true. It betrays an astonishing ignorance of the culture of the Middle East. The Israelis do not teach Arab-hatred in their schools. The Syrians on the other hand have had arithmetic textbooks where a typical problem is if you kill one Jew on Tuesday and five on Thursday, how many have you killed in all? The kind of anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist indoctrination that goes on in Arab countries, and in the Palestinian community, is a kind of vicious propaganda simply not seen in Israel.

The Israelis do not hate the Arabs. Some may do so privately, but the party that preaches it – Kach – got at most 1 percent of the vote before being banned from the Knesset. Arab-hatred is not taught in the schools. It is not part of the civic culture, the political culture, the media culture. Contrast this with the Arab world where the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” are presented as fact, where Israelis are depicted as monsters, usurpers, torturers and people who are to be expunged from the face of the Middle East.

Yet we constantly hear about the “mutual hatred” between Arab and Jew. This is a typical product of this fatal combination of liberal sentimentality and historical ignorance yielding a particularly virulent and absurd form of moral equivalence. This is not surprising. A culture which could produce theories of moral equivalence with regularity during the Cold War in which the Soviet empire was made equivalent to the American commonwealth, is one that would be easily predisposed to similarly ahistorical and ignorant forms of moral equivalence in the Middle East.

The ignorance in press coverage takes other forms. There is geographical ignorance. There is almost no understanding of the scale of distances in and around Israel. Sometimes I think that one of the major problems Israel has in the media is the advent of the weather map in American TV. Americans are used to seeing a map of the continental United States taking up their television screens every morning and evening during the news. That sets the scale. So when they see a map of Israel put up on that same screen to illustrate some news event, they naturally assume that the distance from left to right – the Mediterranean to the Jordan – must be roughly equally the left to right – LA to NY – that they see with the morning weather. The idea of Tel Aviv being within mortar range of the West Bank is hard to convey in this context.

But ignorance is not just geographical, it is also historical. There is no sense of comparison. For example, the phrase that is always heard in Arab propaganda and often parroted in the West that the Jews had always enjoyed the freedom from oppression in Arab countries. It is true that compared with the pogroms and the mass murderers of Christian Europe, the Jews lived a relatively secure life in the Islamic world. But only in comparison to Christian Europe. In fact, the Jews were treated as very much a subordinate and subject people, subject to a special tax placed on non-believers. It is no accident that the overwhelming majority of Jews living in Arab countries took the opportunity of the establishment of the Jewish state to flee when they could.

There is also no sense of historical context in the Middle East. Whereas Israel’s practices in putting down the intifada are compared with police practices in the West (and the Israelis do not suffer in comparison with these practices), there is no sense that Israel lives in a neighborhood in which these kinds of practices are highly unusual and remarkably humane compared to the way that the neighboring Arabs treat their dissidents. The most dramatic example of course is Hama where Syria killed 20,000 Islamic fundamentalists in one week and paved the city over. But one sees it also among the Palestinians where the intrafada degenerated into an orgy of lynching and summary justice, beside which Israeli judicial proceedings and appeals are positively Jeffersonian.

And don’t even compare the Israelis to Palestinians. Compare them to a Western country. The last intifada was the Arab revolt of 1936-39. The British put it down, to quote Fouad Ajami, “without mercy, without qualms.” Entire villages were raised. Three thousand Palestinians were killed. In 1939 alone, the British hanged 109. The Israelis have executed not a single Palestinian.

But these comparisons are never made – again I believe not principally because of malice – but because the press is unable to give a historical context. All it can do is report the last thing it sees.

The ignorance extends far deeper. There is almost a total ignorance of the specialized code language of the Middle East. Yasir Arafat’s Washington tour was a triumph. The media were absolutely dazzled by just his presence. And he got away with political murder. Apart from the fact that he was fawningly treated by the press and the politicians – Senators vying with each other to get his autograph – there was little appreciation of how grudging and uncooperative he was in carrying out the accord he had just signed.

The major thing the Israelis had demanded from the PLO – and the Israelis are doing most of the giving – was for an end to the intifada. Arafat was asked about this at the National Press Club the day after signing. He was asked: “Why don’t you clearly call on Hamas and other Palestinians to stop their attacks on the Israelis?”

“I have done it. And this, I have signed it,” replied Arafat, refusing to make a simple forthright statement such as: “I ask my people to stop killing Israelis.” Instead, he offered this: “The accurate implementation of this agreement will defuse the causes of…violence.” Meaning: Give me what I demand (“accurate implementation”) and there will be no further need to knife Israeli bus drivers. Till then? Well, I have signed it, have I not?

This is exactly how the “old Arafat” handled such questions: bobbing, weaving, maneuvering. This verbal slipperiness was lost on the American media which have the historical memory of a newt. They were transfixed instead by The Handshake. Through misty eyes, they interpreted it as a sign of friendship, when for Arafat it was clearly a means of achieving instant equality of stature with two major heads of state, Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton.

Finally, let me point out one particularly nasty form of historical ignorance that deserves mention. And that is: whenever you see the words Judea and Samaria it is invariably followed by the parenthetical: “the Biblical names for the West Bank.”

Now, in a secular culture to call something Biblical is to imply that we are dealing with a matter of superstition, hoary tradition, and hocus pocus. Like the creation story, for example. As if to call Judea and Samaria is to believe that the land was given by God with a great white beard on Mount Sinai on a certain Wednesday 5,000 years ago.

In fact Judea and Samaria are no more Biblical names than Galilee or Hebron, or Tyre and Sidon, for that matter. Moreover, Judea and Samaria are not just the Biblical names for this territory, they are the historical names. That is what these countries were called not just in the Bible but everywhere right through Roman times. It is the West Bank that is the new coinage. But to acknowledge that Judea and Samaria are the historical names for the West Bank is first, to know some history, and second, to grant some legitimacy to the Jewish claim to the land.

But the media getting the Middle East wrong is not just a question of sentimentalism and ignorance. Israel is also something of an obsession in the Western media. Media bias is accordingly heightened, amplified and compounded by the fact that the Middle East and the Jewish saga in particular are so fascinating for the press. So whatever errors they make are magnified. If they make errors in coverage of Bangladesh you read about it on page 63. The errors about Israel are on page one. And the bias has far more impact and deleterious influence than for any other country.

This fascination comes from many things. One is the traditional European and Christian fascination with the Jewish saga, so intimately linked with that of the Christian West and so dramatically resurrected in this century. And on the other side is the heightened interest in the Middle East as a source of wealth and power as repository of most of the world’s oil.

The result is an over attention to things Israeli and Middle Eastern that can only be called staggering. The paradigmatic case occurred in 1988: the page in the International Herald Tribune that devoted 7 of its 8 columns to the Palestinian uprising. Headline: “Israeli Soldier Shot to Death; Palestinian Toll Rises to 96.” The eighth column carried a report that 5,000 Kurds died in an Iraqi gas attack.

In sum, I would not indict the American media for anti-Semitic prejudice but more for just botching it. Ignorance, sentimentalism, all compounded by a fascination with an area that they have trouble understanding and presenting. I would summarize media coverage of the Middle East quoting what Louis Theirs, former premier of France, once said of the Count de Paris, pretender to the French throne: “From a distance, he looks Prussian, from close up an imbecile.” From a distance media coverage looks like a monolithic anti-Israel juggernaut. From close up it is mostly ignorance and sentimentality.

But this is about the past. In my view, the worst of the media battle over the Middle East is probably over now. With Rabin’s concessions, with Israel’s historic recognition of the PLO, it will be harder and harder for the media to paint the Israelis as intransigent, land-grabbing, Jurassic Park monsters.

It will continue, particularly in Europe, but it will not really take. The face of Israel changed in 1967, it changed in 1977 with Begin’s accession to power, it changed in 1987 with the outbreak of the intifada. It changed again on September 13, 1993.

Coverage of the PLO will change as well. Where there has always been a very broad reservoir of sympathy extended to the Palestinians, Yasir Arafat and the PLO as an organization have had more mixed reviews, deservedly so for an organization that practically invented political terrorism in our time.

Here there will also be a change. With the great handshake, and with Israel’s recognition, the PLO will, like the Israelis, be presented in more muted tones.

The one major player in the Arab-Israeli conflict that will get unfavorable coverage will be Hamas. And not particularly for any of the right reasons, because of its murderous ways, its intransigence, and its ideology of hatred. No. Hamas is hard for the Western media to know and to love because the Western media are basically secular, and don’t take kindly to religion, particularly fanatical religion. They are hostile to any religiously fundamentalist movement, Christian, Islamic, Jewish or otherwise. There will be the occasional story about a particularly heroic Hamas member. But the built-in anti-religious bias in the press will keep Hamas from inheriting the mantle of sympathy accorded Palestinian victimhood.

What about the future? I would invite you at this point to concentrate on the date September 13, 1993. Everything changed in the Middle East on that day with the signing of the PLO-Israel accord. I would caution you not to spend too much time looking at the past. Everything pre-September is ancient history. The world radically changed on that day, far more radically than may have been obvious at the time.

The battle for Palestine is over. The Palestinian state is a fact. The Israel-PLO agreement concedes Palestinian control over about 92 percent of the West Bank. The flag is legalized, the police force is being gathered, the institutions are being established. There will be no turning back.

Perhaps even more important than what is happening on the ground is what happened in the mind of the West. When Israel finally recognized the PLO, the embodiment of the Palestinian national aspiration, it recognized Palestine. The word may not be used yet, but it will be used. And in the West it broke down whatever barrier there may have been to recognizing that Palestine.

The United States official position is still to oppose a Palestinian state, but that position will not survive the interim period between now and the final status negotiations. In the mind of the West, when Rabin shook the hand of Yasir Arafat, it gave its blessing to what Arafat stands for, which is Palestinian statehood. The Americans are not going to be more royalist than the king.

And despite the difficulties that may arise in the coming negotiations, difficulties that may slow the process, there is no way to roll the clock back and de-recognize what it has recognized. That is why Arafat made all those concessions to get this deal.

What does that mean to you? It means that the battle for Palestine is over and the battle for Jerusalem has begun. The only real remaining question is what is going to happen to Jerusalem. And here it seems to me groups like CAMERA and others who care about fairness in coverage of the Middle East have to shift their attention. There is no point in running ads explaining Israel’s claim to Judea and Samaria. However right they may be, that issue is mostly of historical interest. The real battle is for Jerusalem and the time to prepare for it is now.

Press coverage on Jerusalem has been as shallow as it has been generally on the Middle East. It will require an enormous campaign to explain the unique significance of Jerusalem to the Jews and the unique place it occupies in Jewish history and Jewish consciousness.

This is important because coverage of Jerusalem suffers from the same afflictions as media coverage of the Middle East in general. The usual sources of media bias come into play: sentimentality fused with an abysmal ignorance yields in Jerusalem, as elsewhere in Middle East coverage, moral equivalence.

Hence the ubiquitous media cliché: “Jerusalem, the city holy to Christians, Muslims, and Jews,” again implying some kind of equivalence in their claims and in their historical importance.

It is crucial that it be pointed out that this is historical nonsense. 

I need not elaborate in this audience the history of the unique Jewish attachment to Jerusalem stretching back almost 3,000 years. Whereas for the Jews, it has always been the capital of their state, ancient and modern, the center of their religious aspirations. Yet under Muslim rule, Turkish and Jordanian, it was a provincial backwater.

Muslims bowed to Mecca. Christians turn to Rome. Only the Jews face Jerusalem when they pray.

One can start with simple demographics. The prevailing notion is that Jews constituted a minority community in Jerusalem until very recently. The assumption is that Jews returned to Jerusalem only now. Not so. It is important that people know that in the Turkish census of 1844 – the first official public census – there were more Jews in Jerusalem than there were Muslims: 7,120 to 5,760 (and 3,390 Christians). That Jewish majorities were documented in 1876 (Guide of Lievin de Hamme), 1909 (Mayers German Encyclopedia: 45,000 Jews, 12,000 Muslims, 10,200 Christians), 1911 (Baedeker’s Guide: 30,800 Jews, 10,000 Muslims, 15,000 Christians), and 1948 (Encyclopedia Britannica: 99,320 Jews, 36,680 Muslims, 31,300 Christians).

It is important that one explain why East Jerusalem was entirely Arab when the Jews came in 1967. Not because it had always been so, but because in 1948-49 it was rendered Judenrein – ethnically cleansed – by the Jordanians. Jews had lived continually in East Jerusalem until Jordan took over and expelled or murdered every Jew living in it. Jerusalem’s Jewish quarter had not a single Jew in it.

Whereas when Jerusalem was taken over by the Jews in 1967, the Arab quarter remained Arab. Which points up the issue of historical trust, comparing how the Jews have given respect and access to all the Christian and Muslim holy places, and comparing that with the desecration and destruction of Jewish sites under the Jordanians.

One final cliché that needs to be met: The Palestinian claim to Jerusalem on the grounds that it is the third holiest city in Islam. Are we all getting our top three choices now? In that case, why are the Jews not entitled to Jerusalem, Hebron and Mt. Sinai?

There is much work to be done, ladies and gentleman. Husband your resources and remember Jerusalem.