Eye on the Media:
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
By Bret Stephens
Suddenly, a wave of charitable coverage of Israel. "Israel's crack Palnat Company is on the front lines of the war against terror," writes Newseek's Joshua Hammer about the reserve unit with which he spent three days on patrol earlier this month. Hammer offers a broadly flattering picture of "Haifa bakers and Tel-Aviv software engineers" taking extraordinary personal risks in the service of their country and united in the conviction, as one soldier is quoted as saying, "that what we're doing is necessary."
Even the article's title is telling: "A Shark Hunt in the Night" leaves little room for doubt as to just who the real sharks are.
Then there is Ian Fisher's remarkable piece in the July 8 edition of The New York Times: "For Israelis Wounded in Bomb Attacks, Recovery Is a Battle." Fisher tells the stories of five terror victims, of the doctors who treat them, and of the family members who watch over them. Efrat Ravid, 21, a "pretty young woman" who was caught by the Moment Cafe bombing, still fears losing the leg the doctors saved. Motti Mizrahi, 31, also at Moment that night, very nearly had his left hand severed, and now lives in constant pain. Maya DaMari, 17, injured in the Karnei Shomron pizzeria bombing, has a 1.5 inch nail lodged in her brain. Ilona Shaportova, 15, a victim of the Dolphinarium attack, had part of her head blown off and today can utter about 30 words. And Ronit Tubul, 30, wounded in the June 18 bus bombing, had her skull broken and has shrapnel in her brain.
"It took two weeks before she could speak again," Fisher writes. "In a small nation like Israel," he adds, "the wounded produce a ripple effect through society that partly explains the strong support Israelis give to military measures like the recent retaking of practically the entire West Bank... That is because unlike the dead, the injured do not disappear. They go on, publicly, and painfully, battling wounds often far worse than those seen in a nation at peace."
But the Times and Newsweek stories are as nothing next the extraordinary show of contrition put on by CNN in the form of its "Victims of Terror" five-part series.
"The people of Israel have faced the daily prospect of suicide bombings for more than 20 months since the start of the new Intifada," reads the show's publicity sheet. " CNN focuses on the human suffering and psychological ramifications that 71 bombings have placed on the Israeli population as they attempt to carry on their daily lives."
And then on to segments about those who'd lost loved ones, the work of emergency service personnel, the disruptions of ordinary routine, and so on.
WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR this apparent shift in emphasis, if that indeed is what it is? Three factors: First, a public outcry, combined with the threat of boycotts; second, President Bush's speech of June 24; and third, a large dose of editorial guilt.
The first of these is easily documented. US media watchdog groups like CAMERA and honestreporting.com have been unrelenting, and increasingly successful, in raising awareness of media bias against Israel. Eason Jordan, chief news executive at CNN in Atlanta, reports being flooded with as many as 6,000 complaining emails per day. In Washington, DC, a group called BoycottThePost.org organized a subscription-cancellation campaign. It garnered several hundred cancellations. Much the same went for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Chicago Tribune.
In Minneapolis, a group called Minnesotans Against Terrorism took out a full-page, $16,500 ad to protest the Minneapolis Star-Tribune's characterization of the Pessah Seder bomber as a "militant." (The paper's editor, Jim Boyd, called the ad's signers, which included the state's two US Senators, "craven.")
And at National Public Radio, ombudsman Jeff Dvorkin reports receiving 9,000 emails over three months concerning the station's alleged pro-Palestinian bias. "No one has ever seen pressure like this before," he says.
The pressure is having an effect. Boston's NPR outlet, WBUR-FM, has lost between $1- $2 million in cancelled individual funding, or about 7% of its usual revenues. CNN's Jordan has promised never to air interviews with the families of suicide bombers, and has offered loud mea culpas for mishandling an interview with terror victim Hen Keinan. Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler has been forced publicly to address the issue of anti-Israel bias in some 10 columns. The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Boston Globe have all featured lengthy news stories concerning the issue of anti-Israel bias, including their own.
The cumulative impact here is twofold. There are financial considerations: CNN's record of shoddy coverage of Israel is at least one reason why Rupert Murdoch's FOX news channel has pulled ahead in the ratings battle. The New York Times, too, cannot well afford to be too much at odds with the views of American Jewry, usually its most captive audience.
But the larger effect has been a certain amount of consciousness-raising in the news room. Until recently, the problem with much of the news media's coverage of the conflict is that it has been intellectually complacent, playing the story as one pitting a Palestinian-Israeli peace camp against "extremists on both sides." Terror attacks and Israeli reprisals were routinely taken as attacks against "the peace process," rather than for what they most obviously were: wanton aggression versus self-defense.
Now that complacency has somewhat been shaken. Cautiously, editors and producers are taking a second look.
NEXT THERE IS the Bush speech.
The effects of political rhetoric are usually underestimated, in part because so much of it tends to be overblown. But the president's speech was unlike any other delivered on the subject of the Middle East in recent memory. It replaced the land-for-peace doctrine, which had governed mainline thinking on the Middle East for 35 years, with a democracy-for-statehood doctrine.
In doing so, Bush shifted international focus from what Israel was failing to do to get peace - concede land - to what the Palestinian Authority wasn't doing - reform its institutions.
Willy-nilly, the news media was forced to play along.
Thus, on the day after the president's speech, we had The Washington Post editorializing that the president's "one-sided approach might be appropriate if Israel's government were committed to the two-state vision... [but Sharon's] government has shown no inclination to modify the settlement policy that makes an ultimate agreement ever more difficult."
But three weeks later, the editorial stress had shifted to the other foot, with the Post carping that "the administration's spokespeople have not made it clear how they intend to promote the democratic selection of a new Palestinian leadership."
The New York Times, too, seemed to change its tune.
"However queasy Bush's approach may make internationalists," wrote New York Times reporter Serge Schmemann in a July 1 news analysis, "it seems not entirely unreasonable to set a high standard for the Palestinians, since they are seeking to join the community of governments and clearly need help from Washington to do so."
The president, said Schmemann, had offered the Middle East "a brave new approach" - a truly remarkable concession, coming from the Times.
But perhaps the most telling indicator is also the crudest. An Internet search of virtually every English-language news report published in the first 18 months of the "Al Aqsa Intifada" reveals that the words "Arafat" and "democracy" appeared in the same story a mere 155 times. By contrast, in the past three months, as Bush increasingly stressed the need for Palestinian reform, the figure rose to 528 - 279 times in the past three weeks alone.
FINALLY - and this on a hunch - guilt.
Among reporters and editors alike, the old saw, typically proffered near deadline, is that today's newspaper is tomorrow's packaging paper. But nobody in the news business really believes it.
Decent journalists, covering important beats, live with the healthy dose of fear that they may be getting the story wrong, that a more knowledgeable posterity will hold them partially culpable for leading the public of their times down a disastrous road. So it is, at least, with the fate of the Jews.
Consider this: On July 2, 1944, The New York Times reported that 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been murdered by the Nazis, and that another 350,000 were to be exterminated within weeks. A useful item of information, obviously - and one the editors of the Times chose to run at four column inches, and that on page 12.
Much the same went for the paper's editorials. According to Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, authors of The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times, from 1941 to 1943 the Times made editorial mention of the fate of the Jews under Nazi Germany exactly nine times. "Editorials concerning the Warsaw resistance and subsequent ghetto uprising... referred obliquely to 'the Poles' and 'Warsaw patriots.' "
None of this was for lack of better information. As with today's media critics, in the early 1940s the Times found itself under a barrage of criticism from Jewish media watchdog groups, "most of whom disagreed violently with the Times' coverage." Yet, almost defiantly, the Times persisted in underreporting the fate of European Jewry, mainly because its publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, feared being accused of "special pleading" on behalf of the Jews and felt he had to "lean over backwards to be objective and balanced in its stories about Jews."
Sulzberger, at the time also a vehement anti-Zionist, "was vigilant about correcting any suggestion that he or the paper might represent Jewish interests," write Tifft and Jones.
In his memoir, The Times of My Life and My Life With The Times, former Times editor Max Frankel notes that this "past hung over us for decades."
Never again would the paper fail to forewarn of impending massacre (although that is largely what happened in its coverage of the Indochina wars), or obscure the plight of the oppressed. Still, in its coverage of the Middle East over the years, the Times remained remarkably skeptical of Israeli actions and intentions, as if its postwar endorsement of Zionism was issued on a probationary basis.
And then: The lynching of two reservists in Ramallah. The Dolphinarium attack. The Sbarro massacre. The Seder massacre. The attack on the Egged 32 bus. Seventy-odd suicide attacks in all. Whispers, growing ever louder, that Palestinian terror was not instrumental in its purposes but actually genocidal in its aims.
It remains to be seen whether the new sympathy for Israel's plight, not just from the Times but for other news media as well, reflects a gradual change in attitude, a momentary aberration, or a calculated exercise in covering one's tracks. Still, one wonders whether America's leading editors and producers aren't casting glances, both backwards and forwards, to get out from under the haunting mistakes of the past, and the searing judgment.