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Biased Coverage of Israel Prolongs Conflict

By Salim Muwakkil The Chicago Tribune Monday, April 23, 2001

Wall Street may have lost its irrational exuberance about the Internet and its miraculous properties, but I haven't. As a research tool, it's still too good to be true. My cyberspace connection gives me access to a remarkable range of publications from many spots on the globe. And while much of the news content is similar to that found in the U.S., the difference in emphasis is striking.

One of the more salient differences concerns coverage of the Mideast, particularly the treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By comparing other countries' coverage of the turmoil to that of the U.S. media, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that our media are skewed in Israel's favor.

Seldom do we read stories like the one published in Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper that graphically detailed the routine brutality of Israeli soldiers in occupied territories. Nor are we likely to read accounts of a growing rebellion of reserve soldiers against Israeli military service in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that appeared in both England's Daily Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post.

American publications rarely make serious efforts to get beyond the formulaic coverage that portrays Israel as a beleaguered democracy valiantly fighting off evil, anti-Semitic terrorists. There is another perspective of the struggle that casts Palestinians as valiant anti-colonialists fighting a legitimate struggle against illegal occupation of their land by imperialist forces.

This latter view calls into question the priorities of U.S. foreign policy, however, and is seldom highlighted in American media. Publications from other, particularly European, countries provide coverage that is more textured and contextual--often portraying Palestinians as anti-colonialists.

But since U.S. opinion is so critical to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, American media's one-dimensional coverage is coming under increasing criticism. Our relentless pro-Israel slant serves to prolong the conflict, critics say.

Robert Fisk, one of Britain's most highly decorated foreign correspondents, recently issued a call in the U.S. for more "courageous" media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Fisk is a Beirut-based writer for the London Independent and has received the British International Journalist of the Year award seven times. He has been reporting from a number of the globe's hot spots for 30 years, but his primary focus has been on the Middle East. He argues that journalists who fail to note the colonial character of Israel's illegal occupation improperly frame the conflict and do a disservice to those who depend on them for accurate information. By ignoring this context, Fisk contends, journalists are giving sustenance to a system that virtually is identical to the regime of apartheid South Africa. "There's not much difference between the tactics of the Israeli army in the occupied territories and that of the South African police," he wrote in the April 17 edition of the Independent. "The apartheid regime had death squads, just as Israel has today."

Where, he asks, are the U.S. journalists who will point out these parallels? Even if the South Africa-Israel analogy is false, there are enough similarities between the two systems at least to provoke a serious media discussion of Israel's exclusionist policies. How, for example, can Israel be "democratic" when it refuses certain rights to its Arab citizens? But, Fisk laments, "our gutlessness, our refusal to tell the truth, our fear of being slandered as `anti-Semites' . . . means that we are aiding and abetting terrible deeds in the Middle East."

In their zeal to provide coverage compatible with U.S. policy, the American media ignore Mideast realities. "No matter how many youths are shot dead by the Israelis, no matter how many murders--by either side--and no matter how bloody the reputation of the Israeli prime minister, we are reporting this terrible conflict as if we supported the South African whites against the blacks."

Syndicated columnist Norman Solomon is one U.S. journalist who concurs with Fisk's assessment. " . . .The Reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian cycle of violence is badly skewed by an endless cycle of media bias." Solomon writes that this bias is enforced through a "not-so-secret weapon" that is brandished as a pre-emptive threat: the charge of anti-Semitism. "Any Americans who speak out against Israel's extreme disregard for human rights are liable to be in the line of fire."

The prejudices condemned by Fisk and Solomon are more easily seen from cyberspace, that remarkable realm where information can sometimes escape the biased assumptions of its sponsors.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times

Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune

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