Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Distortion’s Feedback Loop

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

A review of Covering the Intifada: How the Media Reported the Palestinian Uprising, by Joshua Muravchik (Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy)

How a beleaguered, tiny Israel has been turned into a pariah state is a fascinating historical question. The answer lies in the many cultural pathologies of the Western democracies–anti-Semitism, sentimental Third-Worldism, Marxist anti-colonialism, and anti-Americanism are just a few of the irrational prejudices, bankrupt ideologies, and moral idiocies that have rendered the Middle East’s only full-fledged democracy and free society into an international villain, the gnat the U.N. and the international left obsessively strain even as they swallow an endless number of murderous totalitarian camels.

Of the many transmitters of these pathologies, the Western electronic and print media have been the most destructive, shaping as they do the perceptions of the everyday voters who ultimately determine their countries’ policies. The ideological bias, sloppiness, and often the sheer ignorance of the reporters, editors, and news anchors who fashion the news for Americans have created a distorted view of Israel and her predicament, one that frequently compromises American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Documenting specifically this charge is the important task Joshua Muravchik has undertaken in Covering the Intifada. Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he writes on U.S. media coverage of foreign nations. He also has authored several books, includingHeaven on Earth, a history of socialism that lays bare its dangerous utopian ambitions.

In Covering the Intifada Muravchik examines ten key events of the Palestinian uprising that began in September of 2000, a mere two months after Arafat turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer at Camp David to give the Palestinians almost all of what presumably they wanted. Muravchik limits his analysis to the coverage of the most influential news outlets in America: the New York Times, the Washington Post, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox News. This narrow focus on the words and images purveyed by these sources allows for an analysis that is specific and precise and thus devastating in its documentation of how many–certainly not all–journalists distorted the facts of the uprising.

The first event Muravchik analyzes is Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, which Arafat used as the pretext to launch the intifada, even though previous Israelis had visited the site without incident. That the visit was a pretext for starting the uprising was admitted later by Marwin Barghouti, who said that “the explosion would have happened anyway” but that “Sharon provided a good excuse.” At the time, however, many in the media accepted the Palestinian claim that the rioting was merely a response to Sharon’s provocative visit. As Muravchik examines the media coverage of the riots, he reveals how distortion of fact often results from the contamination of news stories by interpretations expressed on the editorial page, creating a feedback loop of bias. In theNew York Times, for example, an editorial chastised Sharon for behaving “provocatively,” a subjective interpretation subtly picked up a few days later when a news story labeled the visit “defiant,” both descriptions confirming the Palestinians’ self-interested, if not duplicitous, take on the event.

This smuggling of biased interpretation into presumably objective reporting is helped by selective omission of information that would help contextualize the event. In the same New York Times story that called the visit “defiant,” the Temple Mount is called “the most sacred Islamic site in Jerusalem” without saying a word that the site is even more important to Jews, as important to Judaism as Mecca is to Islam. By leaving out that fact, the reporter creates the impression that “Sharon’s aim was to set foot gratuitously on a Muslim shrine when in fact it was to assert Israel’s claim to a Jewish shrine.”

More important, much of the media ignored completely or played down a “vitriolic and incendiary sermon” preached by an anti-Semitic imam opposed to any negotiations with Israel. The imam stirred up the crowd with claims that the Israelis were going to turn the mosque into a synagogue and threats that Muslims “are ready to sacrifice their lives and blood to protect the Islamic nature of Jerusalem.'” Yet, as Muravchik points out, “None of the television news broadcasts . . . carried any mention of the sermon. Nor did any explore the larger question to which it pointed about the role of the Palestinian leadership in instigating the violence.” The result was the impression that Sharon was completely responsible for the violence because of his brutish insensitivity to Islamic sensibilities.

The worst case of journalistic malfeasance due to omission, however, occurred on ABC in its stories about the Israeli police charge up the mount to clear away Arabs who had besieged a police post and were raining down rocks and bottles on Jews praying at the Wailing Wall, an assault that left four Palestinians dead. ABC’s Gillian Findlay–like anchor Peter Jennings a repeat offender throughout Muravchik’s study–described the assault on the mount without mentioning the siege of the police post or the Wailing Wall. Their report that day also ignored the death of an Israeli soldier who was gunned down by his Palestinian partner in a joint patrol. The net result of these omissions was the impression that trigger-happy Israelis were using disproportionate force against a people justifiably angry over the disrespect to their holy place.

Perhaps the worst habit that compromises the media’s coverage of this crisis is the moral equivalency it grants to both sides of the conflict. Such equivalency is attractive to journalists who then can pretend that they are merely being objective and treating both sides the same. Yet both sides aren’t morally the same: there is a right and a wrong, an aggressor and a defender in this conflict, a distinction supported by the facts of history. Thus to treat an inadvertent death caused by self-defense the same as a premeditated murder is not objectivity but a despicable moral idiocy akin to considering a surgeon and a knife-wielding mugger morally the same because both cut with edged weapons.

This pose of moral equivalency runs throughout Muravchik’s analysis of the ten events. Sometimes it works by granting equal credence to claims by Palestinian spokesmen, claims that over and over turn out to be false propaganda. Several media outlets, for example, reported a claim that a Palestinian man had been tortured and murdered by Israeli settlers, when in fact he was the victim of an automobile accident used as a grisly propaganda prop in order to inflame the Palestinians and the whole Arab world. Even after reporting the Israeli government’s correct explanation of the man’s death, a CNN report showed pictures of the body and statements from Palestinian doctors deriding the Israeli claim that the injuries resulted from a car wreck. As Muravchik concluded, “The net effect was to cast doubt on the Israeli version, not the Palestinian version, although it was the latter that was almost certainly fictitious.”

Such examples recur with depressing regularity in Muravchik’s study. Peter Jennings, reporting on the horrific murder of two Israeli Army reservists (they were dragged from a Palestinian Authority police station and then murdered; the Israelis responded by rocketing the empty police station after they gave the PA advanced warning), announced, “There are Israelis and Palestinians who do not want this peace plan to succeed. Yasir Arafat is vulnerable to those forces and so is Prime Minister Barak.” This statement, of course, is ridiculous: Arafat was an autocrat and terrorist who had run the Palestinian movement for three decades, whereas Barak held his post through a legal election and was accountable to the citizens. Worse, Barak had staked his whole political future on a peace that he believed most Israelis wanted, offering concessions beyond those approved by the Israeli parliament; Arafat had turned down a peace settlement, failed to offer an alternative, then returned to launch the intifada, and refused to call for a halt to the violence. “So,” Muravchik concludes, “while Jenning’s words were literally true, the impression they conveyed that the continuing violence was equally the will of the two sides was false.”

Repeatedly this sort of distortion mars the media’s coverage. “‘Various Palestinian factions as well as Jewish settlers in the territories are calling for another day of rage,'” Jennings reported. But while Palestinians frequently called for “days of rage,” the settlers never did. Or consider the New York Times‘s equivalence of Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount with the Palestinian destruction of Joseph’s tomb: in what moral universe is a visit to the holiest shrine of your religion the same thing asdestroying a holy shrine of someone else’s? And are the writers and editors at the Times so ignorant of history that they don’t know the Jewish Temple sat on the site for over a millennium before the conquering Arabs built the al-Aqsa mosque on its ruins? Or what explains the Washington Post‘s report that paralleled Arafat’s reaching out to Hamas, a group of terrorist murderers devoted to the destruction of Israel, with Barak’s reaching out to Ariel Sharon, a politician constrained by the laws of democracy, one who had explicitly stated he was prepared to make compromises for peace?

Perhaps the worst example came in a Washington Post report that paralleled the shooting of the twelve-year-old boy with the murder of the Israeli reservist whose body was dumped out a window and mutilated. By what moral calculus is an accidental death during a gun-battle–a death the distressed Israelis hadn’t caused, but took responsibility for anyway–the same as a sadistic murder gleefully committed by a lynch mob that pranced in joy before the cameras? Such equivalences reflect not even-handed objectivity but rather a profound moral failure or an animating bias. Thus the moral equivalency is often a pose, for many reporters have already decided which side is the aggressor and which the victim deserving sympathy and the benefit of the doubt.

The coverage of the so-called Jenin massacre, Muravchik’s last example, encapsulates best the failures of the media to distinguish between the defensive actions of a democratic army and the murders of an autocratic terrorist gang. The Israeli army entered Jenin to clean out a nest of terrorists who had booby-trapped the city’s homes and narrow streets and who used Palestinian civilians as shields. Rather than bombarding the city from the air, as most militaries would have done, the Israelis entered on foot to protect civilians. After losing 13 soldiers in a booby trap, the Israelis then used armored bulldozers to destroy buildings, warning residents with megaphones.

The Palestinians, of course, immediately began alleging a “massacre” had taken place with casualties in the several hundreds, a lie helped along by the despicable comments of UN representative Terje Roed-Larsen. The media in turn reported uncritically the Palestinian claims, which turned out to be grossly inflated. In fact, the subsequent UN investigation arrived at a casualty figure roughly the same as the one the Israelis gave at the time, but that the media only cursorily reported–52 dead, 38 of whom were terrorists. This meant that the Israelis lost more soldiers, 23, than civilians inadvertently killed because their own people endangered their lives. As Muravchik concludes, “These numbers clearly bespeak a military operation at pains to avoid civilian casualties, the opposite of the picture that Roed-Larsen was eager to paint.”

The problem with the media’s distortions, whether they result from professional sloppiness, ideological bias, ignorance, or fear of reprisal from Palestinian terrorists, is that first impressions are created that last beyond the later corrections. The “Jenin massacre,” for example, lives on in a “documentary” circulating on college campuses, including shamefully my own. But as Aaron Klein recently reported on WorldNetDaily (www.worldnetdaily.com), the producer of the film has admitted in court to fabricating many of the scenes suggesting Israeli atrocities. Yet the lie lives on, fueled in part by the first impressions created by a media that failed in its primary journalistic duty, to uncover the truth.

If there is a silver lining to Muravchik’s generally gloomy study, it comprises the reporters and media outlets that have done a fairly good job of accurately reporting the conflict, and Muravchik gives them their due throughout his book. But the fact remains that the negative effects of unbalanced coverage are not outweighed by those fewer balanced reports. The result is a distorted picture of the Israeli-Arab conflict that shapes the perceptions of voters and politicians alike. One destructive consequence has been the legitimizing of terror most clearly evident in the way the late terrorist thug Yasir Arafat was treated as a legitimate head of state, addressing the UN and sleeping at the White House. And even now that Arafat is gone, the distorted coverage of Israel’s response to Palestinian violence prevents us from grasping the central dynamic of the whole conflict: the passionate hatred of Israel and the equally passionate desire to destroy her that drives the murderers. For that failure of moral clarity much of the American media must share the blame.

©2005 Bruce Thornton

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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