When the mainstream media make sincere attempts at “even-handedness” in reporting the current conflict in the Middle East, that effort frequently leads to grotesque distortions and blatant unfairness.
Consider the way that the New York Times covered the recent celebration of Israel independence day. On May 6, America’s “Journal of Record” offered a full-color, front page photo with about a dozen demonstrators, carrying Israeli and American flags, marching down Fifth Ave. The foreground, however, featured anti-Israel protesters confronting these marchers, waving a Palestinian flag along with a sign denouncing “Israeli Occupation in Palestine.”
A detailed report on page A-22 continued the attempt at painstaking “balance” in the news coverage. Under the headline, “In Manhattan, a Raucous but Peaceful Salute to Israel,” two more photos appeared, side by side. On the left, an individual pro-Israel demonstrator waved a flag, and on the right, three angry, chanting counter-demonstrators brandished a sign equating Zionism and Nazism.
The accompanying reportage declared the local event “a boisterous New York City-style festival of free speech, with just about every opinion conceivable on the Arab-Israeli conflict displayed in a dizzying street-scape of signs, floats, flags and T-shirts.”
As the article by Sarah Kershaw continued, “Between 58th and 60th Streets, where several hundred protesters had staked out their turf early in the day, were a group of anti-Israel Orthodox rabbis wrapped in Palestinian flags, Jewish demonstrators holding handmade signs that read, ‘Jews against the Israeli Occupation and the Palestinian Bombing,’ Jewish observers waving mass-produced placards that read ‘Solidarity with Israel,’ a woman with an ‘I Love Arafat’ sign and another whose sign read, ‘Sharon is Hitler.'”
In short, this flavorful report encouraged casual readers to assume an approximate balance between marchers supporting Israel and protesters condemning the Jewish State – with equal attention to “Solidarity with Israel” signs and “I Love Arafat” placards.
Only in the story’s eighth paragraph, in fact, did the Times finally admit the truth – reporting that only 600 anti-Israel protesters showed up, while 100,000 actually signed up to march in the solidarity parade. Meanwhile, an estimated 800,000 spectators lined the streets to support the parade – so the ratio of Israel supporters to Israel opponents actually reached 1,500 to 1.
In the context of the bitter, bloody Israeli-Palestinian conflict, insistence on “balanced” reporting almost never makes sense. Newsweek ran an infamous cover story with side-by-side photos of two teenaged girls, a Palestinian homicide bomber and one of her Israeli casualties – identifying them both as victims of the conflict. The suggestion that a murdered girl deserves the same sympathy and attention as her cold-blooded killer represents a journalistic and moral obscenity.
So, too, does all the solemn commentary about the tragedy of “civilian casualties” on both sides. For Palestinians, the mass killing of Israeli civilians – of women, children, and old people – represents the primary focus and proudest achievement of their intifada. For Israelis, the death of bystanders caught in the crossfire represents an unfortunate product of an ongoing war against determined terrorists.
Each time Israeli action kills a civilian, the result is an apology, an investigation and usually negative repercussions for the personnel involved. For Palestinians, the death of Israeli civilians provokes celebrations, posthumous honor to the perpetrators, and generous cash rewards from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the Palestine Authority.
In other stories in other parts of the world, media outlets acknowledge that even-handedness makes no sense. At the time of the execution of Timothy McVeigh the mainstream press felt no need to give “balanced” attention to the mass murderer’s view of his own martyrdom. Aside from a few America-hating wackos on university campuses, no reputable journalists insisted on off-setting sympathetic treatment of Sept. 11 victims, with comparable attention to the long-standing grudges of Mohammad Atta and the other killers.
Historically, the civil rights struggle in Birmingham and Selma in the 1960s, produced no attempt by reporters to provide “even-handed” treatment of peaceful demonstrators on the one hand, and various thugs, bigots and Klansmen on the other.
Though Europeans may sniff and leftists will howl, the same sort of asymmetry applies to the struggle in the Middle East.
Israelis want nothing more than peace and security – the same desires cherished by all nations on earth. In polls, more than two-thirds of the population accepts the idea of a future Palestinian state – an acceptance repeatedly expressed by Prime Minister Sharon. The Palestinians, however, reject Israel’s existence so vehemently that the “Zionist entity” isn’t even acknowledged on the maps that they use to teach geography in their schoolrooms.
Even the most militant, right-wing Israelis avoid calls for slaughtering their Palestinian adversaries; at most, they may advocate that they relocate in one of the 22 surrounding states controlled by their Arab brothers. The Palestinians, on the other hand, regularly demand blood and death for all Jews, or at best insist that they must be driven out of the entire region.
Given the utterly asymmetrical contours of the conflict, insistence on even-handed coverage leads inevitably to an irresponsible and profoundly misleading version of unfolding events. Meaningless mantras about press balance shouldn’t obscure the need for clear-eyed judgment.
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