Israeli-Palestinian Literature/Media Project, by Meghan Wolf

In all circumstances where media bias comes into question, presenting the truth about a story is an issue not merely dependent on the accuracy of technical details, but also on how a story is framed in light of its subject. The case is no different regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict. One can analyze available news sources themselves as a means of determining bias, although this exploit presents the danger of succumbing to one’s own self-serving bias (whatever that bias might be). Doing this alone also brings the risk of limited knowledge in any circumstance, seeing that whoever is doing the analyzing is only working with the information available to him or her, and from there is often forced to make naïve judgments as to the exact nature of whatever bias is perceived. (For example, somebody can develop a certain viewpoint about Palestinian suicide bombers or Israeli customs officials based on a story written an event involving either of them. Yet, how can they tell what things are being over-emphasized, pushed to the background, or even eliminated at the risk of compromising the integrity of the news story? More than that, how do they access the information that is being left out, and how do they know it even exists in the first place?)

The dilemma that arises from such questions is somewhat easier to solve with the acceptance of the most general conflict of American politics: that is, the two-party system around which perceptions of bias are based. When people see bias in the media, they tend to see it in terms of left and right, or respectively, conservative and liberal. When these two are pitted against each other as opposites, they recognize themselves as each other’s counterparts, and then set out to correct the other side by pointing out how it is wrong.

Media watchdogs make this job easier, because unlike the news sources themselves, they are often openly aligned, and therefore don’t claim to be unbiased. (Notice that no matter how recognized a news source is to have a specific bias, every mainstream media source prides itself on not having any.) It is one thing to analyze CNN (left) and Fox News (right) on your own, but to analyze the analyses already in place of them both (or as a matter of fact, of any mainstream news source) shows a concentration of partisan viewpoints that facilitates the recognition of general trends in bias.

Honest Reporting, a right-leaning media watchdog organization, has a collection of “Media Critiques” that feature criticism of Israeli-Palestinian portrayals. “Straining a ‘Ceasefire,'” an article posted there on April 23rd, 2007 asks the question: “At what point do Palestinian terror and missile attacks constitute a breach of a ‘ceasefire’?” The story is meant to blow the whistle on perceived pro-Palestinian bias from the Associated Press in the headline: “Hamas militants called Sunday for a fresh wave of attacks against Israel after troops killed nine Palestinians in weekend fighting, straining a five-month-old cease-fire.” According to Honest Reporting, this is biased because it accuses Israel of straining a ceasefire without accusing Palestinian forces of doing the same by provoking Israeli violence with repeated rocket-firings and attacks on Israeli border patrols. HR says that Israeli violence is thus coming off as unprovoked when it is clearly not, and that the Palestinians are therefore cast into an undeserved light of victimization.

In another article, “Israeli Freedom of Religion Attacked in San Francisco Chronicle,” HR criticizes the San Francisco Chronicle for presenting an Israeli archaeological dig in Jerusalem’s Old City as a threat to the Temple Mount’s foundation, and therefore an infringement upon the religious practice of Muslims. (According to HR, this accusation as already been refuted.) From there, it reports that Omar Ahmad, who founded the Council on American-Islamic Relations, accused The U.S. for allowing the violation of equal religious freedom for all by condoning the actions of the Israelis. However, HR points out that the U.S. State Department recognizes Israel’s own law in its current state as allowing for religious freedom. Furthermore, thought admittedly in the past, HR states that Israel established a law allowing religious freedom after Jerusalem was united under its control, before which Israeli sites or worship had been desecrated and allowed to bar Jews from its access. Also, while Ahmad complains about the perceived disrespect to the Muslims’ sacred worshipping site, he has ignored the vandalism done on Israeli archeological findings from ancient Jewish Temples.

In another article, “UK Journalists’ Union Votes to Boycott Israel,” HR criticizes the National Union of Journalists’ decision to boycott Israeli goods, done in protest of the 2006 Lebanon War. (The war was fought between the Israeli military and the paramilitary organization Hezbollah, based in Lebanon.) Once again, the criticism is based in what HR calls anti-Israeli bias, referring to the anger of these journalists for Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, with no reciprocation of the same at Hezbollah for attacking Israeli villages with rockets and mortars, along with the capturing and killing of some of their soldiers. Furthermore, the journalists’ practice of the boycott casts doubt on their ability to portray Israel in a fair light in the future.

In “Missing the Big Picture,” the focus of HR’s report is not on one specific incident of anti-Israel bias, but on the general source of such bias.

“{M}uch of the distorted coverage of the Mideast is a result of what the media does not report,” the article says, “be it important information or a lack of context that contributes to painting a different overall picture to the reality.”

Seeing a pattern in HR’s past analyses, it can be predicted that this refers to the occurrence of anti-Israeli bias. This is their unmistakable theme regarding the conflict.

Sure enough, the article draws upon the blow that Israel took to its reputation in the Mughrabi Gate excavation that was said to infringe on Muslim religious practice. It also pointed out the inaccuracies in a Reuters News photo of six men holding signs in protest near the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. They were holding signs written in Arabic and English saying, “Jerusalem belongs to the Palestinians” and “Jews are forbidden to insult Islamic religious sites.” The photo caption labeled the event as a “demonstration,” implying that there were more people present, when six were all there were. Also, the men were labeled as Anti-Zionist Ultra-Orthodox Jews when they were actually members of the Neturei Karta, an outcast group publicly denounced and rejected by mainstream Judaism. The issue in pointing out these errors was that Reuters seemed to be portraying Anti-Zionism among Jews as being more in the mainstream than it actually is. The Times of London further printed out this erroneous representation as a full news brief.

Although HR points out what seems to be a running consistency of anti-Israeli (and sometimes presumably pro-Palestinian) bias, it is difficult to ignore their specific focus on Israel. Although a media watchdog is perfectly justified in pointing out the bias in alternative news sources, the way HR is doing it casts suspicion on them for being just as biased toward Israel as their presumably left-leaning counterparts are against it. It questions the motives for uncovering facts that support of a certain viewpoint (in this case, pro-Israel), and reverts to the doubt that HR can be relied on in all circumstances. It has been mentioned before that watchdog sources are often more openly biased than the media sources that they critique, so maybe these findings can be taken as a warning against relying on a single source to provide an accurate portrayal of media subjects.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting stands as a left-leaning alternative to Honest Reporting. Interestingly enough, you have to dig more deeply into their archives to bring up news on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (HR, on the other hand, features their related critiques more prominently on their home page. FAIR puts a considerably greater focus on the Iraq War.)

In “No Children in Palestine,” one of FAR’s featured articles, writer Julie Hollar comments on the news on NPR’s Morning Edition, on which Palestinian presidential candidate Mahmoud Abbas was noted to have called Israel as the “Zionist Enemy.” What the news story did not say was that an Israeli tank shell had recently killed seven Palestinian civilians working in their family-owned strawberry fields. Another thing left out, even when it was later reported that Abbas’ statement was made in response to the violence, was that all seven of those killed were children between the ages of 10 and 17.

In another article, “In U.S. Media, Palestinians Attack, Israel Retaliates,” FAIR stated that their was clear bias in the ways that the ABC, CBS, and NBC television networks portrayed Israeli-Palestinian conflict stories on the news. Through the 18 months of the al-Aqsa Intifada, in which violent conflict occurred between the two sides, some form of the word “retaliation” was used a total of 150 times to describe either side’s attack, indicating that they had been provoked. 79 percent of these references were made to Israel, while only nine percent referred to Palestine. The remaining 12 indicated ambiguity or mentioned both as attacking in this way. FAIR states that both sides of the conflict take a defensive stance, and that this discrepancy in U.S. media references is far too great to call these TV. networks “unbiased.”

FAIR argues that the more such language is employed, the more the idea to lay the blame for the conflict upon Palestine’s shoulders becomes acceptable. In this instance, the condoning word “retaliation” was used almost nine times as much for the Israelis as it was for the Palestinians. In comparisons between the individual networks, ABC World News Tonight was the least biased in respect to the word “retaliation,” using it one time for the Palestinians for every three times it used it for the Israelis. NBC Nightly News had the most bias, having never used the word for Palestinian attacks. Based on these findings, FAR concluded that the TV networks are hastily oversimplifying the conflict.

In the more disturbingly titled, “Journalists Find ‘Calm’ When Only Palestinians Die,” the bias of the media is perceived in the disproportionate media coverage of attacks and loss of life for the Israelis as opposed to the Palestinians. In a story where two Palestinian suicide bombers took the lives of two civilians along with their own, later followed by a Jerusalem bus bombing that killed 19 people, the U.S. media portrayed such events as the end of a period of peace. It meant that there had been a supposed calm between the two sides, and that it was now offset by Palestinian attacks.

The Palestine Red Crescent Society says that what the media sources failed to mention was that over the course of this time of “peace,” 17 Palestinians had lost their lives, and 59 more had been injured by Israelis. Furthermore, although there had been at best fewer attacks from the Israelis in these areas, Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank had never experienced lessened violence, and the Israeli soldiers had never observed a ceasefire.

The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today had all publicized the aforementioned attacks on Israelis, featuring them on the front pages along with pictures of relatives grieving the loss. Similar casualties and death tolls among the Palestinians had not been reported to the same degree, if even at all. In fact, Palestinians died violent deaths several times in the course of those weeks, yet they were not mentioned in the news as having been victimized by tragic circumstances. To shower Israeli deaths with attention and at the same time ignore Palestine’s losses is an indication of suspicious bias that shows the possibility of an intended slant for the storytelling.

In the article, “CBS’ Mideast ‘Cycle of Violence,'” the point is further made in relating the perspective of CBS reporter Bob Simon, who described the titled “cycle” to begin with Palestinian attacks. These attacks would from there invite the response of Israel’s violent reaction, and they would both perpetuate each other in never-ending violence. So, here appears the Israeli “retaliation” concept again. It implies once again that Palestinians are primarily responsible for the violence in the conflict, when other evidence clearly shows that that is not the case.

In my findings on the overall issue of bias, the political right seems almost uniformly aligned with Israel, while the left takes the side of Palestine. It is interesting how the break seems so clean, as if the conflict itself were based in the American political left and right. I have heard earlier claims of the U.S. harboring a pro-Israeli standpoint, but such a one-sided arrangement applying to all U.S. media sources seems impossible at this point, because too much evidence supports the bias present on both sides of the conflict. Based on my observations so far, it would be somehow grossly incomplete to judge world issues, especially this conflict, through the lens of one media watchdog’s biased view. The key to obtain an accurate overall portrayal here is not by trying to avoid the all-but-undeniable bias on each side, but to learn to work with it.

For the discerning American mind, media watchdogs can have a way of helping each other balance out a viewpoint, if they are used correctly. Unlike media sources themselves, designated media watchdogs are more upfront about the biases they may have, so it is less likely that they will keep the reader guessing. What a reader can do about it is recognize the extremes of both sides instead of striving to find a watchdog or news source that hangs as closely to the middle as possible. Then, they can check the news they read by both watchdogs, assuming that one side will likely iron out the other’s biases. A reader who does this does not have to keep guessing about the alignment of one side, but can take both alignments into account, and from there achieve a sort of balance in critique.

Works Cited

“Straining a “Ceasefire”? .” Honest Reporting. 23 Apr 2007. Honest Reporting. 1 May 2007 _a_-Ceasefire-$.asp>.

“Israeli Freedom of Religion Attacked in San Francisco Chronicle,”.” Honest Reporting. 12 Apr 2007. Honest Reporting. 1 May 2007 _Freedom_of_Religion_Attacked_in_San_Francisco_Chronicle.asp>.

“UK Journalists’ Union Votes to Boycott Israel .” Honest Reporting.
17 Apr 2007. Honest Reporting. 1 May 2007 UK_Journalists_Union_Votes_to_Boycott_Israel.asp>.

“Missing the Big Picture.” Honest Reporting. 01 Mar 2007. Honest Reporting. 1 May 2007 Missing_the_Big_Picture.asp>.

Hollar, Julie. “No Children in Palestine.” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. Feb 2005. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. 1 May 2007 .

“In U.S. Media, Palestinians Attack, Israel Retaliates.” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. 04 Apr 2002. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. 1 May 2007 .

“Journalists Find “Calm” When Only Palestinians Die.” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. 22 Aug 2003. Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. 1 May 2007 .