The Blindness of Even-Handedness: Fisking the Independent

The Independent recently ran a brief article that typifies the problem of media bias, even from someone who is avowedly sympathetic to Israel. (Hat-tip Tom Gross.) Below I fisk the article, not because it is so bad, but because it tries to be fair, and because a fair number of Israeli advocates would find it if not good, at least a relief from the kind of British coverage to which they have become accustomed. The article appears in blockquote in bold.

Aggressors and victims on both sides of the wall
In election week, Israelis and Palestinians agree on one thing: the Western media is biased
By Vincent Graff
The Independent on Sunday
April 2, 2006

Arnold Roth did not choose to become entangled with the international media. That decision was taken for him by Izzedine al-Masri, a Palestinian man who walked into a Jerusalem restaurant four-and-a-half years ago with a bag containing nails and explosives strapped to his body. When al-Masri blew himself up, he took Roth’s 15-year-old daughter, Malki, and 14 other people with him.

In an unpublished letter to the editor Roth notes on the slight but significant inaccuracy of this comment:

Perhaps you need to be the parent of a murdered child to be sensitive to the distinction. But the fact is he was carrying a guitar case. Inside the guitar case was a real guitar, and inside of that was a deadly load of explosives and nails. That is what he exploded when he went to his seventy-two virgins, ending my daughter’s life as well as the lives of fourteen other innocent visitors to a restaurant. 130 other people were maimed and injured, by far most of them women and children.

Two things about that massacre need to be understood in order to make sense of Mr Graff’s article’s title.

First, the name of my daughter’s killer has appeared on every published list of Palestinian “martyrs” since August 2001. When numeric comparisons are made between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs killed since the start of the Arafat War in 2000, my daughter’s murderer – along with many other murderers – is in the list of the Palestinian victims.

Secondly, Israel’s policy of having soldiers at crossover points check into whether musical instruments carried by Palestinian Arabs are real has been severely criticized in the past two years. That criticism, which I consider to be mostly unfair and wrong, takes on a different meaning when you know that one of the many massacres of Jews in Jerusalem was done via a booby-trapped guitar. Many people simply don’t know about it, which is why I am pointing it out here.


Graff continues:

Today, Roth is often approached by news gatherers from abroad looking for his reaction to the latest development in Israeli politics. He is considered and thoughtful but he objects to the fact that, as he sees it, media organisations from abroad paint Israel as a bully. “In Western countries, the broad perception of Israel is of it being powerful and privileged,” said Roth. “For someone like me, whose daughter was murdered by people who danced in the street afterwards, it is hard to take that viewpoint.”

A closer examination of both Pallywood and of the Politically Correct Paradigm will give any fair assessor of the situation a sense of why this bully-image might carry so much weight. If one believes the staged scenes whose primary purpose is to present the Israelis as unprovoked aggressors, and fit it into a simplistic morality play that calls for Israel to play the role of Goliath and the Palestinians to play the role of David, then everything fits nicely into place. The fact that extensive denial of reality can come back to bite you has not yet really sunk in. And of course, that doesn’t even begin to ask the question of how much this eagerness to believe the worst of Israel might have other less “innocent” motives (which could account for the resistance to correcting the “innocent” errors”).

I met Roth in Palestinian East Jerusalem last week. We were standing in the shadow of the 8 metre-high concrete wall Israel has built to protect itself from suicide bombers — sparking condemnation worldwide. Roth had been invited there by Sky News, to talk terrorism and democracy with its Middle East correspondent, Emma Hurd.

I spent much of last week with Hurd, her producer and crew as she attempted to report Israel’s election to a British audience. We travelled to West Bank settlements, to Arab East Jerusalem, and secular Jewish Tel Aviv. Hurd asked tough questions, dissecting a complicated political landscape. And I never heard anyone complain about bias in Sky’s coverage of the Middle East.

But when I talked in general terms to Israelis about the press and broadcasters, the story was always the same. Not one of them thought Israel’s image abroad was good. Most blamed the media. Interestingly, nor did I find one Palestinian who was happy with the media. When the injustice of one’s own life feels so overwhelming, one is tempted to think outsiders should pay more attention – and that they are ignoring you for a reason.

This is where the article gets thin and weak. First of all, we need more than just these two responses. Second, if the journalist were sufficiently informed and daring, he might ask the Palestinian respondant whether he is convinced that the injustice visited upon him might not have something to do with the elites who rule his life? …and whether or not the coverage of his suffering at the hands of his own elite might not pain him still more than insufficient coverage? …and whether the media is ignoring his plight when they give a thousand times as much coverage to it as they do to the people who are objects of genocide in Darfur?

I should lay my cards on the table. I am many things: a journalist, British, Jewish though not religious. I was last in Israel was 20 years ago. I would not describe myself as a Zionist but I respect the fact that Israel is a democracy in a sea of dictatorships and I am certain the country ought to exist. I also recognise that Israel is surrounded by many nations that do not share that view.

It’s nice to know that. It’s also interesting to note that this out-front journalist, who might serve as a typical example of the “Jewish control of the media”, even when he is sympathetic to Israel, not only lays his cards on the table (unlike some journalists one might mention), but also, lest he be perceived as “too Jewish” (as Jackie Mason might put it), does not dare to challenge the Palestinian voices he runs across. Any more Zionist sympathy than shown here, and he’d be called irretrievably prejudiced.

David Horovitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, believes journalists from outside Israel rush to snap judgements. Take the security barrier. It has made Palestinians’ lives more difficult, but that is only half the story, said Horovitz. “Newspapers never talk about the thousands of Israeli children whose lives it has saved.” Nor can they show the pictures of these children – unlike the Palestinian youngsters who have been injured or killed by the Israeli army. “Certain parts of the media are in the grip of an extreme misconception about who is the aggressor and who is the underdog,” said Horovitz.

His argument deserves house room. But it is also true that Israeli deaths receive more coverage than Palestinian ones. This may be because Jewish fatalities tend to occur in large groups, in everyday situations. Palestinian deaths tend to happen one or two at a time, at the hands of soldiers or police.

It also may be because the Palestinian deaths tend to be adult males engaged in violence and not women and children going about their daily lives. It also may be because tacitly, the media have begun to suspect that the claims they hear from the Palestinians are neither reliable nor verifiable. According to the principle of “we didn’t do anything wrong and we won’t do it again”, they have begun quietly to curtail their credulity at the lurid claims of victimization that characterize most Palestinian spokesmen’s claims.

Every time a Palestinian or a Jewish Israeli expressed their dismay at the portrayal of their people and plight, I asked the same question: why is the media biased against you? The answers were depressing.

Listen to the words of Arye, a Jewish settler on the West Bank and Nisreen, a Palestinian housewife who lives a few miles from him in East Jerusalem. “Maybe it’s because of all the Arab oil,” said Arye. Nisreen countered: “The Jews are very powerful, in London and across the world.”

Here again, the article gets weak. There are surely many more answers than these. And what I am still waiting for is a reporter with the nerve to challenge stupid answers… or at least explore them. What does it mean “the Jews are powerful”? Why does this particular Palestinian think the European press is against him? What does he consider an example of unfair reporting?

Maybe with some gentle prodding we might get at the key problem here: which is that while the Israelis are asking for a fair shake from the media, the Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims are asking for nothing less than that the media become an outlet for Palestinian propaganda. The most recent, ludicrous, but characteristic example of Muslims’ readiness to attribute to Zionist global conspiracy any coverage that insults their honor comes from the Iranians. The Teheran Times accused both Al Jazeera and National Geographic of working for the Zionists (in the case of al Jazeera the Zionists created the network). In both cases, the offending proof of Zionist control was a parenthetical reference to the Persian Gulf as (also) the Arabian Gulf on maps of the region. Gasp! This recalls the war between the Iranians and the Iraqis (1980-88) in which both sides accused the other of being Zionist agents.

With such hair-trigger responses, ready at the slightest slight to jump into the most ludicrous conspiracy theories, it seems ill-advised to put Israeli and Palestinian reactions to media coverage up against each other in a false equivalence. It recalls the endless self-congratulation of the media at the beginning of both intifadas when, accused of bias, they would respond: “If we’re being attacked from both sides, it must be that we’re doing something right.” Again, it all may sound nice, appeal to cognitive egocentrism, and avoid running afoul of a decidedly intimidating Muslim reaction to negative coverage, but that hardly means that we are dealing with reality. And there’s only so long one can ignore the icebergs and not run into one.

They would not admit it, but these two people, who wear different clothes, eat different foods and pray to different Gods, have more in common than they think.

No further comment.

5 Responses to The Blindness of Even-Handedness: Fisking the Independent

  1. MTW says:

    How can one describe a 200+ mile long complex of barbed wire and 10 meter high concrete walls a “security barrier?” It does seem so horribly politically correct. Lets call a wall a wall and a colony a colony, ok.

  2. RL says:

    it’s a security barrier precisely because it was built — much against most Israeli’s preferences — to assure a basic level of security (that no western nation i’m familiar with would tolerate losing). it’s not a wall because walls are permanent, and most Israelis i know would love to take it down if they had neighbors who played by the most basic rules of civilization.

    as for colony, can you tell me what your definition of colony is, before i answer that point?

  3. Arnold Roth says:

    To MTW’s question: “How can one describe a 200+ mile long complex of barbed wire and 10 meter high concrete walls a “security barrier?””…

    Suggested answer: By being a writer for the Times.

    Refer, as evidence, to this report from Al Mamlakah al Arabiyah as Suudiyah (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), as carried in today’s Times:
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,7374-2126835,00.html

    Having personally met hundreds of “Stop the Genocide Wall” demonstrators over the past 3 years, I confess to having never managed to understand their motivations or their absurdly selective morality. Today’s news from Saudi Arabia may create a nice opportunity for them to clarify this for the rest of us.

  4. MTW says:

    The purpose of bringing up the wall/fence and the Israeli colonies/settlements/neighborhoods is to discuss the issue of “branding.” The connotations of these words in the minds of the American public are at issue here. Fences and neighborhoods conjour images of quiet suburban towns here in the US, while wall and colonies recall the relics of Cold War Germany and 19th century European imperialism. It is rather difficult sometimes to decipher the truth that lays beneath the marketing strategies of the various groups.

    Arnold: I have honestly never heard of it called the “Genocide Wall,” and the term strikes me as melodramatic in the extreme. Your article from the Times of London is instructive in the tactile use of phrasing to put a positive spin on just about anything. What I find odd about this “security fence” for the Saudis is that the government there is rather quite willing to export jihadists, so they don’t cause trouble for the Kingdom. Well not that odd, but telling.

    Prof. Landes: When reading about the violence that occurs in and around the Palestinian territories, my mind always comes back to the “settlers.” Now with only a cursory skimming of the relevant treaties, how can Israeli zionists justify the colonization of land in the West Bank? Is not the retension and colonization of captured territory illegal under international law? I cannot help but see the wall as a land grab.

  5. RL says:

    The questions and points you raise are worth a post.
    Thanks for your comments.
    rl

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *