MSM Attention Deficit Disorder: If Israel Isn’t to Blame, Why Bother Discussing It?

Calev Ben-David has an excellent comment on the lack of the MSM’s interest in what goes on in the Middle East unless Israel’s involved. This was particularly noticeable last summer, when the the press flooded into Lebanon for the war, but left as soon as the Israelis left. Obviously, one expects more reporters in wartime… but no one but the bloggers, like Michael Totten and Charles Malik, hung around to see what was happening on the ground?

Snap Judgment: Media attention deficit disorder

Calev Ben-David, THE JERUSALEM POST May. 10, 2007
Ever hear of Anwar al-Bunni? It wouldn’t be surprising if you hadn’t. Syria’s top civil-rights activist has received precious little media attention over the years – even after being sentenced to five years imprisonment last month for promoting a declaration that called on Damascus to improve ties with neighboring Lebanon and respect its independence.

Although his conviction was dutifully protested by the US State Department, several European nations and Amnesty International, Bunni’s case still didn’t attract much journalistic notice. (It might have helped had Condoleezza Rice mentioned his case in her encounter with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem last week, but apparently the Bush administration’s policy of pushing democracy throughout the Arab world has taken a back seat to realpolitik diplomacy aimed at salvaging its Iraq policy.)

One reason Bunni’s case has gotten such little coverage is undoubtedly the success Bashar Assad has had in intimidating foreign journalists and keeping them from properly covering his nation’s internal affairs. Although the Syrian dictator made some noises in his early days of rule about reforming his country’s notoriously rigid restrictions on free speech, he has in reality just followed his father’s policy of severely restricting any genuine open expression by his subjects.

Even if Syria had a less repressive regime, though, one wonders if someone like Bunni would ever get the foreign press exposure he deserves. The international media, so interested in just about every detail of the Israeli-Arab conflict, demonstrates remarkably less interest when a story involves only the latter. What Israelis (or Americans in Iraq, for that matter) do to Arabs makes headlines; what Arabs do to Arabs, well, maybe AP will do a brief story on it.

Last spring, bothered by the seeming lack of press interest in Lebanon despite the potentially explosive situation created by the Cedar Revolution, I asked the representative of a major British media outlet why its coverage from Beirut had become so scanty. “Well, Lebanon isn’t really an area of primary interest for the British,” was the reply.

It certainly became so when Israel entered the picture a few months later. But without knowing what was happening in Lebanon in the months leading up to Hizbullah’s attack-kidnapping across Israel’s border on July 12 – how the Iran-directed Islamic militia was being pressured by the new Beirut government to put its forces under governmental authority – the public would find it difficult to understand why Hassan Nasrallah felt so compelled to create a provocation with Israel.

The international media failed in large part to give the proper background behind the causes for the outbreak of the war because it wasn’t all that interested in reporting on those growing internal tensions in Lebanon.

THAT WAS a mistake – just like it is to ignore the Bunni case, part of a growing crackdown in Syria on any internal opposition to Assad’s despotic regime, a policy in line with its expanding links to Iran’s radical Islamic leadership and its continued shipping of arms across the Lebanese border to Hizbullah. These crucial developments, which could well be major factors in the next regional conflict, get fairly little play in comparison to what are largely meaningless stories about even the most minor efforts to get Syria and Israel back to the negotiating table. And that’s not just because it’s easier for journalists to report from Jerusalem than from Damascus; it’s also because the international media has developed a mind-set that stories about Syria only count for much if somehow they’re directly connected to stories about Israel.

That’s a major misconception, one the international press should have learned to discard following the 9/11 attacks. Prior to that, the rise of al-Qaida didn’t get nearly the media attention it should have, barely a fraction of what was devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s the same with most internal Arab-Islamic issues until they finally impact directly in some way on Israel or the West; indeed, how much serious reportage of Sunni-Shi’ite divisions was there prior to 9/11 and the subsequent American occupation of Iraq? Journalists often realize the importance of these stories and play catch-up on them only after it’s too late – sometimes even for themselves.

FOR EXAMPLE, ever hear of the Dagmoush clan? They’re a large Palestinian tribal unit, estimated at 15,000 strong, some of whose members are suspected of conducting criminal operations in Gaza for many years now. Media coverage of their activities has been almost nonexistent. Two months ago, Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin gave a rare interview to The New York Times about the radicalizing situation in Gaza, noting that “elements of what he called ‘global jihad’ are creating ‘ties’ and ‘connections’ to local Gaza groups, especially to Mumtaz Dagmoush of the powerful Dagmoush clan.”

Although you’d think that statement would make some headlines, the story didn’t move much beyond the original Times piece. But if the media preferred not paying too much attention to the Dagmoush clan, the opposite is certainly not the case: Already believed to be behind the kidnapping of two Fox News journalists last summer, members of the Dagmoush clan are now the leading suspects in the abduction of BBC reporter Alan Johnston.

Intimidating journalists is clearly one of its goals, and to a large degree it has succeeded – the courageous Johnston was the last Western journalist based full-time in an increasingly dangerous Gaza. However, the foreign press also hasn’t paid sufficient attention to the story of the Dagmoush clan until now in large part because it doesn’t fit easily into the standard script of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

No one is suggesting that the latter still isn’t the major drama of this region. Unfortunately, so many other important stories in the region aren’t getting their due attention because of varying degrees of difficulty, disinterest and a disinclination to break from old reporting habits. And it’s only when an Anwar al-Bunni or the Dagmoush clan get the attention they deserve that the public will get a firmer grip on what is really happening in this troubled corner of the world.

The writer is the director of the Jerusalem office of The Israel Project.

I might add, it’s only when these stories get the attention they deserve that we can expect the Arab world to respond to the uncomfortable glare of world attention. These folks are from an honor-shame culture, which means how they “appear” has primary importance. The media has enormous power over them as a result. Which is why they in turn are willing to kill in order to intimidate the media into presenting them as they want.

7 Responses to MSM Attention Deficit Disorder: If Israel Isn’t to Blame, Why Bother Discussing It?

  1. David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 05/17/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

  2. fp says:

    Well, you must remember that the media is drawn to what they perceive their readers want. And being part and parcel of their own societies, they intuit that EU readers don’t like jews and are drawn to sensations like wars, crime, etc. Add to this the ignorance and inability to reason due to the decay of the educational system in the west on the one hand, and the laziness and limitations and manipulations placed on them by the societies, and the behavior of the MSM is a logical conclusion.

  3. fp says:

    How about this?,2933,273055,00.html

    Ignorance and incompetence is the main characteristic of the US foreign policy and media.

  4. Michael B says:

    “If Israel isn’t to blame, why bother discussing it.”

    It’s the pervasiveness, the ubiquity of this in Western, “enlightened” reportage that is particularly noteworthy. Likewise, the consciously, the willfully self-blinded quality represented in this type of phenomena is what is striking.

  5. RL says:

    Michael B and fp make important points. the media does respond to what it “thinks” its public wants, but it also gives the public what it “thinks” it needs. it’s not hard to imagine that many americans “wanted” to be informed of how dangerous islamism was in the aftermath of 9-11, indeed how they might even have liked some particularly nasty stuff about islam in order to feed their anger. but the media decided that this was not a good thing, and systematically under-reported the nasty stuff.

    so i’m not really convinced that the news media really pitches to what it’s audience wants. i think they pitch to a combination of what the audience wants and they think it needs. if that means heavy emphasis on the sins of the israelis (and the americans) and light on the ugliness of islam, then so be it.

    ironically, in their (unconscious?) effort to “educate” the american public about the world, they feed the ugliest tendencies of judeophobia and starve the important need of civil society for information about what we need to fear from islam.

    i think the public is eager to get real and important information, and if the media were less advocacy-inclined and less condescending to a public they treat as not-too-bright, they would not lose so many readers to the blogosphere.

  6. fp says:


    I would not disagree. However, I would add that what the media thinks the audience needs is seriously handicapped, just like the left, by an abject lack of knowledge about the phenomena they cover (here, the ME, islam and the i-p conflict) and an inability to reason, due to the decay of the educational system in the west. Couple this to the open israeli society and the knowledge that nothing happens to you if you criticize it, which is blatantly not true of the other side and the combination is lethal.

    If you don’t have any independent knowledge of your own and you have not been trained in how to think independently, you will end up with “he said, she said” kind of journalism at best, or one that focuses on those who shout strongest, particularly if they are prepared to die or kill you if you criticize them.

    I have seen references to the possibility that journalists, part. Johnson, were kidnapped to get the press out of Gaza and avoid coverage of what’s going on there.


  7. fp says:

    May I also add that the press is actually for profit corporations and they are not as much in the business of selling information to their audience as in that of selling audiences to their advertisers. Editors/journalists who want to keep and develop their careers learn to internalize what their advertisers want without any direct pressure from them.

    I would venture a guess that for most global corporations Israel is an inconvenient state.

Leave a Reply

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