|BEIRUT: Not long ago, I came across an American colleague of mine in
the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. After three years as Middle East correspondent
for his east coast paper, my friend was leaving Egypt for the United States;
American editors have a habit of moving their reporters to other beats
the moment they have begun to understand the region.
So how were things on the paper, I asked? "Usual problems,"
he replied. "I've just been asked by my paper to stop referring to
'the right-wing Israeli government". My editor said he'd been getting
lots of complaints from members of the Jewish community back home. So now
we just call it 'the Israeli government'." He shrugged his shoulders.
I wasn't surprised. American media coverage of the Middle East has been
largely pro-Israeli - and in their cartoons of Arabs almost racist - for
decades and US reporting of the Israeli-Arab conflict, with honourable
exceptions like the Christian Science Monitor, is bland to the point of
The State Department line on the Middle East, always skewed toward Israel,
has been followed obsequiously by most American reporters. Only weeks after
US diplomats were instructed to refer to the Israeli-occupied West Bank
as "disputed" - rather than "occupied" - territory,
American journalists began using precisely the same word. The explosive
issue of Israel's expanding Jewish settlements on occupied land, in contravention
of UN resolutions and the Oslo agreement, has been turned into an argument
over real estate. In a nation where few people buy foreign newspapers or
watch overseas satellite channels, American media coverage of the Middle
East sets an overwhelmingly pro-Israeli agenda, a viewpoint which goes
largely unchallenged in the US.
Bill Clinton's administration has to take account of major American
newspaper and television coverage of the region - and its pro-Israeli bias.
Yet now, with a catastrophe looming and American public opinion desperately
in need of an unbiased coverage of events, the same David-and-Goliath story
of Israel and the Arabs is being regurgitated by press and television.
US journalists thus bear a heavy responsibility for their country's crumbling
policies in the Middle East.
There is nothing new in this lop-sided reporting. After the 1982 Sabra
and Chatila massacre, when up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians were slaughtered
by Israel's Phalangist allies, "Newsweek" magazine decided the
death of Princess Grace of Monaco in a road accident was the more important
story; a week later, their cover story reported "Israel in Torment"
over the massacres; there was no reference to the "torment" of
the Palestinian victims.
Not once were the Sabra and Chatila murderers called "terrorists",
which they were by Israel's own definition of the word, presumably because
they were allied to the Israeli army. The same double standards applied
in later years: when Palestinians wickedly set off suicide bombs among
civilians in Israel, the American press universally called the culprits
"terrorists", which they assuredly were. But when an Israeli
slaughtered 29 innocent Palestinian worshippers in a Hebron mosque, the
American media called the murderer a "fanatic", an "extremist"
or - a new and popular word now found increasingly in the American press
- a "zealot". Even the assassin of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak
Rabin - a Jewish student - was never called a "terrorist".
In this, American journalists have fallen into line with Israeli law.
Only last month the family of a Palestinian named Khairi Moussa who was
stabbed to death by an ultra-Orthodox Jew, was refused state compensation
because, under Israeli law, an Arab killed by a Jew cannot be considered
a victim of "terrorism", although a Jew killed by an Arab can
be. (Needless to say, scarcely any space was devoted to this extraordinary
court case in the pages of American newspapers). Similar attempts to play
down Israel's responsibility for killings in the Middle East could be identified
in 1996 when Israeli artillery slaughtered 106 Lebanese refugees sheltering
in a UN battalion headquarters at Qana in southern Lebanon. The Israelis
claimed they were firing at Hizbullah guerrillas 600ft from the base -
not a single Israeli was hurt and the Hizbullah were firing at a hill to
the south of Qana. But beneath a photograph of one of the 55 children massacred
by the Israelis, 'Time' magazine reported that the small victim had been
"killed in crossfire" - a palpable untruth.
In one of the most extraordinary reports of its kind ever written, the
'New York Times' played down the killing - five days before Qana - of four
children and two women when an Israeli helicopter fired a missile into
an ambulance in southern Lebanon; not until the sixth paragraph of his
report next day did the paper's al-Quds correspondent, Serge Schmemann,
tell his readers about the atrocity. Earlier paragraphs of his report,
which he presumably thought more important, included news of a power failure
in a bombarded Israeli town and a statistic of 24 dead in Lebanon "including
one Israeli soldier."
The 'Washington Post's' reporter John Lancaster later investigated the
ambulance attack, reporting that the driver was "disputing" (sic)
Israel's claim - a false one as it turned out - that the vehicle was owned
by the Hizbullah. But the paper did not question how Israel could break
the rules of war by firing at a clearly marked ambulance. The 'New York
Times' later ran a syndicated account from an Israeli paper of an Israeli
soldier's life in Qana before the massacre: but the 'New York Times' deleted
a paragraph about how the Israeli troops had stolen cars from their Lebanese
owners and looted houses - thus even censoring the Israeli press.
'Time' magazine enthusiastically took up the use of the word "disputed"
for the Jewish settlements on Arab land. By last year, it was able to report
on how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "turns up the heat
by okaying (sic) new houses (sic) in disputed (sic) territory." When
Netanyahu ordered work to begin on a new settlement on a hill outside east
al-Quds early this year, almost every American news outlet referred to
the "disputed" hill as Har Homa - giving the location its Jewish
identity but usually ignoring its Arab name, Jebel Abu Ghoneim. The use
of the misleading word "disputed" has, sadly, turned up on the
BBC, along with references to the settlements as "neighbourhoods"
and "communities", as if their occupants were ordinary property
buyers rather than fanatical, armed religious Jews who believe God gave
them the territory. As long ago as 1995, Jerrold Kessel was reporting on
a settlement "dispute" on CNN in which he referred to how Jews
"feel themselves fully part of the landscape" and talked of "heritage
claims going back hundreds of years." But these "heritage claims"
were - and are - mightily different from one another; the Palestinian one
is based on land deeds and documents of ownership, the Israeli one on theology
and an apparent conviction that no lesser person than God had bequeathed
Israel the Arab land.
History continues to be short-changed in the American media. Long after
most of the world realised that the Oslo "peace process" was
dead, US reporters continued to write about the probability of putting
the peace "back on track" and wrote glowing articles about the
supposedly tough-talking US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - even
after she told a press conference in al-Quds that it was wrong to compare
killing people with "building houses", her own bland reference
to Jewish settlements on occupied land.
In Paris, 'Le Monde' was last month warning its readers that both Netanyahu
and US House speaker Newt Gingrich were "dangerous" men. But
in the New York Times, the increasingly messianic Thomas Friedman, an old
colleague and friend of mine, was telling his readers there was "a
potentially great statesman" inside Netanyahu who "deserves credit
for the fact that there has been relatively little Palestinian terrorism
(sic) these past two years."
After one terrible suicide bombing in al-Quds, the mother of a young
Israeli girl victim wrote that it was Netanyahu's policies rather than
the Palestinians who had killed her daughter. The 'Los Angeles Times' put
the bombing on page one - and the mother's remarkable statement on page
five. Academics may one day decide how deeply the American public has been
misled by the persistent bias of the American media over the Middle East
- and the degree to which this bias has led them to support US policies
which may destroy America's prestige in the region. Meanwhile, US reporters
are soon going to have to figure out a way of telling their readers and
viewers how a "dispute" over "homes", "neighbourhoods"
and "communities" is turning into war.