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Jewish World Review July 2, 1999 /18 Tamuz 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The Elusive Search For Editorial Balance --
WHILE SOME SEEK silence in their early morning wakeup routines, like most news junkies, I reach out to flip on the radio to hear the news. But, last Friday, I felt I had gone into what the science fiction shows call a "time warp."

Blaring from the speakers was a report on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" dealing with the latest escalation between Israel and Lebanon. Yet It wasn't the tale of retaliation for Lebanon-based terrorist attacks on Israel that gave me that sinking feeling of deja vu. What was really familiar was the clearly biased nature of the report which was datelined Beirut.

There were plenty of gory details of what Israel had done to the Lebanese. But there was no mention that Israel's bombing runs (which incurred some casualties and temporarily knocked out power in the Lebanese capital) was precipitated by Hezbollah attacks on Northern Israel from Lebanese soil which resulted in the deaths of two Israeli civilians.

Nor, in the subsequent discussion of possible peace moves was there any mention that Lebanon's "government" which was so outraged by the Israeli attack, was itself a Syrian puppet and does not control its own borders. The clear intent of the Israeli action - to remind the Lebanese that they could not live in peace so long as they were the willing hosts to terrorists who would not let the people of Northern Israel live in peace was missing from the story.

In short, the NPR report lacked context. It told us what had happened in one incident in one specific place but did little to give the listeners an understanding of how these events how come about or what they really meant. It was lazy journalism that reduced a complex story into a bad guy and a victim.

In this case, as has happened a thousand times before, the bad guy was the state of Israel.

Why, nearly six years after the signing of the Oslo accords, 12 years after the start of the intifada and 17 years since Israel's invasion of Lebanon, are we still talking about media bias towards Israel?

The answers, like the issues themselves are complex and defy simplistic answers. But, contrary to some of the more conspiratorial theories that circulate around the Jewish world, biased reporting against Israel has a lot more to do with journalistic issues than anti-Semitism.

A lot of it revolves around reporters and editors who pride themselves on their objectivity but who also don't know much about the issues and places they are asked to cover. Thus ignorance is sometimes mixed with a dose of the superficial conventional wisdom of the day.

If the prevailing opinion has created a mindset which sees one side to a conflict as the guilty party, then that is the frame of reference from which many stories will be reported. Thus, the familiar image of Israel as "oppressor" of the Palestinians is played out without much thought even being put into it.

Media criticism was on more than a few minds in Philadelphia last week even without the helpful example supplied by NPR.

That was because it was last Wednesday that the long awaited content analysis of The Philadelphia Inquirer's coverage of the Middle East was unveiled in a low-key, poorly attended public meeting at the Inquirer's Broad Street offices.

It was prompted by a series of media columns by Michael Goldblatt of the Zionist Organization of America's Philadelphia chapter which appeared in the Jewish Exponent. Yet no one I know really expected the report to conclusively confirm or deny the widespread opinon held by local Jews that the Inquirer has been giving Israel the shaft while whitewashing its Arab foes.

The study, which was paid for by the Inquirer was conducted by the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. The Inquirer had little to gain, since few of its foes were likely to be convinced of its innocence by a survey that only dealt with the period of January through October 1998.

Since most of the damage, as seen by Inquirer critics, predated that time frame (which coincided with the arrival of the Inquirer's current editor Robert Rosenthal), the survey would tell us little about past journalistic misdeeds.

And even if it is generally acknowledged that the Inquirer's fairness had improved under the highly regarded "Rosey's" tutelage, what could we possibly learn from a survey that was conducted by a group of people who acknowledged at the survey's unveiling that they went into the process knowing little about the topic?

The LSU staffers were asked to create a coding system which classified stories as positive, neutral or negative towards Israel or the Palestinians. The 280 articles, columns and editorials published in the Inquirer in those ten months were coded and added up.

The totals are then supposed to tell us how fair the newspaper is or is not. The results showed that both Israel and the Palestinians were about equal in their positives and negative stories read in the Inquirer. So does that mean they were fair?

Not necessarily. All the complex judgements that go into reporting, editing and publishing stories cannot be quantified so simply.

For example, the Inquirer published a front page story on Monday, June 28 which told the story of Mohammed Oudeh, the Palestinian Liberation Organization terrorist who, acting on Yasser Arafat's orders, masterminded the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre. Oudeh recently revealed his misdeeds in a book and is now wanted for murder by Germany. Though he has been lively in Palestinian Authority territory and says he favors the peace process, Israel won't let him back in.

Is this story negative towards the Palestinians because it talks about the Munich massacre? Negative towards Israel because it shows them rejecting a man who now claims to have embraced peace? Mixed?

I honestly don't know how the LSU group would have classified it and frankly am not terribly interested.

The only question was whether the story was accurate, fair and put its complex narrative into a truthful historical context. My answer in this case would be yes.

But until the LSU study reveals which articles it classified as positive or negative, how are we to know whether to take its conclusions seriously? More to the point, if, as the LSU staff acknowledged at the Inquirer press conference, merely classified anything that supported "peace" as "good," and against "peace" as bad, then it is clear that the newspaper's coverage of Israeli politics - where critics and skeptics of Oslo were often wrongly classified as opponents of "peace" - could be seriously biased against one side and in favor of another.

Thus, if Israel's government was skeptical of Oslo and less than enthusiastic about accelerated progress towards peace - which is only measured in Israeli concessions and not in Palestinian compliance - then it is clear that the LSU survey will tell us little about the Inquirer's coverage of an Israel that was led by Likud.

Of course, now that Ehud Barak and Labor are in and Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu are out, things will be perfect, won't they?

As last Friday's NPR atrocity proved, journalists looking for a bad guy in Israel are not deterred by facts or truth. Nor can we rely on their devotion to objectivity to deter distortion.

After all, we know the press plays favorites in foreign conflicts, sometimes with good reason. No one expected major daily newspapers, let alone the broadcast networks to give equal time to coverage of Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs during the recent NATO offensive in Yugoslavia.

Whatever the merits of the U.S. war against Yugoslavia, war criminals can't be surprised when they don't get good coverage in the America media.

But in a conflict where the media has decided that both sides are equally right or equally wrong, like the Middle East, "even handed" coverage is to be expected. But for those of us who believe a conflict between Israel - a democratic state which has been subjected to repeated aggression and terrorism - on the one hand, and the Palestinian Authority, which is, at best, a loose confederation of current or former terrorist groups run as a corrupt authoritarian state, then "balance" is inherently unfair.

The Inquirer is to be complimented for its courage in looking at itself and its critics are to be equally congratulated for having prompted the self-examination. The newspaper clearly looks to this survey as more therapeutic in nature in helping it improve than a matter of documenting its history.

Let's hope they use this as an opportunity for more than self-serving congratulations for their "balance."

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.


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©1999, Jonathan Tobin