With the collapse of the Oslo process and the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, supporters of Israel in America quickly fell back on an old habit: media vigilance. Sadly, rather than turn to introspection or engage in an open and vigorous debate about how Israel can emerge from its present difficulties, or what the proper American policy should be, Israel's advocates are content to fight a two-pronged media war. Not only must anti-Israel bias in the press be exposed and rooted out, but supporters of Israel need to fight a new "media war" against the Arabs with Madison Avenue slogans and old-fashioned spin (or "hasbara" as Israelis call it). While there is resurgent anti-Israel sentiment in Europe, and virulent anti-Israel and anti-Semitic media throughout the Arab world, the American press is not a problem for Israel. Moreover, the "media war," like the intifada itself,is not something Israel can win.
Someone should tell the new (old) Middle East media watchdogs that Israel gets a fair shake in the American media. I have been involved in numerous media seminars for high-level Israeli and Arab delegations in New York and Washington. Invariably, in private meetings with newspaper or television editors, each group complains of American media bias toward the other. One editor of a major national news network told me he knew they were getting the reporting right since the failed Camp David summit because both Israeli and Palestinian groups complained bitterly about the coverage. Taken as a whole, in news reporting, opinion columns, and radio and television news, the American press has been balanced in its recent Middle East reporting. If there is a bias, it is toward over-reporting. Truth be told, in key markets like New York, Miami, and Los Angeles, one could argue that press coverage is largely sympathetic to Israel.
That said, there are exceptions to the rule, either lapses in editorial judgment or what can be called "attitude" reporting. An example of the former is the now-famous mislabeled photo of a bleeding young American Jew in Jerusalem running from an Arab mob. The menacing-looking Israeli soldier, we later learned, was not attacking a "young Arab protester" but rather protecting a young Jewish man from New York. The wire agency that carried the photo was slow to acknowledge its mistake, and major newspapers that carried the photo prominently, like The New York Times, were even slower in printing corrections. But this was a lapse, not a cause celebre.
Campaigns to boycott the Times, as well as the Washington Post, are more a sign of collective paranoia than profitable political activism. A more disturbing trend, but certainly not a pervasive one among the major media outlets, is a type of "attitude" reporting where subtle, yet unmistakable, biases filter through the journalism. On this score, National Public Radio (NPR) can be faulted. While most of NPR¹s reporters and commentators are balanced, some glaring missteps have been made in recent Middle East reporting. For example, a major series on the Arab-Israeli conflict that aired in early October presented as fact a number of historical developments (like Arab intentions in the early 1970s) that remain hotly debated by scholars and experts. NPR also selected a disproportionately high number of Israel¹s revisionist historians to interview for the series. NPR could do a better job.
On balance, recent American press coverage of Arab-Israeli issues has not been unfair to Israel. It is not only the press that is doing a better job, but human rights reporting organizations are improving as well. Recent reports by Human Rights Watch (and even Amnesty International) have been surprisingly balanced, and in fact have done a great deal to focus attention on the inhumanities of Palestinian suicide bombings. Outside America, media bias against Israel is real. In Europe, it stems from divergent political interests with regard to the Arab world, latent guilt for European imperialism, and the rise of Islamic communities on the Continent. In the Middle East, it is encouraged as a safety valve for rising public frustrations, and often blurs the distinction between anti-Israel and anti-Jew. Supporters of Israel should continue to expose such ugliness, as with the work of organizations like the Middle East Media Research Institute. But the recent upsurge in media obsession has come at the expense of honest discussion about future prospects and present policy choices.
Fast-fax operations and blast e-mail alerts, not to mention the boycott campaigns, are not what Israel needs most today.
Israel¹s advocates, especially the media watchdogs, should stop for a moment and consider whether their renewed rage against the media is a result of biased reporting or simply misplaced frustration about the ever-worsening social, economic, political and security challenges facing Israel today.
Mr. Lasensky is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.