Media Watch: How to Influence the US Media

Are those who are running the propaganda machine honest but misinformed? Not really.

By Ahmed Bouzid
Posted: 19 Muharram 1423, 3 April 2002

To those who insist that American journalists are by and large well-meaning, that they do not deceive, mislead, or lie, that they are open to reason and persuasion, that they have the good of their profession at heart, that they are moral, conscientious, and above all fair, I propose that they take the following into their reckoning.

On March 17, 2002, Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of The Detroit News, published an op-ed piece in which he wrote, "The ugly little secret of the Middle East conflict is that a favorite target of Palestinian terrorists are the children, teen-agers and young adults of Israel." In that piece, Mr. Finley cites no reports, no findings or investigations, no official statements, showing that indeed Palestinians "appear to be intentionally killing Israel's kids." And yet, he had no qualms titling his piece "Israel's children are the target of Middle East terror campaign". By contrast, extensive studies and reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Bet'slem, and other organizations, along with credible eyewitness accounts, such as those of New York Times journalist Christopher Hedges, have established beyond the shadow of doubt that the IDF routinely and systematically targets and kills Palestinian children. (In fact, I myself published an op-ed on December 9, 2001, on the very pages that Mr. Finley edits, quoting and describing such a piece by Mr. Hedges). And yet, not one word of indignation or outrage from Mr. Finley, or any editor that I can recall, has ever been sounded or written bout the well-documented intentional killing by the IDF of Palestinian children.

March 15, 2002: I email the ombudsman of one of the largest circulation papers in the US east coast, complaining about their front-page picture that day showing Palestinians dragging the body of an alleged Palestinian informant. The complaint comes on the heels of a long campaign by myself and other local activists for at least an occasional front-page picture of Palestinian suffering (in the 18 months of the Intifada, the face of a Palestinian victim was shown twice on their front page!). "And you don't want me to be angry?" I title my email, and then go on in the body to write: "We plead and plead with you for a front page photo of Palestinian suffering, and what do you serve us in return: a bestialization of the Palestinians. The ombudsman fires back within minutes with the following: I think today's front-page photo accurately portrayed the horror of what happened in Manger Square. When the awful day comes that Palestinian suffering captures the main headline of the day, then I suspect that will be the main photo, too." I am stunned and write back: I didn't realize that headlines were captured by events directly, with no interference from papers or editors!

As Israel massacred Palestinian children left and right, Detroit News heading said: "Israel's children are the target of Middle East terror campaign"

March 9, 2002: I attend the annual National Arab and Journalists Association (NAJWA) gathering in Chicago, where I get a chance to meet reporters and editors from the Chicago press. In one particular panel, I get into a heated exchange with two editors from the Chicago Tribune. The bone of contention is the word occupied and I complain about the frequent use of the word disputed instead. But there is a dispute, one the editors insists, to my astonishment, and so we can say that the territories are disputed. But disputed connotes that it remains to be determined who owns what, I retort, upset more than angry over having to have this conversation. Why not use a perfectly well defined, legally established, and universally accepted term, rather than pick a term that is misleading and morally suspect? One of the editors sententiously points out the infamous discrepancy between the French and the English versions of the UN resolution referring to les territories vs. territories, and concludes that a case can, and has been mounted, by the other side, and so it is our duty to remain detached and simply point that the territories are disputed. Little effect did the argument that the very same resolution he cited declares in no uncertain terms that no territories are to be legitimately acquired by force.

Rewind to one year ago: February 28, 2001, only a few days to Ariel Sharon's ascension to the Prime Ministership. I submit a compelling op-ed piece from Hanan Ashrawi to the Commentary Page editor of a large circulation east coast US paper. I had queried the editor a week earlier about the possibility of publishing a piece from Dr. Ashrawi, and he had responded enthusiastically. But a day after I submit the piece, the editor writes back the following: "my editors objected, pointing out (rightly) that the piece is strident, calls names, is inaccurate (for example, I know of no case so far in which Sharon has pursued war, so the phrase 'warmongering present' is simply not factual, unless one is using it in a partisan fashion, in which case the word becomes meaningless, or at the very best, inaccessible to my readers), and very redundant."

Facing such absurdities, should activists trying to nudge the US media to cover the Palestinian-Israeli conflict accurately and professionally simply throw their arms up?

"I can only tell you that the other side complains much more about our coverage than your side." [Editor Chicago Tribune]

The answer was vividly provided me in another exchange I had with a Chicago Tribune editor back at the NAJWA conference. In a panel on the mainstream media, the editor in Question patiently lectured us about the need to examine coverage "over a period of time" and to avoid nitpicking. I raised my hand and informed the editor that we, at Palestine Media Watch, routinely publish detailed reports that examine coverage "over a period of time," and that we have discovered for instance, among other things, that out of all the front page photographs on the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, more than 90% of them depict Israeli suffering, with the remaining 10% consisting of your charred cars and bombed building. Given that the death toll on the Palestinian side is four to five times that of Israeli side, and given that more than 200 of the killed are children, I asked, was that not a flagrant example of bias? The editor grunted and waved his hand dismissively. I pressed for an explanation, and he answered: "I can only tell you that the other side complains much more about our coverage than your side". "Is that an explanation, or a justification, or an excuse?" I shouted back. He merely repeated his assertion and moved on to the next question.

In other words, after all is said and done, after all the high talk about journalistic integrity and a commitment to rendering a faithful image of reality, it all boils down to who complains the loudest, who is the biggest nuisance, and who makes the most trouble. A sorry state for an institution that prides itself (and loudly) for being a model for the rest of the world, but if that's the deal on the table, then we have only ourselves to blame if we don't turn into relentless irate nags who won't rest no matter what.

The author is President of Palestine Media Watch