Buying the War on Palestinians: The US Media, The New York Times and Israel

Part of the Israeli-Palestinian story not found in the pages of The New York Times: Palestinians scuffle with Israeli soldiers at Howara checkpoint near the West Bank city of Nablus, 2 May 2007. (Rami Swidan/MaanImages)

After four disastrous years of US military occupation, Bill Moyers’ April 25 PBS special Buying the War attempted to hold the mainstream US media accountable for its complicity in selling the war on Iraq to the US public. Moyers documented how the US media, with The New York Times in a leading role, bowed to financial and political pressure, succumbed to an environment of patriotism and fear of terrorism, and uncritically reported false US government claims. Tragically, despite the terrible consequences of 60 years of Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people, there is still no significant movement to hold the US mainstream media accountable for a similar, dramatic failure in covering Israel and Palestine, and for its complicity in the US’ uncritical support for Israel.

Moyers’ analysis of the US media failure on Iraq was valuable, yet incomplete. He explained that to launch the attack on Iraq “high officials … needed a compliant press, to pass on their propaganda as news and cheer them on … our press largely surrendered its independence and skepticism to join with our government in marching to war.” Bob Simon of CBS explained to Moyers that the administration used marketing techniques to sell the war, “Just repeat it and repeat it and repeat it … Keep that drum beat going.” Media critic Norman Solomon told Moyers, “I think these [news] executives were terrified of being called soft on terrorism.” Moyers gave numerous examples of The New York Times passing on bogus intelligence on Iraq to the US public. Michael Massing of the Columbia Journalism Review highlighted the Times’ central role in marketing the Iraq war, saying: “The New York Times … remains immensely influential. People in the TV world read it every morning … People in government — of course read it, think tanks, and so on.”

However, though Moyers mentioned that the now infamous ‘neoconservatives’ had “long wanted to transform the Middle East, beginning with the removal of Saddam Hussein,” Moyers omitted a crucial reason for why the government’s case for war resonated with both the US media and public. It was based on widely held stereotypes about Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East, assumptions which are also essential to understanding US policy in Israel and Palestine. In his classic 1978 book Orientalism, Palestinian scholar Edward Said asserted that the Western understanding of Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East is a product of colonialism, and that Westerners view the East as inherently inferior and in need of redemption. The US case for war in Iraq rested on orientalist assumptions — that the Middle East was an undifferentiated region of Arabs and Muslims who, lacking any history or valid grievances, are possessed by an irrationally violent nature as well as hatred of the West, Israel, freedom and democracy. The region could be transformed through a combination of US military force and Western enlightenment. Playing on this racist view of Arabs and Muslims which is deeply rooted in the US psyche, the US government managed to convince most Americans, via a complicit media, of fantastic tales about links between Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and Al Qaeda, stocks of horrific arms, a maniacal desire to use them against the US, and of the beneficial impact of “shock and awe.” This belief that irrational Arab and Muslim violence requires enlightened Western intervention and domination is also used to justify Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, underpins uncritical US support for Israel, and is central to US media coverage of Palestine and Israel.

Though Moyers did not, the neo-cons continually drew the link between Iraq and Israel, asserting that ‘the road to Jerusalem passes through Baghdad’

Though Moyers did not, the neo-cons continually drew the link between Iraq and Israel, asserting that “the road to Jerusalem passes through Baghdad.” And in Israel, the other major outpost in “the war on terror,” racist ideology and politically tainted intelligence are also pushed by the government and credulously reported by US media outlets like The New York Times. For example, an 11 April 2007 Times news article by Isabel Kershner headlined unverifiable claims by Israel’s Shin Bet (the equivalent of our FBI) that it had thwarted a massive Hamas suicide bombing planned for Passover. The article largely ignored Palestinian denials reported the same day in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. The Shin Bet claim seemed to merit skepticism in light of the Palestinian denials, and Hamas’ decision two years ago to halt large-scale attacks.

Indeed, Hamas’ implication in a large-scale bombing plot would have come at a convenient moment for Israel. Following 16 months during which 27 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, the lowest total in more than six years, Israel is struggling to prevent the crumbling of the international boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, and to fend off repeated peace overtures from the Palestinian Authority, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League. The Israeli government has been feeding the media stories saying that the calm is a ruse, that Hamas is using it to arm and plan attacks, and that Israel will therefore be forced to mount a large-scale invasion of Gaza soon. The Times has published at least four other articles echoing these Israeli government assertions since March 2007.

In response to my email raising these criticisms, I received an email on 27 April 2007 from The New York Times’ Public Editor Byron Calame acknowledging that: “In the editing of the article late in the evening, the denials Haaretz had obtained from unnamed Palestinian and Hamas officials were deleted. While the vagueness of the sourcing made it less essential that those denials be kept in the story, I think the article would have been better with the denials included.”

But, as with Iraq, the problem is much broader and more systematic than a few recent articles repeating dubious Israeli intelligence. My review of all 1,085 New York Times news articles written from Israel and Palestine since 1 December 2004 confirms that the Times largely hews to the Israeli and US government drumbeat of the war on terrorism and downplays the Palestinian experience. Though the Times is not much worse than other major US newspapers in reporting on Palestine and Israel, as with Iraq, the Times’ influential role means its failures have greater impact.

Of the 1,085 Times news articles since 1 December 2004, 37 percent mentioned Palestinian “attack(s),” 36 percent mentioned “terrorism,” 28 percent mentioned “terrorist(s),” 21 percent mentioned Palestinian “violence,” 18 percent mentioned “suicide bombing(s),” 16 percent mentioned Palestinian “weapon(s),” and 14 percent mentioned Palestinian “radicals.” In contrast to this strong Israeli narrative, only two words reflecting a Palestinian narrative appeared in a comparable percentage of Times’ news articles. Israeli “settlement(s)” were noted in 32 percent of articles, and Israeli “occupation” was mentioned in 16 percent of articles. This imbalance is even more striking because the emphasis on Palestinian terrorism and violence corresponded with a two year and five month period during which Israelis killed 965 Palestinians, more than half civilians, while Palestinians killed 85 Israelis. Nonetheless, Israeli “attacks(s)” are mentioned in 13 percent of Times articles, and Israeli “violence” in only 4 percent.

Only very careful readers of Times news reporting would be able to locate, amidst the barrage on Palestinian terrorism, basic elements of the Palestinian experience — Israeli human rights abuses, Israeli attacks and violations of international law, Palestinian poverty, the Palestinian understanding that they are victims of Israeli discrimination and racism, and Israel’s denial of the right of return to Palestinian refugees. In a startling display of bias, since December 2004, 70 to 130 times as many Times news articles mentioned Palestinian “terrorism” or Palestinian “attack(s)” as mentioned Israeli “discrimination”, “racism” or “apartheid.” Thirty-five times as many articles mentioned Palestinian “terrorism” as mentioned Palestinian “poverty”, though 70 percent of Palestinians are now living below the poverty line.

Ethan Bronner, the Times’ Deputy Foreign Editor overseeing news reporting from Palestine and Israel, recently articulated the outlook behind The Times’ dramatic tilt towards a right-wing Israeli/US narrative. In deriding Jimmy Carter’s recent best-selling book, Bronner described “the endless humiliation of daily life for the Palestinians under Israeli occupation” as “yesterday’s story, especially since Israel’s departures from southern Lebanon and Gaza have not stopped anti-Israel violence from those areas,” and because “for the most radical leaders of the Muslim world … settling the Israel question … means eliminating Israel.” However, Bronner’s claim that an emphasis on Palestinian and Muslim violence and radicalism is necessitated by recent events is belied by the reality that the Times approach is not a new one, but represents business as usual, reflecting the same orientalist depiction of Arabs and Muslims outlined by Edward Said in 1978.

A sampling of other Times’ news articles from the last weeks provides concrete examples of the biased reporting behind the numbers.

A 22 April 2007 article by Isabel Kershner “Israel and Palestinians Trade Fire in Gaza and West Bank” noted in the opening sentence that: “A sharp escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the West Bank and Gaza left up to six Palestinians dead and culminated in an Israeli airstrike into Gaza.” Though six Palestinians were killed inside the West Bank and Gaza, with five deaths definitively attributed to the Israeli military, and no Israeli injuries reported, the article headlined an exchange of fire. Kershner’s opening summary sentence did not attribute the “violence” or even escalation to Israel, nor did she use the word “attack” to describe Israeli actions. Even more peculiar, of the article’s 851 total words, 524 words were devoted to describing a Palestinian “attack” on a private American School for Palestinians in Gaza during which the “attackers,” “Islamic extremists” and “Islamic radicals” destroyed school property, but injured no one. Thus Israeli soldiers who killed six Palestinians, didn’t “attack” and received less coverage than Palestinian “radicals” and “extremists” who “attacked,” though they hurt no one.

Rather than describing Hebron’s settlers, acknowledged by Israelis as extreme, uzi-toting settlers who frequently attack Palestinians, as ‘radicals’ or ‘extremists,’ the Times politely called them ‘the most uncompromising of the settlers.’

The same day, 22 April, The Times ran a telling parallel news story by Jennifer Medina, “Settlers’ Defiance Reflects Postwar Israeli Changes,” about an Israeli settler takeover of a Palestinian home in the middle of a Palestinian neighborhood in Hebron’s Old City. Rather than describing Hebron’s settlers, acknowledged by Israelis as extreme, uzi-toting settlers who frequently attack Palestinians, as “radicals” or “extremists,” the Times politely called them “the most uncompromising of the settlers.” And despite the settler takeover of a home in a Palestinian neighborhood, the Times subtly placed the burden of violence on Palestinians, noting, “there are fears of violence — there have been some reports of young Palestinians throwing rocks at the settlers. And a white Star of David is spray-painted on the front door of a Palestinian family.” Of 1,085 Times articles, 133 mentioned Palestinian “radical(s),” while only four articles mentioned Israeli “radical(s).” Colonizing settlers are neither radical nor violent, but colonized Palestinians are.

Growing Palestinian radicalization is a dangerous trend, but by minimizing Palestinians’ radicalizing experience of oppression and denial of rights, the Times reader is left to rely on the orientalist assumption that radicalism is a disease that springs naturally from Arab and Muslim minds and spreads. Over six years and thousands of articles during this Palestinian uprising, The New York Times quoted or paraphrased just 6,256 words on human rights abuses by Israelis or by Palestinians from three respected, independent third parties, the major human rights reporting on Israel and Palestine — Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Israeli organization B’Tselem. The phrase “human rights” can be found in only 7 percent of the 1,088 Times articles since December 2004, “international law” in 2 percent of articles, and “Palestinian rights” in 0.4 percent of articles.

While it is not surprising that The New York Times marginalizes human rights and international law, the Times reports as infrequently on Palestinians’ basic human needs. Though 70 percent of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories now live below the poverty line, and 30 percent are unemployed, over the last two years and five months, only 1 percent of Times news articles from Israel and Palestine discussed Palestinian “poverty” or “unemployment,” while 1.8 percent of articles described Palestinians as “impoverished,” and 1.3 percent described Palestinians as “unemployed.”

Additionally, the Times virtually ignores the situation of 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, 20 percent of Israel’s population, and that of the five million Palestinians living as refugees

Additionally, the Times virtually ignores the situation of 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, 20 percent of Israel’s population, and that of the five million Palestinians living as refugees. An immediate case in point is the Times’ reporting on Palestinian public intellectual, leader and former member of the Israeli Knesset Azmi Bishara. Bishara has been at the forefront of public discussions for years of Israeli discrimination against Palestinians and the assertion that Israel must transform itself from a Jewish state to a state of all its citizens. Over the last weeks Bishara left the country and resigned his parliament seat after being accused by the Israeli government of providing assistance to an enemy during war and money laundering. Bishara, an articulate Palestinian Christian intellectual, in a leadership role, with no involvement with armed resistance, insists that Israel’s problems are not confined to occupation, but are rather a function of its status as “a Jewish state.” Despite his prominent role in Israel, Palestine and the Arab World, since December 2004, Bishara’s name was mentioned in only four of the 1,085 news articles on Israel and Palestine, two of those in the last week. Given the Israeli and US governments’ insistence that Israel is a democracy, they would prefer that Bishara not exist, shut up or be shut up. The Times has until now largely complied with that wish.

More broadly, the concepts of Israeli discrimination and racism against Palestinians, which are part of the daily language of many Palestinians including Bishara, were raised in only 0.4 percent and 0.5 percent of all Times news articles on Israel and Palestine since December 2004. The concept of Israeli apartheid, also a daily staple of Palestinian discourse, but summarily dismissed by the Times’ Ethan Bronner as an “overstatement” and a “false echo of the racist policies of the old South Africa”, was mentioned in only 0.3 percent of all Times news articles from Israel and Palestine. The Times has essentially refused Palestinians the opportunity to present their view that they are victims of discrimination and racism.

Renowned Israeli reporter Amira Hass has asserted that “What journalism is really about — it’s to monitor power and the centers of power.” The US mainstream media, with The New York Times in the lead, has failed miserably in achieving that ideal, not only in covering Iraq, but also in reporting on Israel and Palestine. Rather than any concept of objectivity, balance or truth, the US media reflects instead the imbalance of power between Israelis and Palestinians, emphasizing the views of the most powerful actors — the Israeli and US governments. Palestinians’ lived experiences — that they are under attack, being killed, impoverished, having their land taken, denied their rights, and the victims of a discriminatory system — are drowned out by the drumbeat of Palestinian terrorism, even when few Israelis are being killed. As with Iraq, this racist narrative of inherent Arab violence is being exploited to justify domination of one people by another. Lacking this analysis, Bill Moyers’ Buying the War represents only a first step towards exposing US media bias in covering the Middle East.

Patrick O’Connor is a New York City-based activist with Palestine Media Watch and the International Solidarity Movement. He is completing a research project on US newspaper coverage of Palestine and Israel.

Related Links

  • Blind New York Times Continues Attacks on Jimmy Carter, Patrick O’Connor (9 January 2007)
  • The New York Times Marginalizes Palestinian Women and Palestinian Rights, Patrick O’Connor and Rachel Roberts (17 November 2006)
  • NY Times: Arab leaders to blame, fair game for assassination, Patrick O’Connor (15 July 2006)
  • The New York Times Whitewashes the Israeli Takeover of East Jerusalem, Patrick O’Connor (17 April 2006)
  • The New York Times Covers Up Discrimination against Palestinian Citizens of Israel, Patrick O’Connor (30 March 2006)