CAMERA’s broken lens revisited

In February 2008, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) published a study titled, “On Nation’s Op-ed Pages, Israel’s Voice is Stifled.” The report claimed the existence of an overwhelming pro-Arab, anti-Israel agenda in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times in “guest op-eds” over a 19-month period.

CAMERA claimed that out of 56 primary op-eds dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict in The Washington Post and The New York Times from 1 January 2006 to 31 July 2007, 33 of the commentaries (59 percent) reflected an Arab perspective or contained more criticism of Israel, only 12 supported an Israeli perspective or criticized Arabs more (21 percent) and 11 op-eds were neutral (20 percent).

The Electronic Intifada (EI) examined the guest commentaries from the same period and found that CAMERA’s analysis of The Washington Post had excluded 27 relevant op-eds (15 primary, 12 tangential) and improperly classified others, while its analysis of The New York Times significantly downplayed pro-Israel op-eds by classifying them as neutral, tangential, or pro-Arab without regard to their own established criteria, but consistent with CAMERA’s raison d’etre.

EI demonstrated that in fact 35 primary op-eds reflected an Israeli perspective or contained more criticism of Arabs (41 percent), 32 reflected an Arab viewpoint or contained more criticism of Israel (38 percent) and 18 guest commentaries were neutral (21 percent). Far from a pro-Arab, anti-Israel agenda, EI showed that both Arab opinion and mainstream views on international human rights pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict were underrepresented on the “guest op-ed” pages of America’s newspapers.

CAMERA responded to the EI report by reaffirming most of its findings in a detailed report while seeking to malign both the author of the study and The Electronic Intifada with baseless claims of distortion and an “anti-Israel agenda” in its typical hatchet prose. However, CAMERA’s analysis fails once again to pass the credibility test.

CAMERA’s response to the EI report provides further evidence of the errors, flawed reasoning and apparent agenda behind its original guest op-ed study. First, CAMERA’s analysis consistently fails to acknowledge Arab grievances widely recognized under international law and avoids any standard of accountability for the Israeli government. When it comes to evaluating the claims in the opinion pieces, CAMERA seems to filter its analysis through the positions of the Israeli government and even Israel’s far right while dismissing mainstream international consensus positions on issues of human rights and international law. As a result, CAMERA classified many op-eds that contained more criticism of Arabs or supported Israeli policies as neutral, irrelevant, or even pro-Arab. In its revised report, CAMERA also attempts to dismiss widely shared Arab grievances from the evaluation process such as Israel’s blockade of Gaza or respect for Lebanese sovereignty by broadly associating the recognition of those grievances with support for Hamas or Hizballah. Second, contrary to its own criteria, CAMERA argued on numerous occasions that what it believed to be “correct” or “factual” criticism of Arabs should not be considered when evaluating whether the op-ed favored one side of the other. And third, clear evidence of manipulation can be seen in CAMERA’s comical attempt to recast op-eds on topics such as the Israel-Lebanon war, US Middle East policy, the Suez Canal crisis of 1956, Palestinian citizens of Israel, espionage, and in some cases the Palestinian-Israeli peace process itself as not primarily or tangentially dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

CAMERA claimed that EI’s report wrongfully included commentary on the Israel-Lebanon war from The New York Times that did not qualify as full length op-eds but only shorter length commentary that was not tallied in CAMERA’s results. Three of those op-eds supported an Arab point of view or were more critical of Israel, one supported an Israeli point of view, and three were neutral. The impact of this consideration on the EI study would result in a net decrease of two primary pro-Arab op-eds and a slight increase in the percentage of overall pro-Israeli bias. In addition, CAMERA maintained that many tangential op-eds were included to make the overall result look more pro-Israel. However, the removal of every single tangential op-ed from the EI study where there was a disagreement over its consideration still leaves a total of 39 pro-Israel op-eds (-11), 31 pro-Arab op-eds (-3), and 17 neutral op-eds (-3).

If CAMERA was truly interested in gauging the view of the editorial pages of the US’s newspapers, the study could have included all editorials and staff op-eds during the relevant period. The staff op-eds and newspaper editorials are a far better indication of the definitive voice of the paper than invited guests — and guests are arguably invited to promote a diversity of viewpoints on the editorial pages. However, since CAMERA knew that these papers overwhelmingly feature one-sided, pro-Israel commentary with the likes of Fred Hiatt, Michael Gerson, Ethan Bronner, Charles Krauthammer, Jim Hoagland, Colbert I. King, David Brooks, William Kristol, Thomas Friedman, Sebastian Mallaby, Michael Kinsley, George Will, Jackson Diehl and Lally Weymouth (interviews), etc. — the study chose to focus on the questionable subgroup of “guest op-eds” instead. And even in this category, CAMERA could not make a credible case of “anti-Israel” bias without omitting numerous op-eds, misrepresenting the analysis of others, and employing its own criteria for evaluating the commentary regarding international law and human rights that has virtually no international standing.

Download the full report [PDF]

Shervan Sardar is a Washington, DC-based lawyer. He holds a MA in International Affairs from American University and can be reached at ssardar_23 A T comcast D O T net.