Jewish groups seek to influence US media coverage of Mideast conflict

An intense pressure campaign by several pro-Israel groups is seeking to influence US news coverage of the Middle East, with tactics including boycotts of several top media outlets and massive phone, e-mail and letter-writing campaigns.

The ad hoc campaigns are directed at both large and small news operations, with a cascade of e-mails, letters and phone calls pouring in to editors and ombudsmen at newspapers, broadcast outlets and cable news channels across the United States.

“No one has ever seen pressure like this before,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, the ombudsman for Washington, DC-based National Public Radio (NPR), a US-wide radio network.

“In the last three months I’ve received 14,000 e-mails and 9,000 of them deal with the Middle East,” he said. “E-mail traffic in the last month has overwhelmingly accused us of having a pro-Palestinian bias.”

Such campaigns are said to be motivated by a concern that media coverage of the Middle East — especially articles and broadcasts deemed sympathetic to Palestinians — could weaken public support for Israel and influence what is generally seen as a historically pro-Israel US policy.

The Boston-based public radio station WBUR, which relies on private donations, corporate sponsorship and some government funding for its operating budget, reports losing one million dollars so far in cancelled funding since the campaign began — seven percent of its annual financial support.

Subscription boycotts also have been launched against the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune.

About 1,000 subscribers to the Los Angeles Times newspaper suspended delivery for a day to protest its Middle East coverage, while a Chicago Tribune official said that since October, 47 readers had canceled subscriptions outright for the same reason.

A boycott of the Washington Post is planned for mid-June, sponsored by a group charging that the newspaper “favorably reports the position of terrorists”.

Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler, who like others with his title, is charged with assessing the fairness and accuracy of his newspaper’s coverage, refuted the charge of bias.

“Is it possible that so many major American news organizations are getting this story wrong — that some sort of national media conspiracy is at work here?” he asked in a column appearing earlier this month in the newspaper.

“That, of course, is not the case, and news organizations will persevere in reporting this story in an unflinching, unintimidated fashion that reports the news in the most accurate way possible for their entire readership,” he wrote.

That viewpoint was echoed by other media executives.

“It’s a little bit like ‘you’re with us or against us’,” said James Naughton, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and now president of the Florida based Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

“What I found was that the more insightful and human the stories were, if they portrayed Arabs positively or Israelis negatively, then there was hell to pay,” Naughton said.

But Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, disagreed, insisting there was “a basis for legitimate criticism and finger-pointing”.

“Justice and truth is on Israel’s side,” he said. “Newspapers and other media outlets don’t help when (they create) sympathies for those who would destroy Israel.”

Andrea Levin, executive director of the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), said her group’s efforts — targeted at NPR and at WBUR, her local public radio station — aim effect “balanced” Mideast coverage.

“We’ve been trying to get a balanced presentation of this conflict over a long period of time, and the network has been unresponsive to our concerns, which has driven us into other efforts,” she said.

Newsroom officials said pro-Palestinian groups now are beginning to expand their own lobbying and public-relations efforts.

“People who are pro-Palestinian have gained a fair amount of sophistication in the communications efforts,” said Phil Bronstein, executive editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.

“The Israelis have always been quite effective and the balance has shifted, and I suspect that has been worrisome to those who see their opponents being more effective.”

While the lobbying efforts in pro-Israel circles is extensive, the Jewish community does not speak with one voice on the issue of Mideast coverage.

One prominent detractor, Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the San Francisco-based Tikkun magazine, said the pressure campaigns are a form of “McCarthyism that is attempting to prevent the American media from telling any part of the story from the perspective of what is happening to Palestinians.”

“In the long run this will produce more anti-Semitism and less security for Jews,” Lerner said. “This is counterproductive.”

© 2002 Agence France Presse