RECENT EFFORTS by the Israeli government and America’s pro-Israel lobby have focused extensively on media coverage of the current crisis between Palestinians and Israelis. From demanding that CNN replace reporters of Palestinian descent with “pro-Israeli reporters” to hiring three additional PR firms to deal with the US media, Israel’s allies have ratcheted up the media war. Go to any pro-Israel organisation’s website and you can find a plethora of action alerts charging that the Western media has it in for Israel.
But the truth is, of course, quite the opposite.
So begins a report issued by the Arab American Institute. The report, written by institute staffer Melyssa Morey, is a disturbing analysis of the disparate treatment given in the major US press to the killings of Israelis and Palestinians. In the introduction to this report, which I wrote with Media Director Jennifer Salan, we observe that: while Israeli deaths receive “headline and breaking news” coverage, Palestinian victims are rarely covered. For much of this carnage, we have learned very little or nothing at all about its Palestinian victims. We do not hear from Palestinian families or friends. We do not know what they did for a living nor do we learn about their dreams. Often, the Palestinian victim’s name is not even shared.
When Israelis are victims of a Palestinian bomb attack, the coverage is intense and intimate and footage of the coverage is repeated. We are shown the Israeli victims and the shaken Israeli survivors. We hear the families’ stories and we know that they were loved. In short, we can empathise with Israeli suffering because we are made to understand their loss.
We also note that coverage in the US press is also marked by another bias, specifically in the way cause and effect are attributed to these killings.
Palestinians are always presented as the initiators of violence that create the necessity of Israeli retaliations. Palestinians are never seen as responding to either specific Israeli attacks or an accumulated pattern of Israeli abuse. The Israeli losses are decried as “senseless victims of terror”, while Palestinian deaths are not only depersonalised, they are allowed to appear as the logical consequence of the violence initiated by their compatriots.
The main body of the report, titled “A Tale of Two Killings,” compares US press treatment of two different sets of killings:
* the death of a 10-month-old Israeli baby on March 26, 2001, and the May 7, 2001, death of a four-month-old Palestinian baby; and
* killings of two teenage Israeli settlers on May 9, 2001, with the October 1996 murder of a Palestinian teenager and the December 8 killing of another Palestinian teen in Ramallah.
The killing of the Israeli baby, Shalhevet Pass, made front-page news with photographs across the United States. It was also a multi-day story, with additional pieces written about the reactions of parents and friends to the death.
The killing of four-month-old Iman Hijjo, on the other hand, was reported in a few paragraphs, with no pictures, overshadowed by the larger story of the capture of a fishing vessel caught smuggling weapons to Gaza. It was a one-day story and relegated to the back pages of most papers where it appeared.
The Israeli story is written to evoke emotion describing little Shalhevet Pass as “the apple checked baby girl shot to death in her stroller.” At her funeral, it was reported that a eulogy was delivered “to her pinchable cheeks, her smart mouth, her kerchiefed cuteness.”
The murder of Iman Hijjo, on the other hand, is simply stated, “a four-month-old girl was killed today.”
Equally disturbing is the fact that Israeli sources are amply quoted in both stories calling the killing of Shalhevet Pass “a deliberate, cold-blooded escalation of murder”, while professing “innocence” and “no intention” in the killing of Iman Hijjo. More still, in the case of the death of Shalhevet Pass, it was reported that Sharon “holds the Palestinian [National] Authority responsible for the violence and terror which caused the murder of a baby”. While discussing the killing of Iman Hijo, “Sharon said he was sorry for the death of the infant… [but] blamed Yasser Arafat for the latest escalation”.
In other words, as the institute report concludes, “when an Israeli baby is killed, it is terrorism and the Palestinians’ fault. When the Israeli army kills a Palestinian baby, it is also the Palestinians’ fault… a classic case of blaming the victim.”
The institute report provides an equally disturbing comparison of the way major US newspapers over-covered the recent killings of two Israeli teenagers while giving virtually no coverage at all to similar murders of two young Palestinian boys, one of whom was a US citizen.
A “Tale of Two Killings” is one of two recent studies done by the institute. The other, prepared by Salan, is an extensive review of the biases she found in the reporting done by CNN’s Jerusalem Deputy Bureau Chief Jerrold Kessel. In her examination, she found that Kessel: failed to verify the accuracy of official Israeli statements regarding Israeli strikes against Palestinians; relies on official Israeli talking points for context, without providing the source of that information; reports on the current crisis as if it were two equal armies facing one another as opposed to a civilian uprising against a military occupation; and, gives extensive coverage to the “Israeli mood” or the “Israeli political reality,” without balancing it with the “Palestinian mood” or the “Palestinian political reality.”
Both studies have been circulated widely and brought to the attention of major US networks, newspapers and the reporters themselves. They are worth reading and are available from the institute (www.aaiusa.org or firstname.lastname@example.org) in Washington, DC. While it is important to challenge biased press coverage, there are also lessons in all of this that the Arabs must learn as well.
Arab Americans have been meeting with leading US media outlets, but all too often our efforts were not supported by or matched by press outreach by Arab officials. Arab states, individually and collectively, need to engage the press with an effective media strategy.
On too many occasions, Arabs have allowed the Israeli side to define an issue or even to create an issue, with no Arab response to that issue. In every case, it is imperative to seek out reporters, define issues as they occur and respond to the other side’s propaganda.
There is a struggle being fought on the ground in the Middle East. There is also a struggle being waged in the US press - it is a fight for the hearts and minds of American public opinion. Arabs cannot afford to lose on either front. The media war is an uphill battle, but with commitment and an aggressive strategy, it can be won.