Does the Media's anti-Israel bias matter?
We all know the cliche that for every two Jews there are three opinions; well, American Jews are unanimous in the conviction that the media is irrevocably biased against Israel. This perception is partially correct, but almost completely irrelevant. This article is not going to question whether the media is biased against Israel because others have produced sufficient evidence of a consistent pattern of distortion, inaccuracy, and misinformation. The purpose here is to ask the more important question, which has been ignored: Does the media’s anti-Israel bias matter?
Most American Jews intuitively believe the answer is yes. Actually, it’s not so much intuition as paranoia. American Jews have an almost pathological fear that the media will turn the American people against Israel and the public will demand that the United States government change its policy toward Israel in a way that will lead to its destruction. While Henry Kissinger’s remark that it’s not paranoia if people are really out to get you has a ring of truth here, the evidence suggests the media’s bias has not had the malevolent impact the pro-Israel community fears.
Nevertheless, the dread provoked by media bias has spawned an industry of media watchdog organizations and millions of dollars have been spent to monitor and react to the press. Has anyone asked what impact this investment has produced?
The watchdogs say that media bias not only exists, it’s worse than ever, so what exactly have they accomplished? After years of complaining, boycotting, meeting editors, writing letters, and demanding corrections, CNN, the New York Times, and National Public Radio (often referred to as National Palestinian Radio), and the rest have not become any more balanced in their Middle East coverage.
NPR is an especially good example. Israel’s supporters have complained for years about the irresponsible coverage, and some initiated boycotts to try to use the network’s reliance on public funds to influence their editorial decisions. It didn’t work, and now that Mrs. Kroc has left NPR a small fortune, it is now immune to this type of pressure.
The media monitors can claim small victories here and there in getting stories corrected, but this is always after the initial impact. Occasionally, they’ve had some influence on the decision to run a story or its slant, but the best the watchdogs can say is that without them the coverage might be even worse. Of course, you can’t prove this, and doing something, no matter how futile, makes many of Israel’s supporters feel better than doing nothing.
Still, for those who are convinced the bias is universal and irrevocable, I have two words for you: Fox News. Actually, let me add three more: Wall Street Journal. While the media, overall, exhibits an anti-Israel bias, is it possible to demonstrate that NPR has greater influence on policy or opinion than the pro-Israel Journal? Are Pat Buchanan’s screeds on Israel more persuasive than sympathetic columns by the likes of George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Mort Zuckerman?
Furthermore, given the declining number of Americans who actually read newspapers or pay attention to the news, isn’t it likely that Peter Jennings’ skewing of ABC News has less impact than say “The West Wing,” which has a much larger audience, three Jewish characters in major roles, and, on several occasions, featured pro-Israel (or at least anti-Arab) storylines?
Bias is Good
While it may be heretical to say, at one level we should be glad a bias exists, because it is a reflection of the free and open society that exists in Israel. After all, if you want to read the most vicious criticism of Israeli policy, all you have to do is read the Israeli press. I don’t think anyone’s ever studied this, but I’ve always suspected that many foreign correspondents cribbed stories from the Israeli media and that is one reason they are so negative.
Contrast this with the situation in the rest of the Middle East. When was the last time you saw a correspondent reporting live from Cairo, Riyadh, or Damascus? Those closed authoritarian societies usually do not allow Western journalists to enter at all, let alone roam freely, and since few reporters speak Arabic, it is not surprising that so little news emanates from them. It is also inevitable that disproportionate attention is paid to the region’s one democracy. Besides, Americans generally have little interest in the Arab world and don’t have high expectations for the conduct of the Arab states, so their transgressions merely reinforce the already negative views most Americans have of these dictatorships.
A New Sales Pitch
Israel reportedly spent millions of dollars on Madison Avenue PR firms to improve its image, but does anyone know what the marketing geniuses have produced? You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the United States who believes their efforts have done any good.
One of the problems is that marketing Israel is not like selling soap because consumer products generally don’t have psychological, religious, and political dimensions. America’s security and broader foreign policy is not affected by choices of cleansers.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrachi understood this and launched The Israel Project, which adopted a very different approach, namely, trying to sell Israel more like a political candidate. This involves conducting surveys and focus groups to determine public opinion and, more important, testing arguments and phraseology to determine what is effective in moving that opinion. This is a quantum leap in thinking about the problem of Israel’s image, and has significantly improved the quality of pro-Israel communications; nevertheless, this approach also has its limitations, principally, that Israel is not like a political candidate.
In a political campaign, there is an outcome at a predetermined time; that is, if it is effective, the campaign will influence a voter to cast a ballot for a particular candidate on election day. When it comes to Israel, however, most respondents in polls will give an answer, but this does not necessarily translate into any action. In fact, I’d suggest, it rarely does. Many people answer questions because they don’t want to look stupid, see no harm in expressing an opinion, or just want to make the surveyor happy. Most Americans don’t feel that strongly about Middle East issues; in fact, polls indicate they wish the whole mess would just go away. In the end, it makes little or no difference if someone expresses views hostile to Israel, or is moved by a TV ad campaign to change their opinion, because they are not likely to vote for a particular candidate based on their position on Israel or call their member of Congress to lobby them to support or oppose particular legislation affecting Israel.
In addition, other than foreign aid, most Israel-related issues are not decided by Congress, so public opinion has at best a marginal impact by shaping the climate in which a president makes foreign policy. I’m not aware of any evidence, however, that suggests President Bush’s position on the road map, the security fence, or settlements is determined by poll data on those specific questions.
The concern about the media boils down to the fear that anti-Israel bias will affect public opinion, which, in turn will cause a shift in U.S. Middle East policy. Many people have a general perception that Americans once loved Israel, particularly in the wake of the dramatic victory in the Six-Day War, but that public support has gradually eroded over time because of Arab propaganda and the anti-Israel media bias (some would also blame Israel’s “bad behavior”). The data tells a different story.
American public support for Israel has consistently exceeded that of the Arabs and Palestinians by huge margins, and the overall trend over the years has been in Israel’s favor. Large majorities of Americans also view Israel as a friend and reliable ally.
In June 1967, 56% of Americans supported Israel, compared to only 4% who said they sympathized with the Arabs. Despite all that has transpired in the last 37 years, the latest Gallup poll, taken in February 2004, found that 55% of Americans still sympathize with Israel. Support for the Palestinians (Gallup changed the question wording from “Arabs” in 1993) reached a record high in this poll, but was still only 18%.
Overall, support for Israel has been on the upswing since 1967. In the 1970s, the average level of support for Israel was 42%, in the 1980s, it was 46%, and, in the 1990s, 50%, including a record high of 64% at the time of the Gulf War in January 1991. So far, in the new millennium, support for Israel is averaging 48%.
Meanwhile, even with the latest record high, support for the Arabs/Palestinians has actually declined in the last two decades from an anemic average just below 15% in the 1980s to less than 14% since 2000. On average, Israel is favored by nearly four to one.
The percentage of Americans with a favorable opinion of Israel has averaged 62% over the past eight years, compared with only 17% for the Palestinian Authority (over five years). Three-quarters of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of the PA, which ranks second from the bottom (only slightly more positively than North Korea) of a list of 22 countries measured by Gallup. Many supporters of Israel have been obsessed with demonizing Yasser Arafat, but polls show this is unnecessary because Arafat has long been rated as one of the most unpopular people on the planet.
Since 1998, roughly three-fourths of respondents have said the United States should take neither side in the conflict, but those who do pick a side overwhelmingly choose Israel (27% vs. 1% for the Palestinian’s side in 2001). More than three-fourths of Americans also believe Palestinian-Israeli peace is somewhat or very important to the United States.
Polls also indicate the public views Israel as a reliable U.S. ally, a feeling that grew stronger during the first Gulf crisis. A January 1991 Harris Poll, for example, found that 86 percent of Americans considered Israel a “close ally” or “friendly.” In a 2002 ADL poll, the figure was 64%, and a May 2003 survey sponsored by the Alliance for Research on National Security Issues, reported that 63% of Americans believed Israel is “a reliable ally of the U.S. in the fight against terrorism.” When Fox News asked in February 2003 which nations are friends of the United States, 70% answered Israel, which placed the Jewish State second only to Great Britain, and far ahead of France and Germany.
One of the other keys to understanding attitudes toward the Middle East, a factor that no one likes to say aloud, is the general negative feeling Americans have toward Arabs. As horrible as coverage about Israel may be, it is much worse for the Arabs. In fact, journalists usually justify their anti-Israel bias by claiming they get just as many complaints from the Arabs as the Jews, which they rationalize as an indication their coverage is balanced. The difference, many would argue, is that the coverage of the Arabs is accurate.
Arab-Americans, for example, complain that they are too often stereotyped as terrorists, but the reality is that Norwegians and Swedes are not blowing themselves and civilians up in suicide attacks. And every terrorist attack reinforces the American image of Arabs as barbarians. The situation in Iraq may not be helping President Bush’s political standing, but it’s also doing nothing to reverse the perception of Arabs as savages who carry out atrocities, such as the beheading and dismemberment of their enemies, and religious zealots who have no interest in democracy, and share none of our values.
By contrast, for all its flaws, Americans still understand that Israel is a democratic society whose citizens enjoy the same freedoms that we do. Yes, Israel gets a black eye every time there is a story about house demolitions, civilians killed inadvertently during military operations, or some other action that seems particularly unfair, disproportionate, or injurious to the average Palestinian, but these stories are powerful mainly because they conflict with the generally positive image most Americans hold of Israelis.
It is also important to realize that while the assumption is that public opinion affects policy, the reality is often the reverse. A president is far more likely to influence opinion on the Middle East than public attitudes are to influence policy. Historically, major shifts in the polls are associated not with media coverage, but presidential statements and actions associated with the conflict.
Influence on Policy
Let’s stipulate that the media has grown progressively more anti-Israel since the Six-Day War. What has happened to U.S.-Israel relations in that time? By any measure, the relationship has gotten progressively stronger. Today, whatever else one may think about President Bush, he is regarded by even his detractors as perhaps the most pro-Israel president in history.
Look at the correlation between policy and opinion over time. Public sympathy for Israel, on average, was lowest during the Carter and Clinton administrations. Carter is generally viewed as relatively unsympathetic to Israel while Clinton was considered the most pro-Israel president in history to that point. By far the highest level of public support for Israel was recorded during the administration of George Bush, who is regarded as perhaps the least friendly president toward Israel. Of course, the data during his term is largely skewed by the record high level of support for Israel during the Gulf War.
By far the low point in public opinion toward Israel occurred during the Lebanon War. Though Ronald Reagan is remembered as a great friend of Israel, he had a bitter fight with the pro-Israel lobby over AWACs, he suspended arms shipments to Israel after the annexation of the Golan Heights, condemned the Israeli strike on the Iraqi nuclear plant, and launched a diplomatic initiative that Begin called the saddest day of his life. During the Reagan period, however, the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship was formalized, the amount of aid to Israel increased, a free trade agreement was signed, and the informal alliance between the two nations strengthened.
Think back to Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield. In April 2002, President George W. Bush publicly demanded that Israel withdraw its troops immediately from the West Bank. During the week that Israel continued its operations, the media led nearly every report by saying that Israel is defying the President of the United States. Based on the coverage, if you believe in the omnipotence of the media, you would have expected public sympathy for Israel to plummet and the Congress to take punitive action against Israel. What did happen? Public support for Israel was 47%, above the historical average, just below the 50% recorded earlier in the month, but still above the 43% documented the month before. The Congress voted to give $200 million more in aid to Israel and to impose new restrictions on support for the Palestinians
Congress has paid little or no attention to public opinion or the media and not wavered in its support for Israel. Occasionally, a particular issue arises that generates congressional concern, such as the charges during the Lebanon war that Israel was using U.S.-made cluster bombs, but these are isolated incidents that haven’t affected the overall support of Congress for Israel or broader policy. More often, Congress takes the opposite tack, sending letters to the President and passing legislation that is even more supportive of Israel than public opinion, and contrary to what one would expect if media bias had any impact.
Chicken Little Come Home
American Jews feel uncomfortable seeing Israel pilloried in the press. They fear this will lead to a deterioration in the U.S.-Israel relationship and turn public opinion against Israel. Powerless to do anything about the situation in the Middle East, Jews feel they can do something about the media coverage. PR doesn’t really make a difference to the situation on the ground, but does make Jews feel better because they’re doing something, and not letting the other side get away with tarnishing their beloved Israel’s image.
The various PR campaigns now being waged certainly won’t hurt Israel, and may be beneficial in the long-run. If journalists are educated so that they are better informed about the history of the conflict and the contemporary issues, and become aware of positive stories they currently overlook, perhaps coverage may one day be more balanced.
The problem is that there is nothing that anyone can do to make Israel look good so long as the situation on the ground is in upheaval. Israel had a brief honeymoon during the peace process with the Palestinians, especially under Labor Party leaders, because it was clear that they were making every effort to resolve the conflict. It was not difficult to market the idea that Israel was interested in peace. You might say that Israel still has that interest, and it should be obvious the other side is the obstacle, but it is much more difficult to sell a positive image of Israel by castigating the Palestinians. This was the pre-Oslo situation, and it is no coincidence that a lot of the old propaganda is being dusted off. Negative campaigns may work in electoral politics, but it has never been that effective in the Mideast PR war. Israel does best when it has a positive message about itself.
The other impediment to any PR strategy, especially one that focuses on the evils of the Palestinians, is that nothing will have as much impact as a single incident shown repeatedly on TV, such as the killing of the boy being shielded by his father in Gaza. Those are the pictures the journalists want because they make great TV and, so long as Israel is in armed conflict, the dominant image is going to be heavily armed Jews fighting Arab children with rocks. Because Israelis have no interest in martyrdom, the casualty figures will always be lopsided so that every story will mention the disproportionate number of Palestinian fatalities. Events can be placed in context; one can, for example, talk about Palestinian children being cynically used as cannon fodder, but it doesn’t change the statistics or the drumbeat of coverage about Palestinian suffering.
The Palestinians’ message is also simple and understandable. Every question can be answered in three words: “End the occupation.” Israel’s message tends to be garbled and involve lengthy dissertations on the history of the conflict. Recently, in part thanks to research from The Israel Project, the pro-Israel community has developed simpler and more effective messages. Boiled down to three words, the best response may be, “Israel wants peace.”
I am not saying that friends of Israel should sit on their hands and do nothing but stew over the unfairness of the media. Mounting PR offensives and counteroffensives will make us feel better and it is important to put events in context and correct the factual errors in the media. It’s just wishful thinking, however, to believe it will make much difference in the coverage so long as Israel remains the sole democracy in the region.
Rather than the media, the greatest threat to sustaining the U.S.-Israel relationship is the changing political landscape being shaped by demographic shifts. If the Jewish population continues to shrink and the Muslim population grows, the balance of political power may begin to shift. I believe this danger has been overblown, and that the more likely scenario is that a new generation of lawmakers will come from the African-American, the Asian, and, especially, the Hispanic communities, which have little or no knowledge of the Middle East or appreciation of the historic friendship with Israel. An infinitesimal fraction of the resources devoted to media monitoring are now being devoted to educating and cultivating these constituencies, which are likely to hold the key to the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Also, while the media may play a role in shaping the views of future decision makers, a more neglected influence is the academy. For at least two decades the Arabs have funded anti-Israel chairs and Middle East centers that have created a hostile campus environment and distorted teaching about Israel. Many policymakers, journalists, and other political elites have received their education about the Middle East from these biased sources. Students and advocates come and go, but faculty remain for years and shape the campus environment and the minds of students. This is the most insidious danger to Israel’s standing on the campus and beyond.
Another factor in the future of U.S.-Israel relations is generational. Will generations lacking any personal experience of Jews in peril appreciate the role of a small Middle East democracy? College-age students today can barely remember the first Gulf War. They didn’t live through the wrenching days of the Yom Kippur War or the Six-Day War. Old Jews recite the mantra, “Never Again,” but Vietnam is ancient history for young Jews; World War II is like the Peloponnesian War. Will these young Jews who now have little knowledge or appreciation of Israel engage in the political activity necessary to educate those new political constituencies that will ultimately influence Israel’s fate?
The pro-Israel community should continue to insist that the media employ a single standard for covering the Middle East, demand accuracy in their reports, and strive to educate journalists and the public about the region. This mission, however, should be put in the proper perspective, and resources allocated to where they will have far greater impact. The U.S.-Israel relationship will be shaped far more by the quality of education provided to Jews and non-Jews in high schools and colleges, and by the political activism of the pro-Israel community, than by the media.