Journalists’ Arrogance and Ignorance

Why is media coverage of the Middle East in general, and Israel, in particular, so awful?

The answer can be summed up in two words: ignorance and arrogance. Two recent articles by star writers of the New York Times and the Washington Post exemplified these traits and were reminders that even when Israel is doing nothing controversial, journalists still find ways to paint the country and its supporters in a negative light.

When it comes to journalistic arrogance, the Times’ Thomas Friedman is the poster boy. Consider this line from his recent column on the fallout from the Israeli election: “Here’s an insider’s guide to their thinking,” referring to people in the Arab world. He then pretends he’s Edgar Bergen and the “Arabs” his dummies and puts words into the mouths of Hafez Assad, King Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Hashemi Rafsanjani (who, Friedman should know is not an Arab), Saddam Hussein and the Arab people (he even knows the thoughts of a whole ethnic group). In each case, Friedman invents views to demonstrate the election of Benjamin Netanyahu is a catastrophe for the United States and anyone interested in peace.

For example, he has Assad telling Secretary of State Warren Christopher, “You know, Chris, I had just decided to make peace with the Israelis, and he’s not interested in negotiating with me...Bibi will also give me a new chance to drive a wedge between Israel and the U.S., which was never possible under Shimon Peres....”

First, even Christopher would have to laugh at the notion that Assad was ready for peace before the election. He had his chance to get the Golan back and didn’t take it. Second, why should Netanyahu’s election allow Assad to drive a wedge between Israel and the United States? If anything, Netanyahu is likely to be even more popular than Peres in America.

Friedman’s King Hussein puppet sees Bibi as a blessing because the Israeli “is not interested in a Syria deal” and “is likely to alienate many Arabs.” Netanyahu is interested in a deal with Syria, though not the same one as Peres, and it remains to be seen whether he will alienate anyone other than Tom Friedman.

The most egregious example of Friedman’s mind-reading contortions is his comparison of Ariel Sharon, Rafael Eytan “and those wild rabbis” to the Iraqis. “Looks like I won’t be the only bad boy in the neighborhood anymore,” is the Saddam Hussein dummy’s take on the election. The Israeli cabinet may not contain liberals, but they’re not akin to anyone in Iraq. It’s a good thing Friedman wasn’t reading the minds of Europeans or he might have compared the Israelis to Nazis.

If only New York Times reporters had a vote in Israeli elections — or better yet, were anointed Prime Minister. Friedman just can’t get over the fact that most Israelis don’t see his views as messianic. The good news is that his opinions are no longer masquerading as news stories and are finally where they belong — on the op-ed page.

Reporters who cover the Middle East tend to be ignorant about the region. They usually know little or nothing of the history and rarely speak the language. What has been particularly noticeable recently is that reporters act as if history begins with their assignment. Consequently, they have no perspective and make specious generalizations about events and trends.

A recent example was Barton Gellman’s story in the Post’s magazine in which he argues that the unity of American and Israeli Jews is cracking because of divisions over peace and security. Gellman is the paper’s Israel correspondent and has been a fair one, but this article doesn’t recognize events that came immediately before his assignment. Rather than dissect all the inaccuracies, I’ll highlight the main point that Gellman misses.

He refers to a triumvirate of Likud figures who came to Washington to lobby against the policies of the Israeli government and the activities of right-wing American Jewish organizations, in particular the Zionist Organization of America, and says this is something new that illustrates the unprecedented divisions between Israel and the diaspora. If Gellman knew anything about the four years prior to Yitzhak Rabin’s election, he would know that Labor politicians did the same thing, as did left-wing American Jewish groups.

One could argue divisions have grown, or the debate has become more vitriolic, but only if you compare today with yesterday. It is not true that a split — to the extent one exists at all — suddenly occurred in the last three or four years.

More important is the distinction between noise and substance. Journalists like the latter, which is why they’ll put a protest against Israel on the front page, even if only a handful of people is involved. That is why Jews bucking the establishment line are the ones who get space on the op-ed page. It’s the old dog bites man aspect of journalism. Jewish unity isn’t newsworthy, but if one organization opposes the establishment, it’s suddenly evidence that “the united front is cracking.”

Journalists are not interested in substance. So what if ZOA and Likudniks lobbied against the government. What did they accomplish other than making noise? Tangibly, they did nothing. The major issues on the Hill were whether the United States would deal with the PLO and provide aid to the Palestinians. Despite the opposition of the nudniks, and all their reports alleging PLO noncompliance with American law, the United States did both.

What we need are reporters who know the history of Israel and the American Jewish community and can report facts — rather than personal opinions — in context. Don’t hold your breath waiting for one.