Covering all the news, even what people don't want to hear
BOSTON — Several years ago, I lived at Harvard University while my wife was finishing her Ph.D. One night, as I returned from work, a young Jewish friend charged up to me, a copy of the Monitor in his hand. He was angry. In a story about Israel, he felt we had given too much space to the Palestinian argument, which he think wasn't worth a grain of salt. I explained to him that the Monitor was all about unbiased reporting, and that we would always give both sides to an issue, if we felt both sides were needed to understand the complete story.
My attempts at explanation did little to placate him, and he stormed off still upset. (Although a week later he was eating dinner at my house again.) I hardly had time to digest his comments when another young friend, a Turk, approached me with a copy of the same article. In his eyes, we had unreported the Palestinian position and were obviously favoring the Israeli government.
Sigh. Sometimes, that's what happens when you're trying to report the news.
I thought of this incident when I read in the Boston Globe Wednesday that several local businesses had decided to pull their underwriting of public radio station WBUR, and NPR, because of what they considered "anti-Israeli" bias. They mentioned a report by WBUR about Israel that aired in April of this year, that they considered was filled with inaccuracies. The merchants, members of a group called CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), said they had been complaining about the tone of the WBUR/NPR coverage for months, and that they had decided to do something about it. Through a spokesman, WBUR general manager Jane Christo defended the fairness and accuracy of WBUR and NPR.
It has been my experience as a journalist that nobody likes the media when they cover an issue near and dear to his or her heart. It has also been my experience that this is particularly true of hard-core supporters of Israel, regardless of their religious denomination. There are so many emotional issues that surround the situation, many of them very valid, that good people who would normally see both sides of an issue, instead see red when ever any coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian situation runs contrary to the heart-felt beliefs they have about the situation.
This is also true, of course, of supporters of the Palestinian side. But the reality is that supporters of Israel are better organized and better connected than the Palestinian side. The result is that they can exert a great deal of pressure on news organizations to 'change' the way they report an event.
The most recent example of this was when, under pressure from groups like CAMERA (although I don't know if that particular group was involved), several US media organizations stopped saying that Israel was "assassinating" Palestinian, but changed their coverage to say that the slaying of these people, whom the Israeli government considers terrorists, were instead "targeted killings." Assassination, it seems, carried a meaning that cast the Israeli government's policies in too negative a light.
Sometimes the pressure to toe the line can be quite intense. British journalist Robert Fisk (seven-time winner of the British International Journalist of the Year Award, along with several other major awards) has written some pretty strong stuff about the actions of the Israeli government for years. As a result he is constantly under attack. This is where another serious problem enters the picture. Because he is a harsh critic of Israeli government policy, he is regularly accused of being anti-Semitic.
There in lies the danger, for journalists, of being too harsh a critic of Israel in the Western world. In a way, it's no different than trying to do tough reporting on leading African-American figures, or leaders of the religious right, or even union figures -- despite all efforts to do a balanced job of reporting the good with the bad, those being written about and their hard-core supporters will only read or hear the negative. And you are accused of being a racist, or anti-Christian, or anti-union. But when an individual or a news organization is accused of anti-semitism, it carries a whole different charge -- more ominous and chilling.
In fact, as with many of the issues in the Middle East, the problem is more a political one than a religious one. The current government of Israel is quite right-wing. The leaders of Likud, such as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, have made no secret of the fact from the moment they took office that they aren't all that interested in making peace with the Palestinians. And while the objectives of Likud are often masked in quasi-religious terms, the goals themselves are brutally political.
The Likud leaders understand very well the importance of the media 'image war' as a part of the process of obtaining these political goals. (The same is also true of the PLO, who have been known to seize the cameras of journalists covering an event that would place the Palestinian side in a bad light -- for instance, the celebration of some Palestinians after the Sept. 11 attacks.) That's why they and many of their supporters (or even those who despise Likud, but consider any negative coverage of Israeli government policy and actions as an attack on Israel itself) exert so much pressure on the American media to make sure the 'right kind' of images and words are selected.
That's why it's my guess that, short of just parroting Israeli government policy, no matter what WBUR and NPR did, it wouldn't have made any difference to the people who care passionately about the way that media portrait the actions of the Israeli government. And once WBUR and NPR made a good faith effort to see if the charges have any merit, then that's all they should do.
It's too bad that standing up for their journalistic principles will cost the public radio outlets so much money. But that's another thing about journalism -- it isn't the job of the media to make sure all the people are happy all the time. It is our job to be fair and balanced, which in this case, WBUR and NPR have been.