Journalist Charles Silberman, who died last week, became a cause celebre in 1985 with a book, A Certain People, that dared to suggest that, on balance, American Jews have it pretty good. Jewish critics panned the book for being overly optimistic. As the Times pointed out in his obituary, he once told a reporter that “it takes guts to bring good news to the Jewish community.”
I thought of Silberman Sunday night, when I sat on a panel on “Israel in the Media” at the Glen Rock Jewish Center. Such programs have become a Jewish ritual unto themselves — I think of Purim, but instead of reading from the Megilla, we panelists recite the various crimes of The New York Times and the BBC, and instead of booing Haman, the congregation hisses at mentions of “Thomas Friedman” and “Christiane Amanpour.”
I heard a lot of that anger and frustration Sunday. The strongest challenge was aimed at Shani Rozanes, a press officer at the Consulate General of Israel, who explained the ways Israel is attempting, with some success, to change its “brand” among journalists. No sooner had she finished than a man in the audience insisted that Israel was doing a “terrible” job in terms of hasbara, or public relations. Israel is engaged in a battle of good vs. evil, he insisted, and instead of emphasizing that, its representatives are wasting their time boasting about their beaches and high-tech sector.
I tried pointing out that — the media’s myriad flaws notwithstanding — a vast majority of Americans take Israel’s side in the conflict.
(Indeed, a Feb. 11 Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans rated Israel favorably, the same as in 2010. The Israel Project released its own poll Monday, with 55 percent of respondents describing themselves as a “supporter of Israel,” and only 6 percent pro-Palestinian.)
Our audience was skeptical: “The media never reports about Iran.” “No reporter ever asks about how Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction.” A third audience member suggested the press is treating the Muslim Brotherhood with the same naivete that they once treated Nazism.
After the event, I Googled “Iran nuclear threat” and found links to over 1,000 articles in January and February alone, including in most major outlets. Similarly, I found a raft of articles describing Hamas as an organization bent on destroying Israel, from the Wall Street Journal and FoxNews.com (perhaps no surprise) to The New York Times and Dan Rather’s show on HDNet.
What accounts for the huge gap between the actual performance of the media and the way in which many American Jews view their coverage of the Middle East? The armchair psychologist in me suggests that it’s a proxy war: Deeply pained by criticism of Israel, frustrated by the grinding sameness of the Mideast story, and perhaps feeling guilty over Israel’s distant sacrifices in their struggle for survival, American Jews invent an enemy close at hand.
The modern media revolution also increases this sense of mistrust. Technology has infinitely magnified the ease by which news can be created, broadcast, and accessed. This is a blessing in some ways, challenging the ability of a few major networks or conglomerates to control the pipeline.
But that also allows us to see only what we want to see. Fox News Channel vanquished CNN by jettisoning even the pretense of objectivity. MSNBC and a host of Web portals followed suit. Now we expect news outlets to reflect what we already believe, and when they don’t, we charge bias.
The cable news effect can also be seen in the triumph of opinion over reporting. Cable networks must fill their hours with talking heads, interpreting the day’s events through the filter of their own ideologies. The jury is still out on whether Egypt will become Turkey or Iran, but you can count on a dovish pundit to assert the former and a hawk to assert the latter. Weighing evidence is for losers.
Finally, the Web offers a platform for fringe ideas and a way for outliers to find one another. That’s great if you are talking about accordion players, not so good when you are talking about anti-Semites. Not a day goes by that I don’t stumble upon a link to an egregious anti-Israel screed. Maybe the mainstream media avoid this sewer, but the Web’s infinite reach may make it hard to tell the difference.
Nevertheless, despite the kinds of distortions that keep the folks at CAMERA busy, the American media basically tell a Mideast story most of us can live with. They may not take Israel’s side the way we’d like, but nearly all the major outlets suggest that peace depends on meeting the legitimate claims of both sides to the conflict. That’s pretty much what you’ll find in most of the Israeli media. And it’s a whole lot better than what you’ll read in the European press or in the BDS blogs, where peace depends on Jews admitting their “historic mistake” and setting the clock back to 1947.
That sort of thinking remains on the margins, at least for the moment. Because that could change, I’d be the last person to say we should stop monitoring the media for anti-Israel bias. I’m willing to accept the good news, but I understand the passions of Jewish readers who can’t trust the people who bring it to them.