MORE REASONS MER IS SO MUCH NEEDED
MER - Washington - 12 June:
Last year MER-TV did an extensive and exclusive interview about the
entire situation in the Middle East and the so-called "Peace Process" with
Robert Fisk. Fisk is the correspondent for London's "The Independent". He has
worked out of Beirut and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East for over 20
years. Simply said he is one of the most experienced,knowledgeable, and courageous
journalists covering the Middle East; and his articles are always exceptionally
[For instand information on MER-TV and the exclusive Fisk interview
(programs 117-120) email to INFOMERTV@MiddleEast.Org]
U.S. MEDIA MIRROR DISTORTS MIDDLE EAST
By Robert Fisk in Beirut
NOT LONG ago, I came across an American colleague of mine in the
Marriott Hotel in Cairo.
After three years as Middle East correspondent for his East Coast
paper, my friend was leaving Egypt for the States; American editors have a habit of moving
their reporters to other beats the moment they have begun to understand the region. So how
were things on the paper, I asked?
"Usual problems," he replied. "I've just been asked
by my paper to stop referring to 'the right-wing Israeli government'. My editor said he'd
been getting lots of complaints from members of the Jewish community back home. So now we
just call it 'the Israeli government'." He shrugged his shoulders.
I wasn't surprised. American media coverage of the Middle East has
been largely pro-Israeli - and in their cartoons of Arabs almost racist - for decades, and
United States reporting of the Israeli-Arab conflict, with honourable exceptions such as
the Christian Science Monitor, is bland to the point of tedium.
The State Department line on the Middle East, always skewed toward
Israel, has been followed obsequiously by most American reporters. Only weeks after United
States diplomats were instructed to refer to the Israeli-occupied West Bank as
"disputed" - rather than "occupied" - territory, American journalists
began using precisely the same word.
The explosive issue of Israel's expanding Jewish settlements on
occupied land, in contravention of United Nations resolutions and the Oslo agreement, has
been turned into an argument over real estate.
Bill Clinton's administration has to take account of extensive
American newspaper and television coverage of the region - and its pro-Israeli bias. Yet
now, with a catastrophe looming and American public opinion desperately in need of an
unbiased coverage of events, the same David-and-Goliath story of Israel and the Arabs is
being regurgitated by press and television. US journalists thus bear a heavy
responsibility for their country's crumbling policies in the Middle East.
There is nothing new in this lop-sided reporting. After the Sabra
and Chatila massacre in 1982, when up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians were slaughtered by
Israel's Phalangist allies, Newsweek magazine decided that the death of Princess Grace of
Monaco in a road accident was the more important story; a week later, their cover story
reported "Israel in Torment" over the massacres; there was no reference to the
"torment" of the Palestinian victims.
Not once were the Sabra and Chatila murderers called
"terrorists", which they were by Israel's own definition of the word, presumably
because they were allied to the Israeli army.
The same double standards applied in later years: when Palestinians
set off suicide bombs among civilians in Israel, the American press universally called the
culprits "terrorists", which they assuredly were. But when an Israeli
slaughtered 29 innocent Palestinian worshippers in a Hebron mosque, the US media called
the murderer a "fanatic", an "extremist" or, a new and popular word
found increasingly in the American press, a "zealot". Even the assassin of
Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin - a Jewish student - was never called a
In this, American journalists have fallen into line with Israeli
law. Only last month the family of a Palestinian named Khairi Moussa, who was stabbed to
death by an ultra-Orthodox Jew, was refused state compensation because, under Israeli law,
an Arab killed by a Jew cannot be considered a victim of "terrorism", although a
Jew killed by an Arab can be. (Needless to say, scarcely any space was devoted to this
extraordinary court case in the pages of US newspapers.)
Similar attempts to play down Israel's responsibility for killings
in the Middle East could be identified in 1996 when Israeli artillery slaughtered 106
Lebanese refugees sheltering in a UN battalion headquarters at Qana in southern Lebanon.
The Israelis claimed they were firing at Hizbollah guerrillas 600 feet from the base - not
a single Israeli was hurt and the Hizbollah were firing at a hill to the south of Qana.
But beneath a photograph of one of the 55 children massacred by the Israelis, Time
magazine reported that the small victim had been "killed in crossfire" - a
In one of the most extraordinary reports of its kind ever written,
the New York Times played down the killing - five days before Qana - of four children and
two women when an Israeli helicopter fired a missile into an ambulance in southern
Lebanon; not until the sixth paragraph of his report next day did the paper's Jerusalem
correspondent, Serge Schmemann, tell his readers about the atrocity. Earlier paragraphs of
his report included news of a power failure in a bombarded Israeli town and a statistic of
24 dead in Lebanon "including one Israeli soldier".
The Washington Post's reporter John Lancaster later investigated the
ambulance attack, reporting that the driver was "disputing" [sic] Israel's
claim, a false one as it turned out, that the vehicle was owned by the Hizbollah. But the
paper did not question how Israel could break the rules of war by firing at a clearly
marked ambulance. The New York Times later ran a syndicated account from an Israeli paper
of an Israeli soldier's life in Qana before the massacre: but the New York Times deleted a
paragraph about how the Israeli troops had stolen cars from their Lebanese owners and
looted houses - thus even censoring the Israeli press.
Time magazine enthusiastically took up the use of the word
"disputed" for the Jewish settlements on Arab land. By last year, it was able to
report on how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "turns up the heat by okaying
[sic] new houses [sic] in disputed [sic] territory". When Mr Netanyahu ordered work
to begin on a new settlement on a hill outside east Jerusalem early this year, almost
every American news outlet referred to the "disputed" hill as Har Homa - giving
the location its Jewish identity but usually ignoring its Arab name, Jebel Abu Ghoneim.
The use of the misleading word "disputed" has, sadly,
turned up on the BBC, along with references to settlements as "neighbourhoods"
and "communities", as if their occupants were ordinary property buyers rather
than fanatical, armed religious Jews who believe God gave them the territory.
As long ago as 1995, Jerrold Kessel was reporting on a settlement
"dispute" on CNN in which he referred to Jews talking of "heritage claims
going back hundreds of years". But "heritage claims" differ mightily; the
Palestinian one is based on land deeds and documents of ownership, the Israeli one on
theology and an apparent conviction that God had bequeathed Israel the Arab land.
History continues to be short-changed in the American media. Long
after most of the world realised that the Oslo "peace process" was dead, US
reporters continued to write about putting the peace process "back on track",
and wrote glowing articles about the supposedly tough-talking US Secretary of State,
Madeleine Albright, even after she told a press conference in Jerusalem that it was wrong
to compare killing people with "building houses", her own bland reference to
Jewish settlements on occupied land.
In Paris, Le Monde was last month warning its readers that Mr
Netanyahu and US House speaker Newt Gingrich were "dangerous" men. But in the
New York Times, the increasingly messianic Thomas Friedman, an old colleague and friend of
mine, was telling his readers that there was "a potentially great statesman"
inside Mr Netanyahu who "deserves credit for the fact that there has been relatively
little Palestinian terrorism [sic] these past two years". After one terrible suicide
bombing in Jerusalem, the mother of an Israeli girl victim wrote that it was Mr
Netanyahu's policies rather than the Palestinians who had killed her daughter. The Los
Angeles Times put the bombing on page one, and the mother's remarkable statement on page
Academics may one day decide how deeply the American public has been
misled by the persistent bias of the US media, and the degree to which this has led them
to support US policies which may destroy America's prestige in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, US reporters aregoing to have to figure out a way of
telling readers and viewers how a "dispute" over "neighbourhoods" is
turning into war.