New York, Asharq Al-Awsat- This article does not seek to ‘judge’ whether the US media is biased or not, as “there is no such thing as a completely unbiased media” to start with. This is a widely held belief that is reiterated everyday in most classrooms of mass communication and journalism colleges, irrespective of the country in question.
Rather, the intention is to convey some convictions that many people in the Arab world hold, namely, that all or most of the American media is slanted against Arabs and Arab issues, to various American media organizations and prominent journalists and find out what their opinions and positions are in return.
It is important to point out at the beginning that many critics in the Arab world judge American media without monitoring it closely, while some do not even speak English.
In addition, the number of Arab institutions that professionally observes or criticizes media (be it Arab or Western) is small when compared to the huge amount that exists in the US.
On the other hand, exploring the shelves of any prominent bookshop in the US will reveal a vast choice of books that question the credibility or criticize American media. Fox News Channel (FNC) could be a good example of an organization that is continuously under the microscope; several books and documentaries have come out to criticize the editorial policy of the channel. Many American agree with Arab critics that Fox News leans toward the American extreme right, while being predominantly biased against Arabs and for the most part adopts anti-Arab positions in favor of Israel.
FNC’s press office did not offer any comment despite repeated attempts by Asharq Al-Awsat to get a response. For its part, CNN International’s office replied by quoting a statement by executive vice president and managing director Tony Maddox. The statement did not answer Asharq Al-Awsat’s questions adequately, including a question about what its reaction would be upon the discovery of errors and unbalanced coverage.
The statement said, “When emotions run high in a crisis, objectivity can seem like bias,” adding that ” CNN International’s editorial focus encompasses the whole world, not individual world country region, and reaches an audience all over the globe … In recognition of its importance on the news agenda, we maintain 5 permanent news desks across the region.” The statement concluded “Accurate, responsible and balanced reporting guide CNN’s principals of news coverage.”
However, it is not only CNN that invariably cites its editorial guidelines and its dedication to accuracy and balance, most American media organizations do. The common ground shared by most of these organizations is their vehement defense of their neutrality and the fact that they rectify mistakes – if they occur. Perhaps the most prominent example is when well-established media organizations apologized for their coverage and positions taken during the 2003 war on Iraq.
This is extremely evident today as various television programs and articles sound like daily court hearings for the US administration over Iraq. One must also not forget that the harshest story the current US administration had to face was the “Abu Ghraib” scandal, which was not an Arab ‘exclusive’ in any way but rather a purely American story reported by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.
Another point worthy of consideration is that editorial standards and policies differ between various organizations.
For example, Deputy Foreign Editor of the ‘The New York Times’ (NYT), Ethan Bronner does not regard not publishing the findings of a Human Rights Watch report in 2003 on Israeli violations against the Palestinians (according to an American book entitled ‘Israel-Palestine on Record: How The New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East’ co-authored by Howard Friel and Richard Falk), as a bias or a mistake.
Ethan points out that he was not yet appointed to his current position when this report came out, and that he had to verify whether the report was in fact unpublished.
Never the less, Ethan says: “I do not think that we view a report by a human rights organization as something we absolutely must carry”, a statement many journalists would probably agree with.
Another issue for example that the books points out is that the NYT does not label Israeli settlements as a violation of international law. In this respect, Bronner comments: “If it was agreed that we did publish something that was factually wrong, we would publish a correction. We do that on a daily basis” adding “For example, earlier we overstated that millions of Palestinian refugees after 1948 events, but in fact there were about 750,000 in total. So we published a correction twice his over the years.” However, Bronner adds: “With regards to settlements, we stay away from assertions of legality on most international issues, because law is less clear about international affairs than about national affairs.”
However, another question poses itself, what is extent of influence exerted by pro-Israel pressure groups on the American media? which is an issue you hear quite often in the Arab world.
Robert (Bob) Zelnick, professor of journalism at Boston university and a former ABC News correspondent who reported from Israel in 1980s, does not deny the presence of ‘some’ influence by these groups. However, he says: “They employ the right technique. That is, they are very scholarly and nothing surprises them as they always seem prepared if a reporter calls in to enquire about a given Israeli practice or policy,” adding, “they come back to you quickly with accurate information. You may not accept the spin they put on the facts but you will never be embarrassed to have published wrong information.”
Zelnick had written articles for newspapers such as ‘The Washington Post’ in which he criticized aspects of the Israeli policy and yet the articles were never blocked from publication. He said that after publishing certain articles, he did receive criticism by pro-Israel groups but that he never received any threats. “During my time in Israel with the ABC, the news anchor was Peter Jennings, whom Israeli groups here label anti-Israeli and many Palestinians regarded as a close friend of their movement and ambitions for a democratic state in Palestine,” he added.
So if Peter Jennings was a ‘friend’ to the Palestinians, was he the rule or the exception? In other words, how does an average American journalist view the Palestinian issue? Ethan Bronner says: “I think that the typical American journalist believes in the two-state solution and regard Israel as a legitimate state that they do not wish be destroyed.”
Another point is that some in the Arab world believe that the fact that a large number of American journalists are Jews. They also claim that Jews own many media organizations, which is believed to be the underlying reason behind the bias against Arab issues. It is important to state here that for some people in the Arab world the lines are blurred between the meanings of being a ‘Jew,’ ‘Zionist’ or an ‘Israeli’. In addition, whilst many Jews support Israeli policies, many others disagree with them.
Regarding this issue, Professor Zelnick says “If I am to take the point that some in the Arab world see Zionist control of the [American] media as a fact, I say that if they examine the situation on the ground, they would reach a different conclusion”. He adds that “The American media has mostly the same motivations as any for-profit organization that wants to attract the largest number of audiences to win the largest possible share of advertising, which translates into income”.
However, if we take Zelnick’s words for granted while learning that most Americans, 53 percent, sympathize with Israel according to a Gallup poll published by ‘The Jerusalem Post’ about two months ago – the obvious question becomes why would a newspaper take a position that is different from that of the majority of its readership? “I believe that most Americans who pick up a newspaper in the morning want informed, fair and accurate coverage rather than one that favors one particular side, whether Israel or the Arabs. This is not what they buy the newspaper for,” Zelnick stated.
Bronner recounts that it was not until 1984 that the NYT sent a Jewish reporter to cover events in Israel (Which was Thomas Friedman, who is currently a distinguished columnist for the paper). The Deputy Foreign Editor points out that ‘The New York Times’ backed down from this “unstated thing” because it had found it meaningless to prevent a reporter from continuing their work provided they were doing it well. However, he did point out that, “we try to avoid reporters who have strong political positions [toward a particular issue].”
Another inevitable question was about to the absence of Arab journalists. Bronner vehemently denied the existence of any form of discrimination against any person, particularly Arabs, when it came to jobs within the paper. He said that it was subject to the required academic and professional background (which applies to all other races and religions), and that “In fact, we are currently actively looking for Arabic speakers, which is good because it helps us in the Arab world and here with Arab communities.”
According to Bronner, the NYT currently has three Arab journalists and a number of Arabic-speaking American reporters. Arabic classes are given at the newspaper’s headquarters in New York City.
Elaborating on his view on the relationship between the American press and Israel, Zelnick argues that through his observations over more than 50 years, he could say that “there were periods when the Arab issue captured American imagination, other times when the Israeli issue captured American imagination and periods when neither of them did,” he points out.
Zelnick explains: “Israel captured the romantic imagination of the American people, especially after the Holocaust, where we had a group of virtually unarmed people who were planting their flag in Israel backed by a UN resolution and who were attacked by 5 Arab armies and managing to survive nevertheless. This was in the late 1940s.”
“However, after the end of the Six-Day War of 1967 and as Israel became an occupier over time; the American press began to show courage and report abuses on Palestinian territories. If we have an honest look at the record, we will find much of such coverage.” Zelnick explains stating that “Much of this reporting was labeled by Zionist critics as sympathizing with terrorism and Arafat-led armed operations against Israeli targets”.
On a similar note and according to Bronner, ‘The New York Times’ also receives such criticisms. He said that some hold that they are a newspaper that “makes excuses for terrorists” and that it is “pro-Arab” because “Hamas, Hezbollah and many Arab governments are anti-Semitic and publish anti-Jewish textbooks and statements and let their clerics talk against the Jews. They accuse us of hiding these facts from our readers because of our incomplete coverage of what is happening.”
But does criticism from the both sides embroiled in conflict; the Israelis and Palestinians for example, prove that the media establishment is doing its job well? Bronner disagrees. He stated that all criticisms must be heard and examined.
Another interesting issue to note is that at times there are similarities between Arab and Israeli criticism of the American media. Just as many Arabs are discontent with the US media’s focus on disputes and conflict only (which is a criticism that applies to most journalists, not just the American ones), many in the Israeli government and some Israeli advocates in the US feel that there is too much emphasis on Israel, according to Bronner. He adds, “in there minds, there is undue emphasis on Israeli problems and they are concerned that our focus in such a manner causes people to think that Israel is a country with endless problems. They worry that support for and faith in Israel will drop as a result.”
Also, with regards to the issue of “image” and focusing on negative aspects, many in the Arab world were deeply disturbed when some American networks, including CNN, aired footage of people who were supposedly Palestinians celebrating the 9/11 attacks as part of the world reactions to the attacks. The criticism lies in the fact that it might have given the impression that all Palestinians or Arabs shared these feelings. (The same applies to recurrent scenes of burning American flags in Arab demonstrations and the scenes of terrorists slaughtering hostages).
At this point, it is worth mentioning that it is fair to argue that we seem to be discussing the outcome (the photo) rather than the cause (the act in itself).
Thus, it must be pointed out that the question here is not about whether or it would be right to publish pictures or footage of something that has actually happened: but what are the ramifications on those who do not share the same views as the perpetratoar? It would also be fair to say that the perpetrators should have considered their actions before doing them.
Commenting on this point, Bronner said: “Once again I was not in my current position at the time of the 9/11 attacks nor was involved in choosing a pictures. However, had I been , I would say that post-9/11 polling data showed that a significant proportion of the Arabs and Muslims actually felt that it was time for America to suffer the same way they did,” adding that “therefore, I do not believe it is inappropriate to publish such a picture.”
“There are broad lines for stories. It is fair to say now that in light of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is even truer that there is growing anger in the Arab world over the United States and its policies,” Bronner adds.
Zelnick agrees the complaint that the press only reports bad news is common
to most criticisms of the media. He added that every once in a while good things happen, such as the end of the Cold War, the Oslo Accords and sports events; “However, the job of the journalists is to report each as it occurs and not to invent an artificial balance.”
He adds “Certainly someone who burns an American flag, or slits the throat of a
hostage, cannot complain that the media rushed to report this bad news or
failed to counter-balance it with good news. Yet, Zelnick concludes: ” I do agree, however, that it is important to identify with the greatest particularity who was and what was
not involved in any ugly business”.
* Additional reporting by Talha Gebriel in Washington DC.