The Magazine

Unfair and Unbalanced

Why the media did a lousy job covering the intifada.

Sep 22, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 02 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

NO SOONER was Saddam Hussein chased from power than CNN revealed that it had often held its tongue about his savagery for fear of losing access to Iraq and provoking violent retribution. Although the confession was stunning, it was only the most recent chapter in a long story. Tyrannies have often managed to compromise Western journalists--by threats, bribes, and trickery. The New York Times covered up the story of Soviet famines in the 1930s. The Times of London hailed Hitler's "night of long knives" as an effort to "impose a high standard on Nazi officials." Mao, Fidel, Ho, Ayatollah Khomeini, and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas all succeeded at whitewashing their portrayal in the Western media. To this list, we can add the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

I recently completed a study of coverage of the Palestinian intifada that found scores of stories displaying imbalance or outright inaccuracy tilted against Israel. Some of this reflected bias--not anti-Semitism, but the perception of the conflict as "an epic struggle of the weak against the strong," in the words of one correspondent for the Economist. More often, however, the cause lay in the asymmetry of the news environments of a democracy and a tyranny. (I use the word "tyranny" since Yasser Arafat's rule has rested more on the dozen or so "security" services that he has always controlled personally than on the election he won without meaningful opposition.)

Among the American news outlets, only one ground the same axe night after night: ABC TV. On the second day of the intifada, in late September 2000, a mob of Palestinians atop the Temple Mount besieged an Israeli police outpost and rained bottles and stones down on the Jewish worshippers at the Wailing Wall below. Israeli police and soldiers rushed the worshippers to cover, then stormed the mount to relieve the siege and disperse the mob. Other networks aired this full sequence, but viewers of ABC were shown only the Israeli counterattack. The description that accompanied it reinforced the one-sided image. "This is the second day in a row [Israeli forces] have flexed their muscles here, and Palestinians are furious," observed correspondent Gillian Findlay, downplaying the responsive nature of the Israeli action.

Four Palestinians died in that confrontation, and an Israeli also fell victim to violence that day. He was one of two Israeli policemen on a joint patrol in Qalqilya with a Palestinian counterpart who suddenly drew his gun and shot them both, killing one and wounding the other. Unlike the Palestinians' deaths, this was cold-blooded murder, and it was of more far-reaching significance in that it signified the end of the Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation that had lain at the heart of the Oslo process. Peter Jennings opened that evening's report by declaring somberly: "Four Palestinians were killed by Israelis on [the Temple Mount] today." Neither he nor anyone else on ABC mentioned the Israeli murdered by a Palestinian.

On various other evenings, viewers of ABC, like those who got their news from other outlets, would have heard Palestinian leaders vociferously deny any connection with the arms-smuggling ship Karine-A intercepted by Israel, but unlike other viewers or readers, they would never have known of the ship captain's confession that the weapons had indeed been destined for the Palestinian Authority. Like viewers of other networks, they would have seen the destruction wrought by Israeli forces advancing into Jenin in the spring of 2002, but unlike the others, they would never have seen the booby traps that killed many Israeli soldiers, which prompted the widespread demolitions. Like the viewers of other networks, they would have learned that the Palestinians had declared various "days of rage," but ABC's viewers were the only ones who would have heard that Israeli settlers did likewise, as Peter Jennings reported more than once, an "exclusive" he seems simply to have invented.