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
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CNN was the one other outlet whose reportage was consistently off kilter, marked by intermittent bias compounded with ignorance. During the second week of the intifada, the network reported that "Unrest in the Middle East has spread to other Arab nations. Thousands marched in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday to condemn Israel." In light of the network's post-Saddam confession, it is hard to believe that CNN did not know that when thousands marched in Baghdad during his reign, it was only because they were told to march: Whatever such marches bespoke, it was not "unrest." When the United States abstained on a typically one-sided U.N. Security Council resolution blaming Israel for the turmoil, the network's Mike Hanna reported that this constituted "a pointed gesture from the United States toward the Israelis that activities within the last week have become virtually indefensible." But Hanna's explanation was at odds with that of U.S. officials. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke said that the resolution had evoked his "clear distaste," but Secretary of State Albright explained that "vetoing it would have created . . . further problems in the region for us as the honest broker and negotiator."

The most startling ignorance was displayed by CNN's peripatetic Christiane Amanpour, who visited the region and delivered a series of mystifying reports. One day, she described the Israeli Jews who engaged in violence with Israeli Arabs in the town of Nazareth as "settlers," apparently unaware that this term usually refers to Israelis who live in the occupied territories rather than Israel proper (which is why they are called settlers). On another, she described the highly dovish Prime Minister Ehud Barak as if he were from the hawkish end of the Israeli spectrum: "even the supporters of . . . Prime Minister Barak are saying that he's just gone too far this time, that there simply is too much force being used." Conversely, she mistook Hamas for a group of doves: Happening upon an anti-Arafat protest of theirs, she explained that they were upset about "the killings and the casualties."

DESPITE SUCH INSTANCES, the larger reason for the slant against Israel was the contrasting nature of the Israeli and Palestinian regimes--and the failure of the press to cope with the disparity. This took three forms.

First, much investigative information embarrassing to Israel--about illegal settlements, violation of Arab rights, official misconduct, and the like--originates in the Israeli press, which is vibrant and often adversarial. There is, however, no comparable illumination of the warts on the other side. As Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh put it: "The PA exerts complete control over the media inside the territories."

Second, the Palestinian Authority routinely uses violence and the threat of violence against journalists. Immediately after 9/11, the PA's cabinet secretary called news agencies, warning, as USA Today reported, that "the safety of their staff could not be guaranteed unless they withdrew the embarrassing footage of Palestinian police firing joyfully in the air." When grisly scenes of the lynching of two Israeli reservists in the Ramallah police station was aired despite the effort of PA toughs to confiscate all film of the event, a correspondent for Italy's RAI television rushed to establish that his network was not the source. "We always respect...the journalistic procedures [of] the Palestinian Authority," swore Riccardo Cristiano in a groveling letter. "Be assured we would never do such a thing." When Cristiano's letter was published by a Palestinian newspaper, the RAI brass were embarrassed and recalled him, but his colleagues expressed sympathy. One had received a death threat over the Ramallah tape, and Cristiano, they explained, had already been beaten badly in another incident.

Finally, there is an extreme disparity in veracity. Israeli spokesmen, like other Westerners, spin but rarely lie outright, knowing that a steep price would be exacted if they got caught. Trying to be truthful, Israelis sometimes even err to their own disadvantage. On the third day of the violence in the fall of 2000, 12-year-old Mohammed al-Dura was shot dead in his father's arms while cowering behind a barrel and became the poster child of the intifada. At first, the American outlets, except (surprise) ABC, reported noncommittally that the lad had died in a crossfire. But then Israeli spokesmen acknowledged probable responsibility, and thereafter reports said the death was caused by Israeli fire. Months later, after a painstaking probe, the Israelis concluded that the fatal shots likely came from Palestinian guns (a conclusion also reached by an investigative team from the German television network, ARD).