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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Similarly, Palestinian claims of a "massacre" in Jenin were reinforced by an off-the-cuff estimate by an Israeli military spokesman that the number of dead was perhaps 200. In the end, the Israelis, as well as a U.N. investigation, found that 52 Palestinians had died in Jenin, of whom some 14 to 20 may have been civilians.

Palestinian spokesmen, in contrast, lie shamelessly. Arafat claimed to have ordered a "very serious investigation" of the Ramallah lynching. Palestinian spokesmen heatedly denied knowledge of the arms ship Karine-A. They all claimed a "massacre" had occurred in Jenin: Saeb Erekat estimated the death toll at between 500 and 1,500. Arafat at various times claimed massacres in a half dozen other West Bank towns. PA spokesmen described the "reconstruction" of an ancient synagogue that had been set on fire in Jericho. (It was turned into a mosque.) All of these claims, and many more, were sheer nonsense.

American news organizations have general rules of balance that tell them to report both sides of a story. But how is this to be achieved? Some journalists contented themselves with formulating mindless equations, as when the New York Times's Jane Perlez wrote: "Mr. Sharon's provocative visit to Muslim holy sites atop Jerusalem's Old City, the destruction of the Jewish shrine known as Joseph's tomb . . . and the burning of an ancient synagogue . . . have challenged the very notion of respect for and sovereignty over religious sites." She was referring to Sharon's stroll around the Temple Mount, the third holiest site in Islam, which also happens to be probably the holiest site in Judaism. Was this visit really akin to torching a synagogue and destroying a biblical shrine?

Tortured parallels aside, the goal of balance cannot be achieved by a mechanical report of "he said, she said" when the two sides are so disparate in their fidelity to truth, the openness of their societies, and their willingness to resort to intimidation. A few journalists with long experience in the region consistently presented both sides of the intifada story: NBC's Martin Fletcher was best. But absent especially insightful or knowledgeable individuals, are there no techniques or canons of journalism that will avoid giving a tyranny the upper hand in the press when it takes on a democracy?

Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His monograph, "Covering the Intifada: How the Media Reported the Palestinian Uprising," has just been released by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.