Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.
"Megaphones and Muffled Voices: What Constitutes Full and Fair Media Coverage of Israeli-Palestinian Issues?" was the topic of a two-day conference held in New York April 17 and 18. Organized by Mel Lehman, the conference was sponsored by the World Association for Christian Communication. In an attempt to achieve a balance of viewpoints that every speaker felt was lacking in actual media coverage, panelists included Christians, Muslims, and Jews; academics, media critics, and activists; and Palestinians, Israelis, and North Americans.
Israeli speakers argued that the media is biased in favor of Palestinians. Michael Arnold, managing editor of the Jewish Telegraph Agency, stated that European media are openly hostile toward Israel. American media, although more balanced, he said, still exhibits a slight Palestinian bias through choice of terminology. As examples Arnold cited the labeling of Ariel Sharon, but never Yasser Arafat, as a "hard-liner"; describing Israel's F-16s and Apache helicopter gunships as "American-supplied," which, in Arnold's view, is irrelevant and a subtle way to influence opinion; and attaching to the numbers killed in the course of the current intifada the phrase, "the overwhelming majority of them Palestinians," which, he said, implies that Israel is the aggressor. According to Arnold, proof that Israel has acted with restraint is that "only" 1,200 Palestinians have been killed in 18 months.
Benny Avni of Kol Israel Radio said the media holds Israel accountable for whatever its army does but, because Palestinians have been unable to create the institutions necessary for a state, Arafat is able to maintain a state of deniability. Repeated references to "the cycle of violence and vengeance" is a distortion, he argued, because Israel has no suicide bombers.
Sarah Eltantawi of the Muslim Public Affairs Council sees a pro-Israel bias in some U.S. journalistic tendencies, such as obscuring Palestinians' right to resist the longest occupation in modern history. U.S. acquiescence in Israel's occupation of Palestine is the biggest reason for anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, she added, and therefore constitutes a clear and present danger. Another tendency Eltantawi cited is self-censorship resulting from a climate of intimidation. Last year, for example, she said, the Israeli lobby launched a campaign, which was temporarily successful, to have CNN replace Rula Amin with "more objective, pro-Israeli reporters."
According to Marda Dunsky, professor of journalism at Northwestern University, media bias also is apparent in what is missing from U.S. coverage. For example, the media seldom provide details of Palestinian life under occupation, such as demolished homes or the effects of settlement expansion. The bewilderment on the part of the American public as to why the intifada erupted and recent interest in "what makes a suicide bomber," she said, is evidence of that omission. …