Earlier this month, the Jerusalem Post had a short report about some remarks of the British Ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, on Israeli TV. The report’s headline highlighted the ambassador’s assertion that Israel was widely seen as Goliath, while the Palestinians were perceived as David. According to Ambassador Gould, the “problem is not hasbara,” but since both the British public and politicians “read news about ongoing settlement building, conditions in the West Bank and restrictions placed on the Gaza Strip,” Gould claimed it was “[the] substance of what is going on [that] is really […] driving this.” Gould also suggested that there was an “erosion of popular support for the Jewish state.”
It is noteworthy that the ambassador’s remarks were actually a response to a reference to the rather peculiar BBC coverage of Israel in the run-up to the London Olympics. But while the ambassador might feel a professional obligation to claim that the British media convey the “substance of what is going on,” Israeli writer Hadar Sela rightly noted in a critical commentary that British audiences are exposed to “a constant largely monotone diet of one-sided and chronically misleading coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict […] which nourishes the ‘Israel as Goliath, Palestinians as David’ myth.”
Just imagine for a moment that the media in Britain (and elsewhere) would mention in every report about Israeli settlement building that after more than four decades of supposedly relentless building and expansion, these settlements gobble up all of about 1.1 percent of the pre-1967 West Bank territory…
Israeli hasbara usually tries to point to such simple facts in order to provide the often neglected context that would allow audiences to understand that the simplistic – and simplistically inverted – Goliath-David-narrative doesn’t really capture the “substance of what is going on” in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Yet, Ambassador Gould is in a way right to say that the “problem is not hasbara.” There is a bigger problem which is easy to overlook when we focus primarily on Israel, and I think there is a solid case for the argument that the media bias that shapes a largely negative image of Israel is only one manifestation of the dominant left-wing perspective that colors the media coverage of many issues.
Consider these observations by Walter Russell Mead on the media coverage of Mitt Romney’s recent trip abroad:
“Much of the global press is, if anything, to the left of the U.S. mainstream media, and the conventional wisdom among global elites is closer to the views of George Soros than it is to those of, say, John Bolton.
This is a fact, and it is something that any Republican president and his foreign policy team must develop a strategy for managing. President Obama is killing people right and left through drone strikes, has kept Guantanamo open for business in violation of his campaign pledges, is on a course for war with Iran, and is continuing Bush policies on a variety of key issues in the Middle East and elsewhere—but he isn’t encountering anything like the hurricane of hatred and resistance that George Bush had to face every day. […]
Much of the criticism Governor Romney encountered this week was unfair […] If he wins in November, he will face four long years of unrelenting, bitter criticism at home and abroad. He will be the target of orchestrated disinformation and propaganda campaigns. Enemies and opponents (not always the same thing) will seek to turn global and domestic public opinion against him, exploiting every blunder and manufacturing blunders where no real ones exist. He will be judged by entirely different standards than President Obama—he will certainly not get a Nobel Peace Prize just for showing up.”
A few days later, Mead delivered yet another scathing verdict on the mainstream media. Comparing the coverage of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, Mead noted:
“no one can deny the political power of the Tea Party anymore; for a movement that is now over three years old, this is no small thing.
Contrast this to the fate of what was supposed to be the left’s answer to Tea Party populism: OWS. It’s odd, but we don’t seem to hear much from them any more. This is especially surprising when you think about how the MSM treated that movement to begin with. It did everything in its power to ignore, disparage or kill the Tea Party, and everything it could think of to celebrate and hype OWS.
One movement remains a powerful force in American politics; the other is as dead as the dodo. […] But perhaps the contrast of Tea Party staying power and the genuinely total and ignominious collapse of OWS can serve as a teachable moment for mainstream media editors and reporters who actually want to understand and fairly report the news, as opposed to manipulating it in the interest of a political agenda. […]
The lunge to dismiss the Tea Party as a racist and comical fringe while celebrating OWS as a genuine upwelling of American populism reflected serious errors about American history and culture. The simplistic conflation of populism with a left-progressive agenda is the kind of mistake college undergrads (and excitable professors) make when they’ve read too much Howard Zinn while imbibing too much caffeine. And the simplistic dismissal of right populism as racist and backward is equally flawed; Jacksonian America has its flaws but it is much more complex than its cultured despisers understand. These stereotyped views of American populism are caricatures and those who rely on them will repeatedly misunderstand the significance of events taking place before their eyes […]
More than the internet, what’s killing the MSM is bad ideas and superficial thinking. The group think mentality of the media herd rests on weak intellectual and historical foundations so that over and over the media take on a given event turns out to be fatally flawed. The public grows tired of this, and either tunes the news out altogether or turns to alternative media with alternative views.
To survive and thrive, the MSM needs to tweak its business models, but even more importantly it needs to reset its intellectual models. They don’t work. They are outdated.
This doesn’t mean the MSM needs to flip and embrace the Tea Party or appoint Glenn Beck to head NBC news. This is about sophistication much more than it is about partisanship. But make no mistake: without a richer, deeper, more layered view of how the world works, the MSM will continue to wither away.”
Mead’s point about the media’s lack of sophistication is very relevant when it comes to the left’s antipathy towards Israel: once the simplistic Israel-as-Goliath-Palestinians-as-David-narrative takes hold, leftist ideology requires sympathy and identification with the perceived underdog David – and indeed, it then becomes easy to argue that this is not just a question of political ideology, but human decency.
At this point, facts and rational debate are often replaced by appeals to emotion, and because this dynamic inevitably includes also negative emotions, the political discourse that is so important for liberal democracies can quickly become poisonous.
Leftist elites in the media and elsewhere may not be too concerned about that as long as the poison is directed against Israel, but Jews and the Jewish state are often just the canary in the coal mine: this is true, for example, when it comes to the abuse of international law by terrorist groups and their state sponsors, and it’s also true when it comes to a once widely trusted newspaper like the British Guardian.
To paraphrase Professor Mead’s criticism quoted above, it’s a good bet to assume that if there is plenty of evidence for “group think mentality of the media herd” when it comes to Israel, this is a pretty good indication for “weak intellectual and historical foundations” that will also affect the coverage of other issues. Or, as I put it for my Twitter profile: The punditocracy that gets Israel wrong also gets a lot of other things wrong…
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This is a belated cross-post from my JPost blog, where this piece was published on August 13. Due to traveling, I didn’t have a chance to post it right away; but I was now reminded of it when I read a report about the final column by the outgoing public editor of the New York Times, Arthur Brisbane. Brisbane noted that NYT writers “share a kind of political and cultural progressivism” that “virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times” and he pointed to the coverage of the Occupy movement as one example of news being treated like a cherished cause. Indeed, echoing Walter Russell Mead’s point about the “group think mentality of the media herd,” Brisbane wrote that “the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds.”