Monday, May 02, 2005

Jeff Jacoby on U.S. media bias

In a rare public appearance in Israel, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby spoke last night in Beit Shemesh on the topic of American media coverage of Israel. (Thanks to Soccer Dad for tipping me off!)

For veteran media-watchers like me, Jacoby didn't offer any new insights. But I was glad to finally have the opportunity to hear him speak in public. Which he did very well, I might add.

Not being a journalist myself, I didn't take notes. Regardless, I'll try to summarize from memory:

Contrary to what many Jews assume, he rejected the suggestion that antisemitism has any role to play in reporting on Israel (at least in the United States). Rather, he explained, the way journalism works accounts for why the media get so much of the Middle East story wrong - and almost always to Israel's detriment.

What's going on? The main factors (he brought numerous examples to illustrate his points):

  • Ignorance. A reporter is expected to be able to show up anywhere in the world without prior knowledge, conduct some interviews via translators, and file a story. This is not adequate with a story as complex as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Knowing neither the language nor the history, they fall back upon the accepted media cliches.

  • Access. As Jacoby summarized in this column, Arab governments have great practice at threatening journalists who tell the "wrong" story. Conversely, no one has ever felt endangered by being critical of Israel. If you value your life, you'll ignore stories embarrassing to the Palestinians.

    In addition, to report from the Palestinian areas, they are dependent on local "fixers", Arabs who show them around and put them in touch with sources. Many of these are directly or indirectly employed by the Palestinian Authority; others know that they won't last long if journalists they work with get the wrong message.

    Similarly, Israel's free society makes it a convenient place for journalists to work. Any media organization which opens a Middle East bureau will locate it in Israel. This contributes to the heavy overreporting of news from Israel, compared with the entire Arab/Muslim world from Morocco to Pakistan. And, since journalism anywhere in the world is mostly about reporting bad news, that means plenty of negative stories coming from Israel (and now, since the American invasion, also from Iraq).

  • Pack behavior. Journalists have something of a fraternal spirit. They hang out at the same hotels and bars and maintain a camaraderie. It can be hard to break that by reporting differently from the pack. No one likes to stick out. Editors are likely to question a reporter who submits reports which tell a different story from the rest of the media. No one will raise an eyebrow at stock phrases such as "the cycle of violence" or implications that both sides are equally at fault.

  • Ideology. The U.S. media are predominantly left-wing, and today anti-Israel sentiments in the U.S. are overwhelmingly found on the political left. It can be very frustrating to American Jews, but some of the most hostile attitudes to Israel are expressed on left-wing National Public Radio, while the strongest support for Israel comes from conservative media such as Rush Limbaugh.

  • Israeli media. When so much of the Israel media is itself critical of Israel and sympathetic to the Arab position, it's hard to fault American journalists who do the same.

In response to questions, Jacoby denied that business considerations influence reporting, at any respectable organization. He also noted the limitations of the influence of the media; despite the rampant bias, Americans consistently lean 3-to-1 in favor of Israel. Recently, with increasing media diversity and the decline of the mainstream media, it becomes harder to maintain a uniform storyline as the public has access to new sources of information (Internet, cable TV, etc.). The mainstream media are paying more attention to their errors, and journalists at some papers are now held accountable for corrections made to their reports.

Journalist Jonathan Rosenblum was in attendance and contributed some remarks in the question period. Jeff agreed with him that antisemitism may be at work in the European media, which is far more hostile to Israel than its American counterparts. Otherwise, it's hard to explain some of the virulence, especially in Britain.


Soccer Dad said...

Was my brother there? (Or wouldn't you know who he is?)
I've disagreed with Jacoby on the antisemitism. It may not play a role in everyone's bias, but clearly there are those who are driven by it. I pointed out HDS Greenway of the Boston Globe. And wouldn't you know it, Jacoby didn't confirm or deny my charge, but simply noted that it was Greenway's idea to hire him (Jacoby) at the Globe.
Thanks for going and reporting!

MatzahNacho said...

Ignorance is definitely a problem, but I have an incredibly difficult time comprehending it. It seems to me one would have to be from another planet entirely to have missed the Bible completely, to be totally unaware of the existence of ancient Israelite history, let alone another rather well-known ancient nation called the Roman Empire that is kind of famous for conquering Judea, named for the Jews living there, not to mention a fact that should be rather obvious – the Arabs are from Arabia. How could these ignorant reporters have lived beyond grade school without hearing about ANY of this?

Cosmic X said...

Great report Mr. Biur. Thanks!

Zman Biur said...


I wouldn't recognize your brother by sight. I don't think I've seen him in what, the last 15 years? Besides, the hall was quite full.

Jeff denied having experienced any antisemitism in the newsroom. I agree it may play a marginal role, but I also agree with Jeff that the primary issues are the ones he listed.

Matzah (a blog name after my own heart!),

I'm not sure why you're so surprised. How much ancient history is taught in schools today? And if it is, subversive topics like religion are studiously avoided - church and state and all that.

Besides, the issues between Israel and the Arabs go far beyond ancient history. If anything, the little ancient history reporters know is just adequate for them to think that Israel is trying to kick out the Arabs resident "from time immemorial" in the name of biblical legends.


Glad to be of service.

Soccer Dad said...

Honestly I had no idea how big the hall was and the brother you would have met is not the one who lives in Israel.

Zman Biur said...

It wasn't that big (the social hall of a small shul), but it was reasonably full. Regardless, I wouldn't have recognized your brother unless we had been introduced.

Jeff talked a bit about what it's like working as a conservative at a big liberal newspaper in a big liberal city. He likes the thought that his columns give strength to the minority of Globe readers who agree with him and aren't used to having their opinions supported. Interestingly, he said the columnists don't discuss their work or current affairs at the water cooler; they stick to small talk and save their venom for the keyboard.

AbbaGav said...

Thanks for reporting this meeting. I live in Beit Shemesh and was really looking forward to going (and then blogging it afterward of course) but a domestic meltdown kept me away. Was there any mention of the role of blogs and alternate media sources in breaking up the log jam?

Zman Biur said...


Briefly. Mostly, he talked about the factors behind anti-Israel bias in the mainstream media. He did note that fewer and fewer Americans are getting their news from them, however, and that media sources are increasingly diverse.