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.