As hardliners take control of Israel, Palestinian supporters in the U.S. Are spinning the media every way they can—lobbying editorial boards, placing political ads, and even entering online contests. In recent weeks, PLO sympathizers have flocked to msnbc.com to vote for “A Death in Gaza,” a photo of a Palestinian boy about to get shot. With half a million votes to date, the photo stands to win MSNBC’s “Year in Pictures 2000” contest.
No one likes seeing photos of Palestinians at gunpoint, but it happens every day, according to the Washington, D.C.-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Since last October, the ADC has spent more than $2 million to explain the intifada, taking out full-page ads in The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, The International Herald Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times. ADC vice president Khalil Jahshan felt the campaign was necessary “because the U.S. media’s depictions of what was happening in Palestine were so biased.”
Last fall, Jahshan met with Washington Post editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt to discuss that paper’s “dismal” editorial coverage of the Middle East—and persuaded him to solicit op-eds by prominent Palestinians. “I don’t think it’s my job to match opposing political views column for column,” says Hiatt, “but I do think that we should try to have other points of view represented on the page.”
But to hear Jahshan tell it, the media’s pro-Israeli bias is not restricted to newspaper editors. In the last few months, he believes, ad departments have treated his submissions to intense scrutiny, while giving pro-Israeli ads a free pass. “I see ads that are so irresponsible, that are published without any scrutiny at all,” says Jahshan, “and I have asked friends in the Jewish community and in the media if they apply the same standards to both camps, and the answer is no.” He attributes the bias to a desire on the part of media companies to avoid conflict with the Jewish community—and with advertisers who have strong pro-Israeli views of their own. He says the U.S. media has no such fear of offending Arab Americans.
As Jahshan fights for control of the narrative, one of the groups he competes with is FLAME, a/k/a Facts and Logic About the Middle East, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. For the last decade or more, FLAME has been placing inflammatory ads that blame everything on the Arabs. The group’s latest ad is a defense of Ariel Sharon, lauding the new prime minister as a “hero” who is “desperately” needed by Israel.
The ad in question occupied a quarter-page in the Times‘ front section on February 21. “The media is mounting a campaign against Ariel Sharon,” it reads, “describing him as an out-of-control warmonger, a man on a perpetual warpath, someone who, if elected, would not hesitate to use troops against the Palestinians and all other Arabs.” According to the ad, Sharon could not possibly have prevented the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon in 1982, because he didn’t know about it. (Sharon is widely faulted for not preventing the massacres.)
This sort of slipperiness isn’t news. In 1990, Times columnist Anthony Lewis denounced a FLAME ad as a “sorry evasion of reality,” and in 1998, FLAME ran an ad calling the Islamic religion “virulent” and blaming Islam for promoting violence against the U.S. and Israel. When a reporter pointed out the overt bigotry, FLAME’s Gerardo Joffe said, “All Arab Muslims may not be a bunch of fanatics, but I’ve never met one who isn’t.” Both U.S. News & World Report and The Nation have come under fire for running FLAME ads, prompting Nation publisher Victor Navasky to write a defense of his ad philosophy.
The Times has been running FLAME ads for years, according to a company source. Like other advertisers, FLAME must list a post-office box address so readers know where to direct their response. With political ads, the Times doesn’t fact-check very heavily, says the source, because the facts are so often disputed by those on opposing sides of the issue. But they do screen out any language that is “racially or ethnically offensive,” and would not run an ad that said, “All Arabs are criminals.”
Jahshan has no complaint with the Times. But he maintains that, in general, his ads get fact-checked far more heavily than those which adopt a pro-Israeli political stance, like FLAME’s. For example, he says, one paper would not publish a specific number of Palestinians killed or injured, unless the statistic came from an Israeli source. Another paper objected to the idea that Palestinians were being killed in an “arbitrary” fashion. The International Herald Tribune refused to publish a photo of an Israeli soldier aiming his M16 at an unarmed Palestinian, because “it looks like the kid is about to be killed.” And The Washington Post temporarily objected to publishing the names of dead Palestinian teens, unless the ADC provided releases from each of their parents.
In a recent battle, Jahshan says, he submitted an ad stating that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is the only current “military occupation” of one country by a foreign power. When the legal department objected, Jahshan produced a U.N. expert as a source, and they still refused it. Jahshan says this is “not so much scrutiny of the facts as an attempt to circumvent any potential criticism.” Ironically, he finds less anti-Arab bias in the Israeli media than in the U.S.
A Year of Fear
The wall between editorial and business is thinner than ever, according to “Fear & Favor: How Power Shapes the News,” a new report from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. This is a time capsule from a year when journalists came under ever more pressure by government, advertisers, and their own bosses to “shape or slant news content.” Herewith a few of FAIR’s “most outrageous and instructive examples,” culled from published reports.