"What are they saying about us?" many Jews wonder about Spanish-language media, which have increased in number and influence.
The spectacular growth of the Latino population in the United States has brought about a boom in Spanish-language media. In particular, television news programs in Spanish are now dominating the L.A. market, capturing the attention of both monolingual and bilingual audiences.
But contrary to the general belief that Spanish language media is narrow in focus, devoted only to issues of direct relevance to Latinos, the news coverage is sophisticated and expanding, adapting to the changing demographics of its audience. Detailed international coverage is broadcast and printed daily, covering issues everywhere in the world, just as in English-language media.
Yet, to date, Spanish-language coverage of the Middle East has eluded the radar of organizations that monitor media treatment of Israel and the Arab world.
The oversight doesn't make sense, considering the reach of Spanish-language print media. La Opinión, for example, the largest Spanish newspaper in the country, reaches an estimated 680,000 readers a day. And, in stark contrast with the English-language press, its circulation is growing. The Tribune Co., the media conglomerate that also owns the Los Angeles Times, owns 50 percent of La Opinión.
"It's a world-centered paper, more like a European paper," said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, Western Region director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). The paper receives much of its Israel and Middle East news through Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Agencia EFE, the French and Spanish wire services.
"We like to use AFP and EFE, as they tend to provide more contextualized material. Our readers prefer the more analytical approach," said David Torres, La Opinión's director of international news.
Torres acknowledged that many Jews are skeptical of European media as having an anti-Israel bias, but explained that La Opinión attempts to be sensitive to the issues in the conflict. The paper tries to avoid descriptions that might inflame either side. Editors make a point of deleting the wire feeds' references to "Palestine" as an established political entity.
Yet they also delete references to "terrorist groups" when referring, for example, to Hamas.
"We edit out the word 'terrorist' because we want to avoid qualifying [the organization]," Torres said.
La Opinión has even ceased using the word "kamikaze," which is used frequently in Spanish-language media to refer to Palestinian suicide bombers.
"We used to use the word 'kamikaze' until a work colleague pointed out that, in Japanese, 'kamikaze' means something like 'divine wind,'" he said. "We felt that, given the [positive] spiritual connotation, we should stop using the word. We are a paper that strives for balance, always keeping the door open for the pacification of the region. You will find no editorial by La Opinión that reflects a bias."
Officials at the Israeli Consulate agree.
"The news is the news, and I don't detect any particular bias," said Mark Paredes, press attaché for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, and a native Spanish speaker. "The op-ed page, on the other hand, is more problematic."
Greenebaum finds the op-ed pieces of La Opinión, "no more unbalanced than in any other mainstream paper in Los Angeles" -- not necessarily a good thing. A cursory sampling of opinion columns and letters to the editor over the last six months of 2002, reveals that approximately two-thirds of pieces air a Palestinian viewpoint, perhaps reflecting the opinions of its readers.
The lesson for Paredes is clear.
"Maybe it's our own fault," he said. "We should be sending in more articles presenting our position."
If the op-ed pages of the Spanish media lack consistent pro-Israel voices, it is often because those voices aren't speaking up. Jewish points of view are seldom heard in Spanish, missing an important opportunity to communicate Israel's position to this increasingly influential market. Jews need to disseminate more information about Israel's position in Spanish as well, Paredes said.
As for television coverage, the main local stations, KMEX and KVEA, are owned by two international media giants: Univision and Telemundo.
Univision's news programming is aired nationwide through its own stations in major markets in the United States, reaching 92 percent of Hispanic households. KMEX's ratings now exceed each of its English-language competitors. It ranks No. 1 for prime-time news in Los Angeles, drawing an estimated 500,000 viewers every evening. Further expanding its reach, Univision just acquired Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., the largest owner of Hispanic radio stations in the United States.
Telemundo, the other Spanish-language television conglomerate, is owned by NBC. Although it has lower ratings in the Los Angeles market, it is also a major player in the field. Its local station, KVEA, has recently won an Emmy for its 11 p.m. news program. Both networks cover international news extensively, within and without Latin America.
A recurring complaint pro-Israel viewers register about Spanish-language television news coverage is its lack of context. The result is reporting that shortchanges Israel's side of the story.
Andrea Levin, executive director for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a Jewish organization that monitors major news sources around the world, reports having received many requests to monitor Spanish-language media due to "concerns regarding distortions, bias and negative characterizations of Jews and Israel."
More requests have come in since Sept. 11, she said, and have prompted the organization to consider preparing some form of reports, or starting to monitor the Spanish-language media" -- to date, overlooked.
Fueling these concerns are the results of an Anti-Defamation League study in 2002 that established for the first time that "negative attitudes toward Israel [among the population at large] are helping foster anti-Semitic beliefs," rather than the other way around. The role that the Spanish-language media play in this dynamic is still unknown. At the very least, due to the media's explosive growth, it offers an important communication opportunity that has largely been neglected.
As for perceptions of Israel, opinions seem as diverse as the audience.
"The issue of Israel is complex," Greenebaum explained. "There is no monolithic opinion among Latinos. There are some who question the U.S.'s foreign aid to Israel, relative to aid allocated to their home countries; some identify with the Palestinians as the underdog, and yet some feel greater identification with Israel due to its democracy and Judeo-Christian viewpoint, over the Islamic perspective."
Politically, among some Latino intellectual circles, there has been identification with the Palestinians as the "Third-World underdog" in the conflict. As Latinos become more politically empowered in the United States, however, there is a shift in their perceptions, more suited to their changing social status.
"Latinos are far more interested in running for state Senate than leading a march," said Gregory Rodriguez, columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "Latinos have no kinship ties to the Holy Land. And Israel is far."
Indeed, leaders bridging the Latin and Jewish communities generally characterize any negativity toward Israel as the result of an innocent lack of knowledge, prompting many efforts to promote dialogue between Jewish and Latino groups, particularly with the media. Through an AJC project, the Israel Project Interchange, Greenebaum has been involved in organizing trips to Israel for newspaper and magazine editors and legislators. Rafael Buitrago, director of editorials for La Opinión, visited Israel through the program.
"To the extent to which there might be anti-Semitism among Latinos in the U.S., I believe it is a much 'softer' anti-Semitism, meaning it is based on ignorance and misunderstanding rather than deep-seated anti-Semitic beliefs," Greenebaum said. "This only means that we have to engage the Latino community more and build deeper relationships."
"I don't detect any overt hostility," Paredes added, "just widespread ignorance and apathy regarding Israel."
From his office at the Conga Room in mid-Wilshire, the nightclub and restaurant he owns, Brad Gluckstein agreed.
"My experience with middle, upwardly mobile, second-generation Latinos born in the U.S., is that anti-Semitism is negligible, maybe 5 percent or less," he said.
As for impressions of Israel, Gluckstein, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Committee, said, "They view Israel as a bastion of capitalism and democracy in an unwieldy geopolitical scene. [Israel] is a highly regarded friend."
"If the 20th century was a good environment for the Jews, the 21st century will be for the Latinos," Greenebaum said. "The Latino population is growing and is becoming important and influential. The comfort of the Jewish community in Los Angeles is dependent on our relationship with the Latino community. It's where our future is."