No single element of American Jewish power is more tangled in myth and mystery than the relationship between Jews and the media. Nowhere is the gulf wider between the way Jews see themselves and the way their neighbors see them.
Put more starkly, the gap in perception is this: non-Jews commonly see the mass media as a key stronghold of Jewish power, a major source of whatever influence Jews wield in American society. Jews, by contrast—especially affiliated, activist Jews—commonly describe the media as a major source of anti-Israel bias.
The two views seem like polar opposites, either-or propositions, thesis and antithesis. They cannot both be true. And yet, to a great degree, they are.
This is how J.J. Goldberg begins the 11th chapter of his phenomenal book, “Jewish Power.” He notes that in 1989, at the start of the Intifada, 79 percent of American Jews felt the news media applied a double standard in judging Israel more harshly than its Arab neighbors.
Today, many still believe mainstream magazines and newspapers and radio stations are anti-Israel. They point to the “Protocols of Christiane Amanpour” on CNN, the phony footage of a murdered Palestinian boy from France 2, and, my favorite, the reportage of “National Palestinian Radio.”
I have agreed on specific occasions, though in hindsight I’m not convinced the bias is deliberate. Neither is Jeff Jacoby, an op-ed writer for the Boston Globe, who speaking last night at Syracuse University said the phenomenon has more to do with ignorance than malevolence.
Jacoby read excerpts from two New York Times editorials about the deaths of terrorists. He showed a picture that’s caption described an Israeli police officer standing over a beaten Palestinian youth. In reality, the youth was a Jewish boy from Chicago who had just been mugged. He was running to the police officer for protection.
“Nobody in news media questioned the storyline of Israeli brutality and a Palestinian victim,” Jacoby said.
Jacoby said one factor that contributes to this bias is ignorance. A good journalist is expected to be able to cover a story with no prior knowledge of the situation, Jacoby said. Too often, these inexperienced reporters “get bamboozled.”
“If they go in with ignorance, very often they will get the story wrong,” he said.
An over-emphasis on Israel in the news is another factor in coverage bias, he said. Many reporters are based in Jerusalem because Israel defends the right to a free press. Thus, more investigative stories about Israel are produced because there is no fear of the government harming reporters.
“Where journalists are concentrated, coverage tends to be negative,” he said.