Does media bias against Israel still matter?

The slanted headlines and stories by “The New York Times” are important not because they turn most Americans against Israel, but because they influence Jewish opinion.

“The New York Times” building in Midtown Manhattan. Credit: Ajay Suresh via Wikimedia Commons.
“The New York Times” building in Midtown Manhattan. Credit: Ajay Suresh via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

For many years, supporters of Israel have feared the impact of media bias. Ever since the first Lebanon War in 1982—the historical turning point when the media’s embrace of a false narrative in which the Palestinians became “David” and Israel became “Goliath” became the norm—there has been an expectation that the avalanche of unfair coverage would someday lead to most Americans demanding the end of the U.S. alliance with the Jewish state.

But after the last 38 years in which the bias of most leading print and broadcast outlets against Israel has become entrenched, that nightmare has not come to pass.

Polls consistently show that American support for Israel has not diminished, and instead has actually grown stronger in the past few decades. Though Republicans are far more likely to back Israel than Democrats, the overall figures demonstrate that a biased national media has seemingly had no impact on the views of most Americans.

If that is so, why then should anyone care about media bias?

This came into focus again this week due to two outrageous examples from The New York Times. In a piece that first appeared online on May 7, a story about the waythe Israeli defense establishment has devoted its resources to fighting the coronavirus pandemic began with the following: “The Israeli Defense Ministry’s research-and-development arm is best known for pioneering cutting-edge ways to kill people and blow things up, with stealth tanks and sniper drones among its more lethal recent projects. But its latest mission is lifesaving.”

As Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, tweeted back: “The @nytimes, which buried the Holocaust, is best known for pioneering ways to libel and demonizing the Jewish state. Now it is doing the same.”

The diplomat wasn’t the only person complaining. David Harris, CEO of the liberal-leaning American Jewish Committee, called the Times’s phrasing “vile.” As numerous others responded, the goal of the Israel Defense Forces has actually always been to save lives by protecting Israeli citizens from terrorists and foes that sought to extinguish the sole Jewish state on the planet.

Nor was this an isolated example. Two days later, the paper published an article about the refusal of the Palestinian Authority to cease its “pay for slay” policies in which it provides terrorists who assault, wound or kill Israelis with salaries and pensions for their families. The story focused on an attempt to stop Palestinian banks in the West Bank from processing the payments.

The headline for the Times’s story though, put it this way: “Israel Cracks Down on Banks Over Payments to Palestinian Inmates.” A subhead further describes the issue as one about “payments the Palestinian Authority distributes to the families of Palestinians who have spent time in Israeli jails.”

Phrased that way, it makes the effort sound like a way to punish poor souls who have had the bad luck to fall under the power of the Israeli military and whose families are being prevented from getting the help they need from a benevolent Palestinian Authority. The text of the article, which vastly overestimated the number of Palestinians who have been imprisoned by Israel over the last half-century, adopted the frame of reference of those who regard the terrorists as freedom fighters and “martyrs,” and depicted those benefiting from “pay to slay” as victims of injustice. Nor did it detail the sliding scale of compensation offered by the P.A. in which the murderers of Jews get more money than those who merely wound or unsuccessfully attack their victims.

If media bias like this doesn’t impact American public opinion about Israel, should anyone bother protesting it?

In the first place, it is vital that a newspaper like the Times, which calls itself the nation’s “paper of record” and which does devote more resources to reporting foreign news than any other outlet, not get away with biased coverage.

Straight news reporting without a heaping serving of bias is a thing of the past at the Times. Their animus against the Trump administration has, whether or not you agree with them about the president, led the paper and other mainstream outlets to discard even the pretense of objective reporting with editorializing in headlines and in the text of articles becoming so routine as to be hardly worth protesting anymore.

Still, that doesn’t absolve those of us who still care about ethics in journalism from the duty to point out such egregious practices.

It’s true that most Americans couldn’t care less what the Times, CNN or other legacy media outfits say about any topic. But when it comes to one particular group, what the media, and in particular, The New York Times, says about Israel, matters a great deal.

While support for Israel among Americans in general has risen in the past decades, it has declined among Jews with a growing split between their views and those of Israelis. There are a number of reasons for this, including assimilation and the resultant shifting demography. Some of it also has to do with politics, as many in a group that overwhelmingly votes Democratic has followed the rest of their party on this issue.

But there’s more at play here than just that.

We know that praise for Israel’s underdog victories in its struggles for survival and positive events like the 1976 Entebbe rescue made Jews everywhere feel better about themselves and more connected to Israel.

The opposite is also true.

While some Jews are outraged by biased coverage that unfairly depicts Israel as a villain, others internalize the calumnies and distance themselves from the Jewish state. An average consumer of news may not be influenced by the Times. But a not insignificant portion of American Jewry still regards the newspaper with the sort of veneration that observant Jews have for religious texts. The Times has been assaulting the Jewish community with the prejudices of its publishers, editors and reporters since the days when, as Dermer rightly notes, it “buried” the story of the Holocaust.

Media bias may not have turned Americans against Israel, but it has been doing a bang up job of turning Jews against each other for decades.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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