“Forty Zillion Palestinians were brutally massacred by evil Israelis (oh and btw they were only trying to stab Jews, no biggie)
Sound familiar? That’s because it resembles practically every headline in every news outlet, from the BBC to even the Times of Israel proper (and of course, Haaretz, which my brain always anagrams to “Haaterz” because they literally hate themselves and their country for no reason). Why do we have such a big problem in our midst, especially among our own?
I read my (Facebook) friend Matti Friedman’s excellent essay about the origin of media bias against Israel. I know his experience as an AP journalist makes him a lot more qualified than me to talk about this subject, but I felt there was something obvious that was missing from the description. Something simple yet unaccounted for. Something perhaps so simple that someone of his intellectual sophistication may have either jumped right over or disregarded as base and trivial (I mean this with admiration and no sarcasm whatsoever).
I’ve taken journalism courses as recently as 2012, so thinking back on the some of the theory I learned points to a lot of potential reasons why this bias might be occurring.
1. Their word against yours
We need to stop kidding ourselves: journalism is NOT about reporting the truth. That’s a laughable concept. The saying, there are three sides to every story – your side, their side, and the truth – is a fundamental tenet of journalism. A good journalist believes they can’t possibly know the truth, so they take down what the “witnesses” say and report it as is. No matter how ridiculous one side or the other of a conflict may seem, journalists have to report on both sides to appear as unbiased as possible. What does this actually mean? Journalists have to mindlessly write down exactly what each side tells them and report on it, “objectively.”
Of course to us, giving blatant lies and libel as much weight as our truthful and verifiable stories reeks of moral equivocation and conspiracy. However, as angry as we may be, another trope in journalism comes to mind: “you know you’re producing good journalism when both sides of a conflict accuse you of bias.” And this is precisely what is happening – yes, even the BBC has been accused of pro-Israel bias. So has the New York Times (then again at this point I think anything short of repeating Hamas’ Islamist war cries counts as “pro-Israel bias” to them). Journalists who are not tied to any side of the conflict by cultural loyalty or association therefore look at these accusations and give themselves a good pat on the back for a job well done. Or at least, that’s what they are told they are supposed to do in those circumstances in J-School.
Take two steps back and realize that to those who aren’t involved in the conflict, the Israelis and Palestinians look like nothing more than silly people fighting each other because both believe the land is God-ordained. One “neutral” friend who claims not to know about the conflict tells me, “Both sides are right. Both sides are wrong.” He meant that both sides have equal claim to the land, but both sides are wrong to use violence against each other. At this point, the side who perpetrates the most violence is the tiebreaker for moral wrongness. Now you know why people focus so much on death tolls. Nobody bothers to learn that Palestinian culture doesn’t actually value life, they value resistance and honour more. It’s simply not on their radar. To many journalists, we are just another assignment. Since the Palestinian narrative is more hyperbolic, it stands out more on paper, but to journalists it’s just “one narrative against another.”
Of course, this explanation doesn’t tell the whole story, because if this was correct, there wouldn’t be an obvious Palestinian slant to everything that isn’t a pro-Israel Op Ed.
2. Complaints – there are more of them
Let’s face it: they outnumber us 100:1. Since groupthink is a big part of their culture, it is reasonable to generalize that nearly all Muslims are strongly anti-Israel. It’s a big part of their replacement theology doctrine. Therefore, by sheer numbers alone, even if 90% of them are completely apathetic, we’re still at a huge disadvantage.
New outlets will necessarily get more complaints of pro-Israel bias, or that the facts don’t pander enough to their worldview. Which, because of their necessarily supremacist ideology, they believe is superior to any other beliefs. Any sympathy to Israel in reporting downright incenses them. Given that Jews as a whole are even more apathetic than their adversaries, the news outlets see way more complaints of pro-Israel sympathy than anti-Israel sympathy, so it’s easy for them to be under the impression that they’re too pro-Israel. So they try to “even the score.” They continue to get these complaints, they continue to try to “even the score,” until the anti-Israel bias is so strong that it’s too blatant to ignore, as in the case with the NYT naming Jews.
3. Everyone likes a good underdog story
The Israelis have a state. The Palestinians do not. The Israelis have wealth, a thriving economy, and infrastructure. The Palestinians do not. It’s hard to sympathize with the Israelis over the Palestinians. Poor little rich girl. I feel so sorry for you. People generally like hearing stories that sympathize with the underdog, as we all see ourselves in the underdog for some reason or another. The media love reporting on underdog stories, it gives people a sense of power, a sense of evening a sort of cosmic inequality. The Palestinian propaganda machine knows this, and loves playing into it in how it delivers news. We aren’t nearly as well-versed in these things, in the basic psychology of the struggle because we choose to see ourselves as victors, as people who overcame obstacles, in order to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Our glass-half-full outlook has taken us far. It’s not helping us in the War of Information.
4. They’re scared of them.
This piece is all you need to know.
5. Postcolonial legacy
The West has a long history of oppressing brown people. Let’s be honest here. Colonialism was a problem. It occurred in Africa, Asia, America, pretty much every corner of the earth. Slavery, genocide of indigenous peoples, forced migrations, forced boundaries, and other horrors under colonialism happened. Westerners have guilt over it – why wouldn’t they?
The problem is that the postcolonial legacy, the guilt that arose when they realized how horrible what they and their ancestors did was, leads to the idea that darker skinned people were oppressed by the West and that we owe them in some way. We need to even the score somehow.
Affirmative action programs came about. Discussions of intersectionality of oppression occurred. Important breakthroughs in our understanding of racism happened. Our incessant discourse about this led Westerners to unintentionally make generalizations. How could we not, the oppressed people we always seem to talk about always tend to have darker skin.
It became all the more easier to sympathize with the Palestinians over the Israelis. They’re brown, they look indigenous, or at least the picture we imagine when we think of indigenous peoples – in other words, Native American. When Westerners think of Jews they think about Western Jews, who are overwhelmingly (80+%) Askhenazi. Who are disproportionately affluent (less than Hindus, however, but like Hindus we worked hard for it). Most of us can pass as white. Therefore, Westerners don’t automatically attach marginalization and oppression to us when they see us, given the postcolonial framework they were raised on.
On Wednesday I walked out of a building on campus onto the quad, unintentionally into the middle of what turned out to be a highly antisemitic rant by a #BlackLivesMatter protester. He stated, in a vitrioilic tone, that if the Jewish people were treated as blacks were in America, then the world would care, then the government would take action. A lot of what he said implied that Jews have privilege and run the government. Grossly offended, I retorted, “Do you know what it’s like to have pennies pelted at you in the cafeteria in high school? To watch friends of yours get beaten up because they were Jewish? No? Then you should stop talking!”
“Shut up! You can pass as white!” He responded.
I rolled my eyes, seeing no point to continue engaging with him, and left. The Western media bias suddenly made sense to me in that context. It’s hard for Westerners to sympathize with people seen as “white,” even though less than 30% of Israelis can probably even pass as white. In letting their biases influence their stance on the conflict, Westerners fall right into the Islamists trap, their entry into the Oppression Olympics.
Sometimes it’s really is black (brown) and white.