At the same time, it’s hard not to sense a bit of anxiety in Bronner’s writing, as though he had put the story together with one eye on the events and the other on the reactions he might get from readers back home. The story’s very thoroughness might even be seen cynically as a protective coating to ensure the harsh news goes down gently. Unlike the British reports, Bronner’s doesn’t lead with the soldiers’ allegations, but with a reminder that Israel is beset, yet it does its best. The allegations themselves, which are the point of the story—indeed, the whole story as other reporters told it—are met with just about every possible rebuttal and mitigating circumstance.
That might be reading too much into Bronner’s article. Bronner himself, in an interview shortly before the soldiers’ story broke, said he isn’t concerned about pressure from outside the paper—and he’s never felt any pressure from inside. “Readers write to complain,” he said. “Mostly I hear from people who click on my name on the Web site. I get it fairly equally from both sides, although Jews probably write to me a lot. There are a lot of Jewish readers.”
The question, Bronner said, “ is whether you as a journalist view that as pressure.
As much as journalists deny feeling pressure, though, many observers aren’t convinced. On the one hand, the argument goes, pro-Israel activists—Jewish organizations, prominent journalists, ordinary citizens—have protested repeatedly over the years against coverage of Israel that they considered unfair or unflattering. On the other hand, coverage of Israel in the American news media often seems far more sympathetic than elsewhere. Critics say the two facts can hardly be unrelated.
To some extent, of course, media messages are simply a reflection of the attitudes of the surrounding culture. Journalists are products of the society in which they live, and part of their job is to answer the questions that the public wants answered. “There is a bias in American culture, a deep bias,” said James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute. “It’s the water we swim in. We grow up in a culture shaped by books and movies like Leon Uris’s Exodus, where Israelis are people like us facing the forces of the wilderness. The inclination is to understand the people who are like us. And the press stories are colored by that.”
In a sense, pro-Israel activists pushing for more sympathy for Israel are pushing on an open door. But they push anyway, in a variety of ways. The most common form of pro-Israel pressure is reader mail accusing writers, often in vitriolic, personal terms, of maligning Israel. Advocacy organizations sometimes weigh in, publishing specific media critiques that are circulated to sympathizers, generating more public protest.
Less common but more dramatic are boycotts of particular news organizations. The New York Times was targeted in 2002 for a ten-day subscription boycott, called by a rabbi who objected to the paper’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian fighting that was raging at the time. The paper didn’t divulge the losses, but they were “enough to notice,” former New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr. told me at the time. The following spring, coordinated boycotts were launched against the Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Chicago Tribune, with thousands of subscribers participating. At the same time, pro-Israel hardliners launched a donors’ boycott of Boston’s public radio station, WBUR, to protest National Public Radio’s Middle East coverage. It cost the station more than $1 million in pledged gifts, according to news reports.
Even if the news organizations don’t crack down on their journalists, the outside pressure can lead, often unconsciously, to self-censorship. “If you’re an up-and-coming journalist, there is no reason whatsoever why you would want to get the pro-Israel community mad at you—absolutely none,” said M. J. Rosenberg, policy director of the liberal-leaning Israel Policy Forum. “The pro-Israel community is strategically located and is associated with powerful people.”