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.”
It’s almost a cliché these days to suggest that the presence of a well-organized Jewish community in America has a lot to do with the way Israel is treated by government and the media. It’s a mistake, though, to note the community’s ability to threaten and overlook its role as a leavening force in the larger culture. Jewish sensibilities help shape America’s sense of humor, U.S. attitudes toward civil rights, and much more. It would be astonishing if American Jews didn’t also influence America’s view of Israel—much as Irish Americans have helped mold attitudes toward Ireland.
That’s a key difference between American and British coverage of the Middle East. The British Jewish community is well rooted, but it’s smaller—barely one-tenth the size of, say, the British Muslim community.
Whatever conscious or unconscious motivations might have been at work at The New York Times Jerusalem bureau on March 19, they were contagious. The next American reporter to get the story out that day, Martin Fletcher of NBC News, framed it in the same indirect way that Bronner did. Comparing Fletcher’s first-day report with the story filed by his colleague at BBC, Paul Wood, offers a virtual Rorschach test of the way the Middle East is treated on the two sides of the Atlantic.
The contrast is apparent the moment the tape starts to roll. The BBC report led with Wood asking, “Did the Israeli army commit war crimes in Gaza? The Palestinians say that’s evident from the shelling of a UN school full of refugees or the use of incendiary white phosphorus.” On screen as he spoke were images of victims at the school and jets emitting trails of white vapor. “But now,” Wood continued, “testimony has emerged from Israeli soldiers about the deliberate killing of civilians.”