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.”
NBC eased into its story more gently. “Israel,” anchor David Gregory began, “has always said that its attack on Gaza was an act of self-defense, a response to missile attacks against Israeli civilians. But now Israel has been shaken by charges from some of the soldiers themselves that the Israeli military acted far more brutally than previously thought.”
Gregory then handed off to correspondent Martin Fletcher, who showed film of Israeli tanks that “flattened Palestinian homes”—in order, he said immediately, “to keep their own soldiers safe” by avoiding main roads.
Both the BBC and NBC went on to relate the two soldiers’ accounts of snipers shooting women. Both showed footage of an Israeli military spokeswoman promising an investigation. To balance her, NBC showed a Hamas spokesman saying that the “confessions confirm the criminal and terrorist mentality of the Israelis.” BBC, by contrast, brought in an Israeli human-rights activist with a more measured and hence more credible response. She said the reports didn’t represent “a few bad seeds” but rather “norms of behavior” communicated by “mid-level or high-level officers.”
BBC’s Wood then sharpened the allegation. “The claim then is that the Israeli army’s rules of engagement allowed soldiers to kill with impunity,” he said. “That charge is unproven. For an Israeli army that prides itself on purity of arms, these allegations are a challenge.”
Fletcher’s conclusion was far more cautious: “It isn’t clear how widespread these acts were.”
Here’s the scorecard: both television reports gave the same basic background about the soldiers’ visit to the academy. Both related the same two accounts of snipers shooting women and children. The difference was that BBC opened with the prosecution’s charges, while NBC opened with the defense. BBC made no mention of the Hamas rocket attacks that preceded the Israeli invasion. NBC didn’t mention any claims of permissive rules of engagement coming down from the higher-ups.
Missing bits of information like those can go a long way, intentionally or not, in tilting a story to one side or the other. Omitting mention of the rockets allowed viewers to conclude, as many observers around the world have concluded, that the Israeli onslaught was a senseless display of cruelty meant to humiliate Palestinians. It turned Israelis into stick figures, cardboard Nazis. In so doing, it tarnished the credibility of peace negotiations.