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Behind the News

The Israel Lobby Doesn’t Control the Media

According to Walt and Mearsheimer, it is the media

By Gal Beckerman  

What more could there possibly be to say about “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” the controversial new book-length version of John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s provocative thesis about pro-Israel forces in America? We’ve heard both the cries of anti-Semitism, and the sighs of those defending the two professors as illuminators of inconvenient truths (“their book has the power of Silent Spring and The Jungle”). And then, this past Sunday, in The New York Times’ book review section, Leslie Gelb provided, what I think, was the most clear-headed and dispassionate deconstruction of the Mearsheimer and Walt argument so far.

So I don’t wish to add too much more to the noise. Personally I feel torn by the debate. There is certainly a discussion to be had about role that the Israel lobby (and I’m referring here only to the actual, registered lobbyists of AIPAC) plays on Capitol Hill in stifling real political debate about Israel, or at least in restricting the options open to American leaders who want to tackle the Israel-Palestinian conflict creatively. There is little doubt that this is a real phenomenon, just as the absence of debate on Cuba, support of Taiwan, or alternative energy is due to strong lobbies using their power to effect policy.

This might be the professors’ starting point. But it is certainly not where they end up. Their idea is that the Israel lobby is large and amorphous, encompassing many more institutions and people than just AIPAC. Its influence and ability to shape American foreign policy is also virtually boundless in their account, having led us into Iraq and possibly into Iran next. And though they repeat ad infinitum that there is nothing illegal or untoward about the lobby’s work - it being an American tradition for interest groups to organize and try to effect policy, foreign and domestic — there is something inescapably sinister to the tone in which they describe it. “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” this is not, for sure, but the incredible powers of influence granted to these supporters of Israel in Walt and Mearsheimer’s telling, and the zeal with which the professors denounce and accuse, makes it hard for me to see their argument as useful. They have taken the grain of an interesting idea and cultivated with it a confused and potentially poisonous plant.

But what I really find difficult to swallow - and this I do not feel unambiguous about - is their account of how American media and specifically newspapers are molded in the hands of this Israel lobby. Six pages out of their book in a chapter titled “Dominating Public Discourse” are devoted to making this argument. In all their pronouncements about the lobby, when their initial paper was published and since the book was released last month, the media have always played a central role in what they see as a shutting out of debate, both about American policy towards Israel and about the lobby itself. In these six pages, they stick to looking at the discussion of Israel’s policies (especially vis-à-vis the Palestinians) and how they are presented here. The professors try to build an argument that, due to the lobby, we are receiving a skewed and one-sided picture. But this examination is plagued by the same lack of concrete evidence, strange extrapolations and generalizations, and innuendo that makes the rest of the book uninteresting as a piece of scholarship.

To make their point without sounding like they are joining in the tired anti-Semitic battle cry of “Jews control the media,” they deploy a simple trick. For Walt and Mearsheimer, the media cannot be controlled by the Israel lobby, because the media itself is part of the Israel lobby. In describing their conception of the lobby early on in the book they write that, “To be part of the lobby…one has to actively work to move American foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.” So the lobby can include multitudes. But when it comes to journalists and academics - who are all potential members of the lobby — the professors get just a bit more precise: “A journalist or academic who sometimes covers Middle East issues and occasionally portrays Israel favorably - such as the New York Times reporter David Sanger or the Duke University professor Bruce Jentleson - should not be seen as part of the lobby. But a journalist or scholar who predictably takes Israel’s side and devotes a significant amount of his or her writing to defending steadfast U.S. support for Israel - such as the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer or the former Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis - clearly is.”

So the lobby’s influence on the media comes from within. And since Walt and Mearsheimer admit that, “reporting on news events is less slanted than editorial commentary, in part because most reporters strive to be objective,” the main place where the lobby can exert itself is on the op-ed page. The dominance of the lobby’s “perspective” in the media, is due, they write, to the fact that, “a substantial number of American commentators who write about Israel are themselves pro-Israel.” So members of the lobby work inside newspapers and use them to express the principle of “steadfast U.S. support for Israel.” Walt and Mearsheimer then go on to look at the regular columnists of The New York Times and The Washington Post to uncover who is in the lobby. The Times had William Safire (“especially favorable to Ariel Sharon”) and now has David Brooks. Thomas Friedman gets a pass because he “is attached to Israel, but willing to offer qualified and intelligent criticism,” though he too “almost never takes the Palestinians’ side or advocates that the United States distance itself from Israel.” The Post op-ed pages has even more lobby members, including Jim Hoagland, Robert Kagan, Charles Krauthammer and George Will, and, they add, it used to feature no less than William Kristol and the late Michael Kelly.

So, just to make clear what they are saying: newspapers are not controlled by the lobby, but a “majority” of columnists, by virtue of their support for Israel, are part of the lobby, and therefore make the media serve its interest.

Where are the editors in all this? Why can’t they stop their newspapers’ op-ed pages from reading like press releases from the Israeli embassy? This is where the argument gets mushy. Walt and Mearsheimer, as they frequently do, quote people making offhand remarks and use that as the basis for a bigger argument. So they take two quotes by editors who openly expressed a pro-Israel bias - one overheard statement from Robert Bartley, the late op-ed page editor of the Wall Street Journal (surprise, surprise) and a quote from the memoirs of Max Frankel, the former - to make the claim that those who run newspapers are complicit in all this.

That’s on the opinion side, where the lobby works from within. On the news side, the professors decry the power of the lobby as manifested in watchdog groups who email and write letters and make phone calls when they find a story to be not pro-Israel enough. Pity the poor CNN executive quoted here who says he gets 6,000 email messages whenever he runs a story that is anti-Israel. We are told, of course, about CAMERA, the media watchdog group that calls NPR “National Palestine Radio” and generally makes a nuisance of themselves, and of a secret program to “co-opt prominent commentators” to become more pro-Israel by giving them tours of Israel (recent participants: Oliver North and Armstrong Williams). All this seems, to put it lightly, pretty harmless, and par for the course if you’re a good newspaper.

And that’s it. That’s the whole argument. What makes it so weak is that is based entirely on cherry-picked examples. No one would argue that the columnists they name are not pro-Israel. Furthermore, it’s obvious that among the pool of syndicated columnists that there are a large number who are conservative and therefore strongly back Israel’s hardest line. But it’s not clear how this adds up to a media universe that, in the professors’ words, “consistently favors Israel and does not call U.S. support into question in any way.”

As an exercise I looked back at the op-ed pages of the major papers during the months of July and August of last year. At this time, Israel was bombing Lebanon in an effort to eliminate Hezbollah strongholds in the south and in certain neighborhoods in Beirut. Walt and Mearsheimer argue that it was the collective power of the lobby that kept America from reigning Israel in when civilian deaths began mounting. Supposedly the media had a role in all this by not offering a critical enough examination of Israel’s actions.

But I found, among other things, an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by Sari Makdisi titled, “Caught in the Crossfire; Israel’s Outrageous Offensive,” that called Israel’s bombing campaign, “terrorism in the true sense of the word” (he also had an op-ed earlier this week about Gaza’s children who are “growing up stunted”).There was also an op-ed in The New York Times by Michael Young, the opinion editor of Beirut’s Daily Star,who would be considered pro-Arab in Walt and Mearsheimer’s lexicon, who ended his piece demanding, “Israel must cease its attacks and let diplomacy take over.” Young then wrote a 5,000 word piece for the Times Sunday magazine. Then there was the long op-ed by Fouad Siniora in Washington Post, “End This Tragedy Now; Israel Must Be Made to Respect International Law.” And as far as columnists, you can’t get more anti-Israel than H.D.S. Greenway in The Boston Globe. The titles of just two of his many columns from the period in question: “Israel’s Misguided Strategies” and “Israel’s Perilous Overkill.” Then of course there’s Robert Novak in the Chicago Sun-Times who criticized Israel to no end during the bombing. And this is not to mention the editorials in the Times and the Post, which, though initially supportive of some Israeli action, quickly turned angrily against the bombing campaign when it became more aggressive and took a larger toll on Lebanese.

I know this sounds like I am selectively picking articles that make my point. But that is exactly what Walt and Mearsheimer do. It doesn’t make a very strong case either way.

What type of coverage of Israel would make the professors happy? They claim that their problem with the lobby’s influence on the media, from within and without, does not allow for a certain kind of commentary. What viewpoint is not being represented then? When they point to Thomas Friedman and Richard Cohen, they say that even though they don’t form part of the lobby, it’s not enough that they are occasionally critical of Israel. What is lacking is someone who will be a “champion of the Palestinian cause.” As they put it, “The truth is that the ‘other side’ has no equivalent of Safire and Krauthammer, or even Friedman and Cohen, at either the Times or the Post, or any other American newspaper for that matter.”

But what is this “other side”? The reality is that even Safire and Krauthammer now believe that a Palestinian state is a necessity. And as the professors themselves say, the moderates are well represented (and by no less influential voices than Thomas Friedman and Richard Cohen). What Walt and Mearsheimer do want, it seems clear from their own conclusions, is that the op-ed pages of American newspapers consistently print critiques of Israel that paint its actions as immoral and America’s relationship to it a strategic liability (as they themselves believe). If this is their idea of balance it seems to me it would only add fuel to an already enflamed conversation. Walt and Mearsheimer realpolitik view of the world might divide it up into either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian camps, but that’s not a necessarily realistic idea of how editors see things, nor what op-ed pages should strive for.

Walt and Mearsheimer have written a terribly wrongheaded book, and their sloppy analysis is no more misguided than when they look at the media. Those who work at newspapers would find the notion of inside agents of the lobby (which is effectively what they are describing) as laughable. No columnist can pull off just spouting propaganda. They live and die by the intelligence of their argument. And, it should be remembered, just as a newspaper’s audience is affected by what they read, so are newspapers a reflection of their audience. There are many reasons why the American people support Israel. Walt and Mearsheimer undermine our intelligence by assuming that we are simply being manipulated. If more columnists support Israel it’s partly because most Americans do. That’s not the work of any lobby.

And, just to close by stating the obvious: If the lobby is so influential over the media, how were Walt and Mearsheimer given such space in every major news outlet in the country to express their “dangerous” views? You want to tell me that a force that can impel us to got to war in Iraq can’t find a way to censor two academics? Not much of a lobby, now is it?


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About the Author
Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.
Also by Gal Beckerman
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