Israel, Jews, And The Press

A Nonconforming View

December 20, 2005

Years back, when I was writing a military column for Universal Press Syndicate, I heard of a book on women in the armed services called The Kinder, Gentler Military (the title as it turned out was ironic) by Stephanie Gutmann, a Jewish woman out of Manhattan. The latter didn’t sound like a recommendation. I expected a feminist tirade. However my friend Catherine Aspy spoke well of it. Kate had graduated from Harvard in 1992 and, setting a historic record for wild improbability, enlisted in the US Army. She knew the military. She had seen what Gutmann was writing about, and liked the book. So I read it.

To my surprise, Gutmann knew what she was talking about. She wasn’t political, just reportorial, and described perfectly the fraud and double standards used to make women look successful in the army. Much of it would be hard to credit, except that I had seen it from outside as Kate had from the inside. In the course of events I met Steph a couple of times, chatted on the phone, and lost contact with her. The book got few and bad reviews because it was not what the media wanted to hear. It was a fine book. (Amazon has it.)

A couple of months ago, I ran across a blurb about another book that she recently wrote, The Other War, described as arguing that Israel takes an unfair beating in the press, which is skilfully manipulared by the Palestinians. If Alan Dershowitz had written it, I’d have dismissed it as propaganda—but then, I have read Dershowitz. Instead I ordered the book.

The subject interested me for various reasons, one being an odd contradiction I had noticed. I get considerable mail from the anti-Jewish backchannels on the net telling me that the Jews control the American media. Often these are accompanied by lists, usually accurate enough, of important positions in the media held by Jews. My correspondents then assert that because of this control we hear only good things about Israel.

Well and good—except that for perhaps fifteen years I had never heard anything good about Israel from the media. The Israelis were always deliberately shooting little Palestinian children, bulldozing houses from sheer vindictiveness, reducing Palestinians to poverty, murdering Palestinian leaders, torturing all within reach, and intimidating the press. The Palestinians were noble freedom fighters, just like Davy Crockett, or hapless victims.

Hmmm, I wondered. If Jews control the press and only tell us good things about Israel, how come I never hear anything from the press about Israel except bad things?

I was also interested because I’d had considerable if scattered experience in Israel, and indeed cut my journalistic baby-teeth there. In 1967 on recuperative leave from Bethesda Naval Hospital I had gone to Europe with a shot-up squid off of PBRs in Asia, gotten bored, and gone to Israel. We hippied about, had the usual adventures, got mortared in Eilat. (The hippies didn’t understand why we were suddenly on the floor. We knew what “ka-chung” meant.)

In ’73 I went to Israel as a greenhorn war correspondent for the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free-Lance Star. I was pig-ignorant of the news racket, looked like Mehitabel the Cat’s degenerate brother, and must have astonished the Israelis, but my credentials checked out and the info people were pretty decent. I got to the Golan, the Sinai, and so on. I was there for the doings of the early 80s.

Anyway, Stephanie’s book arrived. In it she makes a (well documented, example-filled) case that the mainstream media are relentlessly hostile to Israel. Yes, I know. This is so contrary to what we are told daily that to doubt it feels a bit like doubting gravitation. And don’t important papers and networks all agree? When you are told something often enough you begin to believe that you know it. And since I hadn’t been to Israel in twenty-five years, I couldn’t speak from recent personal experience.

But something stank. The news from the region was too pat, too homogeneous. Her description of the behavior of the press in Israel, with which she is intimately familiar, was exactly what I had seen in countless other places—ignorant, herd-like, egomaniacal, adversarial; unremmittingly partisan, moralizing, all snottily in agreement, with much clawing over each other to make a name. Of this I knew a great deal.

With today's media, taking sides instead of reporting is usual. Most of us I think know this from daily observation. For example, if whites murder a black for reasons of racial hostility, it is news for weeks, but should the crime go in the other direction, the story will be downplayed and then suppressed. One is as bad as the other—but that is not how it is reported. Should a man suggest that men are better than women at mathematics, the press will not regard it as a question to be investigated but as a crime to be punished. “Political correctness” is nothing but herdwired advocacy journalism.

If the press couldn't get anything else right, I thought, why should I trust them on Israel?

I have seen endless inaccuracy and untruthfulness. I was in Phnom Penh for the final siege. The papers in the States spoke of “barrages” of rockets “pounding” the city. Actually, there were scattered rockets, six or eight a day, and probably not one reporter in fifty knew what “barrage” meant. When Americans were reading about the “starving” city, I was stepping over pigs, quite chubby, tied on sidewalks. One of the newsweeklies, I forget which, ran a cover of Cambodians running in terror with the city in flames behind. I was there. No flames. It was a file photo from who knows when.

For years in Washington I covered the military in the company of reporters for allegedly meritorious publications—the Washington Post, the New York Times, the networks. There was the same preachy witless partisanship. Everyone has heard about the $600 toilet seat and the $17 dollar bolts bought by the Pentagon, no? I covered these stories. They were nonsense.* The reporters easily could have determined that they were nonsense. In those days the entire press corps (the pack effect) insisted that American weapons didn’t work, were too complex, broke constantly. Not even close. On and on.

When a woman I know to be a fine reporter tells me that the press in Israel behaves exactly as I have know it to behave everywhere else, I'm inclined to take her seriously.

My objection to the behavior of the press in general, and I think hers to its behavior in Israel, is not to its political positions but to dishonest reporting. The view that, say, Israel should get out of the West Bank is a political one, legitimate in a column. The Palestinians are part of the story too and should be covered fairly. But sloppy reporting according to a heavily-agendaed double standard is just lousy journalism. When Guttman writes about reporters hanging around the press bar in Jerusalem and writing I-was-there stories when they weren’t, or about photographers looking for the Pulitzer photo without knowing or caring what was going on, or about craftedly dishonest writing to support a political position, she is describing something I have seen over and over elsewhere. It's just how the business works.

A curious fact, though she doesn’t mention it, is that many of the reporters she cites as most hostile to Israel are Jewish. For example, Ted Koppel. I assume that Suzanne Goldenberg and Rick Kaplan are Jewish, though I grant that they may be Chinese Protestants with Jewish names. She cites the New York Times, Jewish owned, as particularly hostile. Jews whom I know say the same thing: It isn't caricature anti-Semites but the liberal press. Explain it as you will, but I have noticed the same thing. It doesn't add up to Israeli control of the press.

If the Middle East interests you, I recommend The Other War. Judge it as you will. But read it.

Israel, 1973, without a brain in my head. Israelis will recognize the backdrop.

With the Press in Southern Lebanon

*Six-hundred-dollar toilet seats

Kate Aspy