Is American media coverage of the Israel-Hamas war biased?

(RNS) — For many Jewish Americans it is virtually an article of faith that the mainstream media is biased against Israel. That perception is the result not just of personal encounters with coverage critical of the Jewish state, but of a long-standing campaign on the pro-Israel right to demonstrate that such bias exists. 

Leading the way in this effort are CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis, which was established in 1982, and the website, begun in 2000. Both display particular animus toward The New York Times, presumably because it’s the country’s newspaper of record and is published at the epicenter of Jewish life in America and perhaps as well because of its Jewish (self-hating, eh?) ownership.

Last week, CAMERA ran a story about a billboard it had put up near the Times’ building in midtown Manhattan that reads, “Antisemites are tearing down hostage posters. Why Is The New York Times Whitewashing This Jew Hatred?”

In an effort to assess the charge of media bias in a more dispassionate and comprehensive way, my former colleague Trinity College Professor Ronald Kiener and I examined coverage of Israel by the Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, CNN and Fox News during 2021 and 2022. Just published in the American Jewish Year Book 2022, our study focuses on four major stories involving Israel: the Israeli government’s inclusion of its first Arab party, Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling ice cream on the West Bank, the Israeli government’s approach to the war in Ukraine and the shooting death of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh.

Critical to our analysis is a comparison with coverage in Israel’s now substantial English-language press, ranging from the center-left Haaretz to the centrist Times of Israel to the center-right Jerusalem Post.

Across the ideological spectrum there was about as much criticism of Israel on the Israeli side as on the American, with more on the left and less on the right. We did find, however, that The Washington Post’s news and opinion coverage was sufficiently unbalanced that a charge of anti-Israel bias might be warranted. By contrast, The Wall Street Journal was distinctly pro-Israel, particularly in its opinion section, as was Fox News. Contrary to the persistent complaints of CAMERA and HonestReporting, The New York Times was notably evenhanded. 

If there was a significant divergence between the American and Israeli media, it was in the degree of hopefulness. As we wrote regarding the first of the stories we looked at:

“[T]he hope for reconciliation, for a narrative to break the toil and trouble of the Israel-Palestine conflict, was more alive in American hearts than among Israelis jaded by years of disappointment. For the latter, there are few things more humiliating than to be branded a ‘freier’ — a sucker — and you ran that risk if you dared believe that an Arab party could actually join the government, or that if it did, that would change the face of Israeli politics.”

Or as the Jewish telegram in the old joke puts it, “Start worrying. Letter to Follow.” 

Israeli Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, Israel, Friday, Oct. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Avi Roccah)

Israeli Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, Israel, Oct. 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Avi Roccah)

So much for last year. What about coverage of the current Gaza war, the most violent chapter in the Israeli-Arab conflict since the Yom Kippur War of 1973? To help with an assessment, I called up my co-author, whose attention to the coverage, both American and Israeli, has been obsessive.

Ron noted that, unsurprisingly, the sympathetic treatment of Israel after Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre of civilians dissipated once the bombing campaign against Gaza began. Otherwise, we agreed that the basic American media story has remained as it was, with The Washington Post (plus MSNBC) most critical of Israel; The Wall Street Journal and Fox, least.

As for The New York Times, it caused an outcry early in the campaign by blaming Israel for an explosion at a hospital, later publishing a correction that its coverage “relied too heavily on claims by Hamas, and did not make clear that those claims could not immediately be verified.” Overall, it has maintained its balanced approach, one anchored on the center-left by columnist Thomas Friedman and on the center-right by columnist Bret Stephens.

But the old American optimism is in short supply.

“The fact that no one has a clear idea of where this is going to end up is I think common both to the Israeli and the American journalistic communities right now,” Ron told me. “The only extent that the American press is being optimistic is by its willingness to discuss the plans for Gaza ‘the day after.’”

Again unsurprisingly, the Israeli press is more consumed by the political fallout than Americans are, Ron said — “what’s going to happen when Netanyahu is removed one way or other from the prime ministership. … It’s a broken country and I don’t think [the Americans] understand that.”

A few days ago The Washington Post published a long, thoughtful article on “the day after” by its veteran military affairs columnist David Ignatius, reporting from Tel Aviv on a trip to speak with Israel’s military commanders. The piece ends with Ignatius visiting high-tech entrepreneur Eyal Waldman, whose daughter Danielle was killed attending the rock concert near Gaza on Oct. 7 but who continues to employ Palestinians in his computer company and continues to consult with Arab friends.

Ignatius writes: “‘We need to stop killing each other,’ Waldman tells me. ‘It’s going to take time.’ I ask him what countries his Arab contacts are from, but he won’t answer. This isn’t the time to talk openly about peace with the Palestinians, he says. But he still believes it’s coming.”

Better to risk being a freier, it seems, than to abandon all hope.

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