Perception Vs. Reality In The Middle East "Press War"

Back in 1985, Rolling Stone magazine created advertisements for itself designed to attract more media spending; it had "outgrown" its "summer-of-love origins," according to Ad Week Magazine, and was seeking respectability which it defined in terms of money, that is, "respectable advertisers."

The campaign had a simple theme: "Perception vs. Reality." On one side of the page, the magazine offered stereotyped images of the public the corporate world thought was reading the pioneering rock 'n' roll mag. There were long-haired hippies waving peace signs while standing in front of a beat-up Volkswagen van they had found in a junkyard. The ad carried a bold, one-word caption: "Perception."

On the opposing page was a photo of well-dressed, well-scrubbed preppies standing in front of their BMW. The text claimed that the real "Rolling Stone" subscriber was middle class, with lots of discretionary income and upscale consumerist aspirations. This full-page image also carried one word: "Reality."

The campaign was effective in repositioning the magazine and moving it in a corporate direction.

It also influenced me because here I am decades later remembering its impact and thinking how well that "perception/reality" slogan applies to recent news from the Middle East. Only a few weeks ago, the world seemed quiescent; crises were in check and global politics seemed driven by a new sense of global purpose after 150 world leaders rallied at the United Nations to welcome the new millennium. Just look (see right column) at how congenial and happy they were as they posed for a remarkable "we run the world" photo session captured by U.N. television.

Soon, media-fostered perceptions once again clashed with much more difficult realities. Events that were splashed on the front pages of the world's press and TV screens appeared to signal reality. But as much was left out as was included. Context was often missing, background rarely explained.

The Yemen Connection
This week an American warship, the USS Cole, which cost more than a billion dollars to build, was attacked and disabled in the port of Aden (once a British colony, now part of Yemen). There were a number of deaths and injuries. A small boat pulled alongside the ship and sent an explosive message, labeled a terrorist attack in every media outlet I saw. While we still don't know who was responsible, we also don't know what the ship was doing there. Most of us don't even know where Yemen is, much less how tensions in the Gulf relate to the world energy crisis, to recent talks about Iran and Iraq or to the unraveling U.N. sanctions against the latter, which have -- with little media attention -- resulted in the deaths of as many as a million Iraqi children. How does this attack connect with the chants reported in parts of the Arab world: "Down, Down USA/We won't be ruled by the CIA"? By Saturday, National Public Radio was reporting on a communique by a group claiming that the attack was a response to Israeli aggresssion -- undertaken with military equipment supplied by the Pentagon -- on Palestinians.

As it happens, when I returned from Europe a few weeks ago, I sat next to a woman I thought at first was a nun. I called her sister, until I realized she was wearing the chador of a Muslim. As I soon learned, she was dressed in orthodox Yemeni Islamic garb with eyes veiled and fingers bedecked with glistening gold jewelry. She was reticent at first but eventually revealed that she was representing her country at a U.N. meeting. I was surprised that a country in the Gulf would have a woman, and in this case a black woman, as a representative. She told me that relations between her country and Washington were in fine shape. I quickly realized how little I knew about life there or where Yemen stands in the morass of Middle East politics. I was embarrassed by my ignorance. I realized that was a prisoner of my own provincialism and, yes, my own perceptions. I would guess few other Americans have a clue about the Yemen connection either. offers one background take on this issue.

The Israel-Palestine Conflagration
If you read or watch American media, you'd think that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is a battle between opposing armies, ordered by Yasir Arafat to scuttle the peace process. And once again the issue has been framed as Arab versus Jew, with the substantial and vocal peace movement in Israel overlooked and Palestinians referred to as rock throwers and fanatics. In every conflict like this, there are charges and instances of media bias on both sides. Israel, to cite just one example, has accused CNN and the BBC of a pro-Palestinian bias, while Palestine takes an opposite view. But in this complicated crisis, certain underlying issues tend to get lost in the emotional fervor. While most American Jews align themselves with Israel (just as most Arab-Americans align themselves against it), I have chosen to quote three American Jews with other views because it seems their perspectives rarely penetrate a media framework that often assumes ethnicity is an adequate guide to understanding the underlying politics of the crisis. It isn't. Media treatments tends to offer polarized perceptions, although the reality is that there is a healthy multi-sided debate on the issues and the media coverage.

The Nation's Eric Alterman debunks the belief held by many Jews that the media is anti-Israel: "Marvin Kalb, executive director of the Washington office of Harvard's Schoenstein Public Policy Center, diagnoses an anti-Israel tilt in the U.S. media, in which 'the Israelis have come, through a miraculous alchemical formula, to become the giants and everyone else is the David.' What planet is this man living on? Just look at the numbers. Nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed and more than 2,500 injured, compared with just five Israeli Jews. [Since his article appeared, far more Palestinians (but also more Jews) have been killed, many brutally.] The Palestinians attack with stones, Molotov cocktails and the extremely rare automatic weapon. Unlike nations that quell riots by their own people with tear gas and rubber bullets, the Israelis respond with live ammunition: antitank rockets, helicopter gunships and armor-piercing missiles. Armed Jewish vigilantes have undertaken murderous rampages against unarmed Arab citizens, shooting them in cold blood. The U.N. Security Council condemns Israel's 'excessive use of force.' " (Actually, Eric, the United Nations condemned the violence, after lots of arm-twisting by the United States, which abstained from the vote, without mentioning Israel by name.)

Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine goes further in apportioning blame for the current crisis on Israel and the media: "The preponderance of responsibility lies with Israel -- and with an international media which continues to obscure the basic realities facing the Palestinian people. The story Israel puts forward, and the media confirms, is that Palestinians were on the verge of an acceptable agreement for final status, and that it was only Arafat's bowing to Islamic demands for sovereignty over the Temple Mount (site of Islam's holy mosques) that undermined the deal. Palestinians are portrayed as irrationally holding out for something that Israel says it couldn't give. The reality is quite different. Since taking office, Barak has expanded existing settlements, built new roads into the West Bank, and made it clear at Camp David that he would insist on keeping the vast majority of settlers in place. The state Palestinians would then be offered would have within it a group of Israeli nationalistic fanatics, many of whom moved to the West Bank precisely to ensure that there would never be a Palestinian state."

The Role Of The U.S.
And what about how the United States' role is perceived and presented? Syndicated media columnist Norman Solomon takes that issue on in media terms: "The formula for American media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simple: Report on the latest developments in the fragile 'peace process.' Depict U.S. officials as honest brokers in the negotiations. Emphasize the need for restraint and compromise instead of instability and bloodshed. In the world according to news media, the U.S. government is situated on high moral ground -- in contrast to some of the intractable adversaries."

There is also a battle within Israel about how to fight what leaders there call the "press war." According to the Washington Post, Israel's New York-based Consul-General Shmuel Sisso was criticized by a visiting politician for not doing enough to respond to Palestinian views in the press. The consul responded that he makes at least three media appearances each day, via radio, TV and newspaper. "If you have been reading the New York papers and watch the local TV, you can see our voices are being heard," Sisso said. What an understatement! Polls in Time and Newsweek show that more than 70 percent of the American public supports Israel's recent actions, and newspaper editorials have mostly blamed the recent violence on Yasir Arafat.

As fierce clashes in occupied territory neared the end of their second week, a New York Times dispatch from Jerusalem declared: "The conflict that had been so elaborately dressed in the civilizing cloak of a peace effort has been stripped to its barest essence: Jew against Arab, Arab against Jew."

Meanwhile, in the United States government, there is a clear consensus among politicians that tilts toward the Israelis. That point came through clearly in the last political debate between Al Gore and George Bush, who couldn't agree with each other more on this issue. The same was true of the last debate in the New York State Senate race between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rick Lazio, with both outdoing each other in professing uncritical loyalty to Israel, egged on by a questioner from Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. (In the past, Murdoch has referred to himself as a Christian Zionist.)

Throughout the recent bloody events in Israel and the West Bank, the media here, along with much of the government, have blamed the problems on two men who may have more in common than they appear to: Israeli super-hawk Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Chairman Yasir Arafat. Sharon clearly relishes the role of provocateur and is probably happy to see the "peace process" implode. But what about Arafat? He is treated in the press as if he ordered the violence and has the power to turn it off like a faucet. The New York Times' Thomas Friedman, author of "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," echoes this line. His October 13 column was titled "Arafat's War," noting of the Palestinians: "They unfurled all the old complaints about the brutality of the continued Israeli occupation and settlement building." How condescending "all the old complaints" is!

Friedman then admits that "frankly, the Israeli occupation and continued settlement building are oppressive. "But" -- note the predictable use of 'but' -- "what the Palestinians and Arabs refuse to acknowledge is that today's Israeli prime minister was offering them a dignified exit. It was far from perfect for Palestinians, but it was a proposal that, with the right approach, could have been built upon and widened." Friedman then turns his piece into a paean to the Israeli position, boosting Barak in spite of admitting that his offer "was far from perfect." I have always been astonished how leading lights of journalism can admit that people are oppressed and then put them down for revolting against that oppression (unless they live in Belgrade!).

This type of convoluted journalism contrasts sharply with what some Israeli journalists and Palestinians have been saying. Amrira Hess, an Israeli reporter interviewed by radio journalist Amy Goodman on her always informative "Democracy Now" program on Pacifica radio, noted that the Israeli people are as dominated by propaganda from on high as any other. Writing in Ha'aretz, on October 11, Hess shows in detail how Israeli citizens have been systematically given the false impression that Israel is "being attacked, besieged, victimized and humiliated" and that Israeli forces are acting with "self-restraint." She said that Israelis are so out of touch with Palestinian attitudes that they have convinced themselves that the people there operate like robots ordered around by Arafat. But Columbia University professor Edward Said, a spokesman for Palestinian rights and a former member (1977 to 1991) of the Palestinian National Council, argues not only that the revolt was not ordered by Arafat, but is actually directed at him.

"My guess is that some of the new Palestinian intifada is directed at Arafat," Said writes, in a piece sent my way by Free Speech TV. "[Arafat] has led his people astray with phony promises, and maintained a battery of corrupt officials holding down commercial monopolies even as they negotiate incompetently and weakly on his behalf. Some 60 percent of the public budget is disbursed by Arafat to bureaucracy and security, only two percent to the infrastructure. Three years ago his own accountants admitted to an annual $400 million in disappeared funds. His international patrons accept this in the name of the 'peace process,' certainly the most hated phrase in the Palestinian lexicon today."

Peace Process Predicament
This last point deserves pondering. Is it possible that the perception of a Middle East peace process, so widely touted in the West and among editorial writers, does not exist as such for most Palestinians? I was upset two weeks ago to learn that one Palestinian youth who had been bravely promoting coexistence with Israel through the Seeds of Peace program, about which I produced a film about three years ago, had been shot by Israeli soldiers. NBC's Martin Fletcher did a strong and compassionate story about his death for the network's weekend news show, which always seems to have better international coverage than Nightly News. Perhaps the facts of this case -- as well as the horrific on-camera shooting of young Mohammad Dura, the Palestinian child shot while he and his father were taking cover, and the lynchings of Israelis by Palestinians afterwards seen holding up their bloody hands triumphantly -- will be determined by a fact-finding mission agreed to at the just-concluded peace summit in Egypt. One investigation by Human Rights Watch released October 17th condemned Israeli police and security forces for a "pattern of using excessive lethal force." Their report also "strongly criticized" the Palestinian police for not preventing armed Palestinians from shooting at Israelis in areas where civilians were present.

Dr. Fouad Moughrabi, a professor of political science who has worked with the American Friends Service Committee and who currently lives in Ramallah, brought me to tears with his description of the mostly unreported fears of Palestinian children. "We have begun to hear stories about children's reactions to the events: a five- year old kid was putting on jewelry and girls' clothing in his parent's bedroom. Asked by his mother what he was doing, the child said that the Israelis only shoot boys and he does not want to be a boy any more. ...When I reached the school to fetch my six-year-old, the kids were in a state of shock, crying hysterically and saying that the Israeli soldiers and the settlers were coming to kill everyone." Moughrabi criticizes the shocking murders of Israelis, but blames the press as well. "Nothing excuses the horror of death and mutilation by Palestinians or by Israelis. But it is quite clear that after more than fifty years of this deadly conflict, people still fail to understand the injustice in the Middle East. People still belabor under illusions fed by sophisticated propaganda machines and readily accepted by a pliant international press corps." Note that he says propaganda machines, referring to many, not just one.

Another Palestinian, Rami Khori, writes, "The most dangerous aspect of the current situation is the almost total collapse of the trust and hope that had been the foundations of the peace process to date. Israelis and Palestinians have largely reverted to a primordial survival instinct that may be understandable in human terms, and perhaps even explicable in political terms; but in historical terms it may open the dangerous door to a catastrophic, gladiator-like fight to the finish.... Both peoples are threatened by self-fulfilling prophecies about their own vulnerability and their need to use greater and greater force to protect themselves from the predatory militarism of the other. This is expressed in the identical claim from both sides that the other side only understands the language of force.

Without going into all sides of this continuing debate -- a subject well beyond the scope of a media column -- suffice it to say that what is happening in this conflict remains unclear to many mainstream news viewers. That's why I was struck by a short film shot on home video in the West Bank town of Bethlehem by Vermont film-archivist Roz Payne. She visited the West Bank two years ago as part of a "Sister City" delegation with officials from Burlington, Vermont. She called her tape "O little town" and used the Christmas carol of the same name as a soundtrack for her candid camera coverage of what was actually happening in the continuing confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.

Roz's tape shows how an "incident" erupted after students marched to protest the killing by soldiers of three Palestinians whose taxi came too close to an Israeli checkpoint. Soon she is in the middle of the action, a mini-intifada, with some kids picking up rocks to hurl at the soldiers, a gesture which they see in Biblical, David-versus-Goliath terms. (In this drama, Palestinians see themselves as modern Davids and Israel as Goliath; Israel, sees itself also as David and treats Palestinians as if they are all threats to its security.) She next videotapes soldiers pointing weapons at the kids, then firing rubber bullets and live ammunition to repel them. It's like shooting at ducks in a barrel. No Palestinian fires back. Fortunately, what might have been a massacre is averted. The students race out of the line of fire in what looks at times like a deadly game of chicken. The very routine nature of the incident was what struck me, the inevitability of violence under the violent logic of a military occupation. We need more such coverage that shows how small incidents trigger large conflicts.

Overall, we need more discussions of how things are seen from all sides and less uninformed punditry. Throughout the conflict, there have been many media errors and omissions. For example, the New York Times ran a photo it said was of a Palestinian being brutalized by an Israeli soldier. It turned out that the beaten and stabbed young man was an American Jewish student escaping a Palestinian mob. The deeper issue is a bias against historical perspective; it's difficult to explain the historical causes for the region's endless violence, but necessary. We especially need journalists to discuss what pro-peace forces on all sides feel about resolving this struggle, and what a responsible media can do to assist that process. If any conflict needs a dose of "peace journalism", this one does.

Journalists have a big responsibility in crises like this. We need to get beyond incident-by-incident reporting. We need to think about how to contribute to a resolution of the crisis rather than to a deepening of it by inflaming prejudices on any side. Sadly, the practice nicknamed "when it bleeds it leads" still prevails. So does journalism that marches in lockstep with government policies while pandering to mistaken audience perceptions. Our first challenge is to put our own perceptions to the reality test.

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