The hostile media effect

    According to The Washington Post, when a newspaper reports on controversial topics, such as Arab-Israeli conflicts, partisans will criticize the paper’s coverage, particularly when the paper has more balanced coverage than clearly biased sources. This is what researchers call the “hostile media effect.” Both sides will criticize the newspaper for leaving out relevant background information. And thus, on Arab-Israeli disputes, the Post’s coverage is justified, so long as it lies somewhere between that of fanatical, fundamentalist anti-Israel Muslims and anti-Arab Zionist Jews.

    However, there is a difference between balance and the appearance of balance, and there is a difference between truth and opinion, just as there is a real possibility that a newspaper can leave out relevant information. In the U.S. media, on coverage of U.S. foreign policy, and, by extension, that of Israel, we often find a quiet consensus on what relevant information will be ignored, and an unwillingness to challenge official opinions that are then accepted as fact. We find conclusions buried in what appears to be balanced news coverage. On the op-ed pages we encounter an odd congruence of opinion, based on the major papers’ news reports.

    Every single major U.S. newspaper says that Palestinian militants prompted the current crisis in the Middle East by capturing a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, on June 25. The New York Times, for instance, tells us that Shalit’s “capture by Palestinian militants on June 25 touched off the crisis in Gaza.” In nearly identical language, The Washington Post tells us that Shalit’s capture, and then the capture of two other Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, “touched off the wide new war raging in the Middle East.” In its “Q&A: Behind the Israel-Hezbollah crisis,” The Christian Science Monitor tells us the same. And so, Israel had to take some sort of action to rescue their soldiers. Israel is simply reacting to the actions of “terror organizations.” All is well and good.

    Although Reuters carried a report, and it was reported in Israel, no major U.S. newspaper noted that on June 24, the day before the kidnapping that justified weeks of Israeli bombardment, Israel kidnapped two Palestinian civilians in Gaza, Mustafa and Osama Muamar, and brought them to Israel, where they have essentially disappeared in Israeli jails. Mustafa and Osama Muamar joined around 9,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails; 95 of the 9,000 are women, and 313 are under age 18.

    This is clearly not irrelevant background information. In fact, this is the immediate cause of “the crisis in Gaza” and “the wide new war raging in the Middle East,” and, if known, it would affect every American’s opinion of the new war in the Middle East.

    By Saturday the death toll following Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip was about 100 Palestinians to one Israeli, with the one Israeli being a soldier. In Lebanon the death toll was 380 Lebanese to 36 Israelis, about a 10-1 ratio. If we count only civilians, the toll was about 350-17, or 20-1, and Israeli bombing of schools, hospitals, factories, TV stations, radio stations, boats, ports, airports, apartment buildings, bridges, roads, mosques, relief trucks, and telecommunications installations had displaced 600,000 Lebanese civilians, according to the World Health Organization.

    The U.S. Code and the U.N. define terrorism as the use of force against civilians to achieve political goals. When Hamas and Hezbollah attack Israeli civilians to influence the Israeli government, the U.S. media denounces those attacks as acts of terror, and rightly so. When Israel, or the U.S., commits far worse crimes – 20 to 100 times worse – to influence the Palestinian and Lebanese governments, those condemnations are nonexistent.

    On July 13, on a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Israel to immediately end its military operations in Gaza (and also calling for the unconditional release of Cpl. Shalit), the U.S. once again used its veto. A veto was necessary to prevent the world from acting, as 10 of the 15 Security Council members approved the resolution, with four abstaining. The U.S. and Israeli governments said the resolution was biased, and Israel was right to act as it had. Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Dan Gillerman asked the members of the Security Council what they would have done if their neighbors had infiltrated their territory to seize their own soldiers. “Would you just sit back and take it or would you do exactly what Israel is doing at this very minute?” he asked.

    At first the purpose of Israel’s operations in the Middle East’s wide new war was to rescue kidnapped soldiers. Now its purpose in Lebanon is not only to stop the rocket attacks that began after Israeli bombardment, but to prevent even the possibility of those attacks.

    U.S. media coverage, and the conclusions embedded within it, has done a great deal to justify the Israeli “reaction.” But if Israel is justified in holding two nations hostage to rescue three of its soldiers, surely the Palestinians and Lebanese are justified in having captured those soldiers in exchange for more than 9,000 Palestinians and Lebanese in Israeli jails. And if the U.S. media hadn’t missed the Israeli actions that “touched off” the current crises in the Middle East, Americans might agree.