Press Coverage of Palestinian Uprising Reveals Extreme Anti-Arab Hostility
Washington, DC, Oct. 15 — Coverage in the US media of the past two weeks of violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories has revealed shocking levels of hostility to Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims from many American commentators and journalists. As the conflict grew in intensity during the course of last week, ever more extreme hostility and racism against Palestinians proliferated in the media. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the nation’s largest Arab-American membership organization, notes that the bias against Arabs in the American media has, in some cases, reached scandalous proportions in recent days. ADC calls upon the editors of major American publications to maintain consistent standards and ensure that their publications are not a platform for hostile anti-Arab prejudice.
Perhaps the most egregious expression of anti-Arab hatred in the mainstream press in recent days came from the online publication Slate, which is owned by Microsoft and edited by the well-known pundit Michael Kinsley. On Friday, Slate columnist Scott Shuger called one of the Palestinians who had participated in the killing of two Israeli soldiers “a piece of shit posing as a human being” and other Palestinians as “the other turds.” In the past two weeks, over one hundred Palestinians, mostly unarmed civilians, have been killed by Israeli occupation troops. Over 20 of the killed Palestinians were children. Several Palestinians have been murdered by rampaging Israeli settlers, including one who was brutally tortured with hot irons and then burned to death. No American journalist has called the Israelis who committed these atrocities “pieces of shit posing as human beings,” and we are certain that editors would have prevented their journals from being used as forums for any such sentiment. When it comes to Palestinians and other Arabs, unique style guides seem to be employed on editorial desks.
The killing of two Israeli soldiers by Palestinians prompted justifiable moral outrage in the press, but this same sense of outrage was absolutely lacking during previous days when one hundred Palestinians were gunned down. Terms such as “brutal,” “savage,” “barbaric,” “murder,” “lynching,” “terrorism” and others suddenly appeared for the first time in the coverage, loaded words never used in the coverage of the killing of over 20 Palestinian children. Moreover, many attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinians, including several extremely gruesome murders, went largely unreported and completely unremarked on by the major media, including several killings that involved extensive torture. These too did not provoke either the outrage or the attention that the killing of the soldiers did, and were not presented as evidence of the “savagery” or “brutality” of the Israelis. It seems that the identity of the victims determines the level of interest and choice of language, not the nature of the act.
The intense coverage of the soldiers’ deaths included detailed family and personal histories, many stories about the reaction of their relatives, and a broad effort to humanize and personalize them. As for the Palestinian civilians killed by the Israeli military, even their names were rarely reported. The Israeli press has commented on this double-standard, with the newspaper Ha’aretz noting in a headline that “Our Victims are Stories, Their Victims are Statistics.” That the American media can do no better in evenhandedly covering Israeli and Palestinian victims is indeed a sorry state of affairs. The effect of this bias, which humanizes one people and reduces the other to “the dead” or nameless, faceless “rioters” killed by “security forces,” is to encourage identification with Israelis and dehumanize Palestinians.
Perhaps the one exception to this disregard for the stories behind Palestinian victims was the case of Mohammed Al-Durah, the 12 year old boy whose shooting by Israeli snipers horrified television viewers around the world. Even then, most American media reported that he had been “caught in the crossfire.” It was obvious to press the world over that the boy, his father and the ambulance driver who tried to rescue them were all deliberately shot by Israeli snipers. Talal Abu Rahma, the photographer who filmed the murder, stated under oath “I can confirm that the child was intentionally and in cold blood shot dead and his father injured by the Israeli army.” This obvious fact was not clearly reported in most American media, who were only too quick to accept official and clearly false Israeli rationalizations about a “crossfire.” Robert Fisk of the London Independent, probably the most respected western correspondent in the Middle East, wrote about coverage of the incident, “When I read the word ‘crossfire,’ I always reach for my pen. In the Middle East it almost always means that the Israelis have killed an innocent person.” By using such misleading and sanitized terminology, often provided by Israeli military spokespersons, journalists fail both in accuracy and in their obligation to be skeptical and form independent judgements.
Much of the coverage and commentary has been so skewed that readers could easily have gone away with the impression that Palestinians were occupying Israeli land and that 100 Israelis had been killed by Palestinians rather than the other way around. A number of op/eds actually described the protests by Palestinians civilians as an “aggression” against the Israeli occupiers. Very few commentaries mentioned or acknowledged that East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza are under belligerent Israeli military occupation, and that Israel is bound by international law to withdraw from them but refuses to do so.
The commentary and op/ed pages of many of the country’s major papers have been filled with staff and guest editorials blaming the killing of one hundred Palestinian civilians by Israeli troops on the Palestinians themselves. For example, Edward Luttwak, Charles Krauthammer and the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel all claimed that Palestinians were deliberately sending unarmed demonstrators out to be shot by Israeli troops in a cynical effort to win world sympathy. This was also strongly implied by the New York Times. It seems to have occurred to few American commentators that governments around the world have controlled crowds without shooting scores of unarmed children and that, when confronting rock-throwing, violent Jewish demonstrators, the Israeli army never resorts to shooting them. No commentator opined that Israel was deliberately placing its soldiers at risk by refusing to end the occupation or placing settlers at risk by illegally settling then in occupied lands. When they are killed this is not taken as evidence of cynical manipulation by the Israeli leadership, but of Palestinian “brutality” and worse.
Several well-known commentators presented the Palestinian protests against 33 years of Israeli occupation as evidence of irredeemable anti-Israeli hatred, and even genocidal tendencies. In the Washington Post, Michael Kelly wrote that “The Palestinians, it seemed, actually did not want peaceful coexistence; they wanted war, and they wanted the Jews dead or gone.” The New York Post said that the protests were “about ousting Jews from the Middle East. Every square inch. And every last Jew.” George Will argued that by negotiating with Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Barak “risks forfeiting his nation’s existence,” and, like several others, compared Arabs to Nazis. In the New York Times, Reuel Marc Gerecht called the protests “violent expressions of the age-old confrontation between Islam and the West.” Sidney Zion agreed that “It’s Islam against the world. Bill Clinton better ready up. All else is bull—t.” Cal Thomas urged Israel to go on the offensive “grabbing as much land as it can and never again letting go of it.” Needless to say, there have been no commentaries describing Israel as genocidal, comparing Israelis to the Nazis, blaming Israel for the death of Israelis cynically sacrificed by their own leaders, or urging the Arabs to grab as much of Israel as they can and never let go if it. It is almost unthinkable that any major American paper would print such a perspective if submitted, but extreme anti-Arab expressions are welcomed across the spectrum as legitimate comment. Meanwhile, numerous Arab American and Palestinian attempts to join the conversation have been, in general, rebuffed and the press has largely failed to use the Arab-American community as a resource for alternative viewpoints or as experts to correct the palpable and serious prevalent bias.
For many years the Arab-American community has been doing its best to raise the awareness of editors and journalists to the problems of pervasive anti-Arab bias and double-standards in the American media. Coverage of the tragic events of recent days clearly demonstrates that this bias and hostility is as strong as ever and that commentators and journalists are permitted to express anti-Arab sentiments that would never be allowed with regard to most other groups. Patterns such as blaming the victim, ignoring history and international law, humanizing one set of victims while dehumanizing others, uncritically repeating official Israeli claims, and reporting on events in the occupied territories as if there were no occupation in place have been on full, dismal display. Several papers have done a much more creditable job than most in being balanced in their commentaries, including the Los Angeles Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune, but these have been the exceptions. The press must adopt and enforce a single-standard and a far greater commitment to balance and fairness, both in reportage and in commentary. If there are limits to levels of intolerance in commentaries that are acceptable for other groups, these must also apply to Arabs, including Palestinians. We must move beyond the stage where American journalists and editors find it acceptable to describe Arabs, no matter the context, as “pieces of shit posing as human beings” and “the other turds.”