The Daily Planet Spins into the Mideast’s Parallel Universe
Sometimes I feel that for Americans, the dramas of the Middle East play out in parallel universe. It was with fascination, therefore, that I saw that the Berkeley Daily Planet in California had spun into an intergalactic war as it tried to bring debate about the region down to earth.
I bring this up because a principal idea I want to get across in my book Dining with al-Qaeda is how hard it is for reporters covering the Middle East to frame the story right. This is especially true when issues dealing with Israel, anti-Semitism, or terrorism come up.
The mismatch of perception and reality that has built up over decades can trip up even a local American newspaper. The Daily Planet, which published letters critical of Israel, was the subject of this story in the New York Times in November 2009.
BERKELEY, Calif. — For the last six years, The Berkeley Daily Planet has published a freewheeling assortment of submissions from readers, who offer sharp-elbowed views on everything from raucous college parties (generally bad) to the war in Iraq (ditto).
But since March, that running commentary has been under attack by a small but vociferous group of critics who accuse the paper’s editor, Becky O’Malley, of publishing too many letters and other commentary pieces critical of Israel. Those accusations are the basis of a campaign to drive away the paper’s advertisers and a Web site that strongly suggests The Planet and its editor are anti-Semitic.
“We think that Ms. O’Malley is addicted to anti-Israel expression just as an alcoholic is to drinking,” Jim Sinkinson, who has led the campaign to discourage advertisers, wrote in an e-mail message. He is the publisher of Infocom Group, a media relations company. “If she wants to serve and please the East Bay Jewish community, she would be safer avoiding the subject entirely.”
I assume that both journalist and the New York Times were acting in good faith, just as was the case of my experience in the Middle East. Yet this account showed again how successful lobbying groups have been in developing U.S. newspapers’ particular approach to Israel.
First the headline: “In a Home to Free Speech, a Paper Is Accused of Anti-Semitism” Note: not something neutral like “Paper in Home of Free Speech Attacked for Publishing Anti-Israel Letters.” An anti-Semitic slur is slung, and the mud sticks. A headline-hopping reader gets the message that anti-Semitism is taking root in America and must be stopped. It sets the tone for the whole article, legitimizing the idea that publishing material critical of Israel – apparently the main problem — is necessarily anti-Semitic, as does the choice of quote for the third paragraph.
As the story eventually points out in its concluding paragraphs, the local Jewish community in fact wants little to do with this campaign against the supposedly anti-Semitic Daily Planet. The community does rightly protest an unpleasant letter from an Iranian student in India claiming that Jews brought persecution upon themselves – the only item cited that backs up the anti-Semitic charge in the headline. Indeed, the Times points out that the Daily Planet‘s owner, Ms. O’Malley, later firmly distanced herself from this “nasty” view in her paper.
I’d like to stress again that I mainly want to draw attention to the way the Times article is constructed. Much of the information for a fully-aware reader to make a judgement is there, just lower down in the story. Better late than never, Ms. O’Malley is cited as pointing out (in print) her reason for making her readers aware that criticism of Israel is out there.
I still don’t think that keeping sentiments like [that of the Iranian student in India] out of The Daily Planet will make him or people like him go away.
Ms. O’Malley is quite right. Airbrushing out uncomfortable realities helps nobody. Israel’s overpowering conduct in its dispute with the Palestinians, and U.S. support for its actions, have stirred public opinion not just in California but to a far greater degree in Middle Eastern countries. Framing can also go too far the other way, as broadcasters like al-Jazeera spin scenes that inflame Middle Eastern viewers. This poisonous mix has fed distorted, sometimes perverted and disgraceful views of Jews, Israel and America. It certainly underpinned the motivation of several of the 9/11 hijackers.
My late Journal colleague, Danny Pearl – a Jewish victim of this wave of hatred, killed by real anti-Semitic extremists in Karachi in 2002 – had wanted to write a story after 9/11 that exposed the way Middle Easterners had persuaded themselves that the attacks on the U.S. were actually organized by the Israeli secret service, Mossad. He wished to explain how it was that the whole Muslim world was ready to believe conspiracy claims emanating from a small Jihadi group, not the clear reality of an al-Qaeda terrorist attack on the United States evident to the whole world. The Journal’s editors declined to publish it. Pearl was furious, believing that they avoided the story because it would inevitably have raised the issue of Israel’s conduct.
And so it was that yet another light mile was added to the outer space of ignorance that separates Americans from the reality of the Middle East — a gap in public knowledge that that is policed by campaigns like the one reported by the Times against the Daily Planet.