Friday, June 19, 2009

Bias Beyond Belief: The AP Can't Even Report Netanyahu's Speech Fairly

By Barry Rubin

Often, it's really hard to believe how biased and bad media coverage of Israel is. I've been watching this stuff for decades and it still amazes me. A subtle bias is one thing but when all caution or pretense of professionalism is abandoned--as it so often is--one can only gape in astonishment.

The Associated Press devoted more than 4000 words to reporting and analyzing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main policy speech and various reactions to it. President Obama welcomed it. (“Obama welcome's Israeli prime minister's speech, June 15, 2009); the European Union called it a step in the right direction (Robert Wielaard, “EU: Netanyahu speech step 'in right direction, June 16, 2009).

[For my view of the speech, go here]

Predictably, members of his coalition government supported it (Amy Teibel, “Coalition heavyweights embrace Netanyahu speech,” June 15, 2009. Yet even while reporting on Netanyahu’s acceptance of a Palestinian state, the AP could not resist characterizing his government as “hawkish,” supported by “hardliners.” Of course, his coalition includes the Labor party and many people considered dovish but AP doesn’t tell us about that.

The article also mistakenly refers to “Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the most powerful hard-liner in Netanyahu's government,” which is just plain wrong. While Lieberman’s style is very tough, he is not a hardliner as such, having no problem with accepting a Palestinian state or giving up territory for peace. Lieberman’s reputation as a hardliner is due to his stand toward Arab citizens of Israel—and even here Lieberman has made no serious attempt to implement any new measures—not toward West Bank Palestinians. By making this statement, Teibel shows her ignorance of Israeli politics.

Similarly ignorant and biased was the AP’s presentation of Palestinian reactions. The problem is not reporting what the Palestinians said—they didn’t like it and this is legitimate to present—but the AP’s own editorial remarks.

In Karin Laub and Amy Teibel, “Disappointed Palestinians ask for help to save talks,” June 16 (as if anything any Israeli prime minister might have said could possibly have “pleased” them), the authors tell us that these leaders “stopped short of refusing to resume negotiations.”

This is simply inaccurate. In fact, they have refused to resume negotiations without a freeze in settlement construction, as has been repeatedly stated by them. Strangely, even the article admits this: “Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said he would not resume talks unless Israel honored previous pledges to halt construction.”

Why then make the first statement except to make the Palestinian leaders sound more moderate than they are? And the phrasing of the second is totally misleading, too. Israel said it would freeze construction if the Palestinians kept their commitments, which hasn’t happened. Notice AP never tells us about what Israel demands to meet its needs or what Palestinians do to break their previous commitments.

What is really outrageous is this statement by the authors:

“Laying out his Mideast policy Sunday, Netanyahu bent to U.S. pressure and softened decades of opposition to Palestinian statehood and sought renewed peace talks.”

Since Netanyahu accepted Palestinian statehood as a potential outcome of talks in 1996—13 years ago—this is part of the consistent AP misrepresentation of his positions.

Then there is this confusing and untrue statement:

“However, he removed from the negotiating agenda the fate of Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel's 1948 creation and said Israel would retain sovereignty over all of Jerusalem - -two issues previous Israeli governments had agreed to negotiate.”

On Jerusalem, Netanyahu restated what has almost always been Israel’s position. And what about the fate of the refugees? In fact, he and Israel have always said they should be resettled in Palestine. Can’t the AP even get that right?

Finally, how did the AP itself analyze the speech?

Badly. Steven Gutkin, “Analysis: Netanyahu's overture likely too little,” June 15, gives it away with the headline. Too little for what? Rather than tell us what Netanyahu said and why, even how this was a serious and generous offer, we are told at the outset: No, not enough; insufficient. We’re against him.

Gutkin tells us Netanyahu’s endorsement of Palestinian independence is “grudging…couched in layers of stifling conditions, does not necessarily signal the hawk-to-moderate transformation that hard-line Israeli leaders before him have undergone.”

Bad Netanyahu! Bad! Bad!

In fact, this article isn’t just bad. It’s stupid. For example:

“Netanyahu's major policy speech was as notable for what it did not say, as for what it did: No acceptance of previous peace strategies. No reference to any Muslim connection to the land. No talk of uprooting Jewish settlements to make room for a would-be Palestinian state.

And he pointedly avoided mentioning an Arab peace initiative that offers to trade normalized ties with the entire Arab world for a complete Israeli withdrawal from lands captured in 1967, a demand Israel rejects.”
Wow! Where to begin.

--It isn’t Netanyahu’s job to justify the other side’s claim, is it?

--Can the author be aware that while Israeli leaders have made statements about the Palestinians that are sympathetic, no Palestinian leader has ever reciprocated. It is unimaginable that any Palestinian leader refer to any Jewish connection to the land. Quite the opposite is taught in Palestinian schools, mosque sermons, and leaders’ statements. Yasir Arafat and others denied that there was even ever any Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Can Gutkin be serious?

--It isn’t Netanyahu’s job to offer even more unilateral concessions like removing Jewish settlements in a Palestinian state in his main policy speech.

--Once again, as so often happens, the Arab peace initiative is misrepresented, leaving out that little detail about taking a few million Palestinian Arab Muslims into Israel.

And so when the author states:

“Palestinians called Netanyahu's speech a nonstarter that will not serve as a basis for talks, and Arab leaders rejected it as disappointing and not conducive to peace.”

After reading such misrepresentation can anyone blame them?

But wait? Does the author ever actually get to what Netanyahu did say? Not too much and only by making it clear that each point is terrible. In an article supposedly about analyzing Netanyahu’s speech, the very clear strategy laid out in the speech is…never presented! Instead we hear what critics say more than what Netanyahu says:

“Netanyahu's demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people , essentially giving up any right of return for Palestinian refugees, `scuttles the chances for peace,’ Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said Monday.”

Here we see the AP school of falsification at work. The author can’t even present what Netanyahu said objectively before bashing it. Nor does he give any sense of why Netanyahu said it.


"It's also unclear if Netanyahu uttered the words `Palestinian state’ because he really believes in one, or because he is trying to get out of a tight spot with President Barack Obama…. It would certainly take a lot more than Netanyahu saying the words "Palestinian state," which one Israeli writer said were "uttered like a rotten tooth pulled from its socket without anesthesia."

This is truly disgusting. Netanyahu gave a clear explanation as to the context in which he accepted a Palestinian state. You know he's sincere because he explains what he will give and what he wants in exchange. Have you ever seen an AP story call a Palestinian or Arab leader insincere? And by the way, nobody in this story is quoted as supporting his position. Shouldn't at least one such quote be included to pretend this story is balanced?

Gutkin doesn’t tell us how what Netanyahu said is a logical policy: In exchange for its being unmilitarized, accepts Israel as a Jewish state (the media coverage never tells us that the Palestinian Authority defines Palestine as an Arab and Muslim state), full peace, and an agreement not to make military alliances with countries hostile to itself, Israel will recognize a Palestinian state.

There! That isn’t so hard to say, is it? But this article is typical: We can’t be told straight out what Israeli leaders say, statements can only be mentioned if shown to be evil and countered by Arab statements in the same sentence, only Israelis can be quoted who bash mainstream positions from the left.

What's especially disconcerting is that of the three ways the AP could report about Netanyahu in a biased manner, it chose the most extreme: Option C:

Option A: Report Netanyahu's speech fairly in one analytical article, then bash him in three others.

Option B: Report Netanyahu's speech fairly in the first half of the article, then bash him in the second half.

Option C: Bash him in each sentence and never really report what he said.

Finally, wire service reporters were always supposed to be even more objective than correspondents. They had a lot of newspaper clients who wire-service editors didn't want to offend them. So wire-service writing was supposed to be particularly bland and down the middle. This kind of thing coming from AP is far more upsetting, therefore, if it were from a newspaper's correspondent, not to mention the fact that it will appear in hundreds of newspapers and not just one.

At any rate, this isn't reporting. It’s propaganda. Can’t the AP even give us a straight report on what Netanyahu said?

No, it can’t.

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