Thanks to the Web's inroads, American newspapers are in crisis. Other than a few flagship national publications, most industry mavens agree that the only papers likely to survive beyond the next few years are those whose focus is obsessively local. In Annapolis, Maryland, where I live, that means The Capital, our daily fish wrap.
The Capital (so named because Annapolis is the state capital), is, to be blunt, simplistic, unimaginative and, perhaps worst of all, factually unreliable. Information is presented in a contextual vacuum by green reporters new to journalism and Annapolis. The copy editing is haphazard at best and the headline writing is dull, dull, dull. It's the opposite of the sort of journalism needed to comprehend an increasingly complicated and dangerous world.
Yet I have it delivered to my home and I read it - or at least flip through it - virtually every day. I do so to learn whether last night's storm caused much damage around town, whether the county council has OK'd construction of yet another redundant shopping mall, and which local roads are closed for repaving. Of course, I also read the obit page, keeping an eye out for someone I may have crossed paths with.
Nor am I alone. Audited circulation figures show The Capital is read in a quarter of all homes within its coverage area, more than twice that for The Washington Post, which also home delivers in the Annapolis area.
What I do not read The Capital for is news of Israel and the Middle East (or even Washington or Baltimore, both just 30-odd miles from my front door). What little space The Capital devotes to Middle East issues is filled with down-and-dirty AP wire service copy devoid of context and insight. Not surprisingly, the paper's own staff coverage of last November's Annapolis peace conference was embarrassing ignorant.
On occasion, a Middle East-focused syndicated column turns up on the paper's opinion page, just as an occasional epistle on the subject shows up on the paper's extensive local letters page, among the paper's best-read pages (it's often where I turn first after scanning page one).
The syndicated columns tend to be pro-Israel, while local letters on the subject tend not to be. Many of the letters carry the familiar names of individuals I know to be associated with organizations - "peace" or church groups, for example - sympathetic to Palestinian arguments and generally hostile Israel's.
My inclination has been to ignore it all; my rationale being, why bother when the paper's influence on Israel-related issues is nil. Lately, that's changed.
IT STARTED in May, when Annapolis resident Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder of The Israel Project, the staunchly pro-Israel and highly effective non-profit media information organization, published a guest column in The Capital. Her piece blamed Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas for the lack of progress toward peace since the November Annapolis conference. Given her international reach, I wondered why she bothered with The Capital, but so be it.
Except that she opened a can of worms. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) national vice chair George Gorayeb, another local resident, responded with his own guest column. He, of course, placed the entire blame for the Middle East morass on Israel.
Not wanting to give him the last word, I responded with a lengthy letter challenging his claims and making some points of my own. To my surprise, he telephoned and invited me for coffee to discuss our differences.
So we met, at a Starbucks, of course (does he know about Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz' open support of Israel?). Within minutes Gorayeb revealed himself to be a firm believer in the Israel Lobby theory of American Middle East policy. His hope, he explained, is to free American Jews (all of whom, he seemed to think support Israeli policies without question) from the lobby's grasp and get them to be vocal about it. This, he thinks, will allow Washington to reverse course and adopt a clear-headed stand on the Israel-Palestinian issue - by which he means a policy tilted toward Palestinian claims.
Our conversation ended after about an hour. I wish I could say the same for his use of The Capital as a platform. In early July, a letter from him appeared in the paper that noted our (private, I thought) meeting. Our chat had made it clear to him, he said, that I misrepresented his column in my letter out of my misunderstanding of his reasoned arguments. He then took the opportunity to level more verbal potshots at Israel, while saying he we had established a budding "friendship."
The ball was back in my court. Should I respond again and keep the public tit-for-tat going?
Verbal attacks on Israel in US papers and other media outlets are ceaseless, and can be demoralizing. But how do we measure their impact on the average American? Should we simply assume that a pro-Hamas op-ed in The New York Times is far more damaging to Israel's cause than a local activist's letter in a minor paper? Perhaps we should assume that Times' readers are less likely to fall for obvious spin because they are more sophisticated than local media consumers? It's impossible to be sure.
What I do know is that the ADC Website encourages supporters to send letters and op-eds to their local paper on a regular basis. The Website also asks supporters to keep ADC informed about media reports that contradict its positions so that it may follow up. In short, the Arab Lobby regards papers such as The Capital as important in its propaganda campaign to win over grassroots American public opinion - which is why it is incumbent upon Israel's supporters to take local media just as seriously.
Think globally but act locally. Bogus anti-Israel claims must be contested, no matter how seemingly inconsequential the platform. Israel's narrative must be voiced - again and again and again, if necessary - so that public opinion is not molded by Israel's enemies alone.
Generally speaking, that is. Sometimes it's best to not to feed the beast. I held off responding to Gorayeb's last letter to deny him the excuse to immediately fire off yet another letter to The Capital - which is not to say he won't decide to write again soon anyway, at which point I'll reevaluate.
The Capital's letters page is poorly suited for intelligent debate (the editor, for example, prints even outlandish claims verbatim and appears to make no effort to verify that the name on the letter is the actual writer). But like so many other venues, it too has become a proxy arena for playing out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As such, it cannot be ignored, even in this Internet age.
The writer is a veteran author and journalist.
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