In the mid-1980s, journalism studies academics began to push the idea that non-biased reporting is untenable and therefore, bias as a measuring tool of a media outlet’s output should be rejected. This was promoted by R. A. Hackett, a professor at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University School of Communication. Robert P. Vallone and coworkers of Stanford University’s School of Journalism, in a highly cited paper which studied media performance during the First Lebanon War, suggested another mechanism was at work, one of social perception, and their paradigm was termed the “hostile media phenomenon.”
The idea postulated was that in viewing the same media reports, opposing groups will register more negative references to their side than positive ones, and each would claim that the coverage would sway nonpartisans in a hostile direction. Within both partisan groups, furthermore, greater knowledge of the crisis was associated with stronger perceptions of media bias.
Their research did admit though that this is not the whole story. They recognized that journalists do indeed possess personal, cultural and political biases, which they insert into their reporting, interviewing and moderating of panels.
They did not acknowledge that such bias significantly skews the coverage, replacing the quest for truth with the quest for influence.
Barbie Zelizer, another well-known media academic who is professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, has now published What Journalism Could Be
, a collection of her articles over the past two-anda- half decades. She expresses a wish in the volume that we get beyond “depressed lamentations” and instead focus on journalism’s relevance. For her, the essence of journalism is “creating an imagined engagement with events beyond the public’s reach,” adding (p.6) that “imaginative thinking consists of moral considerations.”
But, again, the media consumer is left with yet another bias: morality and the question of who decides what is or is not moral.
These obstacles were very much in view with regard to the central news issues of the past few weeks: the United States’ decision to withdraw from the Iran agreement, the media’s coverage of the dedication of the US embassy in Jerusalem location and the events at the Gaza border.
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What Walter Williams, who taught at America’s first journalism school at the University of Missouri, called a “creed,” which he promoted in his 1911 book The Practice of Journalism
, was the view that journalists should be “stoutly independent,” “self-controlled,” “patient” and “indignant of injustice.”
This, though, is not the case, especially in Europe. Much too often, to quote Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at London’s City University, former Daily Mirror
editor and contributor to The Guardian
, one finds that “news and comment have been conflated in our mainstream media outlets... No one reading newspapers down the years can have been in any doubt how their political stance has influenced their content.”
The new norm of bias is “spin,” whereby “heavily angled stories and headlines are the norm.” No one in the media is embarrassed “about omission, about failing to inform readers about news that, for one reason or another, fails to fit the editorial agenda.”
Consider the US decision to reject the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the “Iran agreement”). As we know well in Israel, most of the Middle East, especially those countries that are “moderate” in the eyes of the Western media, cheered President Trump’s action. However, this fact was somewhat hidden by the media, especially the mainstream European media.
On May 8, Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, the Washington correspondent of the prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
, known as FAZ, had this to say in his commentary on Trump’s decision, titled “Trump’s destructive act”: “That his decision for sanctions against Iran has fatal consequences seems not to disturb Trump. The main issue is that Obama’s legacy is wiped out. And what does the North Korean dictator learn from this?” In plain words, the Iran decision was a frivolous act by a frivolous president whose main goal in life is to annul the actions of his predecessor. Not a word about the interests of the people living in the region.
This was not a unique event. FAZ’s reporting and commentaries were one continuous expression of disgust with the American president. Two days later, Nora Mueller added her two bits, writing, “Donald Trump’s decision to annul the nuclear treaty with Iran is fatal. It increases the danger of instability and new military warfare and this at the doorstep of Europe.” In Spain the situation was no better. The leading El Pais newspaper seemingly parroted the FAZ. On May 10, Javier Solana, under the headline “Trump’s exit from Iran nuclear deal: an epic mistake,” continued with: “What the US president cares about the most is the fact that the deal was signed under Obama.”The Swiss Neue Zuercher Zeitung (NZZ)
was more of the same. The headline of Daniel Steinvorth’s commentary on May 10 was: “Trump abandons the Iranians,” but the content was the same: Trump is motivated by Obama. Not a word about the support for his decision coming from the Saudis or other Middle Eastern countries.The Daily Telegraph
’s coverage of Trump’s decision was similar: “Trump’s trashing of the Iran deal is really about one word: Obama.”
Is it then surprising that Europe as a whole is not backing Trump? The situation is so out of hand that one of us received a letter from a colleague in which he expressed sincere worry about the situation in the Middle East and the danger to Israel.
The relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem was not better received.
Jochen Stahnke of FAZ reported on May 12: “A delicate day in Jerusalem.” Historic? Joyous? Of course not. The subtitle was: “The opening of the American Embassy in Jerusalem is first and foremost a symbolic act. But also symbols can catch fire.”The Guardian
’s May 14 headline for the article by Simon Tisdall on the event was much less guarded: “Death, division and denial as US embassy opens in Jerusalem.” The content was the old stuff: “The pompous grandiosity of this tacky ceremony conveyed the essence of Trump-ism: all sound and symbolic fury, lacking substance or sense.”
Space is lacking here to review the many other important European news outlets and their anti-Trump bias, which is quite similar to the knee-jerk anti-Netanyahu responses of Haaretz.
But the breadth of it all suggests that it is not Israel’s lack of public relations, or antisemitism, which lies at the heart of Europe’s journalism. It is rather a byproduct of an ingrained liberalism which cannot dissociate wishful thinking from fact.
The anti-American and anti-Israel bias that it has created is very real, and is something which we must face and counter. It may be fatal to us, again.
The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).
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