With malice aforethought: Media bias

This report on the Cape Times is another contribution to this ongoing battle for integrity in the media.

Cape times (photo credit: Reuters)
Cape times
(photo credit: Reuters)
One of the strange paradoxes of our age is the unholy alliance between many self-designated Western social progressives and assorted tyrants, homophobes, religious extremists and anti-Semites in the Middle East.
It’s a dalliance which leaves the few brave Arab- Muslim voices openly questioning the assumptions underpinning their dysfunctional societies bereft of the support whence they should most expect it.
Israel is the common ground, where anti-Semitism, ignorance, fanaticism, self-interest and, yes, sheer malice, intersect and trump the enormous gulfs of culture and ideology. The remarkable but flawed democratic Israel with all its cultural, linguistic, political and religious diversity is reduced to a symbol of Western-Jewish militarism and racism – hated and envied in equal measure.
Such attitudes are especially prevalent in much of the English, post-apartheid popular press in South Africa. And, among these, the Cape Times is one of the most notorious. The vast majority of Jewish South Africans support Israel despite diverse political views; and the systematic bias which has pervaded the coverage of Israel by the Cape Times and some other media has been both distressing and infuriating.
Many feel impotent and rejected. A few have found their home among Israel’s enemies and work feverishly to blacken her name. They are much treasured by certain newspapers and the hyperactive Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement in this country.
While everyone knew what was afoot, there remained the small matter of proof. So I undertook a systematic survey of the coverage by the Cape Times of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the year 2012, ending on September 12. The findings are contained in an approximately 4,000 word report which establishes conclusively the obsessive, pervasive and systematic bias in the treatment of Israel and Zionism by the Cape Times.
In one month, from 20 June to 20 July, no less than 59 items dealt with Israel or Zionists or Zionism when nothing special was going on there. Only on the Letters page was there some plausible parity of treatment, though the most acrimonious and overwrought anti-Israel letters always received top exposure. But for the rest, in the reports and commentaries, not a single pro- Israel item appeared.
Interestingly, these always appeared in clusters, invariably initiated by an overtly anti-Israel commentary, letter or report given top exposure.
Reports were used in particular to repeat verbatim and thereby reinforce anti-Israel messages contained in the commentaries or letters.
Since the data were so strong, the question arose: could these results reflect an unusual statistical aberration? So the study was extended to the other months not examined and excluded letters, since these were not the primary source of bias.
In this section of the study two questions were asked: How did the Cape Times treat atrocities committed against Israeli or Jewish civilians? And, secondly, what were the topics selected for coverage and judgement? Three atrocities were examined: the Bulgarian bomb attack, the Toulouse-Montauban shootings (including three children and a rabbi) and the Fogel family murders.
In brief, only the Bulgarian bomb attack was actually reported by the Cape Times, while the other two were essentially ignored. Nevertheless, the paper did find space to present other either irrelevant or anti-Israel articles at the time these atrocities took place.
With respect to selection of topic, there was an obsessive focus on real or potential anti-Israel issues, which took up 75 percent of the 70 items meeting the selection criteria. Not a single positive report appeared on Israel’s achievements or aspects of Israel’s daily life or any of its humanitarian activities.
The remaining 25 percent of items dealt with Iran, Palestine or anything else relevant to the focus of this study. Not one of these dealt with Iran’s vicious rhetoric against Israel, independent evidence that Iran may be following a militarized nuclear program, Arab-Muslim homophobia or gender inequalities, the relative democratic freedoms enjoyed by all Israelis relative to their neighbors or the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist incitement so common in the region.
This superficial treatment does not do full justice to the “reality distortion field” created by the Cape Times. And even the fuller report does not fully mine the many subtle ways the anti-Israel message is conveyed by skilled and experienced journalists, adept at maintaining plausible deniability when only single items are considered.
Such coverage does not happen by chance. In recent weeks there has been a precipitous fall in the coverage of Israel by the Cape Times, possibly as a precautionary measure having caught wind of this study. But the day following the release of the report, two prominently displayed and headlined “anti-Israel” items appeared. Since then the trend has continued with three more mainly anti-Israel commentaries and reports published.
The message was clear: mess with us at your peril.
Such exposure may elicit a yawn rather than outrage: after all, what’s new about media bias? Such a reaction would be a mistake. A sense of outrage is essential if we are to combat this scourge which afflicts many more important media outlets than the Cape Times. Honest Reporting and others are doing a sterling job in exposing lies masquerading as legitimate reporting.
This report on the Cape Times is another contribution to this ongoing battle for integrity in the media.

The writer is a retired medical academic and member of the Academy of Sciences of South Africa. He is currently an independent political commentator with a nonexclusive focus on Israel