During any given week, the media-and its main news’ supplier AP-have to cover a wide variety of stories. Many of them are uncontroversial and balanced. What is amazing, however, is how bias creeps into so many stories, even when a fair presentation would have been very easy to do.
Take Zeina Karam, ‘Syrian sets terms of role on peace http://www.philly.com/inquirer/world_us/27900039.html,’ September 5. The introductory line tells it straight enough: ‘Assad said he would keep ties to extremists. His talks with the U.S. and Israel are on hold.’ But read on.
The article, like many, is framed as a chance for one party, almost always the non-Israel one, to speak for itself. The problem is that if these claims are presented uncritically-especially when outrageous falsehoods are stated (as happens often in certain parts of the region)–it is simply giving free space for propaganda. In this particular article, however, the bias is in what the reporter says, not what is reported regarding what Assad says:
‘Syria’s leader said yesterday that he offered a proposal for peace with Israel but also refused to break off ties with Hezbollah and extremist Palestinians – a key Israeli demand.
President Bashar al-Assad also said that indirect negotiations with Israel were on hold until that country chooses a new prime minister, and that direct talks would have to wait until a new U.S. president takes office….’
‘Assad said his proposal for Israel was intended as a basis for direct talks. He said he would wait for a similar document laying out Israel’s positions before any face-to-face talks. So far, negotiations have been held indirectly, through Turkish mediators.’
But then we come to the point where the journalist breaks into the story to tell us, in effect, what we should think:
‘…the move reflected a desire to break with Syria’s past policies.’
Really? In context this implies Syria is becoming moderate. But what ‘move’ are we talking about here? Syria engaged in direct talks with Israel in 1999-2000, after all, and he has not yet even initiated direct talks here, he is just talking about it. So why is Assad being given a free pass, credit for a policy change he has not made? This is rather typical of the over-presentation of moderation on the part of Syria, Iran, Hamas, Hizballah, etc.
Perhaps it was this part:
‘In an interview with French television, Assad ruled out any recognition of Israel before a peace deal. But `when there is a peace accord,’ he said, `of course there will be reciprocal recognition.”
This might be promising but in fact Syria has spoken before in certain terms, though there is a catch: it has rejected normal diplomatic relations and perhaps ‘recognition’ is a way to offer less and make it seem like more.
What follows is an outright misstatement of fact:
‘Assad said at the summit that in the peace proposal, Syria outlined six points regarding the ‘withdrawal line’ – a reference to the extent of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
This has been a major sticking point in previous talks, and caused the collapse of U.S.-brokered direct negotiations in 2000. Syria has long demanded the complete return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast War. Israel has sought to keep a strip of land around the Sea of Galilee.’
But there is a rather important detail here: that ‘strip of land’ was never part of the Golan Heights and never part of Syria. It is on the Israeli side of the international border and was made a neutral area in the 1948 ceasefire agreement. Thus the reporter makes it seem as if Israel is refusing to return all the Golan Heights when that was precisely what Israel offered to do in 2000.
Like virtually all such articles, this gives short shrift to Israeli demands. There is no mention of security guarantees or early-warning stations. At least one point is mentioned:
‘Israeli officials have insisted that Syria must end its support for extremist groups that oppose Israel, namely Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. But Assad sought yesterday to reassure the groups he would continue to back the ‘resistance’ against Israeli occupation.
‘`We don’t see any interest in abandoning the resistance,’ he told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television.’
Notice, however, there is a neat, but dishonest, little trick here. The words ‘against Israeli occupation’ come from the reporter. There is no mention of terrorism (or if one wants to be nice about it, ‘deliberate anti-civilian attacks’ would be a good euphemism. And there is no mention either of the fact that these three groups openly have as their goal Israel’s destruction, what is often referred to as genocide.
That’s bad enough. But to add injury to insult, precisely what is Israel occupying? Certainly not part of Lebanon, which relates to Hizballah; certainly not the Gaza Strip (which Israel completely left and is ruled by Hamas. Israel has turned most of the West Bank over to the Palestinian Authority and has agreed to give up almost all the rest, and part of Jerusalem, if a peace agreement is reached. And Hamas and Islamic Jihad oppose any peace agreement.
So, in effect, the reporter and the AP simultaneously whitewash terrorist groups and make their propaganda case for them. All too common. And it goes on in almost every article to the point where few people even notice it any more. But the cumulative and subliminal impact is enormous.
You know, week after week I read these articles and see the blatant slant offered in them-again, not all by any means-and yet this problem is denied by the AP and the media. According to the freedom of the press, no one can force them to fix it. According to journalistic ethics, they should be eager to fix it themselves. Something has gone very wrong with the media system.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).