In the United States, press coverage about foreign affairs generally lacks complexity. And it tends to scrimp on historical context. Also, it’s often ideologically biased when not outright inaccurate.
Why is this?
The short answer is that news editors generally don’t believe there’s much of a market for foreign news. In most local newspapers in America, it’s rare to find a foreign news story on the front page. The occasional foreign crisis gets reported in bare bones fashion. And foreign stories that command press attention for years - like the Arab-Israeli conflict - have to be converted into melodramas - soap operas - that a general audience can follow with minimal intellectual exertion.
The key traits of a melodrama of this kind are the simplicity of the story line and the flatness of the characters. Players are thoroughly sympathetic, good and gentle or they’re thoroughly unsympathetic, ill-motivated and harsh. When Israel benefited from the soap-opera-style of press coverage. Israel was commonly portrayed as the good guy in the Arab-Israeli conflict. I remember when the American press celebrated Israel’s victory in the Six Days’ War with lyrical prose and adoring photographs.
After the Yom Kippur War and the oil embargo, however, American journalists increasingly assigned Israel the villain’s role in the soap opera. The basic story line ceased to be plucky little Israel working to defend itself against large, uncompromising Arab states committed to its destruction. Rather, the line became the yearning for national rights of the stateless Palestinians against an uncompromising Israel committed to territorial aggrandizement at the Arabs’ expense.
To keep the new story line simple, journalists effectively pretended that the conflict began in 1967. The problem was described as a fight over the “occupied territories,” not a war to eliminate Israel.
When Rabin shook Arafat’s hand in 1993, the story line was adapted: the conflict was depicted as not so much between Israel and the Arabs - or Palestinians - as between the peace-loving advocates of compromise on both sides and the ideological extremists of both sides.
I emphasize the simple story line because it has enormous practical importance. If journalists adhere to the line, their editors will run their reports. Each report becomes an easy-to-follow episode in a long-duration soap opera. The story line signals to the audience which side to root for in the conflict. To preserve the line’s clarity, journalists steer away from reporting that shows the designated good guys in a bad light or the villains as sympathetic. That helps explain why there was so little coverage during the Oslo Process of the PLO’s corruption and the anti-Israel hatred taught in Palestinian Authority schools and even less coverage of any benign activity by Israeli settlers. Journalists often proclaim their commitment to seek “truth,” but the fact is that they have powerful incentives to avoid complexity, an especially big problem in reporting on foreign affairs.
In his important Middle East speech of June 24, 2002, President Bush did damage to the prevailing story line on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The speech built on key facts from the previous couple of years: Arafat had rejected Prime Minister Barak’s peace offer at Camp David in 2000. On September 11, 2001, Americans got a bitter taste of Arab terrorism at home. The Palestinian Authority was secretly buying Iranian arms and promoting rather than fighting anti-Israel terrorism.
President Bush said that Israel and the United States are on the same side in the global war against terrorist extremism. He effectively repudiated the premises of the Oslo Process: that one achieves peace with a murderous enemy through a process of negotiation. He declared that the keys to Palestinian-Israeli peace are new, non-corrupt political institutions and a new Palestinian leadership sincerely devoted to peace and “untainted by terror.” In other words, he injected some large contrarian thoughts about the Arab-Israeli conflict into the public debate.
As a result, it became more difficult for American reporters to depict the conflict as a fight between the good peace processors, including Arafat, and the bad skeptics. Press coverage of Israel in the United States became, for a while, more sympathetic. There ceased to be a predominant simple story line for reports on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Road Map negotiations were not able to revive the standard story line of the Oslo era. We’ll have to wait to see if it will be revived when the Obama administration comes into office.
Now, so far, I’ve been making critical comments about U.S. press coverage of foreign affairs without even mentioning the issue of ideological bias. I’ve started this way because I believe that many of the shortcomings of daily reporting are inherent. Journalists write on tight deadlines. In their ordinary work, they can’t produce scholarship. Moreover, news outlets are businesses aiming to make money, which they do (when they do it) by selling advertising for a substantial audience. As a rule, news stories considered dull won’t be used, even if they are substantively important and even if they appeal to the prejudices of the reporters and editors. Business considerations alone - without reference to political bias - can account for why the news favors brief, familiar stories, stories that are unburdened by lots of unpronounceable names, historical context and broad-ranging analysis.
The upshot is that a serious person won’t formulate a definite opinion about a major issue solely on the basis of what he has learned in newspapers or on television. People cherish their own opinions but the fact is that, if one is lazy, one’s opinions aren’t worth much.
Having noted all this, I would like to state my conviction that American journalism suffers from the common political bias of most of the prestigious news outlets. Most big-city newspapers, like the broadcast news organizations, are decidedly liberal.
What is a problem is not that so many journalists have liberal views, but that many don’t seem to understand the idea of journalistic objectivity. They show their misunderstanding by thinking they have to deny that they are biased. The point of objectivity, however, is not that you as a reporter have no biases. Every thoughtful person has lots of biases. The point is that, recognizing your biases, you seek out contrary views and report on them accurately and fairly so your readers or viewers have a sound basis for making up their minds - and are not being manipulated toward your position.
Another point should be made about a journalist’s bias. Philosophical bias, of which no thoughtful person is free, affects more than the way you think about a story. It affects your decisions on which issues you think should be covered in the first place. A reporter, for example, who views the detainees at Guantanamo as victims may decide to write about how their families are suffering. Another reporter, unsympathetic to the detainees, may chose to report a story about the misery and loss they’ve caused. Each story can be done well and objectively, with proper presentation of all major viewpoints on the subject. But, even if done well, each reflects a judgment about what’s newsworthy and that judgment arises from a political outlook or bias. So if a news organization wants balance, it is not enough to ensure that each of its stories is properly presented. It must ensure that it maintains a staff with diverse views.
Deborah Howell, who is the Washington Post’s ombudsman, made this point just this past Sunday in a column entitled “Remedying the Bias Perception.” She wrote:
[S]ome of the conservatives' complaints about a liberal tilt are valid. Journalism naturally draws liberals; we like to change the world. I'll bet that most Post journalists voted for Obama. I did.
Journalists believe that their decisions are journalistically reasonable and that their politics do not affect how they cover and display stories.
She then quotes Tom Rosenstiel, a former reporter who directs the Project for Excellence in Journalism. He said:
The perception of liberal bias is a problem by itself for the news media. It's not okay to dismiss it. Conservatives who think the press is deliberately trying to help Democrats are wrong. But conservatives are right that journalism has too many liberals and not enough conservatives. It's inconceivable that that is irrelevant.
She concludes, “It's not hard to see why conservatives feel disrespected.” One way to tackle this, she says, is “More conservatives in newsrooms” but this is not easy because “Editors hire not on the basis of beliefs but on talent in reporting, photography and editing, and hiring is at a standstill because of the economy. But newspapers have hired more minorities and women, so it can be done.”
I find it interesting that Ms. Howell, even when exerting herself to be fair-minded toward conservatives, cannot admit that they may be discriminated against in hiring by editors who do not share their views. She says, in essence, that newsrooms are overwhelmingly liberal because liberals happen to be more talented and that conservatives could be hired only if they are beneficiaries of affirmative action.
I was also interested to note that the title of her column is “remedying the bias perception” though her column presents data that demonstrate that there was actual bias in Washington Post reporting against McCain and in favor of Obama, and not just a “bias perception.” The Post evidently cannot do an unbiased column even on the subject of bias.