Cleaning out some old files last week, the Monitor was reminded how fickle the media can be in the matter of designating heroes and villains, and how a world leader can go from slug to statesman merely by falling into line with the media’s preconceived notions of right and wrong.
By the time Ariel Sharon slipped into an apparently irreversible coma in January 2006, he had, improbably enough, become a media favorite whose departure from the scene was almost universally characterized as a major blow to hopes for Mideast peace.
Of course, Sharon by then had done a complete ideological about-face, overseeing just months earlier the expulsion of nearly 10,000 Jews from Gaza and promising more concessions to come. As far as the media were concerned, what was not to love?
It was a different story back in the fall of 1998, when then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Sharon foreign minister, a move that certified Sharon’s return from the political wilderness. In an editorial remarkable for its name-calling and general nastiness, The New York Times described Sharon as “an implacable foe of the Palestinians”; “reckless”; “leaving destruction in his wake”; and “capable of wrecking the entire peace effort.”
It was as if the Times editorial board had been visited by an apparition of Menachem Begin and spooked into recycling its favored stock phrases about Israel circa 1982. But it was Sharon’s election as prime minister, in January 2001, that inspired a near apocalyptic media reaction.
As the Monitor noted at the time, Reuters headlined a post-election report “Sharon Win Casts Pall Over Mideast Peace Prospects,” as if all was well until the portly old general showed up to spoil the fun.
But the Reuters headline had nothing on this one from London’s left-wing Guardian: “Israel Gives Up On Peace With Sharon Victory” – a headline that served to expand on the theme of warmongering Israel dashing the noble efforts of that munificent elder statesman Yasir Arafat.
The Guardian headline was only the appetizer to the story by Jerusalem correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg, who immediately got to the point: “Israel,” she wrote (in syntax so disjointed it gives the lie to the notion that the Brits hold some sort of patent on proper English), ‘‘yielded to the dark fears unleashed by a Palestinian uprising yesterday, voting by a staggering margin to entrust their future to a man famous for making war, Ariel Sharon.”
Also in The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland compared Sharon to the notorious French xenophobe Jean-Marie Le Pen, and in case his readers didn’t get the allusion to a far-right politician widely reviled for his allegedly racist and sectarian views, Freedland helpfully explained that ‘‘Israel, by a massive landslide, turned to a man who has spent two decades as an international byword for extremism – a global hate figure – and elevated him to the top job…. For anyone who wishes peace for that nation and its neighbors, today is among the darkest of days.’’
Freedland then went on to almost gleefully predict “ostracism” for Israel, “as the world community turns a cold shoulder toward a nation led by a thug…. The country’s link with the Jewish diaspora will weaken, too; Jews in the United States, Britain and elsewhere may want less to do with an Israel that could choose Sharon as its leader.” Finally, no media roundup from the land of tea and crumpets would be complete without a contribution from The Independent’s Robert Fisk, a Palestinian sycophant from way back.
“For once,” Fisk fairly gloated, “the nation that so often points to the bloodstained hands of its Arab enemies will have its very own home-grown blood-splattered leader.” Meanwhile, Newsweek’s Joshua Hammer typified the reaction of the American media to Sharon’s election: “Before he had even formed a government,” Hammer ominously intoned, “Ariel Sharon radicalized both sides of the Arab-Israeli dispute…. Sharon was willing to talk peace, but only on his own terms.’’
And Hammer quoted “a senior Israeli military source” who supposedly observed that “When … cars start exploding in the middle of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, then we’ll see how short [Sharon’s] fuse really is. He’ll be out there … doing whatever it will take to stamp it out. But there is a price to be paid – and the price may be war.”
Never mind that it’s almost impossible to imagine “a senior Israeli military source” saying something even remotely resembling that quote, especially given the mood in Israel at the time – the very mood that made Sharon’s landslide win over Ehud Barak possible.
A better question: Why is it that when a reporter uses anonymous or unattributed quotes, those quotes almost always reflect what one strongly suspects are the reporter’s own views?
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org