Hostility to Israel is generally not thought of as a job requirement for American journalists who cover the Middle East, but it might as well be. That this was not always the case simply confirms how drastically the media climate has changed over the past four decades.
To say that Israel, in the twenty years following its establishment, enjoyed the sympathy and support of the mainstream American media would be to actually understate the case; the new country was incessantly celebrated to an extent very nearly unimaginable from our present-day vantage point.
It was a time when lingering shock over the Holocaust tended to mute anti-Jewish sentiment, and when Israel’s decisive military victories contrasted so startlingly with the American experiences in Korea and Vietnam. The golden age reached its zenith with the Six-Day War as editors, reporters and columnists unabashedly rooted on the Israeli army and inspired everyone from mayors to movie stars to hop aboard the blue-and-white bandwagon.
Newspaper coverage was exuberantly pro-Israel; cover stories in Life, Look, and the newsmagazines were ecstatic; and most reporters dispensed with even the slightest pretense at objectivity. The opinion shapers of the day, from William F. Buckley on the right to Mary McGrory on the left, marched in lockstep on this one issue. There were, to be sure, some contrarian voices, though they were barely heard above the loud chorus of cheers.
To Israel’s detriment, however, America’s prestige media (at the time consisting principally of The New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and the Big Three television networks), along with much of the rest of the country’s liberal establishment, began, in the months and years after the Six-Day War, to increasingly appropriate the language and political posturing of the countercultural New Left.
To a growing number of journalists in the late 1960’s, a victorious Israel was no longer looked upon as an underdog worthy of enlightened support, but rather as an imperialist military colossus threatening its poorer, weaker neighbors. The transformation was complete by the mid-70’s, when mention of Israel was rarely made in media circles without the obligatory epithets “intransigent” and “militaristic” firmly attached.
This was all occurring, it must be emphasized, while Israel was still firmly in the grip of the Labor party of Golda Meir and Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin – the very figures who now inspire such nostalgic revisionism among those inclined to blame recent Israeli governments and policies for the world’s enmity toward Israel.
Israel’s image problems only grew worse with Menachem Begin’s election as prime minister in 1977. The reaction of the American media to the ascension of Begin – for decades vilified as a fanatical right-winger by both fellow Israelis and prominent Jews abroad – was one of disbelief, followed by unremitting scorn.
Not even the peace treaty signed by Israel and Egypt in 1979 bought better press for Begin, who throughout the negotiations was portrayed as the unreasonable hard-liner impeding the noble quest for peace undertaken by Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter.
Media animus would peak with the invasion of Lebanon in the spring and summer of 1982, as journalists for the first time compared Israelis to Nazis and obligingly parroted PLO casualty figures and related propaganda.
With Lebanon the floodgates were opened, and they haven’t closed since. A partial list of media personalities – news anchors, correspondents, columnists and television talking-heads – who at one time or another over the past 25 years exhibited either a bias against Israel or one in favor of the Palestinians would include the following names:
Mike Wallace, Pat Buchanan, the late Peter Jennings, Steven Erlanger, Seymour Hersh, Hugh Downs, the late Rowland Evans, Robert Novak, Georgie Anne Geyer, Anthony Lewis, Nicholas von Hoffman, Andy Rooney, Deborah Sontag, Joshua Hammer, Scott McConnell, Thomas Friedman, Eleanor Clift, the late John Chancellor (who flew to Beirut during the Lebanon war to broadcast an on-the-scene condemnation of an “imperialist” Israel “solving its problems in someone else’s country”), Nick Thimmesch, John McGlaughlin, the late I.F. Stone, Christiane Amanpour, Tony Clifton (Newsweek’s man in Lebanon who defended pro-PLO media coverage by stating that “There is no other side to tell”), the late Robert Friedman, Charley Reese, Richard Ben Cramer, Roger Mudd, Joseph Sobran, the late Mike Royko, and Helen Thomas.
While the sheer scope of the media frenzy that attended the Lebanon war has never quite been equaled, the negative tone and combative stance toward Israel continue unabated a quarter-century later.