The Monitor’s rumination last week on unjustified criticism directed against The Jewish Press brought a note from a longtime reader who raised the now infamous “Israel Wins” headline that appeared on the front page of The Jewish Press during the first week of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The reader noted that for years – even decades – afterward, that headline was a staple in the conversation of just about anyone intent on disparaging the paper. Why this was so she’s not exactly sure – true, the war was far from won at the time, and the huge type the paper chose to use fairly screamed “cheesy tabloid” – but, as she recalled, all media outlets were bullish on a quick Israeli victory in the opening days of the war, and no one went around years later chuckling about how The New York Times got it wrong or how CBS News jumped the gun.
The early 1970’s were a relatively primitive time in terms of news transmission. There were no fax machines, no personal computers, no 24-hour cable news channels, and of course there was no Internet. News footage was shot on film; transporting it even short distances and then processing it took several hours – footage from overseas even longer. It could take days for perceptions to take hold, let alone change from one extreme to another.
The Yom Kippur War commenced on Saturday, Oct. 6. The Sunday newspapers in America carried some sketchy accounts of the war’s preliminary stages. Greater detail began to emerge on Monday, with The New York Times’s Terence Smith reporting that “Israeli forces have blocked the advance of Egyptian and Syrian armies and cut off a force of about 400 Egyptian tanks that had established two bridgeheads on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal…”
That same day, the Times’s Robert McFadden wrote: “Claiming superiority in the skies, Israel said her jets had struck deep inside Egypt and Syria, crippled Syrian air defenses and severed nine of 11 Egyptian bridges across the Suez Canal…”
On Tuesday Oct. 9, the Times’s Charles Mohr, reporting from Tel Aviv, weighed in: “Israeli officers began today to refer to the Middle East war in the past tense, personally confident that the short-term outcome was now a foregone conclusion…”
The new issue of Time magazine informed readers that “By Sunday morning, after nearly a day of intense fighting, Israeli forces had seized the initiative on both fronts…. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said that the mop-up might take several days, but…that the curious battle of Yom Kippur was already decided.”
The Jewish Press is put to bed Tuesday evenings. As of Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 9, the newspapers, the newsweeklies, television and radio all were painting a picture of an aroused Israel roaring back after having suffered setbacks very early on. The media completely fell for the line being peddled by the Israeli government.
If you were composing a headline for a Jewish newspaper on that particular day, the choice of “Israel Wins” made perfect sense – particularly if the newspaper was a weekly and you didn’t want to appear outdated by the end of the week when, as everyone knew from all the optimistic reports coming out of Israel, the fighting would be over, the Arabs in full retreat.
By the end of that first week of war, however, it was clear that far from winning handily, Israel was taking heavy casualties, the Arab armies were performing better than anyone had expected, and there was no indication as to when the fighting would be over and in what shape Israel would emerge from it.
The tone of the following week’s Jewish Press reflected the altered perception, with coverage that can best be described as disappointed, even bewildered, if still cautiously optimistic. But that “Israel Wins” headline took on a life of its own, becoming a favored cudgel in the hands of Jewish Press critics.
As recently as four years ago, a reader informed the Monitor that the editor of another Jewish newspaper had just mentioned the headline – this was thirty years after the Yom Kippur War, mind you – while giving a speech about Jewish media. The reference was not meant to be positive.
That editor is both old enough and intelligent enough to know how the media initially portrayed the Yom Kippur War. It’s distracting, though, to be bothered with facts when you’re busy grinding an ax.