This week’s The Way We Were feature (page 75) takes a look at the issue of The Jewish Press published during the first week of the Yom Kippur War. The headline on that week’s front page became something of a legend – and not in a positive way.
Back in 2007 the Monitor put that headline in perspective and made the case that it wasn’t something so outlandish after all. It seems fitting to run that column again, slightly modified, as we mark the anniversary of the start of that war.
A reader raised the issue of the “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.
The reader was absolutely right, and perhaps now is as good a time as any to look at some of the circumstances surrounding that headline.
The early 1970’s were a relatively primitive time in terms of news transmission. There were 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, and footage from overseas took even longer. News traveled at a much more relaxed pace compared to what we’ve since become accustomed to. 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 thought they knew from all the optimistic reports coming out of Israel, the fighting would be over with 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 though cautiously optimistic. But the “Israel Wins” headline took on a life of its own, becoming a cudgel in the hands of critics intent on ignoring the similar reporting to be found in other media outlets during those first frenzied days of fighting.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.