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Is the American media biased in favor of Israel?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with NBC News' David Gregory on Meet the Press
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with NBC News' David Gregory on Meet the Press
Francine Daveta/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Of all the many arguments about the Israel-Palestine conflict that are unfolding in the US and the around the world right now, one of the tensest and most fraught has to do with American media coverage. Is it objective? Does it privilege one side over the other, or hold one side to higher or lower standards? How does it shape American views of the conflict?

It's an important debate, and MSNBC host Chris Hayes invited on Rula Jebreal to discuss it after Jebreal had earlier criticized American media generally and MSNBC in particular for their coverage, which she argued heavily favored Israelis and the Israeli viewpoint. Their exchange is worth watching:

Two caveats to keep in mind. First: "The media" is an unhelpfully broad term; TV networks like CNN cover the conflict very differently than do national newspapers like the New York Times, much less online outlets like this one. So it is next to impossible to make a characterization about "the media" that accurately describes all of it. Second: There is an unfolding, semi-distinct media story, about Jebreal's status as a paid MSNBC contributor, that I am sidestepping here.

Few topics engender more disagreement than the Israel-Palestine conflict and questions of media fairness, so consensus is not going to happen, but there are four broad points that seem frequently converged on and that I would highlight here:

1) It is broadly true that American media coverage offers greater credence to the Israeli viewpoint

Jebreal points out, for example, that Americans who turn on their TV are not likely to hear about the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the suffering it causes Palestinians there. There are any number of possible explanations here: Israeli leaders are democratically elected, tend to be well versed in American media and skilled at navigating it, and American media consumers tend to show show greater affinity for and comfort with Israelis than Palestinians. Israelis and Israeli society can feel more familiar to Americans, and thus more relatable. And it doesn't help that American electoral politics sharply favor Israel, particularly on the right.

This trend in media coverage is still alive today, though it is improving. To be clear: that does not mean that all US media is biased in favor of Israel on all things at all times, it is just to say that the Israeli viewpoint of the conflict tends to be granted greater credence than does the Palestinian viewpoint.

To address a delicate point about identity politics: it is true and salient that commentators discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict on American media are more likely to be Jewish-American than they are to be Arab- or Muslim-American. This is not to say that Jews are equivalent to Israelis, that Arabs are equivalent to Palestinians, or certainly that Muslims are equivalent to Palestinians (a number of whom are Christian). It is also very much not to say that a Jewish-American commentator is going to be biased in favor of Israel or that an Arab-American commentator is going to be biased in favor of Palestinians. But there is an aggregate effect, for the viewer, of seeing and hearing overwhelmingly from commentators who look like the people from one side of the conflict and not the other, which contributes to a broader sense among Americans that Israelis are "like us" more so than are Palestinians.

2) In the current Israel-Gaza crisis, though, American media coverage has given greater credence to the Palestinian viewpoint

As Hayes points out, during the now two weeks of the Israel-Gaza conflict, American media coverage has so emphasized the Palestinian perspective of the conflict that it has spurred a meta mini-genre arguing that Israel is losing the "media war."

There are obvious reasons for this: the fighting is largely located within Gaza itself and most of the deaths have been Palestinian, including a large proportion of civilians. Dozens of civilian Palestinian deaths is now a major component of this story, and it's getting (rightly) covered as such. It is possible to argue that this conflict may also be a moment of suddenly greater awareness among Americans about the larger conflict's toll on Palestinians, but it will be hard to say for sure without the benefit of time and retrospect. To be clear, this point and the previous point do not cancel one another out.

3) American media coverage does not explain American views on Israel-Palestine; it's the other way around

This is where I would differ with Jebreal, who argues that unbalanced media is why American popular opinion tends to favor Israel. American public opinion toward Israel is a complicated phenomenon with many drivers, and it is possible that media coverage plays into it, but it seems far likelier that Jebreal has this backwards: that preexisting "pro-Israel" attitudes among American public opinion are nudging media coverage in the same direction.

Again, the causes of those American attitudes are complex, but major factors include the 1970s shift in American foreign policy to draw closer to Israel as a Cold War bulwark in a region with heavy Soviet influence and a 1980s movement to support Israel driven by Evangelical Christians, who remain the most staunchly "pro-Israel" electorate in the US.

While he might not necessarily endorse every word in this post, I would urge you to read Jeffrey Goldberg's thoughts on media coverage of Israel-Palestine. He makes the point that reader/viewer interest in the subject is very high and that this drives the level of coverage; perhaps, I would argue, it might also help influence the nature of that coverage.

4) This argument is about much more than just media coverage

The "media front" is treated as a very real front in the Israel-Palestine conflict, particularly when it comes to the American media. This is not to characterize Jebreal in particular (I don't know her work well enough to say whether she could be described as a partisan commentator on the conflict), but to make a point about the larger debate about media coverage of the conflict, which is not just a meta-debate or a media issue but a live extension of the conflict itself. That's why, as long as there is a conflict, this debate will continue.

As I wrote yesterday about Jon Stewart's funny bit on how toxic that conversation is, there are many reasons for this: decades of enmity, broken agreements, and violence only explain so much of why partisans to the conflict litigate it so aggressively. Partly, it's the stakes, which go beyond even the risks of death. Both sides see their very nation, and thus their identity, at danger of being wiped out, and they're not wrong. Both sides see themselves as the entrenched, encircled, endangered minority.

Crucially, both sides also believe that the world could be on the cusp of imposing an outcome either to their favor or disfavor; this sense of an imminent and decisive judgment from the outside world compels partisans on both ends to litigate their worldview as aggressively as possible. Given that the outside world does play an important role in mediating the Israel-Palestine conflict, the stakes of the media's treatment are unusually high, and thus highly litigated.