Selective Bias

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 14-Oct-07 | Author: Barry Rubin| Source: GLORIA Center

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a forum for world leaders at Columbia University in New York City, September 2007.

It’s a difficult philosophical problem. President Shimon Peres said in regard to the invitation to Iran’s president to speak at Columbia that there’s a difference between academic freedom and freedom to lie. In other words, there must be some determination of what is reality.

One could argue, and I can easily accept this standpoint as long as it is applied consistently, that academic freedom requires making no such distinctions. People who claim that certain races are inferior or specific religions are disgusting, who assert the world is flat or September 11 was a conspiracy by the CIA has an equal right to speak on campus. Of course, though, this means someone has the bad judgment to invite them.

Aside from making any choices based on the substance of what speakers say there are always logistical issues. Priorities must be set in deciding who will be invited to speak at any given campus since there is only so much time, so many rooms, and (when speakers are being paid) only so much money.

This kind of thing is necessary in dealing with the real world. On another level, however, it is selectivity. Shouldn’t freedom of speech be absolute? Yet choices must be made. Who will be invited to a high-level major lecture series at Columbia? Not you or me, I’m sure.

The fact is, also, that there is a political selectivity already being used to determine who is invited, or allowed, to speak at campuses following a certain--shall we say--political and ideological pattern. Without going into detail, the former president of Harvard was uninvited by the University of California because of his political views. And a group of repentant former members of terrorist groups—who want to speak of their experiences to Americans—have been barred from more than one campus.

Newspapers face similar dilemmas. The reporters only have so much time, the pages only so much space. Material is constantly being excluded due to its judged lack of importance, inaccuracy, and other reasons.

So should what seem to be lies and those who seem to be crackpots (at least on the particular points they are making) be given space? Should newspapers give their readers a sense that the Iranian president did not call for destroying Israel but that it was just some mistake in translation? (Despite the fact that the official Iranian translation of his words was “wiping Israel off the map”?) Should Hamas be given space for op-eds crafted by public relations operatives claiming moderation? Should easily demonstrable lies be published about Israel committing various massacres and other blood libels?

Well, these boundaries have eroded. For years, conspiracy theories and the extremes of Arab propaganda did not appear in the Western media. Now, even big publishers give contracts to those inciteful, false antisemitic screeds. (If you don’t believe me I’ll start forwarding to you the hate mail I receive.)

All of this is leading up to Sam F. Ghattas, AP, “Hezbollah Blames Israel for Killings,” October 5, 2007

Hizballah’s leader blames Israel for the series of assassinations of anti-Syria, anti-Hizballah politicians. "`The hand that is killing is Israel's,’ Nasrallah told thousands of supporters who occasionally interrupted his speech with roars of approval.” No information is given in the article that would lead a reader to believe that these are pitiful lies. (They are pitiful because Hizballah waited so long to make them. In the old days they would have been blaming Israel within hours of the killings and all Arab media would have been duty-bound to repeat them.)

So is this news?
And by the way the article concludes:

“The gathering by several thousand Hezbollah supporters was organized by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah to mark `Al-Quds Day,’ or Jerusalem Day, in support of Palestinian rights and emphasizing the importance of Jerusalem to Muslims.” So that’s what the demonstration was about? I thought it was about equating Israel with Satan, preaching hatred of the United States, and demanding that Israel be wiped from the pages of history. Perhaps my conclusions were all a mistake in translation and it was a human rights demonstration. Or, again, this is what readers might think.

Ok. Here’s another quandary. Human rights are good and giving a hard time to apparently nice people is bad. But with all the terrible things happening in the Middle East don’t get mentioned usually—just the stories involving persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority lands could fill an entire newspaper page per week but rarely get reported—the smallest detail regarding Israel is big news.

Thus, Regan E. Doherty, “Israel Denies Palestinian Exec Entry,” AP, October 8, 2007,

The American public is no doubt demanding to know that “a Palestinian high tech executive has been denied permission to enter Israel to attend an executive MBA program run by Northwestern University….” He was refused a permit by the Israeli military which naturally won’t say why. But now the man will lose his place in the class. Shocking, I say. Oh, lots of other Palestinians were given permits. I believe that every time someone is denied an entry permit by a country this should be reported in the U.S. media. (No, not really.) Hey, if you wonder why so many people think Israel is so horrible, evil, and repressive, all you have to do is read AP dispatches.

Here’s a very long one of this sort: Karin Laub, “Israel's Palestinian Road Hit by Critics,” October 10, 2007, .html.

Notice the completely explicit bias in the article. NOT: “Different Positions Expressed on Israel’s Palestinian Road”
And NOT: “Supporters Laud Israel’s Palestinian Road.”
No, this is truth in advertising. We are told up-front that we are only going to hear one side.

Now let’s return to reality for a moment. There’s a terrorist war on. Palestinian gunmen regularly attack Israelis on certain roads. Most countries would be fiercely repressive, perhaps banning Palestinians from the road and giving them no alternative. Those regimes would not have to worry because such actions would not be reported in the Western media.

So Israel barred Palestinian drivers and then built another road for them at Israeli taxpayers’ expense. Instead we are told this is a land grab. But since the Israeli government is saying it would give the land to the Palestinians as part of a peace deal this means that either the road would never be built (if peace comes quickly enough) or it would be turned over to a Palestinian state. Instead, we are given paragraph after paragraph of complaints about the road, Israeli policy, and the security fence. The only balance is a few words to say that Israel claims the fence will keep out attackers. This kind of article is a textbook example of bias. And of course there is nothing about the fact that if terrorist attacks were stopped by the PA there would be no need for the road or the security fence. Ok, just one more for today. Ali Daraghmeh, “Israeli Troops Kill Palestinian Militant,” October 10, 2007

“Israeli troops shot and killed a Palestinian militant affiliated with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party in a raid early Wednesday, members of the armed group said.” Well, let’s see. Since Fatah is now moderate (Western-backed, the article says later) this must be a terrible murder even though he is a “militant” (a word that implies he never misses a meeting). It explains that Israel amnestied about 200 West Bank militants (there sure are a lot of those activists) to help Fatah against Hamas. It is implied that Israel made unreasonable conditions including that the militants had to give up guns and sit for a while in Palestinian jails. What the article didn’t mention is that Israel has given specific examples of those who have been amnestied who have returned to terrorists (oops! I meant militant) operations. And the organization they belong to, the al-Aqsa Brigades which have killed several hundred Israelis in “militant” activities has openly said that it will continue attacks.

Oh, and by the way, a few hours after this story was written the head of the al-Aqsa Brigades threatened to kill Rudolph Giuliani, the American presidential candidate, because of his strong support for Israel. At almost exactly the same moment, a leading PA-appointed cleric urged and justified the murder of Americans and the destruction of the United States. Meanwhile, in the official PA paper, a cartoon celebrating the September 11 attacks took a similar position.

A leading PA-appointed cleric urged and justified the murder of Americans and the destruction of the United States. Meanwhile, in the official PA paper, a cartoon celebrating the September 11 attacks took a similar position.

These are stories of the greatest interest to American readers, far more than the minor events which are written up if they seem derogatory about Israel. Wonder if these things will be reported at all.

So there you have it. Those unreasonable Israelis may be murdering Lebanese politicians, keeping out innocent hi-tech executives who just want to study, grabbing land and thus subverting peace, and killing militants who just want to get out of prison. Don’t you just hate ‘em? Well, very possibly you would if you read AP dispatches and some prominent American newspapers.

Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2007. Rubin's columns can be read online at: