Thirteen years ago I knew very little about Israel-Palestine. Like most Americans, this seemed to be a distant, confusing conflict that had little to do with me. I was unaware –again, like most Americans – that American taxpayers give Israel over $8 million per day, more than we give to any other nation.
I was unaware that our nation has vetoed numerous United Nations efforts to reign in Israeli aggression; resolutions that were supported by almost every other country around the world. I was unaware that US actions were enabling a massive land theft and ongoing ethnic cleansing that has caused profound tragedy in the Middle East, deep damage to our own nation and endangered American lives.
My personal awakening to these facts and others began in the autumn of 2000 when the Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada began and was, for a while at least, in the American news. I grew curious about this conflict, determined to follow the news on it, and noticed quickly how one-sided the news coverage appeared to be. While we heard from and about Israelis frequently, the Palestinian side seemed to be largely glossed over at minimum, and was sometimes completely hidden.
I began searching for additional information on the Internet and was astounded at what I learned. Israeli forces were killing hundreds of largely unarmed Palestinian men, women and children; many of the children were being killed by gunshot wounds to the head.
While some Israelis were also being killed during this period, these deaths were far fewer and virtually invariably occurred after Palestinian deaths. Over 90 Palestinian children were killed before a single Israeli child. Over 140 Palestinian men, women and children living on their own land were killed before anyone in Israel was.
As I learned the nature of Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the true history of the region, it began to seem to me that this was the longest and possibly most significant cover-up I had ever come across. I finally decided to quit my job as the editor of a small community newspaper in northern California and go and see for myself what was going on, travelling to Israel-Palestine as a freelance reporter in February and March of 2001.
When I returned I created an organisation called "If Americans Knew" to provide the full facts to my fellow citizens and to study why and how US news coverage was failing to do this.
Israel-centrism and patterns of distortion
We have conducted a number of statistical studies on this issue and found that US media were covering Israeli deaths in far greater detail than they were covering those of Palestinian.
For example, the New York Times was reporting on Israeli children's deaths at a rate seven times greater than they were covering Palestinian children's deaths; this didn't even include the far larger number of words and amount of personal information given about Israeli victims compared to Palestinians. We also found that primetime network news programmes were covering Israeli children's deaths at rates up to 14 times greater than the coverage given to Palestinians.
I discovered a system of reporting from the region in which a violent conflict between an officially "Jewish state" and the Muslims and Christians it had dispossessed (and was in the process of dispossessing further) was being covered most of the time by journalists with legal, familial or emotional ties to Israel. A great many are Israeli citizens (though this is almost never disclosed) or married to Israelis, their children also being Israeli.
I discovered that the Associated Press control bureau for the region, from which virtually all news reports that appear in US newspapers were transmitted, was located in Israel and was staffed almost entirely by Israeli and Jewish journalists (many of whom had served in the Israeli military).
I learned that the son of the New York Times bureau chief was serving in the Israeli military while his father was reporting on the conflict. In fact, I discovered that it was common for journalists in the region reporting for American media to have close personal ties to the Israeli military; that at least one staff member had been serving in the Israeli military even as he was reporting for the NY Times; that US News & World Report's senior foreign correspondent, who had covered and written about the Middle East for more than 40 years, had a son serving in the Israeli army during the time he was reporting there; that Middle East "pundit" Jeffrey Goldberg, whose commentary pervades both the print and broadcast media, is an Israeli citizen who served in the Israeli military.
I learned that CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer lived in Israel for many years, at one point travelled around the US as the "voice of Israel" and had worked for an Israel lobby publication.
I learned that Time magazine's bureau chief was an Israeli citizen, and that NPR's long-time correspondent from the region had an Israeli husband who had served in the military and may be an Israeli citizen herself.
I also discovered that this pattern of Israel-centrism went beyond the regional reporting. In fact, the regional filtering of the news may not even be the most significant factor in the broken media reporting on this issue that Americans receive.
Within US-based journalism per se I discovered patterns of Israel-centrism that were deeply troubling. In some cases I personally experienced the intentional suppression of information on Palestine. Following are a few examples.
San Francisco Chronicle
While I was on my first trip to the Middle East I had met with a managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle before I left and told him of my intention to report from the region. He had been quite interested and asked me to send him my first-hand reports.
During my trip, despite the difficulties in doing this, I sent him several reports at a time when almost no other American journalists were in the West Bank or, especially, Gaza. None were printed.
Finally, he sent me an email saying that he might be able to publish some of my reports, but that this would be "political". This was unusually honest but quite troubling. It should not be "political" to publish on-the-scene reporting.
While he never explained the obstacles confronting such reports, I suspect they had to do with the fact that the top editor at the time, Phil Bronstein, tilts toward Israel; that numerous advertisers were pro-Israel; that the pro-Israel power structure is extremely strong in California; that pro-Israel organisations in the US invariably mount protests and boycotts if newspapers stray too far from their preferences; and that others are frequently afraid of being called "anti-Semitic" and of the potential damage honest journalism on this topic could do to their careers.
A few years later a journalist who had worked for the Chronicle for many years, Henry Norr, was fired by Bronstein. While a different rationale was put forward for Norr's termination, Norr himself believes that the real reason was his activities related to Palestine. He had written a column about an Intel factory constructed illegally on Palestinian land and had also given a lunchtime briefing to staffers about a trip he had taken to the West Bank.
Still another former Chronicle journalist has described the inner workings related to news coverage of Israel-Palestine; that most of those editing wire copy were Israel partisans, that this journalist was largely kept away from editing reports on the issue; and that there was an atmosphere in which anti-Arab cartoons were sometimes posted on a bulletin board.
In 2004 our organisation conducted a statistical study of the Chronicle's coverage during the first six months of the Second Intifada and discovered that the Chronicle had covered 150 per cent of Israeli children's deaths and only 5 per cent of Palestinian children's deaths. Before releasing it to the public I phoned Bronstein to meet with him to present it in person, the normal protocol. He failed to return my phone calls. At a public forum I again requested such a meeting. In front of a large audience Bronstein promised to meet. Yet, he later again refused to return phone calls and this meeting never transpired.
We then released our report publicly and distributed it as widely as possible. In addition, some groups and individuals disseminated thousands of fliers containing some of our key charts and statistics, headlined "What Children Matter?" These activities, of course, received considerable attention, and I feel were far more valuable than a meeting.
Gannett is one of the top news chains in the US. According to its website, it consists of 82 daily newspapers, including USA TODAY, and it reaches 11.6 million readers every weekday and 12 million readers every Sunday. USA TODAY is the nation's top newspaper in print circulation, reaching 6.6 million readers daily.
In addition to its newspapers, Gannett owns 23 TV stations, which reach 21 million households, covering 18.2 per cent of the US population. It also delivers news on 9,500 video screens located in elevators of office towers and select hotel lobbies across North America.
In 2001 a Gannett reporter who was writing a series of articles in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, heard about my trip to the region six months before the attacks and phoned me for an interview. He was extremely interested in my story and ended up calling me several more times for follow-up interviews, asked me to send him all my reports from my trip, and upon receiving them he was quite complimentary about their quality.
The reporter then sent a photographer to take pictures of me in my home for the article, had her express mail them to him, and said the story would be coming out soon.
We were in the process of creating the If Americans Knew website at the time and hurried to make this live, since this would be major exposure.
A little later I went on a speaking tour and a reporter from a community newspaper in a tiny newspaper chain in New York State interviewed me for his paper. A few days later he wrote to me saying that the newspaper owner had killed his article. He said this was the first time this had ever happened to him.
I then realised that I had never seen the Gannett newspaper article on me and If Americans Knew. I emailed the reporter, told him about this incident, and asked him if I had missed his article or whether the same thing had happened to him. I hadn't missed it. He said that his editor had similarly killed the story.
I later saw an article by this reporter about Americans visiting Iraq who were highly critical of the US government. It is interesting that this subject matter was permissible, but not a feature on someone critical of Israel.
National Public Radio – Vermont and Michigan
Several years later I was on a speaking tour in Vermont and New Hampshire and was to be interviewed on a local affiliate of the influential National Public Radio network. When I arrived at the radio station it turned out that the radio host who had agreed to do this was not available and another person was going to do the interview, someone called Neal Charnoff.
Charnoff and the programme producer took me back to the studio where they would record the interview for later broadcast. Oddly, the regular sound engineer was told he could go outside and take a break, and the producer took over.
The host began his first question with a statement that my articles contained "anti-Semitic" overtones. I interrupted him immediately, said this was untrue, and asked him what he was talking about – which specific articles or statements that I had written did he claim were "anti-Semitic"?
He could not answer. I wondered if he had even read anything I had written or whether he was simply repeating the unfounded accusations by the Anti-Defamation League, a fanatically pro-Israel organisation that has been implicated in a vast spying operation on Americans.
Flustered at the embarrassment at having made a statement based on no evidence, he began the interview again in a more normal fashion. I told him about my trip to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and what I had found.
Within a few minutes, and sooner than the scheduled end of the interview, he stopped it. He turned off the equipment and said they would not be airing it.
I was shocked and asked him why not. There was then a brief conversation in which he, and to a lesser extent the producer, defended Israel against the statement of facts I had made about what I had seen. The producer, who seemed to be more reasonable – and who also may have realised that Charnoff's intention to kill the interview so publicly would reflect badly on the station – said that she was sure they would be able to broadcast something.
They eventually did so. They did not, however, include information on my upcoming talks in the area, information that would normally have been included. I noticed later that Charnoff's interviews frequently seem to focus on the Jewish experience and that a disproportionate number of the authors, musicians, etc., that he highlights on his programme are Jews.
Another incident took place in another NPR affiliate, this one in Ann Arbor, Michigan, location of the University of Michigan, one of the top public universities in the United States.
One way that we and other groups try to get around the media's reluctance to report fully and accurately on Palestine is through the placement of paid advertising. Sometimes even this is censored.
WUOM, the largest NPR affiliate in the state of Michigan, apparently at the direction of its head, Steve Schram, refused to run a spot giving the name of our organisation. Then, when we challenged this censorship, the station supplied a number of fraudulent and ever-changing explanations. Only after fighting this over a year and involving the university administration and a small sit-in in the WUOM office were we able to force them to include our name in a paid advertisement.
American History Magazine/Weider History Group
Still another incident occurred when we tried to buy an advertisement in American History magazine. The ad was to promote the autobiography of CNI's founder, former US Congressman Paul Findley. We were told that the magazine would not publish the advertisement because CNI was "anti-Israel". In fact, they informed us that none of their other 10 magazines would run the ad either.
We were amazed to learn that almost all the national popular history magazines in the United States are published by the Weider History group; American History, World War II, Military History, Vietnam, Armchair General, the Civil War, etc.
According to its website, the Weider History Group is the largest chain of history magazines in the world, making its pro-Israel bias particularly important. George Orwell's words suggest the significance of the Weider censorship within its history magazines: "Who controls the past controls the future."
As their censorship of our ad because they considered us "anti-Israel" would suggest, the Weiders are very close to Israel. The co-founder of the Weider empire is one of six North American chairmen of the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah, which takes political leaders, corporate executives, investors and entertainment personages on private trips to Israel to increase their support for the country.
A Weider foundation has given large grants to another Aish HaTorah-connected organisation, the Los Angeles-based American Friends of Aish Hatorah, a nationalistic Israeli organization that promotes Israel in the United States and has a programme to create and equip advocates for Israel on American campuses. Aish has been connected to the production of pseudo-documentaries promoting Islamophobia that were distributed in America.
The Weiders originally brought future movie star and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the US and played a major role in building both his personal and political career. Weider patriarch Joe Weider once proclaimed proudly, "We created Arnold." As California governor, Schwarzenegger promoted Israel, stating, "I love Israel. When I became governor, Israel was the first country that I visited."
The Media role in US policy formation
Thirteen years ago when I grew curious about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I had no idea that my questions would lead me to discover such an extraordinary pattern of influence on behalf of a foreign country in the US media.
This influence, I believe, may be the single most significant factor in creating America's uniquely massive support for Israel. If American news organisations had been reporting fully and accurately on the region; if they had exposed the pro-Israel lobby's power and manipulation in the United States; if they had covered the damage done to Americans by policies centred on what would "benefit" Israel rather than Americans (though not, I believe, those Israelis dreaming of peace), I have no doubt that US policies would be vastly different than those we see today.
Moreover, I feel that it is US support for Israel that has supplied the economic, military and diplomatic support for Israel to continue with astoundingly aggressive and oppressive policies. As such, exposing and overcoming pro-Israel power over information in the US about Israel-Palestine may, I believe, be the most important activity that those seeking justice and peace in the Middle East can undertake.
Providing Americans with the full facts on the region; on the determining influence on our media, our government and our country by Israel and its partisans; and on the devastating, wide-ranging damage created by the current situation, will eventually, I have no doubt, bring the momentous change that is so urgently needed. In fact, given that the US has a history of being a very changeable country, if enough resources are devoted to this effort, such a transformation could occur in less time that some long-time observers might expect.
Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew and president of the Council for the National Interest. She is the author of Against our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of how the United States was used to create Israel. For copies write to [email protected]
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.