As virtually all media outlets celebrated the “magnificent spectacle of peacemaking” in Washington (Newsweek, 9/27/93), leading media voices were often more jubilant than accurate in their reporting. Even as the Israelis and Palestinians were lauded for “emerging from the clutches of history” (Time, 9/13/93), too many journalists clung to past habits of bias in their coverage.
Most of the press showed more interest in the choreography of the signing ceremony than in what the agreement actually said. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times‘ Mideast expert, claimed the parties are “finally acknowledging that they each have an equally valid claim” to the land (9/10/93). Similarly, Time magazine (9/13/93) happily reported that the Palestinians and Israelis “are now free to live with each other, separate but equal.”
In the new agreement, the PLO recognizes the Israeli state, while accepting on behalf of Palestinians only limited autonomy under continued Israeli rule in the impoverished Gaza Strip and the small West Bank town of Jericho. The question of whether Palestinians will ever have a state is left open for future negotiations. This would hardly seem to be an “equal” arrangement As Edward Said noted in the Nation (9/20/93), the agreement “leaves Palestinians very much the subordinates.”
‘The First Acknowledgment’
Some periodicals tried to be even-handed, but got their facts wrong in the process: Time (9/13/93) magazine attempted to show an equivalence of history, claiming that this is “the first acknowledgment by Israelis and Palestinians that they can share the land both call home.” In fact, since 1976, the PLO has backed a string of U.N. resolutions calling for an Israeli and a Palestinian state side by side. In 1984, the Los Angeles Times (5/6/84) quoted PLO head Yasir Arafat as saying, “I would be in favor of a mutual recognition of the two states.” Arafat repeated such a willingness at a 1988 U.N. meeting in Geneva.
But U.S. News & World Report (9/ 13/93) ignored this history, reporting on “the quarrelsome PLO’s newfound willingness to abandon its goal of destroying Israel.” What Arafat has done, in reality, is retreat from his demand that recognition be mutual; Israel only had to recognize the PLO as a representative of the Palestinian people, not the national rights of Palestinians.
The standard media line was to equate the pain of the occupied and the occupier. But some commentators still needed to paint the Arabs as villains. Despite the record of Palestinian willingness to compromise, Fouad Ajami (U.S. News & World Report, 9/27/93) commented of Palestinian leaders, “It was not in them, or in the ways of their culture, to make such a daring leap.”
The question of trust was rarely asked in a balanced fashion. PBS‘s Jim Lehrer repeatedly asked what would happen if, after the Palestinians achieve autonomy, a Palestinian attacks an Israeli (MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, 9/9/93, 9/13/93). But few reporters seemed worried that harm might befall some of the 1 million Palestinians who will still be under occupation outside of Gaza or Jericho.
Time (9/13/93) asked, “Can Palestinians be trusted with a truly independent state?” What other people would that be asked of? Such reporting also overlooks Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s own statement (MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, 9/13/93) that “the Palestinians will never be able to present a military threat to Israel.”