Dec 1 2000

Muffled Coverage of U.N. Vote

Media ignore broad Mideast consensus

U.S. media have been ignoring or downplaying an important dimension of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. On October 7, the United Nations Security Council voted 14 to 0 for a resolution condemning Israel’s “excessive use of force against Palestinians” and deploring the “provocation” of Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon’s September 28 visit to the Temple Mount.

The United States was the only Security Council member to abstain from the vote, which it did after trying to soften the language of the resolution. The outcome was generally interpreted as assigning most of the responsibility for the violence to Israel. The conservative London Times editorial page (10/9/00) called it a “stinging rebuff.”

The Security Council members who voted in favor of the unanimous measure included the United States’ closest allies in NATO–Britain, Canada and the Netherlands. NATO member France also voted yes, as did Argentina, which generally votes with Washington. The other nations supporting the resolution were Russia, China, Bangladesh, Mali, Malaysia, Tunisia, Namibia, Ukraine and Jamaica.

Despite the broad global consensus highlighted by the resolution’s passage, coverage in the U.S. media was scant and indifferent. When the media did report the vote, it was almost always treated as a dilemma for U.S. policymakers rather than a statement of world opinion. Virtually no news outlet reported which countries voted for the measure. In a news cycle that has focused overwhelmingly on the question of who is to blame for the current violence, the media’s indifference to an international vote on the issue is striking.

As Britain’s U.N. delegate noted during the debate over the vote, the Security Council “does not have an army, but is a judge of international affairs and is expected to pronounce on such matters” (Agence France Presse, 10/7/00). Information about world opinion is especially needed in the U.S., whose government has long been internationally isolated in its staunch support for Israeli military actions.

But important newspapers with substantial international coverage relegated the U.N. vote to a few passing sentences within other stories–e.g., the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune (all 10/8/00) and USA Today (10/9/00). Only three of the top 36 U.S. papers in the Nexis database–the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Long Island Newsday–devoted articles to the vote (all 10/8/00). None of these three papers’ headlines mentioned Israel by name; for example, Newsday‘s misleadingly vague “U.N. Measure Condemns Violence.” Although all three papers have full-time U.N. correspondents, all used wire stories. None of the top 36 newspapers reported which Security Council members voted for the resolution.

A week later (10/14/00), the New York Times‘ U.N. correspondent, Barbara Crossette, mischaracterized what the resolution said. She reported American U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s vow to veto any further Security Council resolutions after the U.S. “abstained on a resolution in the Security Council last weekend broadly criticizing the renewal of fighting.” (The resolution actually focused on violence against Palestinians.)

On television, coverage was even thinner. The only chance CBS Evening News viewers had to learn about the resolution was from a story on the Hillary Clinton/Rick Lazio Senate debate (10/8/00). Lazio said he was “gravely disappointed” that the Clinton administration didn’t veto the resolution. “Mrs. Clinton agreed,” added reporter Diana Olick.

NBC‘s Middle East coverage included some passing remarks by White House correspondent Joe Johns (NBC Nightly News, 10/8/00) reporting that “the disagreement over which side should bear the greatest blame spilled over to the United Nations.” Johns explained that the measure criticized Israel and that the U.S. abstained–but viewers were not told whether the resolution passed, or what the vote was.

On ABC‘s World News Tonight (10/8/00), the vote didn’t even make it into State Department correspondent Martha Raddatz’s story, but had to be inserted by anchor Carol Simpson in a three-sentence lead-in.

The U.N. resolution got the most coverage on the Sunday morning talk shows, where the pundits could barely contain their dismay at the administration’s failure to veto the measure. On NBC‘s Meet the Press (10/8/00), Tim Russert grilled Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the abstention. When Albright said she “felt that it was important that we abstain on this resolution because of the kind of language that was in it,” Russert prodded: “Well, why not veto it?” After she responded, Russert persisted: “But by abstaining and not vetoing, it did go into force, a resolution which condemns in effect Israel for excessive use of force.”

Interviewing national security adviser Sandy Berger on ABC‘s This Week (10/8/00), Sam Donaldson called the decision to abstain “remarkable,” adding that “perhaps not since the Falklands War” had the U.S. failed to veto a resolution condemning one of its allies.

The TV pundits, who closely reflect the thinking of media decision-makers, clearly thought the resolution was important. Why, then, was it not important enough for most major news outlets to run even a single news report on it?