Oct 16 2000

Muffled Coverage of U.N. Vote

Media Ignores 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 (see www.un.org/Docs/scres/2000/res1322e.pdf).

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 Times of London editorial page called it a “stinging rebuff” (10/9/00).

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. Britain, America’s closest ally, “in part brokered” the resolution, according to foreign secretary Robin Cook, “and we certainly stand by it” (Agence France Presse, 10/8/00).

NATO ally France also voted in favor, as did Argentina, which generally votes with Washington. Permanent members Russia and China voted in favor, as did several countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. The Associated Press (10/7/00) described the measure as “bitterly fought-over,” but Argentina’s U.N. delegate told Agence France Presse (10/7/00): “Most members of the council have no problem with the resolution. It is a problem for the American delegation.”

Despite the broad global consensus– minus the United States and Israel– 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” (AFP, 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 papers’ headlines mentioned Israel by name; for example, Newsday‘s misleadingly vague “U.N. Measure Condemns Violence.” Although all three of these papers have full-time U.N. correspondents, all used wire stories. None of the 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 singled out Israel.)

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 Advisor 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.

For the pundits, the United States’ isolation in abstaining from a unanimous U.N. resolution never came up as an issue.

As New York Times reporter Barbara Crossette noted a week after the vote (10/14/00), “the Clinton Administration came under criticism from across the political spectrum for abstaining, and not vetoing, the resolution last week.” Perhaps the media were hesitant to cover the unanimous U.N. vote because it showed how isolated this domestic consensus is from world opinion. The American public should hear from all sides in the volatile debate over the Mideast conflict.