Bush’s ‘Peace Plan’ & the Media

By JOE AUCIELLO

The dominant tone was set early. In the major newspapers throughout the United States, most columnists and op-ed contributors unabashedly cheered for the president’s April 5 speech and derided Arafat and the Palestinian cause. Few writers even attempted to grasp the issue from the Palestinian perspective.

Television news reported the speech in terms favorable to Bush, where “democracy,” championed by the U.S. and Israel, was pitted against the “terrorism” of the Palestinians. The Sunday morning news talk shows did include the token Palestinian spokesperson, but that evening’s news coverage by the major networks only featured sound bites from U.S. officials.

A state founded on the dispossession of an entire people must continually go to war to maintain itself. This idea, applied to the Middle East, was entirely absent from accounts in the mainstream media. Far from opposing Bush’s agenda, most editorial writers and columnists fancied themselves as loyal members of the commander-in-chief’s cabinet, offering praise, sage advice, and friendly amendments to the president’s Middle East plan.

Syndicated columnist George Will declared the president’s speech “was the most clearsighted U.S. intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in the 35 years since the 1967 war, and perhaps in the 54 years since the founding of Israel” and went on to condemn “Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, a thugocracy that has been the real occupation force….”

The Wall Street Journal commended the president’s speech in its June 25 editorial and ran an op-ed column by the head of Israel’s Labor Party, who said Bush’s proposals were a “positive step.” Days later, Max Boot, editorial features editor of The Journal favorably likened President Bush to Woodrow Wilson and claimed that they “believe that both morality and self-interest should lead the U.S. to champion liberal values abroad.” Boot’s sense of morality also led him to call for the U.S. military occupation of Iraq.

The New York Times editorial commended Bush’s “far-reaching, moral vision for the future of the Middle East,” and stated that “in broad terms, Mr. Bush told Israel the right things.”

But The Times editors did feel the speech would have had greater appeal to the Palestinians if the president had made some effort to sugar-coat his message.

Days later in The New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof also lauded Bush for his “moral clarity” but warned that “he must add some practicality to his principles.” Serge Schmemann, also of The Times, credited the president with “a brave new approach.”

A pro-Israeli slant in The New York Times is nothing new. The Timescolumnist William Safire, to take one example, has been a virtual press secretary for the Sharon government.

Another Times columnist, Thomas L. Friedman, wrote, “I applaud President Bush’s call for Arafat to be replaced, “he feared it would be insufficient because “the security requirements and limitations on Palestinian sovereignty that Israelis would insist upon-in the wake of the total breakdown in trust over the last year-would probably be so high that no Palestinian leader would be able to accept them.”

Robert Stewart, a former Army intelligence analyst, opined in The Los Angeles Times, “So it is not Bush’s conditions that are preventing progress on a Palestinian flag over East Jerusalem; it is the willful obstruction through violence, and Arafat’s refusal to stop it or step aside.”

The Boston Globe hailed Bush’s speech as “a welcome turnabout” that “ought to ring true with many Palestinians” who “have lost patience with Arafat’s dictatorial ways and his knack for bringing disaster on his people.”

Commentators all agree that there is essentially one cause that explains the continuing violence in the Middle East-the unreasoning hatred of the Palestinians against their Israeli neighbors, a hatred spurred on by treacherous demagogues like Yasser Arafat and Islamic extremists like Hamas. “The Palestinians,” runs conventional wisdom, “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Some columnists get carried away in their enthusiasm for the Bush plan and add demands of their own. They sound like Bush on steroids.

So, for instance, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby called for punishment against all Palestinians because “among the Palestinians it is the majority who nurse hatred and support the slaughter of civilians” since they “have been steeped in hatred and bloodlust….”

He demands: “The Palestinian Authority has to be dealt a devastating military defeat, one that will crush Arafat and his junta. … Then the Palestinian territories must be reoccupied….”This scenario for a bloodbath should, Jacoby believes, prove “a blessing … to the Palestinians above all.”

Of course, columnists, unlike reporters, are expected to present their opinions frankly and need make no pretense of even-handedness or objectivity. But the range of opinion presented in the newspapers and television is narrow and repetitious, generally endorsing the U.S. position, whatever it might be.

A few dissenting voices do in fact find their way into print – usually unsolicited op-ed essays – but these exceptions to the rule are all but drowned out by the patriotic cheering of the paid professionals.

The Democratic Party leadership has shown itself eager to portray themselves as the best friends of Israel. Journalists are careful not to transgress these ideological limits. Writers who might otherwise have been outspoken were instead cowed and couched their comments cautiously, a concession to the rally-round-the-chief political climate.

Syndicated columnist Mary McGrory only said, “Bush was being Bush rather than a world statesman.” Boston Globe columnist H.D.S. Greenway remarked, “there was a naivete in Bush’s proposals….”

Readers whose opinions are shaped by the point of view of the daily newspapers and nightly news programs, that is, the huge majority of Americans, cannot adequately understand the continuing turmoil in the Middle East.

If Americans regularly read a more diverse range of ideas popular opinion would be far more favorable to the Palestinian cause. Even American schoolchildren, educated on the principle of “Give me liberty, or give me death,” can understand why the Palestinians, unorganized, outnumbered, ill-equipped, continue to fight.