What happens when the barriers between editorial opinion and impartial reportage are eroded? Sometimes, a biased perspective is obvious. Most people recognize the differences between Fox News and MSNBC. But there are more subtle instances which evade our notice, impairing our judgment.
Hitler created “the big lie…,” so outrageous a falsity that it would not be believed to be fiction. Today we see the triumph of the small lie, seemingly insignificant verbal or pictorial distortions that create their own misleading reality. Small lies may even be more devastating because they are more insidious and difficult to unmask, gradually shaping our thinking and becoming enshrined as received wisdom.
A small lie was sported by CNN in a crawler at the bottom of the screen announcing that Israel had “retaliated” against “terrorists,” both words in quotation marks as written here. While viewers are unlikely to be attending to CNN’s punctuation, nevertheless they are receiving its subliminal message. The quotation marks are the equivalent of nudge-nudge-wink-wink or “We don’t really believe Israel was retaliating and we don’t really believe these were terrorists.” Repeatedly framed by quotation marks, these words cast aspersions on Israel’s veracity and diminish the menace of terrorism but in doses so small, they pass unnoticed.
The venerable New York Times is particularly fond of practicing the small lie by using misleading front page photographs. One example was a photo of a suffering Palestinian mother with the accompanying headline, “Attack on Israeli Worsens Tensions with Palestinians.” A nineteen-year-old Israeli soldier asleep on a bus was stabbed to death by a Palestinian man sitting in the seat beside him. The photo, astonishingly, showed the murderer’s mother. Another story about an Israeli murdered by a Palestinian at a bus stop was also illustrated by a photograph of the murderer’s mother. An unbalanced ratio of images more sympathetic to Palestinians than Israelis, even in situations like these, is quite characteristic of the Times.
CNN commentator, Fareed Zakaria, whose television program, Fareed Zakaria’s GPS (Global Public Square), is promoted by the network as its “flagship foreign affairs show,” has lately wielded powerful weapons of reportage by failing to ask important questions or asking questions reflecting his bias. During a discussion about anti-Semitism in Europe with author Simon Shama, at no point did either man mention Europe’s anti-Semitic Muslim population as a highly significant element threatening European Jews despite ample evidence of it. The act of omission in itself constitutes a small lie and ignoring an important reality perpetrates a dangerously false illusion.
Asking the wrong question is another way of spreading misinformation. Iran has been threatening Israel with nuclear annihilation for years. Yet, in an interview with President Rouhani of Iran, Zakaria asked, “What would happen if Israel were to launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities?” Wouldn’t the logical question have been to ask Rouhani why Iran is so bent upon Israel’s destruction? This is another example of framing a question to create a small lie so that it appears Israel, not Iran, is the nuclear bully.
Disregarding significant contextual information is also a form of the small lie. The Second Intifada, launched against Israel in 2000, unleashed an onslaught of suicide bombings that resulted in murder and maiming of thousands of Israeli civilians in public places. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that the Palestinians were so frustrated by the failure of peace negotiations with Israel that they spontaneously rose up against their “occupiers.” Oddly, the media failed to report a statement made by Suha Arafat, widow of Yasser Arafat, in an interview on Dubai television in December, 2012. She says that when her husband left the Camp David peace talks, he insisted she remain in Paris. “I asked him why and he said ‘Because I am going to start an intifada.” A Google search reveals that this startling admission was totally ignored by the international media, including America’s. The inconvenient new information upends a cherished narrative — the romantic revolution of an oppressed people — and inserts the reality of their cynical manipulation by a ruthless and venal leader.
We cannot afford journalistic bias or misinformation. The small lie is not equivalent to its polite cousin, “the little white lie.” Unchallenged, small lies can gradually harden into dangerous social norms.