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A Morsi moment in the media

With some collegial shaming, the New York Times finally told the 'apes and pigs' comment story and got the ball rolling

While it took the New York Times days before it reported on anti-Semitic comments made by Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi in 2010, it took only a few hours before the story made it all the way to the top.

The White House Press Secretary Jay Carney condemned Morsi’s comments in no uncertain terms, saying: “The language that we have seen is deeply offensive. We completely reject these statements, as we do any language that espouses religious hatred.”

Coming as they did with a congressional delegation in Cairo where Egypt’s aid package and security cooperation with the US will be on the table, the elevation of Morsi’s comments made some three years ago before he could ever have dreamt of rising to the Egyptian presidency, have the power to affect Egyptian-US relations in a deeply negative way.

So what have we learned from a media perspective from this episode?

Firstly, the fact that this story became a hot issue for the White House has demonstrated that the New York Times is still the paper of record. Only after the Times saw fit to publish the story of Morsi’s comments did it break out into the wider mainstream media and beyond.

That it took some eleven days before the paper woke up and published the piece also speaks volumes. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) as well as Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) both regularly expose incidents of Arab anti-Semitism and incitement to such an extent that statements such as those of Morsi are clearly not an exception but the norm.

Why do the mainstream media have such an aversion to covering what is potentially a key issue when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict? The material that both of these organizations produces doesn’t need to be hyped up or manipulated. The anti-Semitism and incitement are straight from the horses’ mouths. The videos say it all.

In the Morsi case, it was only when the New York Times picked up on the story that others felt that it had a “kosher certificate” that made it publishable, making its way into other media outlets such as the BBC, Reuters and AP.

But what did it take before the Times published? Bureau chiefs in Jerusalem could hardly have failed to notice the story, which made headlines in the English-language Israeli press such as the Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel. The story, however, failed to take off until Forbes writer Richard Behar started to ask questions of the American media, particularly the New York Times.

Nobody likes to be criticized by their peers. The New York Times is no different and evidently started to investigate further. Furthermore, when Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, a commentator with good ties to the White House, also weighed in, the story grew legs and ran.

While this is a potentially “teachable moment” for the media, it is probably too early to say whether or not this is the wake-up call that defines future coverage. For this to happen, entire frameworks and worldviews will have to be shattered.

Irrespective of whether one agrees or disagrees with Israeli policies, particularly those which have been deemed “obstacles to peace” in the prevailing discourse, the media has singularly failed to question the motivations behind the other side, namely the Arab world and the Palestinians.

Placing the entire focus on issues such as settlements turns the Middle East conflict into a black and white dispute over territory. If only it were so simple. For even if the Palestinians were to be given a state on the majority of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and even if workable agreements could be found to core issues such as Jerusalem and the so-called Palestinian right of return, it may be generations before the Arab people can be detoxified from the hatred that they have been raised on.

If the conflict, inspired by radical Islamism and anti-Semitism, cannot be brought to an end through peace treaties and land swaps, then the entire prism through which the media and politicians view it becomes far more complex.

On a more basic level, it means that the media should start asking the difficult questions of the Arab world concerning attitudes towards Israel. Morsi’s comments, after all, indicated a visceral hatred of Israel and Jews that goes far deeper than the Palestinian issue.

How can the media and ultimately the public, possibly begin to understand the currents within the Arab world when only statements from Arab politicians made in English to an international audience are reported? All too often, what is said, broadcast or written in Arabic bears no relation to the statements specifically aimed for western consumption.

History tells us, however, that Arab rejectionism does little to promote sympathy towards Israel. From the three no’s of Khartoum in 1967 (no peace, no recognition and no negotiations with Israel) to the Hamas Charter, Arab and Muslim attitudes and motivations are simply skipped over. While Yasser Arafat’s rejection of Ehud Barak’s peace proposals met with an outbreak of violence and terror which was accompanied by the most vicious anti-Israel media coverage.

Will this latest Morsi moment break new ground? Perhaps it will have a major bearing on how the US handles a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt. For the media, however, we can only hope, wait and see.

About the Author
Simon Plosker is the Managing Editor of HonestReporting. With overall responsibility for HonestReporting’s content and output, Simon joined the organization in November 2005 following several years working in a variety of non-profit organizations and immigrating to Israel from London in 2001. He has a BSoc.Sc in International Studies and Political Science from the University of Birmingham and a MSc in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics.