Thank you, Donald Trump, for showing us why the foreign media acts as it does in the Middle East

I have spent the last quarter century of my professional career studying and analyzing those political, economic and social aspects of the Middle East that almost everyone either refuses to consider or has simply ignored. The recent Trump presidential campaign highlighted why I have had so much work.

My primary audience has usually been a small coterie of risk assessors, some of whom are responsible for protecting billions of dollars in investments.

Most of my work involves assembling vast quantities of reliable information and then seeing whether those facts cohere with media reports and popular perceptions of events. In the Middle East, incoherence between media reports and popular perceptions of events on the one hand, and hard facts on the other hand is usually the norm.

Naturally, this reality often means that my findings end up contravening conventional wisdom.

A good example is the fact that almost every journalist, diplomat and academic I meet outside Israel is convinced that Israel has “gone right.” True, the Israeli right is more verbose and, together with the extreme left, does hog the media. But that is largely a product of the long-standing intellectual barrenness of the Israeli Labor Party.

And, yes, Israel does have a right-wing government. However, as the recent survey by the well-respected Pew organization has found, fifty-five percent of Israelis actually identify themselves as centrists. Moreover, the Israel Democracy Institute’s monthly poll on attitudes to the peace process has always shown that when it comes to the standard Israeli test of “rightishness”—a refusal to give up land for peace—a majority of Israelis is willing to cede land in return for a reasonable peace agreement with the Palestinians.

A great deal of this kind of incorrect conventional wisdom is simply the product of excuses, intellectual laziness, complacency and a desire for convenience by journalists and the participants in Middle Eastern political events. Of course, not to be ignored, another ingredient that invariably also does show up in this specious gumbo is a big dollop of claims by advocates for whom the truth may be an irrelevancy.

The major problem that risk assessors then face, though, is that, once established as “the truth” in the public’s eye, conventional wisdom takes on a life of its own. Often, despite reality and easily-available hard proof to the contrary, people begin to invest emotions, money and even career prospects in the maintenance of false narratives.

In the case of Israel, this usually means that, among many other things, each time a new peace initiative is launched, many of the major concerns of the Israel center—considerations that a majority of Israelis want to be addressed even before security issues are discussed—are ignored. One particularly prominent current example of such a concern is the question of who is likely to succeed Abu Mazzen. Both Egypt and Jordan had long-established lines of succession before the peace initiatives with those countries got underway; and likely successors to those in power were well-known in advance to Israeli negotiators. This is not the case with the Palestinians. My research indicates that Israeli centrists are deeply concerned that they do not know who the successor to Abu Mazzen will be and whether he will be capable of and committed to maintaining peace if an agreement can be signed.

My research has found that ever since the original Sadat peace initiative, precisely because issues such as these have never been addressed, the majority of Israelis could never be mobilized to actively support a foreign-mediated peace initiative with the Palestinians. The end result of such abortive efforts was that these mediation exercises invariably then degenerated into bitter recriminations and threats to impose sanctions on Israel.

Needless to say, someone like myself, whose life’s work is devoted to debunking the premises on which so many heavy personal investments in conventional wisdom have been made, is usually unwelcome among those who feel compelled to cling to the status quo.

Such was the case when I recently decided to “go public” and to use many of the techniques I have learned over the years in the Middle East and apply them to the US presidential election campaign. I chose to do so for the simplest of reasons: It was blatantly obvious to me that the American media were finding the advent Donald Trump and his supporters to be such a strange event that they had begun to treat them just as if these figures had resided in another country….about which the majority of the media personalities knew little or nothing. Remarkably, upon finding this foreign body in their midst, the journalists’ and the commentators’ knee-jerk reaction was to use the same techniques in dealing with Trump and Trumpism that they had used consistently in the past when covering events abroad.

I knew that North American editors would be horrified by this presumptuous proposition. Nonetheless, I decided to write an article in which I pointed out some of the faults in the methodologies that were being employed by the cartel of journalists, academics and pollsters who had become the primary pundits in the media.

In the article, I went as far as I could to suggest that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Donald Trump might win. I made no pretense to being a clairvoyant. All I did was to point out that the media this time were making the same errors in methodology and judgment that they had made prior to the “surprises” of Brexit and the successes that jihadist recruiters had had in Europe. I could have added that these were the same errors that had cropped up consistently during the media’s the coverage of events in the Middle East over the past half-century.

For example, because they did not actually go out into the field and talk to people leading everyday, humdrum lives, there was a remarkable parallel between the failure by American pundits to accept just how sizeable and potentially decisive Trump’s base of support was and my findings that foreign mediators had failed to discover and accept as valid issues for discussion many of the things that were on the minds of a majority of Israelis.

I submitted the article to no fewer than six leading publications, and was not at all surprised that it was rejected by all of them. As an experiment, I then revised the article slightly and published it, prior to the election, as a blog in The Times of Israel. It didn’t create much excitement there either. It never made the home page of The Times of Israel; and no one commented on it. It thus died a silent death.

In recent days, the media in America have been awash with penitential, self-flagellating articles by the same journalists, academics and pollsters who had failed so badly to predict the true result of the balloting. These post-mortems, incidentally, have now confirmed all the observations I had made in my original article.

As I read through these mea culpa exercises, one of the most important and simplest conclusions I could not avoid coming to was that, with only a few notable exceptions, the media’s reporting on Israel has not been the product of inherent anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism—as many Jewish critics have claimed—it is largely the product of factors and attitudes that are endemic to and even an integral part of the way American journalists are taught to practice their craft. In other words, the errors in judgment in the coverage of events by the media in the Middle East in recent years were neither random nor fleeting because they were embedded in American journalists’ modus operandi.

Here is but one of a multitude of examples of this phenomenon: Early on in the final Trump-Clinton phase of the contest, some of the more astute observers of the media, such as the folks at the Vox.com internet site, began to recognize and rail against the same journalistic technique that had raised the ire of pro-Israeli advocates for many years. It is called “the use of false equivalency.” Essentially, journalists all too often present two comments in such a way that it appears as though they are of equal weight and value (“He says. She says.”)…even when one quote attempts to relate to the truth while the other is a lie.

In the case of the American election campaign, at least during the early stages of the direct confrontation between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, outright and blatantly-obvious Trump lies and falsehoods were given the same, usually uncritical time and space as a serious Clinton proposal on the same subject. Initially, a few people such as the New York Times’s Public Editor, Liz Spayd, tried to continue to justify this practice, which had been a mainstay of the Time’s foreign reporting for years. However, very soon she and the others in the mainline media who were also trying to keep justifying the practice were eventually booed into silence on the subject.

Nonetheless, many well-trodden reasons, or excuses, continued to be given for the use of this particular technique. The justification most often used states that treating both sides to a conflict “equally” is a necessity if the media is to fulfill its obligations under the fairness doctrine.

There are actually many journalists who believe that reasoning. However, more honest and thoughtful ones admit that two other justifications are closer to the real truth. Editors-in-Chief and publishers often order that this technique be used in order to assuage and placate advertisers who may have strong feelings about how a particular, contentious issue should be articulated by the media. And at least a few journalists working in the field will admit that they simply don’t have the time and the resources to verify most of the statements being made to them. Treating the statements equally helps get them (and especially the laziest among them) off the hook.

Despite the tidal wave of criticism that the technique elicited in the US during the election campaign, if history holds true, those who do care about the truth should be aware that it is highly likely that the technique’s use will continue in the future when journalists leave the boundaries of the USA and are not as closely scrutinized as they have been in recent weeks.

The advent of the Trump phenomenon is yet another example-in-point that revolutionary, traumatic events can often expose major fallacies in journalists’ and other peoples’ beliefs and practices. The first intifada in 1987 was another example of this truism.

I wrote a well-received book on the American media and the intifada that has since become required reading in some university Department of Communications’ courses. However, it is already clear to me that the impact that the election of Donald Trump has had on perceptions of America and on the reality of newsgathering is already geometrically greater than anything that the intifada produced. Some of the stuff that has been exposed to date, such as the free publicity now being given to virulent anti-Semites is truly frightening.

Even more worrying, though, the Oxford English Dictionary, largely because of the Trump campaign and its aftermath, recently declared that the “new word of the year” is “post-truth,” as in “The Post-Truth Generation.” If post-truism has really arrived, one cannot but ask an existential question: How will it be possible to create domestic and international social stability if we are now being forced to assume that no one and no statements can be trusted?

But even before we begin discussing such a heady topic, on a day-to-day practical level, those of us who are concerned about the truth must also assume, among other things, that anti-Zionist groups such as the BDS movement will soon be  adopting many of the less-than-truth-seeking, media-manipulating techniques that the American alt-right are now using with such success. For that reason, it is incumbent upon Jews to do a thorough risk assessment of the new political environment.

I have now gathered a huge amount of material on the many lessons that the recent US election campaign and the regrowth of the extreme right in Europe can teach all partisans of democracy—especially Jews. I would be willing to share it (especially those elements that relate to the Middle East and Israel) in future blogs if there is any interest. If you wish to explore this subject further with me, I invite your suggestions, ideas and comments in the comments section provided.

About the Author
Jim Lederman has been the longest-serving foreign correspondent in Israel. Over almost 50 years, among other positions, he has been the Jerusalem Correspondent for the CBC, NPR and The New York Post. Among his many works is Battle-Lines: The American Media and the Intifada (Holt 1992).
Comments