Malice, media bias, and the Cape Times

Skilled and experienced journalists possess in their arsenal many subtle ways to convey the anti-Israel message

One of the strange paradoxes of our age is the unholy alliance between many self-designated Western social progressives and assorted tyrants, homophobes, xenophobes and anti-Semites in the Middle East.

In Israel lies their common ground, where prejudice, ignorance, self-interest and, yes, sheer malice, intersect and trump the enormous gulfs of culture and ideology. The remarkable but flawed democratic Israel, with all its cultural, linguistic, political and religious diversity is reduced to nothing but a symbol of Western-Jewish militarism and racism – hated and envied in equal measure.

Such attitudes are especially prevalent in much of the English, post-apartheid popular press in South Africa. And, amongst these, the Cape Times is one of the most notorious. The vast majority of Jewish South Africans support Israel despite differing political views, and the systematic bias that has pervaded the coverage of Israel by the Cape Times and other newspapers has been both distressing and infuriating.

Many feel impotent and rejected. Some find their home among the enemies of Israel, and work feverishly to blacken her name. They are much treasured by papers such as the Cape Times and the hyperactive Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in this country.

While everyone knew what was afoot, there remained the small matter of proof. So I undertook a systematic survey of the coverage by the Cape Times of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 2012 — up to September 12. The findings are contained in an approximately 4,000-word report that establishes conclusively the obsessive, pervasive and systematic bias in the treatment of Israel and Zionism by the Cape Times.

Environmentalist protesters in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 2011 (photo credit: CC BY Meraj Chhaya/Flickr)
Environmentalist protesters in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 2011 (photo credit: CC BY Meraj Chhaya/Flickr)

In one month, from June 20 to July 20, no less than 59 items dealt with Israel or Zionists or Zionism when nothing special was going on in those areas. Only on the letters page was there some plausible parity of treatment, though the most acrimonious and overwrought anti-Israel letters always received top exposure. But for the rest, in the reports and commentaries, not a single pro-Israel item appeared. Interestingly, these always appeared in clusters, invariably initiated by an overtly anti-Israel commentary, letter or report given top exposure. Reports were used in particular to repeat verbatim, and thereby reinforce, anti-Israel messages contained in the commentaries or letters.

Since the data were so strong, I was assailed by doubt: could these results reflect an unusual statistical aberration? So I extended the study to the other months not examined and excluded letters, since these were not the primary source of bias.

In this section of the study two questions were asked: (1) How did the Cape Times treat atrocities committed against Israeli or Jewish civilians? And (2) what were the topics selected for coverage and judgement?

Three atrocities were examined: the Bulgarian bomb attack, the Toulouse shootings and the Fogel family murders (which took place in 2011, before the study). In brief, only the Bulgarian bomb attack was actually reported by the Cape Times while the other two were essentially ignored. Nevertheless, the paper did find space to present other either irrelevant or anti-Israel articles at the time these atrocities took place.

With respect to selection of topic, there was an obsessive focus on real or potential anti-Israel matters, which took up 75% of the total number of items. Not a single positive report appeared on Israel’s achievements, aspects of Israel’s daily life, or its humanitarian activities.

The remaining 25% of items dealt with Iran, Palestine or anything else relevant to the focus of this study. Not one of these dealt with Iran’s vicious rhetoric against Israel, independent evidence that Iran may be following a militarized nuclear program, Arab-Muslim homophobia or gender inequalities, the relative democratic freedoms enjoyed by all Israelis relative to their neighbors, or the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist incitement so common in the region.

This superficial treatment does not do full justice to the “reality distortion field” created by the Cape Times. And even the fuller report does not fully mine the many subtle ways the anti-Israel message is conveyed by skilled and experienced journalists, adept at maintaining plausible deniability when only single items are considered.

Such coverage does not happen by chance. In recent weeks there has been a precipitous fall in the coverage of Israel by the Cape Times, possibly as a precautionary measure, having caught wind of this study. But immediately following the release of the report, two anti-Israel items appeared under prominent headlines in high-exposure areas of the Cape Times. The message was clear: mess with us at your peril.

But we will continue to “mess” with them till they decide to follow decent journalistic practices.

About the Author
Mike Berger holds a PhD in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota/Mayo Clinic, USA. He is a member of the Academy of Sciences of South Africa, a fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists (UK) and a fellow of the College of Pathologists of South Africa, and was awarded the Ernest Oppenheimer Travelling Scholarship. He writes extensively on a number of different issues, primarily Israel, and his blog -- SOLAR PLEXUS: Truth in Middle East Reporting -- has a wide and fascinated international following.