Opinion | Stop pretending American media is objective about the Middle East

By Sofia Uriagereka-Herburger, Staff Columnist

American news coverage has been subjected to a significant amount of attention in recent years. The political right’s alarming paranoia has inspired a widespread defense of publications and journalistic institutions rather than the content they produce. 

The task of arguing with conservatives is so enormous and exhausting that reasonable criticism of media objectivity often goes unheard. There are few cases with as much bias urgently needing more attention than that of the U.S.- backed Israeli occupation of Palestine. 

There are a myriad of U.S. publications in circulation, but none with as much national acclaim or reach as The New York Times and The Washington Post. For nearly the last century, they have served as the de facto authorities on any subject they chose to report on, particularly in non-conservative environments.  

These news outlets’ authority is relatively unquestioned when it comes to international issues, seemingly because conservatives ready to argue about domestic issues have far less interest in international politics. Their bias is rarely discussed out of fear of sounding too much like a tinfoil hat-wearing climate change denier, despite the criticism coming from entirely the opposite end of the political spectrum.  

There are two glaring issues with bestowing this authority. Firstly, it works against legitimizing grassroots reporting, which has a significant role in disseminating information during political unrest. Grassroots reporting can potentially contain more accurate information, as the reporters are community members and as such are not forced into the hierarchical relationship as international press. 

In my personal experience, when I have passed along a link or a video from an account or organization that does grassroot reporting of this sort — most recently the account @eye.on.palestine on Instagram or @HoyPalestina on Twitter, both of which publish video evidence of Israeli Defense Force’s soldiers’ daily brutality — I’ve been met with a considerable amount of scorn or dismissal.  

Americans are accustomed to their news being presented in a uniform format that anything that strays outside is subject to an alarming level of doubt. They expect local grassroots reporters to present any news that comes from places under literal attack in a recognizable font or for the video to have English subtitles, as if it is necessary to understand the background conversations to recognize state sanctioned brutality, or reasonable to expect for them to be supplied on live footage from active war zones. 

“It’s not a reputable source” is one of the most frequent, most appalling things I have heard from Americans faced with evidence of violence by a military backed and funded operation by their own state. 

Take two victims of Israel Defense Force brutality — one who is the “perfect” victim and one who is written off by the media. Here is the funeral of a 7-year-old Rayan Suleiman, whose heart stopped from adrenaline after his parents say he was chased by Israeli soldiers. Here is a video of the IDF beating a young man’s face into the ground. Here it is from another angle. Yes, you do not know his name, and you do not know the reason for his detainment. 

Both of these things give Americans the chance to say, “well, we just don’t know enough.” Any inconsistency or absence of total clarity in this reporting is immediately used to discredit it. Never mind that living under occupation and constant threat of detainment or murder does not allow for the same precise, lengthy fact-checking process as one has the privilege of in a news office in the U.S., or that sharing the name of someone already brutalized by the IDF will make them more of a target.

These are just two examples of victims of the occupation, but what are the testimonies of their families and of the witnesses if not the most primary and urgent of sources? It’s not responsible to wait for a pithy news anchor in an expensive suit to report on carefully chosen victims or for the Washington Post to write about the death of a 7-year-old that treats the army directly responsible for his death as a reliable source. When will so many Americans stop pretending that the news does not exist until it’s covered by their favorite pundits?  

It might seem like Americans are creatures of habit like anyone else, and that your comfort with receiving your news in this prepackaged format, with its nearly surgical precision in reporting only the most acceptable and undeniable violations of human rights, is one that stems from the reliability of this method. It is crucial to understand that what you are receiving is only the tip of a very large iceberg. It is better-written propaganda. The fact that you are accustomed to interacting with media in this form does not make it normal, it makes it common. 

The second and most crucial element here is that the media that is considered reputable and acceptable, and presented as a natural superior to “unobjective” or “agency-driven” grassroots reporting is literally anything but objective. 

Take the Washington Post, which, since being purchased by one of the richest men alive with a variety of worker-abuse claims, has published some opinions that are little more than insidious American imperial propaganda, each time with the trademark tagline “Democracy dies in darkness.” The days of Watergate are long gone — so too should be the celebration and trust given to a paper that is owned by a man like Jeff Bezos. 

The New York Times is not exempt, either. In any other country, a publication that put out such a nauseating portrait of people whose only job is to commit mass murder behind a computer screen would be seen as frighteningly biased. Maybe John Oliver would do a bit about it. Cue the infographics and the “We need to talk about [blank]” headlines. 

Holly Jackson’s 2021 study on the New York Times’ reporting on Palestine at MIT offers a harrowing, undeniable analysis of the media bias from reputable sources. Most urgently, that the Times overreports Israeli casualties, underreports Palestinian casualties, references Israeli groups in 93% of articles compared to references to Palestinians, which are present in only 43%, and uses passive voice twice as often when referring to Palestinians. 

Jackson also references a study by Allison Weir’s nonprofit organization “If Americans Knew” which compared media coverage during two periods in the Second Intifada. The study found that, despite the Palestinian death toll being 7.6 higher than that of Israelis in 2004, The New York Times reported Israeli deaths at 149% and Palestinian deaths at 41% in headlines or first paragraphs.  

The stilted reality of the death toll has not changed. The reporting bears little proof of change, either. The point-blank assassination of internationally respected Palestinian Al Jazeera reporter, Shireen Abu Akleh, in May was so widely circulated that it was impossible to ignore. Unless, of course, you’re an avid reader of the Times, in which case you’d be presented with a report where Israeli authorities, after having shot a journalist in a press vest, are cited multiple times in apparent good faith. 

It is already ridiculous enough that many Americans waited with bated breath for their champion publication to conduct their own investigation into a murder that was literally livestreamed, as if it would be the only way to know what happened, but that the only conclusive statement that the Times managed to put out is that Shireen Abu Akleh was “most likely” another casualty of the IDF is a marker of their profound lack of integrity.  

American media disservices its readers by underreporting and skewing the reality of U.S.-backed violence abroad. Americans themselves are at a precipice where they must decide how much they are going to value the name of a publication over the content it reports. This is a decision that must be made urgently — if not for the sake of their conscience, then for the sake of the media literacy of future generations. 

Sofia Uriagereka writes about politics and international and domestic social movements. Write to her at [email protected].