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Media Bias and the Delegitimisation of Israel: the case of the Cape Times

It disclaims state of Israel

It disclaims state of Israel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“The Shoah was not created from a vacuum and did not emerge from nowhere… it was also made possible by centuries of blindness, stupidity, lies, and hatred. It was preceded by many warning signs, which failed to alert people’s consciences…” From a speech by Francois Hollande, President of France.

 The detailed and careful study reported below documents the systematic bias and pre-occupation with Israel and Zionism by the Cape Time in the year 2012. This document merely touches on aspects of the broader Israel and Zionist media activity in this country, since its focus is on the Cape Times specifically.

To the knowledge of the author it is the first such objective and comprehensive investigation of anti-Israel media bias in South Africa and it is hoped that additional such studies will be forthcoming in future.

 Preamble

The broad Zionist, Jewish and non-Jewish, community in South Africa has long been distressed by the apparently inordinate and biased attention given to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (IPC) in our media and, in Cape Town, by the subjectively partisan anti-Israel/anti-Zionist stance of the Cape Times.

The editors of this newspaper have dismissed complaints along these lines as being devoid of substance.

The author thus decided to undertake a comprehensive and objective study of the content of the Cape Times for a period of one month (Phase 1). The results strongly confirmed both the excessive and partisan nature of the coverage of Israel and Zionism, and provided additional information on the manner in which through coordination and repetition the anti-Israel message was enhanced.

There the matter may have rested but for the somewhat remote concern that the above  findings may have been the result of an unusual statistical aberration.  Thus in Phase 2 of this investigation, the relevant content of the Cape Times was subjected to a broadly similar scrutiny for the remainder of 2012 up to 12 September, with a brief dip into 2011 in order to complete a series of 3 case studies. This phase of the investigation sought to determine  whether clear partisanship in the treatment of Israel in relation to the Palestinians and Israel’s opponents in the Middle East existed.

These results confirmed and extended the findings of Phase 1, as revealed in greater detail below. In the concluding “Conclusions and Comments” section the context of this study and the relevance of these findings to the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign will be discussed.

Results and Comment

The current investigation was carried out in two phases.

Phase 1:

Each issue of the Cape Times (23 in total) was monitored between 20 June 2012 and 20 July 2012 for all content dealing with Israel, the Palestinians, Zionism or Zionists. For simplicity in what follows Israel, Zionism and Zionists are examined together, unless it is appropriate to differentiate between them.

Each item was classified into Reports, Commentary (articles or op-eds of analysis and opinion) or Letters. The Reports were further subdivided into Full Reports appearing in the main body of the paper or Brief Reports appearing in one of the side-columns.

The content of each item was assessed in terms of the neutrality or pro (+) or anti (-) Israel/Zionism tone or bias along a 5 point scale in which 0 (zero) represents neutrality. This was done blind by 2 independent individuals. At the same time the item was qualitatively assessed in terms of position and prominence, headline, approximate size, accompanying images and evidence of coordination, repetition and amplification.

The results can be briefly summarised as follows:

  • Total number of items: 59, averaging out to just over 2.5 items per issue.
  • Full Reports: There were 15 Full Reports of which 4 were neutral and 11 were anti-Israel with scores ranging from -1 to -4. There were no pro-Israel Full Reports.
  • Brief Reports: There was a total of 7 Brief Reports with 2 neutral and 5 anti-Israel with scores from -1 to -3. There were no pro-Israel Brief Reports.
  • Commentaries: There were 3 items classified as Commentaries all of which were anti-Israel with scores from -3 to -5.
  • Letters: There was a total of 34 Letters of which 2 were neutral, 15 were anti-Israel with a cumulative anti-Israel score of 43 and 17 pro-Israel with a cumulative pro-Israel score of 37. The Letters page was thus the only section in which a rough parity of content appeared. But the 2 letters accorded top of page exposure were both strongly anti-Israel.

These raw statistics demonstrate a remarkable predominance of anti-Israel content in the Cape Times. They fail however to provide the full dimensions of the anti-Israel bias.  Qualitative analysis showed evidence of coordination of content (Reports, Letters and Commentaries) which repeated, reinforced and referenced the anti-Israel content in the same or previous issues of the Cape Times. This is briefly addressed in the next section.

Temporal Patterns (Clusters):

The background coverage was, at intervals, punctuated by clusters of increased activity, all of which were initiated by anti-Israel items. The study of these clusters revealed a pervasive shaping of an anti-Israel and anti-Zionist discourse over and above the statistical bias revealed in individual items.

The first cluster (20 June) was initiated by the publication of a virulently anti-Israel letter by Moira Levy (in the course of which she renounced her Judaism) under prominent and sensational headlines across the top of the Letters page. This letter had been preceded by two reports in the Cape Times (5 and 13 June) to the effect that Israel had set up detention camps for illegal immigrants and that a number of the 60 000 African immigrants were to be repatriated.

 Levy’s letter was followed the next day by a shorter, essentially factual pro-Israel letter in response which was accorded significantly less prominence.  Another letter also appeared of lesser relevance.

 The following day (22 June), however, a relatively conciliatory letter from Archbishop Emeritus Tutu appeared in which Israel was nevertheless cast as the wilful and spiteful family member:  “When members of the family behave wrongly or spitefully or disrespectfully; we don’t turn our back on them. No, we try to convince them to steer a fairer course, a sustainable course, a better and more worthy course.” This letter was referenced and many of the most virulent accusations made by Levy two days previously were repeated verbatim in a front page report on the same day under prominent headlines. The letters dealing with the Levy cluster continued to the 26th of June. By the time it petered out 10 days later, 9 letters had been published on this topic.

 The second cluster was initiated by a report, 25 June, on the front page running over to page 3 under the headline “ACDP slammed over Israel stance as West Bank labelling bid protest looms.” In this report, two upcoming marches by the ACDP and its largely Christian allies in support of Israel over the labelling controversy of products from the West Bank, were delegitimised in advance by allegations levelled by a known anti-Israel activist organisation, the Kairos group. No other report on the actual marches or the motives for the march appeared in the Cape Times. On 9 July a pro-Zionist/ACDP Letter was published contrasting the ACDP march with a previous Palestinian Solidarity Rally. This elicited a further brief spate of correspondence in the Letters page. 

 This progress of this cluster was interrupted by a third cluster, 28th June, initiated by 3 anti-Israel items published simultaneously in the form of a commentary across the top of the Insight page, a supporting letter and a 3rd page report under prominent headlines slamming the Zionist Federation and other “Zionists” for alleged censorship over the refusal by the Labia owner to screen the anti-Israel propaganda film “Roadmap to Apartheid”. The report again served mainly to reference and repeat the allegations made elsewhere in the commentary and letter.

 The “debate” ran on to 10 July in the Letters page when it was again re-ignited by a prominent letter, published at the top of the Letters page, repeating censorship accusations against local Zionist organisations. It eventually petered out after 3 weeks on 17 July with a brief report on an alternative showing of the film “Roadmap to Apartheid” which repeated some of the anti-Zionist accusations made earlier. Besides the commentary, report and letter which initiated this debate, a further 18 letters were published on this topic.

 In fact, this particular cluster was simply a continuation of a campaign initiated much earlier in the year by the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC) which used the film “Roadmap to Apartheid” as the vehicle to depict the local Zionist Lobby as undemocratic.

 The fourth cluster came on the 5th July with the publication of a report on page 3 under prominent headlines, in which a number of anti-Zionist/anti-Israel groups applauded the ANC boycott of Israeli products, followed by a commentary in the form of an open letter (13 July) by a known anti-Zionist activist group published on the Insight page containing a litany of accusations against Israel. This too elicited the expected response in the letters page.

 Summary: The results of  the Phase 1 investigation thus showed an overwhelming preponderance of anti-Israel or anti-Zionist material in all sections of the newspaper except ostensibly for the Letters page where rough parity or pro- and anti-Israel/Zionist content was noted. Perhaps more importantly, there was strong evidence of significant coordination and repetition of themes using reports, commentaries and letters to initiate and then amplify a specific anti-Israel or anti-Zionist message.

 Phase 2:

 Since there was a remote possibility that the period 20 June to 20 July 2012 may have represented a statistical aberration, the period of analysis was extended to include 2012 from 1 January to the 12 September (but excluding the period 20 June to 20 July covered above).

 A very broad inclusion of all items dealing with the Middle East in general, matters of Arab-Muslim concern and Zionism yielded around 500 items for further examination. Many of these were letters which were subsequently excluded to focus on reports and commentaries.

 The final selection included only reports and commentaries pertaining to Israel, Zionism, Iran and the “Palestinians’, and any additional item which may have provided context or insight into the underlying causes of the tensions between Israel and its neighbours. This yielded a net total of 70 items relevant to the focus of this investigation. Most of the excluded reports dealt with the ongoing violence in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East or North Africa.

The results of a preliminary statistical breakdown were as follows:

Net Total  –  70

Israel/Zionism/Zionists primarily – 52 (74%)

Iran primarily – 9 (13%)

Palestine  – 3

Other – 6

These results once again emphasise the extraordinary focus on Israel and local Zionists. But the bias in the Cape Times’ coverage was better demonstrated by an examination of content which revealed gross selectivity. The following topics pertaining to Israel were covered in a number of reports or analytic commentaries prominently displayed on the Insight and Analysis page:

  • Israel’s “restrictions” on or attacks on Gaza
  • Israel’s “threats” to attack Iran
  • Local Zionist “censorship” of a “pro-Palestinian” film.
  • Israeli settlements and “expropriation” of Palestinian land
  • Travel, cultural and economic boycotts of Israel
  • Alleged infringement of individual privacy by Israel’s security protocols with hints of racial profiling.
  • Israeli “maltreatment” of Palestinian children
  • The death of Rachel Corrie, a pro-Palestinian activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer
  • Craven’s accusation that the SAZF (SA Zionist Federation) hands were “dripping with blood”.
  • A rabbi’s call for God to destroy Israel’s enemies, specifically Iran
  • Israel’s “skunk” weapon for crowd control
  • Israeli settler vandalism

The following topics were not covered in any report or commentary.

As a consequence of this grossly selective choice of topics and emphasis, the resulting picture of Israel created is intensely negative: a state in defiance of world opinion almost entirely engaged in oppressive and discriminatory practices against its neighbours or in military threats and actions.  In the absence of any contextual information on the attitudes and behaviours of its enemies, or mitigating information about the real nature of Israeli society a highly distorted picture of the IPC and Israel itself has been systematically created.

Three Case Studies

 These were selected to determine the coverage by the Cape Times of especially newsworthy terror attacks on Israeli civilians.

  • The Bulgarian Bomb Attack: A suicide bomber (possibly with the help of accomplices) blew himself up on 18 July 2012 at a bus station outside the airport arrivals hall in the Black Sea City of Burgas in Bulgaria, a resort heavily frequented by Israeli tourists. Besides the bomber, a Bulgarian and five Israeli tourists were killed.

 Two reports appeared in the Cape Times. The first was a factual three sentence report on 19  July and the other was an equally neutral but longer report at the bottom of page 2 on 20 July. No images accompanied either report and no reactions of outrage or regret were expressed. At the same time (19 July) a report of approximately similar prominence appeared in the same location on the decision made by an obscure “Disney heiress” to renounce her profits made from Israeli enterprises in the West Bank and to donate them to “groups working to end this illegal occupation”. Contrary to the neutral and factual report on the bombing atrocity, this latter report was the occasion for a litany of anti-Israeli accusations.

  •  Toulouse and Montauban Shootings: In a series of 3 attacks, from 11 to 19 March 2012, Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old French-Algerian Islamist killed three French soldiers and 4 Jewish civilians (3 of them children, the other a Rabbi) in a series of shootings in the French cities of Toulouse and Montauban. He also severely injured 4 others and more lightly injured a fifth.

 The following is a quote from Wikipedia, “Merah filmed all of the killings using a GoPro camera strapped to his body. He made a video of them set to music and verses of the Koran. The video was sent to news agency Al Jazeera. After a request from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Al Jazeera opted not to air the video. One video shows Merah shooting two Muslim French soldiers in Montauban who (Merah) is heard shouting Allahu Akbar”.

 The Cape Times did not report this incident at all. But on 14 March they published a prominent article by Alister Sparks who, inter alia, cast Israel as a war-mongerer, and a second, no doubt important, report from Reuters (21 March) to the effect that Israel was banning underweight models for health reasons.

 Since this omission seemed extraordinary, it was decided to examine a similar though arguably more horrific event which had taken place a year earlier in 2011.

  •  Fogel Family (Itamar) Killings: These were carried out on 11 March 2011 by 2 Palestinians youths and received wide coverage and condemnation throughout the world. Both parents and 3 of the 6 children of the Fogel family resident in the Israeli settlement of Itamar were murdered. It is appropriate to quote the indictment in this context:

 According to the indictment, the two entered the children’s room, told eleven year old Yoav, who had been awakened by their entry not to be afraid, then took him to a nearby room, slashed his throat, and stabbed him in the chest. Hakim Awad then strangled four-year-old Elad with Amjad Awad stabbing him twice in the chest. The two next entered the parents’ room, and turned on the light, waking them up. The parents then struggled with the attackers. Ehud Fogel was repeatedly stabbed in the neck and Ruth Fogel was stabbed in the neck and back and then shot when the suspects saw that she was not dead. The suspects then left the house. … Amjad then re-entered the Fogel home. When 3-month old Hadas began crying, Amjad stabbed her, fearing the cries would attract attention. According to several accounts, the infant was decapitated., though one source says that although her throat was deeply slit, she was only “nearly decapitate“. “They expressed no remorse for their actions, and performed a re-enactment of the attack before security officials. Amjad Awad declared that he was proud of what he did and had no regrets, even if he was sentenced to death.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Itamar

 The Cape Times did not publish any report on these murders whatsoever. However 2 weeks later on 24 March the following line, “Earlier this month, five members of a Jewish settler family were knifed to death in their sleep at their West Bank home”, appeared in paragraph 4 of a Sapa-AP report on a bombing attack in central Tel Aviv, and it was again even more briefly alluded to the next day in another Sapa-AP report on an unrelated matter. Luckily a letter from a Jewish reader drew attention to this brutal episode.

 Conclusions and Comment:

To understand propaganda it does not always serve best to micro-analyse single items, though this can be extremely revealing, but to develop a more holistic perspective.

It is difficult to overstate the degree of reality distortion created by the excessive, systematic and wholly decontextualised focus on real and alleged transgressions of Israel and Zionism in the absence of any similar focus on Israel’s neighbours and enemies. For anyone without the requisite interest and education to seek alternative information, it is  impossible to achieve reasonable insight into the complex realities of the IPC and Israel’s place in the Middle East.

The net effect of the data revealed in this study is to cast Israel as a colonial and racist pariah state given to frequent transgressions of basic human rights in defiance of international law. The main techniques whereby this image is achieved include

  • an extraordinary level of Israel- and Zionist-focussed coverage,
  • a highly selective emphasis on negative or allegedly negative aspects of Israeli society and politics, concomitant with an absence of similar coverage of Palestinian or relevant Arab-Muslim policies and practices,
  • evidence of coordination and reinforcement (by repetition) of anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist allegations made by activist organisations,
  • the prominence given to anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist allegations which are endlessly recycled in letters, commentaries and reports,
  • minimal coverage of anti-Zionist/anti-Israeli threats or the virulent antisemitism promoted by many of Israel’s hostile neighbours,
  • ignoring or downplaying Palestinian or Arab-Muslim atrocities committed against Israeli civilians as revealed in 3 case studies,
  • scrupulously factual treatment of the massive ongoing violence and disruption taking place in Arab and Muslim societies prior to and throughout 2012, in contrast to the insidious and pervasive judgemental quality in the coverage of Israel.

Jacques Ellul in his classic study of propaganda (“Propaganda: the formation of men’s attitudes”, Vintage Books 1973) listed some of the characteristics and objectives of a “total”  propaganda campaigns. These included amongst others

  • Propaganda must be continuous, relentless and pervasive and must create “issues” if necessary.
  • It must be tailored to different audiences and different media and make use of the prevalent cultural myths and attitudes of the audience.
  • It must be organised (and of course funded)
  •  Alongside the mass media of communication propaganda employs censorship (or selectivity), legal or para-legal methods, proposed legislation, international conferences, seminars, and so forth.
  • Its aim is to create a “Weltanshauung” through which all political events are interpreted and understood. This includes “conditioned reflexes” in which certain words or symbols elicit automatic reactions and myths (or narratives) through which all events can be explained.
  • The propagandist naturally cannot reveal his true intentions.
  • The aim of propaganda is not simply to alter ideas but also to create action

 In discussing the findings of this investigation, context is particularily relevant. In modern times, Israel has been the target of a propaganda campaign possessing virtually all the attributes listed by Ellul in his analysis of total propaganda. It is a core component of the BDS movement; for details see Appendix 4, items 1a, 1b. 

This campaign has been at least partly successful. The number of antisemitic acts and attacks in the West has increased sharply over the past decade. Cultural, academic, travel and even economic boycotts have been implemented to an extent in South Africa and elsewhere (Appendix 4, items 1a and 1b, item 2). The slanted presentation of the Middle East and Israel is thus especially egregious in the context of this campaign of delegitimisation and isolation linked to economic, diplomatic, moral and legal measures to destroy Israel and to restore Arab hegemony throughout the Middle East (Appendix 3; Appendix 4, items 1a, 1b) .

Considering the wealth of evidence presented it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Cape Times has transgressed the fundamental requirements of ethical and responsible journalism, as enunciated by our Press Code and such bodies as the American Society of Newspaper Editors (http://asne.org/kiosk/archive/principl.htm) and the Society of Professional Journalists (http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp).

The latitude permitted by our Constitution and the Press Code (http://www.mediamonitoringafrica.org/index.php/codes/south_african_press_code and http://www.presscouncil.org.za/pages/press-code.php is wide but not infinitely so. The following provisions (appear especially relevant to the focus of this study:

“1.1 The press shall be obliged to report news truthfully, accurately and fairly.

1.2 News shall be presented in context and in a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by:

1.2.1 Distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation;

1.2.2 Material omissions; or

1.2.3 Summarisation.”

The possibility of submitting this investigation to the Press Ombudsman will be considered.

Apart from the insidious activities of the BDS movement, South Africa itself suffers from enormous social and economic inequalities, exceptionally high levels of violent crime and corruption and a volatile and vulnerable political environment. The importation of foreign quarrels, in a particularily simplistic and partisan form, into the delicate social fabric of South African society must be unambiguously rejected.

The small Jewish community of Cape Time (and to a lesser extent South Africa) has been traumatised by the systematic denigration of the only Jewish state. Considering that Israel is the only country in the Middle East which has under extreme moral challenge and existential threats consistently attempted, largely successfully as attested to by impartial surveys, to adhere to democratic norms and Western values, the consistently negative coverage it has received at the hands of the Cape Times is especially egregious.

There are many dimensions to this issue not covered in this report but will be the focus of on-going attention and public comment. But the following brief quote taken from the same speech quoted at the beginning of this document is pertinent to this study:

“We must never let our guard down. No nation, no society, nobody is immune from evil. Let us not forget this verdict by Primo Levi on his persecutors. “Save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces.” Let us remain alert, so that we may detect the return of monstrosity under its most harmless guises.”

 

Prepared by Dr G Michael Berger for the Truth in Middle East Reporting (TIMER) Group.

(Mike Berger, Bev Goldman, Rhoda Kadalie, Michael Katzenstein, Ben Levitas, Daniel Levitt, Rodney Mazinter, Paul West, Dave Wilkin)

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3 responses to “Media Bias and the Delegitimisation of Israel: the case of the Cape Times

  1. Pingback: Mike Berger in Politicsweb Part 1 « Media Team Israel

  2. Pingback: Mike Berger in Politicsweb Part 1 | Roro's Rantings

  3. Pingback: ISRAEL IN THE CROSSHAIRS – article one « SOLAR PLEXUS

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