Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Comparing Mideast Coverage to Media Coverage of Other Matters

Sar Shalom

gestaltIt is well known that the media get many key facts wrong when portraying the Middle East, whether accepting false claims presented by the Palestinians, omitting crucial context, or qualify verifiable Israeli claims as being Israeli claims. However, one problem with raising these issues is that doing so would come across to an uninformed audience as though we're responding to a message we don't like by attacking the messenger. With that in mind, I would like to compare the media's misrepresentation of the Middle East to the media's coverage of another topic, a portrayal of the media that would resonate with most liberals.

Paul Krugman's most recent column deals with a comparison between the United States and Europe in job creation. According to Krugman, American free-market ideology holds that America's lower taxes and less generous welfare state should lead to greater job creation than in European countries like France. Yet, the employment ratio of prime working-age adults is higher in France than it is in the US, and has been since the Bush administration. This discrepancy between what the theory predicts and the empirical facts is dealt with by ignoring the empirical facts. This recent article is the latest of a recurring theme raised by Krugman in which misfortune is blamed on economic policies that the press doesn't like, with earlier examples being how fiscal profligacy are responsible for the economic crisis in Southern Europe.

Another writer, Thomas Mann, wrote recently on the causes of political dysfunction in this country. Among Mann's notable lines is, "most mainstream journalists and political reformers refuse to even acknowledge or take seriously the case for asymmetric polarization. It makes us uncomfortable because some people will characterize the idea as partisan, even if it accurately captures reality." In other words, even-handedness has a higher priority than accurately portraying the story, and one side is exploiting the media's fixation on even-handedness to the hilt.

Krugman carried this further with an earlier blog post responding to queries about why he doesn't write about any reasonable Republicans. There are two points to note from this post. One is that describing a Republican as reasonable just to describe some Republican as reasonable is a form of bias. Along this line, Krugman regularly writes against the media's fawning treatment of Paul Ryan because they see the slightest indication of reasonableness and declare that they have found their reasonable Republican. The other is that the few Republicans who actually are reasonable, Krugman cites the examples of Bruce Bartlett and David Frum, were excommunicated from the Republican establishment because of their reasonableness.

So what ties all these together? Essentially, in each of these cases, the media settle on a frame before gaining an understanding of the facts of the issue. Subsequently, every claim that conforms with the frame is accepted as accurate, no need to verify, while any claim contradicting the frame, no matter how verifiable, has to be qualified as coming from so and so contrarian. Thus, in the Eurocrisis it is clear that the southern European economies are depressed. The media view this through the lens that they know, just know, that the southern European depression is the result of a morality play playing itself out where the desserts of yesterday's profligacy are today's economic misery. Thus every pundit claiming that it is the result of running deficits, including in Spain which was running a surplus until the crisis hit, is accepted uncritically, while anyone suggesting an alternative is dismissed, even when this alternative is in agreement with the IMF. Likewise no one would dispute that the Palestinians have less than ideal living conditions, even if the scale of Palestinian misery is up for debate. The media look at these conditions and know, just know, that those conditions arise from Israel's brutal occupation of the Palestinian people. Thus, whenever the Palestinians present any information conforming to that frame, such as the Al Durah killing, it is accepted uncritically. However, whenever anyone presents anything contradicting the frame, such as ballistics testing showing that Israel could not have killed Al Durah, it is dismissed without showing one flaw in the forensic work as "of course Israel would reach that conclusion," as 60 Minutes characterized that study.

One frequent term in the media's description of the Middle East conflict is the "cycle of violence." The use of this term implies that Arab violence and Israeli violence are equivalent, in the same manner that Mann laments that the media treat Republican extremism and Democratic extremism as equivalent. Similarly, Krugman's lament of the media's frenzy to declare some Republican as a moderate is analogous to their frenzy to declare some Palestinian leader as a moderate, hence everyone declaring Abbas as a "man of peace." As with Republicans who challenge conservative orthodoxy, any Palestinian who goes against the Arab narrative will be ostracized the way Prof. Daoudi was expelled from his union for leading a trip to Auschwitz. In domestic politics, calling out the lack of candor from a "reasonable" Republican is often dismissed. Similarly, the media dismiss suggestions, and all supporting facts, that Abbas is less than serious about peaceful coexistence.

In addressing the issue of media bias, it would help to build a frame of reference that the audience will understand. Since the right is less moved by the sympathetic portrayals that the media present of Palestinians, the audience we will need to convince is mostly on the left. Accordingly, the audience whose frame we need to adopt is the left's. Along these lines, pointing out the mendacity of the right on economic issues is red meat to the left, as is pointing out the media's inability to recognize it because they know, just know, that every pathology is found in equal measure on both sides. The media do the same thing in portraying the "cycle of violence" in the Middle East and other distortions relating to Israel. The fallacies that lead to one distortion are the same fallacies that lead to the other. It is time that we highlight that fact.


  1. Krugman has a $225,000/year sinecure at CUNY for which he teaches ZERO classes. He handed that off to up to 75 part timers who scrape by. Which is priceless coming from a guy telling us about the evil that is income disparity.

    Anyone who's worked inside a U in the past 20 years knows firsthand what a scam it is when they foist all the heavy lifting on adjuncts who get paid dirt, no benefits and no job security.

    The Great Krugman telling us about his enlightened world where everything is 'equitable'.

    I'm reminded of one of my thesis advisers who was a dyed in the wool Marxist and spent her days whining and complaining that The Man was keeping her down. Down with tenure, a house, a car and pretty much no responsibilities.

    1. Could you address the subject? I didn't post here about Krugman in order to promote any position on his views. The issue is that is arguments he raises about media coverage of economic issues have parallels to media coverage of the Middle East. What matters is whether the target audience accepts the premise that the media systematically misreport economic news. With a left-wing audience, sympathy for Krugman's argument would run high, so the analogy I raise has a chance to contribute to convincing them of the distortions in Middle East coverage. As Elder said at a talk he once gave, you have to speak the audience's language.

      I would not turn to Krugman for arguments to convince the right about parallels to the Middle East. However, as Mike commonly points out, there aren't as many people on the right who are against us as there are on the right.

    2. What is your subject? A meta analysis of paid shills in the media commenting on their own performance in the same media? Of course. There is no such thing as 'coverage' that isn't 99% personal opinions and op-ed. For example, last week, Chris Matthews on Hardball said, and I quote "Hillary Clinton IS, not a good president but a GREAT President". And that statement has gone unchallenged.

    3. Read the first and last two paragraphs for the subject!

      It is about leveraging where an audience will agree that the media filter facts through a frame thereby distorting what they present on one subject in order to explain to that audience how the media filter facts through a frame thereby distorting what they present on another subject.

  2. I knew there was a good reason that I asked you to post here.

    This is a brilliant piece, but you should know, as a matter of principle, I never, not ever, discuss economics. I do not mind if others do so and I certainly do not mind if that they do so here, but there is a reason, after all, that economics is known as the "dismal science."

    What that reason is, I have no idea.

    "So what ties all these together? Essentially, in each of these cases, the media settle on a frame before gaining an understanding of the facts of the issue. Subsequently, every claim that conforms with the frame is accepted as accurate, no need to verify, while any claim contradicting the frame, no matter how verifiable, has to be qualified as coming from so and so contrarian."

    I guess the term is "confirmation bias" and we all suffer from it. The problem, of course, as you clearly suggest is when confirmation bias becomes established within the national discourse via the media.

    Look, you clearly have your finger on the pulse of something very important that is not discussed nearly as much as it should be.

    Ultimately a major part of what we are dealing with is Cognitive Warfare(pdf) and the thesis linked to by Stuart Green is connected with Richard Landes' work at Augean Stables.

    The ironic thing, of course, is that the inclination toward "balance" is ultimately grounded in Enlightenment notions of political fair-play. That is, the people that promote the notion of a balance between 6 million Jews in the Middle East - a people under siege within Fortress Israel - and the 400 million Arabs who mainly want them gone or under submission, honestly believe that their position is one grounded within ideals of human rights and social justice.

    How's that for a kick in the head?