Voices

Syntax matters

Does the pursuit of "balance" misshape the truth?

Issue: "Mayberry no more," July 29, 2006

"ATTACKS AND COUNTERATTACKS CONTINUED THIS MORNING BETWEEN ISRAEL AND HEZBOLLAH."

It was a subtle, but altogether typical, syntax.

The arrangement of the words didn't quite say, but certainly suggested, that the attacking was being done by Israel-and the counter-attacking by Hezbollah. If it were the only example, I would be wrong to feature it here.

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But all through the weekend, the repeated reports had been consistent: "Israel has continued its wide-scale offensive in Lebanon." "Israeli offensive continues." "Israeli offensive widens."

Offensive?

I did a little test this morning, listening first to just one day's network radio reports from the Middle East, and then checking out a few "above-the-fold" treatments in a variety of U.S. newspapers. In the first 10 examples I scanned, six quietly suggested that Israel's military held responsibility for expanding the terrifying conflict. Four tended to picture both sides as equally responsible. Not a single lead came close to implying that Hezbollah had triggered the current conflagration.

To their credit, many of the stories that followed these tilted leads were helpfully informative. Several went on to expose not only the deliberate provocations of Hezbollah from the north in Lebanon and of Hamas from the south in Gaza, but to propose the likelihood that Iran may well have been behind both summer initiatives. "Iran clearly needed a diversion," explained one New York Times reporter in a radio interview, "from all the focus on its nuclear exploits. What better diversion than a July war between Israel and one of its regional antagonists?"

So I'm not saying there's been no substance to mainstream reporting about Israel. I am saying a lot of headlining and lead sentences have been careless and tilted.

A simple (if not altogether precise) test of whether that is the case is simply to ask a number of typical citizens what they've understood those media reports to be saying. For such citizen surveys, of course, I normally head over to my local Wal-Mart, stand near the entrance, and collect my data. This week, however, I was in St. Louis for a few days-and not being quite certain where the nearest Wal-Mart might be, I headed for the famous St. Louis Zoo. I knew where its entrance was, and thought that maybe this week a zoo was more appropriate than a well-managed retail store for gathering thoughts about world affairs.

In the process, I asked about 25 people (I say "about" because there are always a few respondents who are so obscure and ambiguous in what they say that I'm not sure whether to count them or not) for simple answers to three questions: (1) Is it your sense that the U.S. government is backing Israel in the current conflict, or its Arab opponents? (2) Is it your sense that the mainstream U.S. media tend to favor Israel in the current conflict, or its Arab opponents? (3) From your own point of view, which side deserves blame for starting this round of fighting?

Of the 25 respondents, 24 understandably said they thought the U.S. government is backing Israel. And only a handful seemed to disagree with that kind of support.

Of the same 25, however, about 20 said they think the media tend to favor Israel's opponents in their reporting. "They have shown repeated pictures of what has happened to Lebanon and Beirut," was the sort of comment several folks said quickly. "I can't remember a single report-much less repeated reports-from Israeli neighborhoods that took the brunt of the missile attack from Hezbollah."

The acid test, though, is reflected in the fact that about 14 of the respondents-more than half-said they thought Israel had started the present round of war. But that's not a reality supported even by mainstream media. Even most of Israel's Arab neighbors seem to be embarrassed by the fact that Hezbollah and Hamas deliberately egged Israel on by kidnapping Israeli soldiers.

All of which reminds us how comprehensive the assignment of reporting the truth really is. Even here at WORLD, we've had to eat crow on a few occasions, recognizing that an occasional headline or summary lead didn't quite match the content of our report. But I don't remember ever being so overwhelmingly off base as the mainstream media have been on the Israel issue in the last couple of weeks.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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