The formula for American media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is simple: Report on the latest developments in the fragile "peace process." Depict U.S. officials as honest brokers in the negotiations. Emphasize the need for restraint and compromise instead of instability and bloodshed.
In the world according to news media, the U.S. government is situated on high moral ground -- in contrast to some of the intractable adversaries. "The conflict that had been so elaborately dressed in the civilizing cloak of a peace effort has been stripped to its barest essence: Jew against Arab, Arab against Jew," the New York Times reported from Jerusalem.
Soon afterwards, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright proclaimed: "The cycle of violence has to be stopped." Such pronouncements from Washington get a lot of respectful media play in our country.
Rarely do American journalists explore the ample reasons to believe that the United States is part of the oft-decried cycle of violence. Nor, in the first half of October, was there much media analysis of the fact that the violence overwhelmingly struck at Palestinian people.
Within a period of days, several dozen Palestinians were killed by heavily armed men in uniform -- often described by CNN and other news outlets as "Israeli security forces." Under the circumstances, it's a notably benign-sounding term for an army that shoots down protesters.
As for the rock-throwing Palestinians, I have never seen or heard a single American news account describing them as "pro-democracy demonstrators." Yet that would be an appropriate way to refer to people who -- after more than three decades of living under occupation -- are in the streets to demand self-determination.
While Israeli soldiers and police, with their vastly superior firepower, do most of the killing, Israel's public-relations engines keep whirling like well-oiled tops. Early this month, tilted by the usual spin, American news stories highlighted the specious ultimatums issued by Prime Minister Ehud Barak as he demanded that Palestinians end the violence -- while uniformed Israelis under his authority continued to kill them.
Beneath the Israeli "peace process" rhetoric echoed by American media, an implicit message isn't hard to discern: If only Palestinians would stop resisting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, it would no longer be necessary for Israeli forces to shoot them.
"Israel Extends Time For Peace," said the lead headline on the Oct. 10 front page of USA Today. "Israel early today extended a deadline for Palestinians to end rioting," the article began. At this rate, we may someday see a headline that reads: "Israel Demands Palestinians Stop Attacking Bullets With Their Bodies."
Of course, amid all the nifty Orwellian touches, the proper behavior of people whose homeland remains under occupation has never quite been spelled out. But U.S. media coverage has reflexively mimicked the themes coming out of the White House and State Department. It all makes sense -- as long as we set aside basic concepts of human rights -- as long as we refuse to acknowledge that without justice there can be no real peace.
For American journalists on mainstream career ladders, it's prudent to avoid making a big deal about Israel's human rights violations, which persist without letup in tandem with Israel's occupation of land it captured in the 1967 war. Many pundits are fond of cloaking the occupiers in mantles of righteousness. And we hear few questions raised about the fact that the occupiers enjoy the powerful backing of the United States.
The silence is usually deafening, even among journalists who write opinion columns on a regular basis. The U.S. government's economic and military assistance to Israel adds up to a few billion dollars per year. Among media professionals, that aid is widely seen as an untouchable "third rail." To challenge U.S. support for Israel is to invite a torrent of denunciations -- first and foremost, the accusation of "anti-Semitism."
Occasionally, I've written columns criticizing U.S. media for strong pro-Israel bias in news reporting and spectrums of commentary. Every time, I can count on a flurry of angry letters that accuse me of being anti-Semitic. It's a timeworn, knee-jerk tactic: Whenever someone makes a coherent critique of Israel's policies, immediately go on the attack with charges of anti-Jewish bigotry.
Numerous American supporters of Israel resort to this tactic. Perhaps the difficulties of defending the Israeli occupation on its merits have encouraged substitution of the "anti-Semitic" epithet for reasoned debate.
Like quite a few other Jewish Americans, I'm appalled by what Israel is doing with U.S. tax dollars. Meanwhile, as journalists go along to get along, they diminish the humanity of us all.
"Ask not for whom the bell tolls."