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Dan Rather to +972: U.S. reporting on conflict is Israel-centric

The former CBS news anchor met with me and the rest of my colleagues in the World Press Institute fellowship for a candid talk about life, news – and even the Middle East.

Dan Rather (photo: Ami Kaufman)

It’s kind of strange to see up close someone who has been a familiar television face for me for decades. So, when Dan Rather looked me straight in the eye, I had to look around to see if everybody else was as starstruck as I was. I think they were.

Rather met with us for a candid chat on his career and insights for us Young Turks (some of us not so young, and even more, not very Turkish). He told us about his departure from the network (“I was too hot to handle”), his interview with Saddam Hussein (“He kept trying to hold my hand”) and more.

As expected, I just had to get an Israel/Palestine question in the middle of it all:

How has the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict changed over the years?

On several levels there have been tremendous changes. But in my personal opinion – which I must add is frequently wrong – the basic narrative is remarkably unchanged. This basic narrative, in my opinion, is that Israel, which is a country in which we have no small responsibility in helping to create — President Truman recognized Israel — is an island of democratic government and freedom. It’s not the mirror image of us, but the closest there is. It is constantly threatened by any number of combinations of its neighbors. And that’s the primary, basic narrative which has not changed.

Now, I would make the argument, and I think a lot of American journalists would, that it hasn’t changed because the facts haven’t changed. But I’m very aware that there are other people with different opinions about that.

But in other ways it has changed. For one thing, I’m old enough to remember that it was very difficult to report from just about any Arab country. Now, there are many more countries you can go in to.

The other difference, having said that I don’t think the spine of the narrative has changed, is that Iran has emerged as probably the most important Islamic power in the region.

Furthermore, the war in Iraq changed the prism through which the whole Middle East is seen and reported in this country – for better and for worse. That includes the prism through which the Israeli-Palestinian problem is seen.

I wish I had the solution to this, but I still think the Middle East is under-reported in some very important ways. Everybody on all sides seems to be frozen in reporting patterns of yesterday, rather than realities of today.

Can you give me an example?

I would say that in the average US newspaper, the number of stories that have an Israeli dateline will outnumber the number of stories from any other place in the region, except where there is combat. For example, during the Iraq war or now with Syria. So, in that sense, it’s Israel-centric. I think there are understandable reasons for that, but how many news organizations have a full time correspondent – never mind a bureau – that’s in Palestine? And setting aside that, having a full time correspondent or bureau, how many even send correspondents into the West Bank?

I don’t exempt myself from that criticism. But two years ago, we went to the West Bank and spent time there, and did an hour, trying to break that. To be honest, I’m not sure we succeeded but it was our effort to do so. And, predictably, we took some criticism for doing so.

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    1. “Israel-centric”? Who knew?

      Reply to Comment
      • miriam6


        What about all the many many hours of news coverage of the Arab Spring?
        Tahrir Square?

        Reply to Comment
    2. aristeides

      “took some criticism”

      That’s the problem, the vast army of carpers who instantly mob any expression that deviates from the official pro-Israel viewpoint, to make sure the truth is never heard.

      Reply to Comment
    3. rsgengland

      A very few countries are pro Israel.
      The majority of rest of the world is anti Israel or not interested.
      Israel is so out of the news these days, what with Syria and Egypt and Libya and Tunisia and everywhere else, that we finally have ordinary articles like this about Israel.
      I watched a sunset in Herzlia last night and it was so peaceful, despite the chaos exists in the surrounding countries
      Proves the point that Israel is not the cause of all the mayhem in the region.
      Israel has always been used as the excuse by the powers that rule in the Arab/Muslim lands to suppress their own people.

      Reply to Comment
      • Average American

        Excuse me but Israel is very much actively involved in Syria and Egypt and Libya and everywhere else. Israel’s Zionist expansionism is at the heart of those conflicts. Israel’s behavior is very much like Germany in the 30s: Strongest regional power by far, active taking of land for lebensraum, very strong belief in keeping their race pure, construction of walls, military action glorified as nationalistic accomplishment, xenophobic of anyone else but themselves, implementing their final solution to route out The Others, including Palestinians. It’s quite clear, but it’s also true that this is not being reported. I wonder why?

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          Actually your nom-de-plume
          “Average American” is not appropriate because most average Americans are pro-Israel and don’t buy the antisemitic conspiracy theories you are peddling.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Richard

      This headline is skewed and misleading. The “Israel-centric” comment isn’t the main point of what Rather said, and choosing this comment as the headline suggests that Rather said that US reporting on Is/Pal was not merely Israel-centric, but Israel-biased. He did not say this, but you are implying it. Not cool.

      Reply to Comment
      • Vadim

        Haaretz habits are not easy to get rid of…

        Reply to Comment
      • Not quite, Richard. Rather begins by employing “Israeli centric” in an almost positive way (the nearest country in the region to us), but ends in near apology for it. It may well be that leftist Ami’s presence induced that. Perhaps the pivotal comment is “Everybody on all sides seems to be frozen in reporting patterns of yesterday, rather than realities of today”.

        But, in leftist political correctness “centric” is nigh uniformly a bad thing, and I too expected harsher statements from Rather based on the post title. Even so, Rather used “centric” as quoted, then generalizes to a historical fixation in present reporting. Historical fixations are the bread of ideology in the region–all round.

        Reply to Comment
    5. XYZ

      Thank you Richard for pointing out how the title of the column was trying to get Dan Rather to say that the media has an unfair “pro-Israel” bias, which he does not say. I recall he was in Israel at the height of the suicide bombing campaing in 2002 and he himself was in the vicinity of a murderous bombing in Jerusalem. He rushed to the scene and gave a very sympathetic (to Israel) report on the situation. He is from the old-style of journalists who had a code of ethics started by people like William Shirer and Edward R Murrow that doesn’t seem to exist any more. He was beaten up by the Chicago Police at the 1968 Democratic Party convention and has paid his dues.

      Reply to Comment
    6. klang

      i would welcome more reporting of lebanon,syria and iran

      Reply to Comment
    7. Jed

      More like obsessed with Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Peter Hindrup

      ‘Israel — is an island of democratic government and freedom’

      Not democratic. To be so requires that all citizens are equal before the law.
      Not only is this not the case in Israel, their is a separate law for the Palestinian Israelis.

      ‘Freedom’? For whom? for the Settlers who stone the Palestinian kids while the IDF looks on?

      Reply to Comment