To understand why Western news outlets proffer narratives about Palestine-Israel that favor Israel, it is necessary to consider these media outlets’ political function. Joseph Uscinski explains that, “There is no doubt that systemic economic forces such as the need to sell advertising space and manage expenditures, determine the actions of news firms.”
Multiple studies demonstrate that the commercial orientation of news media shapes its content. An early 1990s academic survey of editors at daily newspapers finds that just under 90 percent reported that advertisers attempted to influence the content of stories appearing in their papers and 90 percent of them had advertisers apply economic pressure to them because of their reporting; 37 percent admit to capitulating to advertiser pressure.
Another academic survey of daily newspapers, this one published in 2007, finds that there are “frequent conflicts between the business side and the journalism side of newspaper operations” and that “advertising directors are willing to appease their advertisers, and are also willing to positively respond to advertisers’ requests.” The survey suggests that this problem is particularly acute at chain-owned newspapers, which are especially prone to compromising editorial integrity to either please their advertisers or keep from offending them. A similar problem exists in television, where polls of network news correspondents say that nearly one-third feel directly pressured to report certain stories and not others because of owners’ or advertisers’ financial concerns.
When coverage of Palestine-Israel is viewed in the context of commercial media, it is no surprise that narratives about the issue that are favorable to Israel are as prevalent as they are.
The outlets covering Palestine-Israel are embedded in a system of global imperialist capitalism built around US hegemony, of which Israel is an important feature. The overall functioning of the international capitalist system of which the commercial media are a part is guaranteed by the US military and, as I show in chapter two of my book, American sponsorship of Israeli settler-colonial capitalism is a key part of US planners’ strategy for dominance of the Middle East. The millionaire and billionaire owners of media outlets and of the advertisers that fund them are unambiguously part of the ruling class.
The same is true, at least in the case of major national or international news organizations, of editors and often, as Faiza Hirji points out, journalists themselves, who “belong to a societal elite” and “contribute, however, unconsciously to reinforcing existing notions about the way the world is.” One could add that such ideological administration also involves shaping beliefs about how the world should be and is capable of being. The stories of Palestine-Israel examined in my book suggest that elites involved in the news-making process believe that the violent oppression of Palestinians and the permanent consigning of them to the status of refugees and stateless persons is no great injustice, and that American stewardship of the Middle East is necessary and desirable.
The Palestine-Israel narratives discussed throughout my book are case studies in the harmful effects of the capitalist character of news media. Uscinski describes the commercial orientation of news media as a “market failure” with a significant “negative externalit[y].” “Low-quality news,” he writes, “provides a low-quality information environment for democratic decision-making.”
The three widespread narratives about Palestine-Israel discussed throughout my book are, as I have shown, highly misleading. An accurate rendering of the story would tell of Israel violently colonizing Palestine, with vital US support, and functioning as a garrison for US-led imperialist capitalism. Instead news media outlets present fables in which both Israelis and Palestinians have subjected each other to comparable wrongs and are blameworthy to a similar extent for the unresolved status of Palestine. Readers are also offered disorienting accounts saying the problem is that extremists are driving events in Palestine-Israel rather than moderates. Equally unhelpful are the tales the news tells about Israel’s supposed “right to defend itself.”
Providing the public with such “low-quality information” about the issue distorts “democratic decision-making” by decreasing the likelihood of portions of the populations of America and other Western countries substantial enough to compel policy changes coming to recognize that their governments’ support for Israeli settler-colonial capitalism has devastating consequences for the Palestinians and proliferates war in the Middle East.
The social role of commercially oriented media, by which I mean news organizations that exist to make a profit and even those that do not but seek advertising revenue, is to advance ruling class interests. The Western media is managed by the Western ruling class and tells stories that steer the public toward attitudes favorable to that ruling class. As Hirji explains, “If there is a dominant narrative about a particular story or group, that narrative is likely informed by power relations: who has it, who does not have it, who wants to keep the status quo.” Such dominant narratives include perspectives on Palestine-Israel amenable to a situation wherein the US ensures that Israel remains the dominant military power in the region because that benefits US political and economic objectives.
Stories hospitable to the ruling class proliferate in a media climate characterized by a “commercial system … [that] favors content that serves commercial interests. Markets favor speech that favors markets.” As Entman argues, moreover, framing “plays a major role in the exertion of political power, and the frame in a news text is really the imprint of power — it registers the identity of actors or interests that competed to dominate the text.” The way in which an issue is framed and the stories that arise from that framing have to be considered in the context of elite ownership over Western media. That the Western ruling class controls the media and is deeply invested in Israeli settler-colonial capitalism but has no comparable interests in Palestinian liberation is crucial to grasping why Western news outlets circulate narratives favorable to Israel.
The people in charge of these outlets do not necessarily hatch conscious plots to trick the population into believing misleading tales about Palestine-Israel. The institutional orientation of news organizations steers them toward consistently framing issues in ways beneficial to the class to which they belong whether the topic is Palestine-Israel or any number of other subjects.
For the question of Palestine to be resolved, the Western ruling class will have to be prevented from backing Israel as a means of dominating the Middle East. Because of Western military, financial, and political support for Israel, public opinion in Western societies has a role to play in bringing a just, de-colonial peace across historic Palestine. Western states will not undertake the massive policy shifts necessary for that to happen unless mass pressure compels them to do so. Yet the structure of Western news media suggests it is unlikely to begin telling stories about Palestine-Israel that are less weighted in Israel’s favor, which means that this formidable barrier to building the popular sentiments necessary to stop Western imperialism will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
The task of bringing about the necessary shifts in consciousness therefore falls to independent news outlets and publishers as well as the activists working within and beyond them on campuses, in workplaces, in religious communities, and on the streets. This work is proliferating and the gains that the BDS movement has won in each of these realms attest to that. Such achievements demonstrate that getting the public in Western countries to understand that the ruling class under which we live has been a key player in doing grave injustice to Palestinians, and that this is one key component in a system of global inequalities this class oversees, is a major challenge — but not an insurmountable one.