In the latter part of the 20th century, trying to uncover bias became all the rage. Once it was acknowledged that news, history, academic papers, and all sorts of information sources reflected the inherent bias of the author, de-construction became a full-time job.
As with most such things, it got taken to an extreme. The result, in its worst form, was the ability of a right wing, massively funded news network to call itself “fair and balanced” as juxtaposed against an allegedly liberal media.
Nowhere is this dissection of alleged bias more visible than in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Both sides complain endlessly about the bias against them in media and academia. And both sides are right, to some extent. One should, indeed, read a history book or news report with a consciousness about who is writing it and what the publication that is dispersing it might have invested in it. If you do that, there is only a very small, and easily spotted, amount of material that needs to be summarily dismissed.
Not everything written by a Jew who supports Israel is necessarily false or misleading, or that everything written by an Arab is false or misleading in the opposite direction.
There are huge strains of this on both sides: on the pro-Palestinian side, we have the “Zionist-controlled media” canard, as well as more serious examinations that look at how a close US ally might be given quite a few breaks in the media. On the “pro-Israel” side there is a virtual industry (populated by such well-heeled organizations as CAMERA and Palestinian Media Watch [PMW]) built around it.
In my experience – and I have been engaged in media and historical analysis on this issue since I was an undergraduate student – most serious sources, with a few glaring exceptions, either legitimately strive for objectivity or make their political agenda clear. Anyone looking for a realistic picture should, in this or any other arena, gather their information from a variety of sources.
But in the US, Arab sources are widely mistrusted. Al Jazeera, a very reputable news source, has been tarnished by relentless campaigns to paint it as biased, an easy charge to level because as a native Arab news source, it takes a markedly different view on many issues, in and out of the Arab world, than what most Americans are used to.
One should be aware that Al Jazeera is funded to a substantial degree by the Qatari government. One should also be aware that the British Broadcasting Corporation is governed by the BBC Trust, whose members are appointed by the monarchy guided by the government’s ministers. That doesn’t automatically disqualify them as news sources, any more than major American news sources like the New York Times, CNN, FOX, MSNBC and others are controlled by extremely wealthy men should disqualify them. We just need to be aware of it.
I have a set of news sources I trust, and it’s pretty broad. In Palestine, I’ve found the Ma’an News Agency to be the best. But it suffers a scrutiny that is much greater than most news sources, and when it makes an error, being a Palestinian news source, it is often criticized for distorting its news. This is what The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg did yesterday:
A Small Episode That Gets at a Larger Middle East Problem
MAY 4 2011, 9:01 AM ET
What we hear in English is not always what it is said in Arabic:
Yesterday Palestinian Media Watch exposed that the Palestinian news agency Ma’an misled its English-language readers by changing a statement of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. The actual statement promoted violence by Islamic forces in order to achieve Islamic dominance:
The Islamic nation “is capable of supplying an abundance of new blood… [for] restoring the glory of Islam and the flag of Allah’s oneness.”
[Ma’an Arabic, May 3, 2011]
Ma’an’s English version deleted the call for Islamic domination and replaced it with a call for “peace” that did not exist in the original:
“We tell the Israeli and the American occupiers that we have leaders who have changed history with their Jihad and their steadfastness. We are ready to sacrifice our lives to bring back peace.”
[Ma’an English, May 3, 2011]
The Jerusalem Post reported today that after PMW exposed the deceptive text, Ma’an removed it from its website. Ma’an then corrected the translation, put the statement back on the website, and informed the readers of the “translation error” as follows:
“This version CORRECTS a translation error in paragraph seven and adds new information.”
In fairness, Goldberg, when he received a response to this from Ma’an’s English editor, George Hale, did print part of that letter. Here, however, is the full text, direct from George himself:
Dear Mr. Goldberg,
In your post this morning (“A Small Episode That Gets At a Larger Middle East Problem“), you reproduced part of a press release from Israel’s settler-led activist group Palestinian Media Watch, criticizing a translation error they found on Maan’s English website.
PMW pointed out what its activists considered a “misleading” and “deceptive” passage in an archaically worded statement from a self-proclaimed representative of the armed wing of Fatah, mourning the death days earlier of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
An error in one sentence was indeed ours. As soon as it came to my attention, I had the story re-translated and published a correction. Our procedure for corrections is that of The Associated Press, in keeping with the highest standards of English-language journalism.
Describing the process by which we and the AP correct stories, you quoted an Israeli newspaper saying Maan “removed” the parts which amounted to “deceptive text” from the story. Then we “put the statement back” and informed the reader of the “translation error.”
In other words, we issued a correction. It was not an extraordinary event, but you described it as such.
Nevertheless, PMW announced that they were pleased with our correction — indeed, they had brought it to our attention — although you did not note this on your blog. You used your considerable platform, instead, to malign a professional news organization without noting that the activist group, which launched the accusations in the first place, was satisfied with our transparent efforts to fix an honest mistake.
Maan is a professional, 24-hour newswire publishing simultaneously in English and Arabic, with Hebrew service. We face the same challenges as all multilingual news organizations and, despite our efforts to check and re-check each report before publication, meanings are occasionally lost in translation. It is to the credit of our talented team that errors do not occur more frequently.
Such mistakes are a side effect of relying on translated material in a lighting-speed news environment. Yet, Palestinian Media Watch implies these mistakes are part of an intentional plot to “mislead” English speakers about the Arabic content. They are not.
When you wrote, “What we hear in English is not always what it is said in Arabic,” I understood it to mean that you accepted PMW’s allegations of intentional deception. Like the settlers who run PMW, we can only assume that you were eager to impute ill intentions where there was, in fact, only a careless mistake obvious to any fair-minded observer.
This distinction is subtle, but important. It is your job as a journalist to make such distinctions.
Editor — English Desk
It’s good to keep an eye on this, because Ma’an is the leading independent Palestinian news source. It is a valuable piece of our ability to get a holistic view of what is happening on the ground in the region.