Following the US setback during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968, Walter Cronkite, the mythical CBS News television broadcaster, was sent to Southeast Asia to report on the military intervention there. After Cronkite proclaimed in his broadcast that the US lost the war in Vietnam and that it was time to bring the boys back home, then President Lyndon B. Johnson told his advisors, ‘If I lost Cronkite, I lost Middle America.’
Urban legend or not, it reflected the way I imagined the role of the American media to be when I had served as a press officer at the Israeli Consulate in New York about a decade or so after Cronkite aired that broadcast from Vietnam.
There were then three major television networks (CBS, NBC and ABC), whose newscasts were watched by American families every evening to help them get a picture of what was happening in the world, including in the Middle East.
If those three television networks painted the picture of the world to the average American in the Midwest, a group of elite newspapers, led by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, coupled with weekly magazines like TIME and Newsweek helped set the agenda, shaping the political zeitgeist, for policy makers, business executives and intellectual and entertainment leaders, aka the elites, in Washington, New York, Hollywood and Boston.
In a way, the work of those Israelis promoting the case for Israel in the United States was relatively easy then: the goal was to explain or engage in hasbara (‘dissemination of information’ in Hebrew) about what was happening in Israel and the Middle East to a small group of journalists, editors, broadcasters and producers who were concentrated in Manhattan.
Our main targets were media stars, like Mike Wallace from CBS News, ABC’s Barbara Walters, New York Times editor Abe M. Rosenthal and columnist David Broder from the Washington Post. We had to brief them on a regular basis and ensure their access to Israeli leaders.
Almost all of these media figures were white — and a large number of them were Jewish, first- or second-generation of immigrant families from Europe.
Then Prime Minister Menachem Begin reminded them of their father; I recall how the late Morley Safer from CBS’s 60 Minutes was moved to tears after Begin agreed to sign a birthday greeting for his father. Shimon Peres and Yitzchak Rabin were around their age and shared similar liberal values. Even when some of them criticized Israeli policies, and they did that quite often, it all felt like a debate inside the mishpucha (family).
It was therefore not surprising that when at one point I proposed that we try to establish regular communication with editors and reporters of the black press in New York, the response was, ‘Who needs them — we work with the giants of the American press.’
But the positive media coverage that Israel still enjoyed in the American media in the last decades of the 20th century reflected not only the monolithic structure of the media of that period but the strategic position of journalists sympathetic to Israel. Much of that has to do less with the medium than with the message.
And the message in that context was the Israeli story — and it was very popular. A generation of Christian Americans, that were raised learning the stories of the Bible about the Children of Israel and who were mindful of the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe and the struggle for existence of Israel against a hostile Arab world, felt sympathy for Israel and were less concerned about the plight of the Arab refugees (the term ‘Palestinian’ has yet to become popular).
In that sense, it was not necessary to hire the services of the public relations and advertising firms on Madison Avenue in order to sell the Israeli Story to the average American. With Exodus, Leon Uris and Otto Preminger didn’t brainwash the American public with pro-Israeli propaganda. Americans read the book and saw the movie because they identified their Zionist message.
Israel, with its kibbutzim and a progressive leadership, had even enjoyed a long period of sympathy among American left-wing circles. I.F. Stone, one of the icons of the American left-wing press, sent sympathetic articles to the Nation magazine in 1947 about the Jewish refugees struggling to enter Palestine as they faced the British imperialists. At the same time, much of the conservative press was critical of the new Jewish State.
Hence the Wall Street Journal accused Israel of playing into the hands of the Soviets in the Cold War, after it had abducted Nazi war-criminal Adolf Eichmann and held him for trial in Jerusalem.
But already in the early 1980s, Stone was becoming a fierce critic of Israel, even comparing its policy toward the Palestinians to that of the British treatment of Jewish immigrants from Europe.
Then came the first Lebanon war and the first Palestinian Intifada. The Israeli Story began to change dramatically, reflecting the new realities and not the result of failed Israeli PR strategy. Israel was occupying Arab lands and people; and that that came about following the Six-Day War in which Israel fought in 1967 against Arab aggression was forgotten.
The old Israeli Story was no longer consistent with the views of the members of a new generation exposed to the New Left doctrines and marching in the anti-Vietnam demonstrations.
All of that was happening when significant demographic and political changes were taking place in America, as a result of increasing immigration from non-Western countries who did not share the pro-Israel sentiment of the white majority — and the rise of a Black elite that identified with the Third World and felt sympathy for the Palestinians. The generation that knew the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel was beginning to lose its influence.
At the same time, a technological revolution was taking place in the media, replacing the three television networks with dozens of cable channels appealing to different segments of the population. The American public no longer embraced the picture of the world provided to it by the Cronkites. CNN and Fox News delivered totally different worldviews.
The demographic changes have also led to the rise of a new generation of journalists, including young blacks and Hispanics and liberal Jews, who identify more with Sen. Bernie Sanders than with Benjamin Netanyahu and who compare Donald Trump, the most pro-Israel American president, to Adolf Hitler.
Today the New York Times, under the leadership of its African American editor Dean Baquet provides an image of Israel that is totally different than the one disseminated by Rosenthal, a self-proclaimed Zionist. The newspaper doesn’t even try to hide the anti-Israeli positions of most of its editors and writers that subscribe to the woke mythology, that compares Israel to apartheid South Africa, describes it as a nation of racist white settlers and imagines the Palestinians playing to role of persecuted blacks in the segregated South in this narrative.
When you add to the picture the tremendous changes in media in the age of the internet and social media, it is clear that the idea of a sophisticated public information campaign changing the image of Israel in the American mainstream media sounds unserious and even pathetic.
Under the new political zeitgeist, it would probably be impossible to change the way the left-leaning members of the mainstream media see the world. After all, it’s hard to sell ice to Eskimos.
It’s difficult to imagine that these editors and journalists aren’t aware that the views of the Islamist Hamas and even that the ‘moderate’ Palestinian leadership on issues like women and gay rights and religious freedom are inconsistent with their own, to put it mildly. Yet they continue to attack and bash the liberal democracy of Israel and celebrate the Palestinian cause and are in search of information, ideas and images that fit into this narrative.
Theirs is the new Anti-Israel Story that sells. Israel may have lost CNN, but its old Israel Story continues to sell in Middle America.