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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1997, Pages 60-61

Media Watch

As U.S. Media Ownership Shrinks, Who Covers Islam?

By Richard H. Curtiss

Television, once hailed as a medium of great potential for raising educational levels, seems to be having the opposite effect. Much of the time spent by children and adults before a television screen seems to leave little impression on either the mind, as does reading, or the body, as does physical activity.

Still another unintended consequence of the growth of television is the growth of media conglomerates. The need for entertainment films to fill the hours on television first resulted in marriages of America's leading television networks with the major film studios of Hollywood, with their vast film archives. Now these partnerships are producing media conglomerates that include increasing shares of American print media as well.

One example is the absorption by Warner Brothers Studios of the former Time Incorporated, the magazine empire created by the late Henry Luce, which produced Time, Life, FortuneSports IllustratedPeople magazine and others. The result is Time Warner, a media company run by a Hollywood tycoon in which the revenues from the magazines are dwarfed by the company's other interests in films, records, cable television and "pay-per-view" movies. It's not clear whether the long-term result will be maintenance of individualistic and stubbornly independent publications, as Time magazine used to be (particularly on Middle East matters), or the "dumbing down" of all of the corporate-owned publications to reach the maximum number of readers while minimizing advertiser discomfort.

As for America's three major television networks, all have been absorbed by larger entities. ABC, which still has the most objective news coverage of Middle Eastern affairs, now is owned by the former Walt Disney productions, a major Hollywood player.

NBC, owned by General Electric, maintains the most successful of the political talk shows which, not coincidentally, are the best (in a feeble field) about airing both sides of the Arab-Israeli dispute. But most of NBC's advertising revenues, of course, are earned by the network's strong stable of situation comedies and other entertainment shows.

CBS, owned by Westinghouse, is a public affairs wasteland, and its news programs long ago became notorious for their pro-Israel bias when the network was directed by Lawrence Tisch, a fanatically pro-Israel multi-millionaire. Tisch has sold his controlling interest in the network and no longer is associated with it, but its news biases have remained largely unchanged.

Strangely, the CBS network's "60 Minutes," the most widely viewed and widely imitated current events program in the United States, also is the most objective when it comes to Middle East matters, including accurate depiction of Israel's continuing persecution of the Palestinians and the rapidly growing gulf between its quarrelsome Orthodox and secular Jewish populations.

Fox, a fourth U.S. television network, is owned by Australian-born media magnate Rupert Murdoch, a recently naturalized U.S. citizen, whose overseas television and print media interests probably still outweigh his American holdings. Its relative independence from Hollywood, however, is not manifested in objectivity on the Middle East. Whether from personal bias or to please advertisers, Murdoch long ago made his peace with the Zionists and no hint of objectivity can be found either in his print or electronic media coverage.

Since a majority of Americans now receive their information from television, the heavy input of the film industry into ownership of the networks should be a matter of concern not only to the U.S. public (which won't be concerned since the U.S. media won't raise the matter), but also to nations of the Middle East and the Islamic world. The traditional Hollywood bias against Arabs has evolved into a virulent prejudice against all things Islamic, with the pace set by the joint Israeli-American film production companies which produce blatantly racist action thrillers featuring America-hating Muslim villains.

Meanwhile, among U.S. national newspapers and journals of news and opinion, from which America's opinion makers, including television and radio editors, still draw their information, the picture is not much better, so far as objective coverage of Middle East events is concerned.

With the acquisition of the New York Daily News by Morton Zuckerman, publisher of U.S. News and World Report and the Atlantic Monthly, both stridently pro-Israel publications regardless of which party is in power in Israel, every New York daily newspaper, including the nationally circulated New York Times and Wall Street Journal, is Jewish-owned. Although some of these newspapers, like The New York Times, Newsday, and The Wall Street Journal, provide more than one-dimensional news coverage of Middle Eastern matters, their pro-Israel editorials reflect both the lack of diversity among the owners and a prudent concern for the biases of major advertisers.

In fact readers will look in vain for sustained, in-depth coverage either of Israeli transgressions, or of the serious problems one-sided American support for these transgressions poses for U.S. national interests, U.S. credibility and U.S. allies in the Middle East and the world at large.

In Washington, DC the situation is equally bleak. Technically speaking,The Washington Post, which dominates the national capital and, through its syndicated news and feature services, has nationwide influence, is not Jewish-owned. But it is owned by the descendants of the late Eugene Meyer, who was Jewish and who acquired the newspaper in the 1930s, and his Christian wife. Members of the family seem to judge Middle Eastern countries largely on their relations with Israel, and U.S. Middle Eastern policy as much on how it affects Israeli as American interests. There is never a hint of how disastrous America's consistent pro-Israel tilt is for Americans. The newspaper's executive editor and its editorial page editor and her deputy all are Jewish, although the latter is relatively well-informed about the Middle East and recently called for U.S. recognition of the Palestinian state.

As for national media chains, the Newhouse publications are Jewish-owned, while Gannett and Scripps-Howard are not. Of the newspapers owned by these chains, however, only Gannett'sUSA Today has national circulation. Although the latter is available anywhere in the nation and it does not take a strong pro-Israel line, unfortunately its coverage of foreign affairs is superficial and it is hard to imagine that anyone with a strong interest in political affairs, either national or international, would depend solely upon USA Today for information.

All this leaves only one national daily newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, published in Boston but circulated nationally, with truly objective coverage of the Middle East. The reason is obvious from the title. It is operated, at a loss, by a well-established Protestant denomination and therefore is not answerable to Jewish owners and is not dependent upon Jewish-owned businesses for even a portion of its advertising.

If anyone is doubtful about how important this is, the Monitor's record of recent years is revealing. Because of internal financial problems, and the fact that it became dangerously over-extended with an ill-fated and expensive television venture and a useful but costly daily syndicated radio program, the Monitor became much more dependent than previously upon advertising in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And it became noticably more cautious in its coverage of Israel and the Arabs. Now, with the television venture ended, the Monitor seems back on an even financial keel and balanced Middle East coverage.

Another independent newspaper venture of interest is The Washington Times, an upstart daily founded in the 1970s which has become the national capital's only conservative alternative to the liberal Washington Post. Its ownership and support comes from a most unlikely source, the World Unification Church of the Rev. Sung Myung Moon of South Korea. Although widely dismissed as members of an eclectic Christian spin-off cult built around a charismatic leader, the "Moonies" have developed enough economic strength around the world to sustain this daily through long and financially draining years of slow growth. (The World Unification Church also publishes the Middle East Times, a respected English-language weekly edited in Cairo and printed at various times in Cyprus and in Athens.) Whatever Reverend Moon's ultimate objectives in founding and financing this conservative daily, it is widely read in the U.S. national capital, proving that it is not impossible for an independent voice to be heard, providing that it is well-financed enough to operate indefinitely at a deficit.

Reverend Moon seems to have no personal Middle East agenda at all. The result is that hisMiddle East Times, published in the region by a knowledgeable and professional member of his church, is both informative and objective on Middle Eastern affairs.

The contrary is true of The Washington Times. Its editorials and editorial columnists are embarrassingly ill-informed about the Middle East and their approaches to Islam reveal appalling bigotry. On the other hand, coverage of Middle Eastern events in the Washington Times news pages is well written and informative and based heavily upon the Associated Press and such non-American news sources as Reuters, DPA (the German press agency) and AFP (the French press agency). It therefore includes important Middle East news developments ignored by other U.S. media.

The point of all this is that The Washington Times, with an independent if somewhat eccentric Middle East policy, is surviving in the capital of the United States. And surviving in the nation at large is The Christian Science Monitor, a respected national newspaper with an informed and consistently objective Middle East policy.

If a lone Korean minister can support one such newspaper, and an old but small U.S. Protestant denomination can support another, without extensive advertising help from outside their own communities, why could not the world's Muslim community do the same? With a rapidly growing U.S. population of five to eight million Muslims (far more than the U.S. adherents to either the World Unification Church or to the Church of Christ, Scientist) the base for a national audience for such a daily already exists—particularly since the U.S. Muslim community is concentrated in a very few major metropolitan areas, making daily distribution relatively simple.

In this writer's opinion, the world's 45 Muslim or predominantly Muslim countries, and its more than one billion Muslim inhabitants, will never enjoy objective coverage from either the print or electronic media in North America until they have a flagship newspaper of their own. No matter how humbly it begins, the audience for such an initial weekly and eventual daily (with potential television and radio spinoffs) medium already exist.

Nor should one have to look too hard for potential financial backers. What's missing, to date, is the courage and know-how to start it, and the financial resources, patience and will to persevere.

Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.