A journalist films as rescue workers remove the body of a Palestinian man from the rubble of his home in Gaza / Getty Images
The American media covers Israel more than almost any other pressing geopolitical concern. The disproportionate coverage was continually pointed out (as it had been in the past) as reporters crawled in and out of Gaza, writing far more lines on the subject than nearly any other. Some have claimed that the coverage of the most recent conflict was too pro-Palestinian, some that it’s too pro-Israel. Explanations for the newsroom’s Israel-Palestine obsession have been given by both sides, ranging from the practical to the vaguely conspiratorial.
Still, to my mind, the primary reason for the enthusiastic coverage, is, as is so often the case, explained by capitalism. Americans see Israel-Palestine and the conflict that rages therein as a place of religious fantasy, racial tensions, and the repository of American time, money and resources. In other words, Israel sells.
A few months ago I was traveling back to Israel from the United States, and around three o’clock in the morning I found myself in a minivan to Jerusalem seated next to a CNN producer for Wolf Blitzer. Somewhere between a demonstration of her Tinder profile and stories about the Queen of Jordan, she explained to me that being a producer involves making the news appealing and digestible for a mass audience. The aim is single-minded: to take home the top ratings, ultimately winning more money for owners, stockholders and advertisers. Thus, American news broadcasters, especially when it comes to cable news, are out to make a buck. This is a longstanding problem, and it has massive implications for how international conflicts are covered. So why does Israel get covered more? It’s a sure-fire moneymaker.
It’s no secret that Americans are overwhelmingly Christian — a combined 51% Protestant, 23% Catholic and 4% “other” bring the total Christian population of the United States to 78%. And so the dominant American public wants to watch things that interest them as Christians. A story involving familiar characters (Isaac and Ishmael), one that deals with the birthplace of Jesus, and whose occurrences can be interpreted as the fulfillment of prophecy holds no small amount of fascination. This appeal is most obvious among segments of the evangelical population who give massive sums of money to Israel, visit with astonishing frequency, and are exceptionally active politically on both college campuses and the Hill.
This captivation is not new, of course. Michael Oren, in his 2007 book Power, Faith and Fantasy, begins the story of American fixation with the Holy Land back in 1773 and spends over 700 pages detailing its history. According to Thomas Friedman, in 1947 Abba Eban appealed to American Christians’ biblical sensibilities in precisely this way in his argument for the creation of Israel at the U.N: “We knew we were basically appealing to a Christian world for whom the biblical story was familiar and attractive, and we played it to the hilt.” Of course he did — because that’s what sold then and still sells now.
Another American passion that makes the Israel-Palestine story good TV and so intensely captivating is that it appears to many Americans as a race conflict. Racial violence has become a trend that holds the attention of the American public perhaps more than any other type of violence. It hits close to home both from within the American collective memory — from slavery to Jim Crow and race riots — to today’s news items: Trayvon Martin and, more recently, Ferguson. The violence in Gaza appears uncannily similar to many American minds, and thus works well in the media. If white-on-black violence entices American viewers, then so does the Israel-Gaza war, where what appears to be an ethnically white group commits acts of violence against non-whites. Recently, commentator Jeffrey Goldberg quoted the bureau chief of Al-Hayat, who said that the only reason she could think of for the over-coverage of Israel and the under-coverage of Syria was that “Muslim killing Muslim or Arab killing Arab seems more acceptable than Israel killing Arabs.” Americans don’t cringe in the same way when Syrians kill Syrians. But they do when Israelis kill Palestinians.
One final reason for the American obsession with Israel and the latest Gaza war is perhaps less allegorical but similarly money-driven: America may not have directly fought in Gaza, but American money did. The United States effectively subsidizes Israel’s military ($3 billion a year), the defense of its citizens (money for Iron Dome, permission to stockpile nuclear weapons), and safeguards its international standing in the U.N. (the United States has unleashed an unprecedented 42 vetoes in the Security Council in Israel’s favor). America is not interested in the story of Israel on an abstract level — it is a United States interest, both economic and political, in ways that no other country (Syria, Sudan, Pakistan) is. More than just what people want to see, this is what people feel they deserve to see — American taxpayer money “at work.”
So, looking back at the Israel-Gaza war, we shouldn’t just blame the media for its disproportionate coverage of this conflict. Instead, its audience should look in the mirror.
Elisheva Goldberg is a freelance writer living in New York. She was formerly an editor and analyst at Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, and an assistant editor at Open Zion, a Daily Beast blog edited by Peter Beinart.