A Pew survey released last week had all the ingredients for another damning story about Israel and its Jewish citizens. Nearly half of Israeli Jews surveyed, Pew reported, said they favored the expulsion or transfer of Arabs out of Israel.
Given the superficial manner in which most news media, American and otherwise, cover the extraordinarily complicated, and sadly dehumanizing and deadly, Middle East -- and its long-running Israel-Palestinian subplot in particular -- the Pew story seemed a natural headline-grabber.
That didn't quite happen, at least in the elite American media. Nonetheless, Pew managed to offer up a lesson on the importance of raising journalistic red flags when reporting on dumbed-down, highly generalized and potentially inflammatory survey questions that purport to accurately measure real-world complexities.
Why are they telling?
Because The Times' initial Web offering was a standard wire service report that led -- predictably -- with the international red-meat angle, the more easily written expulsion question that, given the hostility to Israel in much of the world, was virtually assured of gaining wide play.
But also because the second piece, written by a Times' Jerusalem bureau staffer that ran in the dead wood edition the following day, buried the expulsion angle and led instead with the more complicated to report survey results dealing with the deep religious and political rifts within Israeli Jewish society.
The expulsion angle wasn't mentioned until the eighth paragraph.
Was that because the Reuters' Web posting made the print piece a second-day story requiring a different lede? I don't think so. My close reading of The Times tells me that the print product still treats the previous day's breaking stories as first-day stories, just as newspapers have done since I started paying critical attention to them in journalism school the 1960s.
Neither do I think The Times was showing a pro-Israel bias by burying the expulsion angle. My reading of its Israel-Palestine coverage -- as I've stated repeatedly on this Web Site -- is that individual story details determine whether or not The Times comes off pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian at any given moment.
I'm not saying The Times always gets it right. Far from it. Let's not forget it's produced by humans. But try to ignore all the partisan conspiratorial blustering bouncing around the Web, letters-to-the-editor pages and fundraising pitch letters about some glaring bias tilted to either side. They only cloud the issue.
What I think probably happened is that The Times -- which covers Israel as closely as does any non-Israeli or non-Palestinian media operation -- recognized the marginally fresher and more concrete polling angle. And then ran with it.
(Yes, I know. The rifts angle is hardly "news" to anyone with so much as a sliver of understanding about Israel. So why did Pew even bother? Can't really say, except it was paid to do so. But that's a different post. For now we'll leave it at pollsters poll; it's their personal hell.)
I said a more concrete angle. Yes, more concrete as in more believable and perhaps less flawed polling. It wasn't hard to find media outlets -- some but not all strongly sympathetic to Israel, to be sure -- that found an abundance of problems in Pew's wording of its Arab expulsion question.
Again, let's start with The Times. It's staff story included this statement: "Israeli pollsters questioned the usefulness of the result, however, because the Pew question did not specify, for example, whether such transfers would be voluntary or compensated financially."
The Israeli center-left newspaper Haaretz also threw cold water on the expulsion question's reliability.
And The London Jewish Chronicle's online portal, TheJC.com, weighed in with this piece, one of the more complete take downs of the expulsion question I came across. Here's a hefty excerpt: (Take note; it includes an English translation of the pertinent question actually asked in Hebrew.)
Every opinion pollster hopes that their survey will generate a strong headline, and when Pew released its magnum opus on Israel ... it certainly got its wish. One in two Israeli Jews want to see Arabs chased out of their country, it seems from the figures.
There is a worrying strain in Israeli society that believes in forcing Arabs to leave, but one in two Jewish citizens — seriously? This is off the chart compared to past surveys on similar topics. What, exactly, were people asked?
At first glance, the question seemed straightforward. People were asked if “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” But this actually left a lot for the respondents to define for themselves.
Did they respond in relation to all Arabs, as one would gather from the way results have been presented? Or were they thinking about specific cases, such as Arabs who sympathise with terror or — as-per the policy that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently having checked by state lawyers — to move the families of terrorists who carry out attacks out of Israel?
Every respondent will have interpreted the question in their own way, which is bad planning by Pew because it needed just one more letter to make this aspect of the question clearer. The definite article is extremely important in Hebrew, and if Pew was interested in what Israeli Jews think about the presence of Arabs, it should have asked about “the Arabs” not “Arabs” — which would have required one extra [Hebrew] letter, a hey.
Religion News Service also downplayed the expulsion angle, and included in its story this kinda, sorta, maybe admission from Pew's religion research honcho Alan Cooperman that the expulsion question was deficient to the point of meaninglessness.
"On whether Arabs should be allowed to live in the Jewish state, Cooperman said Pew asked the question in general terms because its researchers know of no official Israeli proposal to expel Arabs.
"At the same time, 'this is an idea that has been raised and bandied around for more than a decade,' he said. 'All we can say is that the broad idea of transfer or expulsion has evenly split the Israeli public.'"
Not quite, Alan, at least, when it comes to past surveys on the issue, one put forth in Israel only by those on its right-wing extremist fringe.
Additionally, Pew neglected to clarify whether by Arabs it meant Arab citizens of Israel or East Jerusalem Arab residents and stateless West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. Nor did Pew ask whether those Israel Jews surveyed consider Israel to include the territories it captured in the 1967 war, or to what territory Arabs should be transferred. And since Israeli Arabs -- Muslim, Christian and Druze -- were also surveyed, why weren't they also asked if they'd like to see their Jewish neighbors disappear?
None of the survey deficiencies mentioned here stopped media known for consistently bashing Israel from doubling down on Pew's expulsion question, which they saw as ethnic cleaning, of course. Here are two examples, one from Al Jazeera English and another from Mondoweis, a fervently anti-Zionist, website started by an American Jew.
Somehow, they failed to mention that Palestinian politicians and media, who consistently demonize Israeli Jews by referring to them all as "settlers" -- regardless of where they live or whether or not they meet the generally accepted international understanding of the word -- say that no settlers will be allowed to live in any future Palestinian state.
Even American, non-Jewish Palestinian terrorism victim Taylor Force, a grad student visitor to Israel, last week was labeled a settler by official Palestinian Authority TV.