AUTH CARTOON BEGETS CHARGES OF ANTI-SEMITISM, FAIRLY OR NOT
by Ahmed Bouzid
American Reporter Correspondent
WAYNE, Pa. - On July 31, 2003, nationally syndicated cartoonist Tony Auth, who is based at the Philadelphia Inquirer, published a cartoon critical of the 'Separation Wall' that showed the star of David made out of barbed wire enclosing Palestinian populations. The cartoon immediately created an uproar within the Jewish community in Philadelphia and nationwide and raised the usual hackles of anti-Semitism against the cartoonist.
Representatives from various Jewish groups in Philadelphia at once asked for a meeting with the Inquirer and two weeks later, on August 18, 2003, met with newly installed Editor in Chief, Amanda Bennett, to complain about the cartoon and the cartoonist. Two weeks later, on August 31, 2003, the Inquirer devoted a whole page of op-ed space for these groups to air their grievances.
On Sept. 1st, representatives of Arab and Muslim groups in Philadelphia who had been seeking a meeting with Ms. Bennett since she became editor in June, and who had been told by Ms. Bennett that she was not meeting with anyone "just yet," contacted Ms. Bennett upon learning of her meeting with the Jewish groups and requested a meeting to discuss what they felt to be a disturbing and well-established pattern in Mr. Auth's cartoons of using and abusing deragotary stereotypes about Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims.
Five weeks later, On Oct. 8, representatives from Palestine Media Watch (I was one) and the Philadelphia chapter of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) met with Ms. Bennett for more than one hour to discuss Mr. Auth's cartoons. We presented Ms. Bennett with seven copies of two neatly bound reports focusing on all cartoons published by Mr. Auth regarding the Palestine-Israel conflict (45 cartoons) and Arabs and Muslims in general (41 cartoons, excluding Iraq) between September 2000 and August 2003.
Along with the reports, we also presented Ms. Bennett with two books (newly bought just for the occasion): Covering Islam, by the late Prof. Edward Said, and Enemy Aliens, by Georgetown University civil rights law professor David Cole.
Our request to Ms. Bennett at the end of the meeting was for the Inquirer to provide a Sunday op-ed page for Arab and Muslim Americans in the Philadelphia area to write on how they have been portrayed by the U.S. media and how they have fared in general since 9/11, given their precarious civil rights situation. Ms. Bennett said that she would take the matter into consideration and that she would get back to us with an answer soon.
Since the meeting, we sent Ms. Bennett three follow-up emails in a span of more than two months asking for her to update us on her decision. For more than 10 weeks, neither Ms. Bennett nor Mr. Auth, nor indeed anyone else in the Inquirer, even bothered to respond to our queries. Direct queries to Mr. Auth were also ignored.
The silent treatment continued until November 21, 2003, when Ms. Bennett curtly responded with the following one sentence email: "Chris Satullo [Editor of the Editorial Page] tells me that we ran just such a page recently, before I arrived, so I don't think we will be undertaking another one soon."
Pressed with a fourth email for the date of such a page that was run "recently," Ms. Bennett responded with the following (the "you" in what follows refers to the author): "Here are some dates: 'Muslim Americans reflect on Sept. 11' on Nov. 4, 2001. You were on that page; 'Next Steps in the Mideast' page, 4-22-2001, you were on that page; 'Being an Arab American' 12-3-2000."
Given that we do not consider two or three years ago to qualify for "recently," and given that those pages did not focus on the issue at hand - how Arabs and Muslims have fared in the media, and in society at large since 9/11 - and given that no one in the Inquirer has yet to address any of the substantive points made in the reports, we replied that we were not satisfied and that we continued to ask for an appropriate response to our concerns and request. And that's where the matter rests, as of Dec. 9.
Obviously, the difference between our groups and the Israel-first groups is that we came to Ms. Bennett respectfully, quietly, without first mobilizing a letter-writing campaign, with two reports spanning three years of evidence, and we presented our case without impugning the cartoonist's or the paper's intentions or integrity, and without shrill accusations of bigotry and racism. By contrast, Israel-first groups immediately mobilized their members to flood the Inquirer with letters and phone calls, with of course the usual accusations of anti-Semitism.
So, what lessons should one draw from this tale of two pressure groups?
The first immediate lesson is that the "anti-Semitism" card, especially when backed with hysterical and shrill outcries, will every time trump reasoned and empirically-informed argument.
About a year ago, a similar tug-of-war between Israel-first groups and our groups took place, with basically the same results: on the one hand, a hundred or so Israel-first demonstrators shouted outside of the offices of the Inquirer slogans to the effect that - what else - the Inquirer was 'anti-Semitic', that it was the legacy of Nazi-sympathizers, that it supported terrorism, and called for a boycott of the paper.
In contrast, the day prior to the demonstration, I met face to face-to-face with the Inquirer's foreign desk editor, Ned Warwick, and showed him an analysis of the paper's front page spanning a period of three months, demonstrating that more than 90 percent of above-the-fold photographs showing human suffering connected with the Palestine-Israel conflict showed the suffering of Israelis, and that during those three months only one solitary front-page photo above the fold showed the human face of Palestinian suffering (this was the Jenin period during which, according to the United Nations, 490 Palestinians were killed in the span of two weeks).
The result: the very day after the Israel-first demonstrations, the Inquirer canceled all letters to the editor and devoted the space to a response from the paper's ombudsman, Lillian Swanson, to the demonstrators that included the following groveling admission: "American newspapers [are,] by most accounts, far more pro-Israeli than their western European counterparts." As for our study showing a flagrant pattern of front-paging Israeli human suffering and downplaying Palestinian human suffering, I have yet to this day, a year and a half later, to receive any feedback whatsoever from anyone at the paper.
A second, and related, lesson is that newspapers will react not to reasoned argument but to raw pressure. The pressure group that mobilizes the more people to make phone calls, send faxes, or send emails, is the pressure group that gets the attention. Pretty straightforward physics, but important to note and highlight, since I have yet to meet a single editor or reporter who was honest enough to acknowledge this depressing fact of life in American journalism. Instead, every single time the issue comes up, I am given the high-minded bromide that journalists resent organized mobilizations and that such mobilizations are more often counter-productive than they are effective.
But reality spells a different story: the loud and hard right, for instance, has successfully intimidated weak-kneed newspapers into giving them far more space than they deserve, given how marginal their opinions are relative to mainstream public opinion. That explains, at least in part, why the opinion pages of U.S. newspapers have tilted markedly to the right. Names such as George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Linda Chavez, Mona Charen, Fred Barnes, Cal Thomas, to name just a few, are household names, while Jim Hightower, Alexander Cockburn, Molly Ivins, Norman Solomon, Edward Herman, are by and large unknowns to the regular reader of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, or any of the mainstream media papers.
The bottom line: mobilize and mobilize, and make noise. Not that we should stoop to tarring-and-feathering, to lying and lynching; not that we should emulate every aspect of the Israel-first and the hard right camps. That is not the style of principled causes.
But we do have clear and present enemies who are so consumed by self-righteousness that any destruction they wreck with their intolerance to dissenting opinion is in their mind fully justified by the end they seek. Well, for those who feel that the progressive cause is inherently and by definition too diverse and too democratic to train its sights on any one target with common, concentrated energy, we do have one: a bitter fight against those who feel that our destruction is an important stepping-stone towards their false Utopia.
Ahmed Bouzid is president of Palestine Media Watch - http://www.pmwatch.org/ and athor of 'Framing the struggle'.