The Debt Deal and Middle East Media Failure

Gershom Gorenberg

Foreign coverage – especially American coverage – of the rising social protest movement here continues to be sporadic and off-target. The mindset behind the media failure, let me suggest, is also what prevented a meaningful debate on economic policy in the United States before the national-debt deal.

'For Sale: Country, Model '48, in bad condition, for the wealthy only. For details, contact: Benjamin Netanyahu' (Gershom Gorenberg)
‘For Sale: Country, Model ’48, in bad condition, for the wealthy only. For details, contact: Benjamin Netanyahu’ (Gershom Gorenberg)


Reports from here in the American press – when they appear at all – try to answer the wrong questions, such as: “What does this have to do with security, or the conflict with the Palestinians?” and  “Has the Israeli left been reborn?” Since I know some of the correspondents doing these stories, and I know that they are very sharp and very in touch with life here, I assume they are suffering from one symptom of the correspondent’s conundrum: You have to answer questions from an editor across the sea, who doesn’t get what’s going on and tries to fit it into the story he already has in his mind. You can tell him that he’s wrong, but then you won’t be able to do a story at all. So you answer his misplaced questions.

More basically, though, the news items give economic information, but don’t center on the basic issues that have suddenly become the topic of public debate: Is the government’s role to encourage business and a rising GDP, or to take responsibility for the welfare of the citizenry as a whole? Are we a society of individuals, or a collective?

Again, I suspect a bad connection between the correspondents and the news desk. The editors are over there, and their thinking is shaped and limited by American discourse.

In America, the primacy of the individual and the individual’s freedom from communal responsibility are deeply embedded in founding myths. Israel is a society founded on the rugged group, not the rugged individual. American pioneers wanted to live far enough  away from the nearest neighbor that they wouldn’t see the smoke from his chimney. Our pioneers founded communes, and didn’t own the shirts on their backs. When one of the leaders of the current protest said, “The state must be responsible for the well-being of its citizens,” she was showing that the deep beliefs of a society can run underground for decades and then suddenly gush to the surface.

In the past, I’ve found that trying to get a sentence about people living for the public good past an American editor can be like trying to insert a sentence in Martian. It keeps getting cut. You put it in again, and in the next round of editing, Oops! It disappeared again.

Now about that debt deal: The Republicans had a very easy time presenting the idea that the government should be cut back, that its spending is necessarily bad, and that taxes are evil. Democrats have had a much harder time getting across that government spending is essential to ending a recession, not to mention being a responsible and effective way to provide health care, education and more. The words for the former idea flow easily, and the words for the latter idea do not. Reporters covered the numbers that were tossed back and forth, and quoted what he said and she said and he said. I suspect that some of them had a very hard time hearing the most important comments. They were spoken in Martian.

Now about those questions: This wave of protests has nothing to do with security. The Israeli left as it has existed for several decades – doves on foreign policy, Republicans on economics – is not yet being reborn as an economic left, though some members are trying to practice the old steps. The parties as they now exist are largely irrelevant. This is a long-delayed, essential fight about the basic definition of the society. I don’t know how the fight will turn out. But that’s where the story lies.


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