Price Tag Journalism

by Chris Toensing | published January 19, 2012 - 12:58pm

The Washington Post today features a hit piece on the Center for American Progress, the largely Clintonite think tank whose Middle East division employs some good reporters and which also published an excellent report on Islam-bashing Astroturf campaigns funded by right-wing moguls in the US. 

Under the headline “Liberal Think Tank Tied to Obama Accused of Anti-Semitic Language,” the Post airs the huffing and puffing of pro-Israel activists about tweets and other statements by junior CAP staffers, in which they used the term “Israel-firster” and compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the treatment of blacks under Jim Crow.

Complaints about the CAP tweets first surfaced in a Politico story on December 7. Senior CAP staffers promptly pushed back, touting the think tank’s support for a two-state solution and rather gratuitously taking “nothing off the table” when it comes to Iran (though, of course, sounding all the acceptable-in-Washington notes about why bombing Iran would be a bad idea). The statement offered no backing for the above criticisms of Israel and its defenders, however; in fact, those staffers had to retract their statements and one soon left CAP’s employ.

A few points about the Post story:

1) The substance of the “Israel-firster” allegation -- some people who opine on the Middle East are driven primarily by their views of what is good for Israel -- goes completely unexamined. Readers are left to assume that “Israel-firster” must indeed be an ad hominem attack.

2) The article admits to controversy only over the issue of whether or not “Israel-firster” is an anti-Semitic canard, which in the piece boils down to whether or not CAP’s critics and Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street are offended by the term.

3) The desultory discussion of even this meta-question is buried at the end of the piece, after many readers will have stopped reading.

4) Finally, aside from the offending tweets’ retraction and the departure of the tweeter from CAP, there has been no new development since the original Politico story that warrants a fresh look from the Post. Presumably, what pushed the Post to run the story is that the pro-Israel advocates’ anti-CAP agitation “could complicate the president’s reelection outreach to some Jewish voters, just as he is seeking to assure them of his commitment to Israel’s security amid fears of an Iran nuclear threat.” In other words, the agitation is now the story.

To clarify: The Israel Lobby is a flawed book that was nonetheless quite important for its timing and who wrote it. The pro-Israel lobby wields considerable clout, particularly regarding the question of Palestine, but it did not drag the US into war in Iraq for Israel’s sake. The US government controls US Middle East policy, not Israel.

But the CAP story is a particularly egregious example of the pro-Israel lobby at work to produce badly slanted coverage of Middle East policy debates that, in effect, equates the lobbyists’ view of Israeli interests with American interests. All while demonstrating that, while space has opened for a wider range of views about the Middle East, hard-hitting criticism of Israel still comes with a price tag.

Update: Check out Glenn Greenwald’s remarkable post laying out the backstory of the attack on CAP.