Alex Massie

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Matt Yglesias writes:             

People often note that there appears to be a more vigorous debate over Israel's approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict in the mainstream Israeli press than there is in the mainstream American press. This is, however, the kind of judgment that it's hard for a casual American observer to make with much confidence. Writing in International Security, however, Jerome Slater takes a more systematic comparison of coverage of the conflict in The New York Times and in Haaretz and concludes that, indeed, Israelis debate this matter more freely.

To which Megan responds:

1)  No one in Israel is worried about being called anti-semitic.

2) Ethnic groups in safe exile tend to be more committed to territorial possession than the people back home who actually have to get shot at in order to obtain or retain the land. This is certainly true of the Irish.

3) Being correct about Israel/Palestine matters a lot more in Israel than it does in America. People expressing views here (or in Europe) are more often staking out ethnic or political solidarity with a cause. People in Israel have a certain level of solidarity assumed, and are in a high-stakes battle for the lowest cost solution, which permits and even demands a wider breadth of views.

4)  Newspapers in Israel are just better than newspapers here.

2 and 3 seem pretty plausible to me (with a dash of 1 thrown in) but if 3 has some validity then it's likely that 4 is true too - at least as far as coverage of Israeli national interests is concerned. Which makes me wonder if Megan is joking when she says:

Obviously, four is not the correct answer.  I don't know how much to weight each of the other three.

I mean, it stands to reason that Israeli newspapers are going to cover Israeli political and security issues better - and from a wider range of viewpoints - than papers anywhere else? Similarly you'd expect British newspapers to be best for British political news, Australian for Australian etc etc. These papers may not necessarily be able to compete with the big American metropolitan dailies across the board, but pound-for-pound they have their specialty niches where they can continue to provide a service  that is valuable beyond their own immediate markets.

Relatedly, it's the case that, though I'm a partisan for foreign coverage and expanding it wherever possible, it makes a certain amount of sense for penny-pinching proprietors (the enemy in other words) to target foreign coverage, even if doing so dents the credibility and authority of their newspaper (foreign coverage being, alas, one of those things that flatters readers estimation of their own seriousness and inquisitiveness even if they rarely, most of them, do much more than glance at th foreign news). For those readers who are most passionate about the rest of the world, however, it's now possible to go straight to source and get the full or at least a more complete, picture of events abroad than one can get from even the New York Times which must, necessarily, simplify matters so as not to suffocate the casual reader with detail and nuance.

Still, cutting back on foreign coverage is an admission of defeat; it tells you that a paper has lost confidence in its purpose and, even more fatally, in the ability of its readership to be interested in and stimulated by events beyond the city limits. This is fatal even if many of those readers are not in fact, as I say, much interested by foreign affairs; many of them still like the idea that they might be one day or that if they suddenly develop an interest in, say, Spain or Russia, their paper will be there to provide them with copy a level or two above The Bluffers' Guide to Funny Foreign Parts. It's what one editor of mine used to call The Virtue of Un-Read Copy.

But once you start treating your readership as simpletons in one area it's often not long before you the cancer spreads to other sections. It's easy to patronise and condescend to readers - one reason the trade is struggling - it's much tougher to hold yourself to demanding standards when the marketing people and the accountants are telling you to go with the flow.

The trouble is that when you do listen to them they seem so sweetly reasonable (they have stats! And Powerpoint! And surveys!) But sooner or later the readers see through it and realise they're being treated as mere advertising fodder and then they find reasons not to buy your newspaper and you can't rake in as much advertising loot and you're on the downward spiral to ending up like the poor old Daily Express, once the envy of Fleet Street and now a sad laughing-stock...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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