Friday, March 31, 2006

Reasoned Voices in media only emerge when it's safe

Reasoned voices only emerge when it’s safe
Feb. 22, 2006, The Future News, Arab Newspaper of Chicago
By Ray Hanania

A few weeks ago, a senior editor at the Chicago Tribune, one of the nation’s largest daily newspapers and a formidable voice on foreign policy issues, came out of the closet in a column on the issue of media bias against the Palestinians.

Don Wylciff has been a member of the Tribune’s editorial staff since 1990 and its public editor since 2000, positions that have given Wycliff, a former New York Times reporter, a lot of clout.

So when he wrote in a column trying to analyze the recent victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, and the so-called terrorism case against Bridgeview resident Mohammed Salah, Wycliff pulled no punches. He wrote something that is rarely admitted in public journalism circles, acknowledging something candidly about the reality of the American media and the Palestine-Israel conflict:

"Part of the reason we felt blindsided by Hamas' victory is that we don't see or hear things from the Palestinian perspective very often.

"On Sunday, for example, the Tribune's Commentary page carried two articles on Hamas' victory. One was by ‘an American-Israeli peace activist’ from Oak Park, the other by the executive director of the publication of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

"Our Commentary page features no columnist who can be depended upon to routinely explain and defend Palestinian actions and attitudes as, say, Charles Krauthammer defends Israel's. So on probably the most enduring and insistent foreign policy issue of our time, we routinely do not hear from one side."

Wow. I have never heard an editor at any of the nation’s powerful dailies admit what most observers of the Middle East conflict have known for years. The Op-Ed pages of most major American newspapers are biased, not so much because they are pro-Israel, but because they lack a Palestinian voice.

Krauthammer is probably one of the most racist, anti-Arab columnists in America, but that is a very difficult distinction to draw when so many columnists at American newspapers are anti-Arab bigots and racists.

I wish the Chicago Tribune had a Palestinian columnist who wasn’t like Krauthammer, but just offered the other side, as I have done for 30 years.

I wouldn’t expect the Tribune to ever hire me. I was a veteran City Hall reporter at the rival Chicago Sun-Times and later a critic of Tribune policies, specifically their lack of a balance perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

I’ve never asked an editor at a major American newspaper to be pro-Arab. I’ve only asked that they be fair.

Wycliff’s column, published on Feb. 2, 2006, finally comes close to offering a neutral perspective and a vindication of that claim of bias against Palestinians.

But, as usual, reasoned voices don’t always surface on such touchy issues as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

About eight days after publishing the column, the Tribune announced that Wycliff was taking a new job, as spokesman for the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, the school where he graduated in 1969.

I doubt that Wycliff was punished for his views, as some in my community emailed me.

The position Wycliff is taking became open when Matt Storin, who happened to be my former editor at the Chicago Sun-Times back in the late 1980s, left the post a few weeks earlier to take on a teaching post at the same university.

I suspect Wycliff had already decided on his departure before writing the column. But clearly, writing the column gave Wycliff a sense of personal relief.

In fact, Wycliff concluded his very eloquent column, saying, "I'm not sure what this has to do with Muhammad Salah and my conscience. Maybe what I feel is the anxiety that comes from knowing that, in this case anyway, ignorance isn't bliss."

You are and always will be my hero, Don. But I wish you had the courage to say that five years ago, instead of eight days before announcing your departure.

You can’t blame him for saving his candid views until this late date in his journalism career.
The fact is that the Tribune is not the only newspaper that lacks balance on the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Most newspapers are even worse.

While the ChicagoTribune has tried to build a reputation as a thought-leader on international issues, it’s rival newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, my former alma mater, has been an unabashed, shameless and shill for pro-Israel voices. It’s anti-Arab and anti-Muslim columnists have been vicious and strident.

So the Tribune has always looked better. But "better" is a relative term. Because it was better, the Tribune has been the target of a boycott and protests and pressures from the Jewish American community.

Some Jewish American leaders have even called the Tribune anti-Semitic, an often over-used but powerful bludgeon used to silence those who exercise their so-called rights of free speech when criticizing Israel, or challenging Israeli policies.

Still, if Wycliff really wanted to clear his conscience, he would have done something about the imbalance in reporting and hired a Palestinian. There are not a lot of us, but clearly, you can’t really comprehend the complexity of the Palestinian-Israel conflict unless you have access to both sides.

(Ray Hanania is an award winning syndicated columnist, author and Palestinian American standup comedian. He can be reached at

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