The Student Committee on the Middle East hosted a panel discussion Monday night entitled, Media and Democracy in the Middle East: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives, to tackle the role of the media in creating and sustaining liberal democracies.
The panel featured visiting Law School professor Fred Schauer, editor of The Jerusalum Post David Horovitz, and Northwestern University professor Marda Dunsky.
Schauer focused on the legal aspects of media freedom in the U.S., maintaining that America is not representative of the free press, even in other democratic nations.
He added: It is a mistake to assume that a discussion of press freedom and the press is the same topic.
While other liberal countries have strict restrictions on hate speech, libel, and illegally obtained information, such restrictions, he said, are not even close to permissible in the U.S. The media can publish what it wants to, even in such clearly illegal circumstances as those surrounding the Pentagon papers.
The question, Schauer said, is how much the character of the American media is related to press law rather than a strong journalistic tradition, or culture, of belief in objectivity, neutrality and balance.
Horovitz described Israel as a nation of new obsessives, and he said that an awareness of current events, though fostered by violence, contributed to a healthy relationship between the public mood and the media, one that works both ways.
He described the Israel-Palestinian conflict as having heavily tested the media in Israel and said that democracy, because it allows every viewpoint to be heard, extremists included, can be a handicap when trying to get a true message acrossthough a handicap that Israelis are obviously very glad for.
Dunsky was critical of American media in its portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that, while the media claims to objectively inform the public, interest groups wield great power, influencing how policies are reported, and while the U.S. press is free, there is significant self-censorship. There is a consensus on how stories are framed, mainly because newspapers want to avoid controversy and maintain good terms with official sources. This became clear recently at The New York Times, where reporter Judith Miller went to jail to protect her source, Libby Scooter.
To avoid controversy, Dunsky said, coverage often focuses on the empirical: A killed B. But root issues, root causesthese often remain unasked questions.
Dunsky concluded by saying: As the media becomes more free, a government must clearly respond more to public opinion, [however,] the media is not a trigger but a beneficiary. It can influence democratic change, but the cart cannot come before the horse. The system of government has to change before the media can become free.