Mainstream Media's Equivalenc​e Game

Here we go again. Four years ago, during and after Israel's antiterrorist counteroffensive in Gaza, mainstream media reported that more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed, while Israeli fatalities were only a miniscule fraction of that total. This left readers and viewers with a distinct impression that Israel had used excessive force. Israel, in effect, was depicted as the brutal Goliath against an outgunned David.

The reality, however, was quite different. Israel was engaged in an asymmetrical conflict in which Palestinian terrorist groups deliberately targeted civilians, while Israel was bending over backwards to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties. As a result, most Palestinian fatalities were combatants, while most Israeli fatalities were civilians, or noncombatants. This distinction, however, was never made clear to readers and viewers because mainstream media simply lumped together combatants and noncombatant fatalities in a single total figure.

To this day, for example, the New York Times, harking back to Operation Cast Lead, reports that the three-week Israeli counteroffensive in Gaza in 2008-09, took 1,400 Palestinian lives. Not only is the total exaggerated, but Times readers are never told that the Gaza fatalities were preponderantly combatants.

Now let's run the tape forward to Israel's current Operation Pillar of Defense. Nothing has changed when it comes to mainstream media playing the equivalence game -- that the lives of Palestinian terrorists and Israeli civilians are somehow equally valuable. Again, no distinction is made between combatant and noncombatant fatalities. It's as if we should mourn the passing of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden as much as the deaths of innocent children.

Take, for example, the Nov. 16 front page of the Washington Post. The top story is headlined, "Attacks intensify along Gaza border," followed by a subhead that reads: "18 Palestinians, 3 Israelis Dead".

The main article reports that, on the Israeli side, "two Israeli men and one woman were killed." No mention that all three were civilians. No mention that the woman, a Chabad outreach emissary in India, had traveled to Israel to deliver her baby. On the Palestinian side, the paper relying on Gaza medical officials, reports that "18 Palestinians had been killed since the offensive began, including an 8-month-old girl." Again, no hint of how many were terrorists engaged in pummeling Israeli civilian towns with incessant rocket barrages.

Which brings us to the crux of this kind of deeply flawed journalism. To get their overall information on Palestinian fatalities, mainstream media tend to rely on totals given them by Gaza hospital officials. These same officials readily pinpoint children who were killed, but don't volunteer how many terrorists were slain. A reporter doing his/her job properly should of course inquire about the number of combatant fatalities.

But either the reporter is too lazy or the Palestinian source hews to Hamas propaganda rules. Either way, mainstream media simply regurgitate Palestinian statistics that dwell on lost children, but skip any mention of combatant fatalities. The final result: a skewed picture that leaves an erroneous impression of equivalent preciousness of combatant and noncombatant lives in a conflict that instead is highly asymmetrical -- with Hamas aiming its fire at Israeli civilians populations and Israel taking precautions to minimize civilian losses. This basic truth somehow gets lost. Yet it's at the very heart of this neverending conflict.

Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers