WASHINGTON, April 25 (UPI) -- In an effort to "measure the unmeasurable" as he puts it, Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation magazine and MSNBC, recently penned an essay critical of the relationship between the American media "punditocracy" and Israel.
Alterman has concluded that most American pundits are "reflexively" pro-Israel. He argues that they are unwilling to examine Israel's positions and actions in an impartial manner, pushing the United States to take a uniformly supportive stand that he believes may not be in the best interests of either country.
"In most of the world, it is the Palestinian narrative of a dispossessed people that dominates," he writes. "In the United States ... the narrative that dominates is Israel's."
The reason for this is the media punditocracy. "The value of this legion to the Jewish state," he writes, "is ... literally incalculable, particularly when push ... comes to shove." They shape American public opinion, putting pressure on policymakers who then give a pro-Israel tilt to U.S. policy.
The thesis is provocative and may even have merit but Alterman undermines his case through the manner in which he presents it.
Alterman assembled a list of journalists, columnists, media stars and publications that he divides into three groups based on the position they can be expected to take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. How he compiled it -- who was screened, who was not, the criteria used to determine placement -- remains a mystery. What we do know is that on the list there are 70 names and publications that can be, in Alterman's words, "counted upon to support Israeli reflexively and without qualification."
An additional seven, including Alterman himself, are identified as willing to criticize both sides in the conflict but "ultimately would support Israeli security over Palestinian rights."
With the exceptions of Mortimer Zuckerman, who is identified as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; and Commentary magazine, which he says is owned by the American Jewish Committee, Alterman does not identify the religious affiliations of those who appear on his list.
Anyone reasonably familiar with the American opinion media can, however, see that a sizeable majority of those he identifies as supporters of Israel "reflexively and without qualification" are Jewish.
Naming names, as Alterman has does, is a very unsettling practice. It has a McCarthyite tone associated with it. In some circumstances it can conceivably be downright dangerous -- especially when the underlying issue is as volatile as the current Middle East conflict.
But it is the predominance of Jews on the list that should give pause to those who think seriously about the issue. Because Alterman, in the piece, gives no clue as to how the list was put together or the criteria he used to assign people and publications to different categories, one can legitimately question whether the overwhelmingly Jewish cast to the list is accidental, simply driven by the data.
From a journalistic perspective, the names on the list are not equal in terms of their status or their impact.
Columnist George Will, New York Times columnist William Safire and the ubiquitous Michael Kelly are on the list. But so are the largely Internet-based David Horowitz of The Center for Popular Culture; former Clinton political consultant Dick Morris, who appears on television and writes a regular column for several newspapers but is generally seen as a political partisan; and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, host of a radio show that dispenses advice to callers.
It is a stretch to say that the opinions expressed by Schlessinger and those put forward by Will carry equal weight on the issue of Israel and the Palestinians.
Then there are the pundits who are not mentioned.
It is impossible to assemble an exhaustive list. However, it is worth mentioning that The Times' Maureen Dowd; Molly Ivins, most recently with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Michael Kinsley, who, in earlier times edited Slate magazine and co-hosted CNN's Crossfire; The Washington Post's Mary McGrory and William Raspberry; Ellen Goodman of The Boston Globe; The Chicago Tribune's Clarence Page, who also does a fair amount of television work; and E.R. Shipp of The New York Daily News -- all of whom have been at least nominated for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Commentary are not part of Alterman's matrix of opinion shapers.
Whatever his intentions, and there is no reason to suspect they were anything less than honorable, Alterman's list feeds into the racist paranoia that the media is controlled by the Jews. Lists such as the one he has assembled are of little value except to extremists looking to prove a point.
In a world where the obviously fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a racist anti-Jewish document, is taken by many to be genuine and is, according to some reports, one of the best-selling tomes in the Arab world, it is shudder-inducing to think about what a list like Alterman's, which is grounded in fact, could be used for by people who do not have the best of intentions.