After three years as Middle East correspondent for his East Coast paper, my friend was leaving Egypt for the States; American editors have a habit of moving their reporters to other beats the moment they have begun to understand the region. So how were things on the paper, I asked?
"Usual problems," he replied. "I've just been asked by my paper to stop referring to `the right-wing Israeli government'. My editor said he'd been getting lots of complaints from members of the Jewish community back home. So now we just call it `the Israeli government'." He shrugged his shoulders.
I wasn't surprised. American media coverage of the Middle East has been largely pro-Israeli - and in their cartoons of Arabs almost racist - for decades, and United States reporting of the Israeli-Arab conflict, with honourable exceptions such as the Christian Science Monitor, is bland to the point of tedium.
The State Department line on the Middle East, always skewed toward Israel, has been followed obsequiously by most American reporters. Only weeks after United States diplomats were instructed to refer to the Israeli- occupied West Bank as "disputed" - rather than "occupied" - territory, American journalists began using precisely the same word.
The explosive issue of Israel's expanding Jewish settlements on occupied land, in contravention of United Nations resolutions and the Oslo agreement, has been turned into an argument over real estate.
Bill Clinton's administration has to take account of extensive American newspaper and television coverage of the region - and its pro-Israeli bias. Yet now, with a catastrophe looming and American public opinion desperately in need of an unbiased coverage of events, the same David- and-Goliath story of Israel and the Arabs is being regurgitated by press and television. US journalists thus bear a heavy responsibility for their country's crumbling policies in the Middle East.
There is nothing new in this lop-sided reporting. After the Sabra and Chatila massacre in 1982, when up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians were slaughtered by Israel's Phalangist allies, Newsweek magazine decided that the death of Princess Grace of Monaco in a road accident was the more important story; a week later, their cover story reported "Israel in Torment" over the massacres; there was no reference to the "torment" of the Palestinian victims.
Not once were the Sabra and Chatila murderers called "terrorists", which they were by Israel's own definition of the word, presumably because they were allied to the Israeli army.
The same double standards applied in later years: when Palestinians set off suicide bombs among civilians in Israel, the American press universally called the culprits "terrorists", which they assuredly were. But when an Israeli slaughtered 29 innocent Palestinian worshippers in a Hebron mosque, the US media called the murderer a "fanatic", an "extremist" or, a new and popular word found increasingly in the American press, a "zealot". Even the assassin of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin - a Jewish student - was never called a "terrorist".
In this, American journalists have fallen into line with Israeli law. Only last month the family of a Palestinian named Khairi Moussa, who was stabbed to death by an ultra-Orthodox Jew, was refused state compensation because, under Israeli law, an Arab killed by a Jew cannot be considered a victim of "terrorism", although a Jew killed by an Arab can be. (Needless to say, scarcely any space was devoted to this extraordinary court case in the pages of US newspapers.)
Similar attempts to play down Israel's responsibility for killings in the Middle East could be identified in 1996 when Israeli artillery slaughtered 106 Lebanese refugees sheltering in a UN battalion headquarters at Qana in southern Lebanon. The Israelis claimed they were firing at Hizbollah guerrillas 600 feet from the base - not a single Israeli was hurt and the Hizbollah were firing at a hill to the south of Qana. But beneath a photograph of one of the 55 children massacred by the Israelis, Time magazine reported that the small victim had been "killed in crossfire" - a palpable untruth.
In one of the most extraordinary reports of its kind ever written, the New York Times played down the killing - five days before Qana - of four children and two women when an Israeli helicopter fired a missile into an ambulance in southern Lebanon; not until the sixth paragraph of his report next day did the paper's Jerusalem correspondent, Serge Schmemann, tell his readers about the atrocity. Earlier paragraphs of his report included news of a power failure in a bombarded Israeli town and a statistic of 24 dead in Lebanon "including one Israeli soldier".
The Washington Post's reporter John Lancaster later investigated the ambulance attack, reporting that the driver was "disputing" [sic] Israel's claim, a false one as it turned out, that the vehicle was owned by the Hizbollah. But the paper did not question how Israel could break the rules of war by firing at a clearly marked ambulance. The New York Times later ran a syndicated account from an Israeli paper of an Israeli soldier's life in Qana before the massacre: but the New York Times deleted a paragraph about how the Israeli troops had stolen cars from their Lebanese owners and looted houses - thus even censoring the Israeli press.
Time magazine enthusiastically took up the use of the word "disputed" for the Jewish settlements on Arab land. By last year, it was able to report on how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "turns up the heat by okaying [sic] new houses [sic] in disputed [sic] territory". When Mr Netanyahu ordered work to begin on a new settlement on a hill outside east Jerusalem early this year, almost every American news outlet referred to the "disputed" hill as Har Homa - giving the location its Jewish identity but usually ignoring its Arab name, Jebel Abu Ghoneim.
The use of the misleading word "disputed" has, sadly, turned up on the BBC, along with references to settlements as "neighbourhoods" and "communities", as if their occupants were ordinary property buyers rather than fanatical, armed religious Jews who believe God gave them the territory.
As long ago as 1995, Jerrold Kessel was reporting on a settlement "dispute" on CNN in which he referred to Jews talking of "heritage claims going back hundreds of years". But "heritage claims" differ mightily; the Palestinian one is based on land deeds and documents of ownership, the Israeli one on theology and an apparent conviction that God had bequeathed Israel the Arab land.
History continues to be short-changed in the American media. Long after most of the world realised that the Oslo "peace process" was dead, US reporters continued to write about putting the peace process "back on track", and wrote glowing articles about the supposedly tough-talking US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, even after she told a press conference in Jerusalem that it was wrong to compare killing people with "building houses", her own bland reference to Jewish settlements on occupied land.
In Paris, Le Monde was last month warning its readers that Mr Netanyahu and US House speaker Newt Gingrich were "dangerous" men. But in the New York Times, the increasingly messianic Thomas Friedman, an old colleague and friend of mine, was telling his readers that there was "a potentially great statesman" inside Mr Netanyahu who "deserves credit for the fact that there has been relatively little Palestinian terrorism [sic] these past two years". After one terrible suicide bombing in Jerusalem, the mother of an Israeli girl victim wrote that it was Mr Netanyahu's policies rather than the Palestinians who had killed her daughter. The Los Angeles Times put the bombing on page one, and the mother's remarkable statement on page five.
Academics may one day decide how deeply the American public has been misled by the persistent bias of the US media, and the degree to which this has led them to support US policies which may destroy America's prestige in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, US reporters aregoing to have to figure out a way of telling readers and viewers how a "dispute" over "neighbourhoods" is turning into war.Reuse content