The Trump administration says it will update U.S. government maps to reflect President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
In a Wednesday email responding to questions from VOA Persian, a State Department spokesperson said the map changes would be “consistent” with a March 25 proclamation signed by Trump, saying the U.S. “recognizes that the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel.”
In a separate interview with VOA later Wednesday, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said the State Department would “redraw” its official maps and release them “as soon as they are ready.” The map changes will reflect facts on the ground and a “need for Israel to have secure and defensible borders,” Hook added.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and annexed it in 1981 in a move no other nation recognized until the U.S. officially changed its policy this week. Syria has long demanded the return of the disputed territory, which the rest of the international community considers to be Israeli-occupied.
In the earlier email to VOA, the State Department spokesperson declined to say whether the U.S. recognizes the Israeli border in the Golan Heights as being located along a 1974 cease-fire line on the western edge of a demilitarized zone patrolled by a U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF). Israel considers the western line of the UNDOF zone, also known as line “Alpha,” to be its border with Syria.
Responding to a question about the Alpha line, the State Department spokesperson said: “The United States supports the goal of a secure and lasting peace between Israel and all its neighbors, including Syria. Such a peace should be achieved through direct discussions. Israel does not currently have a partner for peace in Syria.”
In a Monday interview with VOA Persian in Washington, Deputy Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Benjamin Krasna said the Syrian civil war that began in 2011 and occasionally has spilled over into the Israeli-controlled Golan has highlighted the plateau’s importance in providing Israel with what he called “strategic depth.”
“With the terrible atrocities committed by (Syria’s) Assad regime, with its loss of control allowing terrorist elements (to seize Syrian territory), and with Iran and its proxies then moving in, this presents a threat to Israel,” Krasna said. “Therefore, establishing strategic depth (on the Golan) is key to our security … and that is reaffirmed by the U.S. recognition of Israel’s sovereignty.”
Syria has condemned the U.S. declaration on the Golan Heights. Responding to Trump’s March 21 tweet announcing his intention to make the move, Syrian Ambassador to the U.N. Bashar Jaafaritold reporters the next day that it was a “flagrant violation of international law, the charter of the United Nations, and the … values and ethics of international relations.”
The State Department’s official map of Israel had yet to be changed as of Wednesday, still referring to the Golan Heights as “Israeli-occupied.” It was not clear how long it would take for this and other maps to be updated.
Official U.S. government maps of Israel also are displayed publicly on the CIA’s World Factbook website and are available for download from the Library of Congress.
The CIA World Factbook map of Israel is older than the State Department’s online map, as it does not display Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while the State Department’s map does. Trump recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital in December 2017 and moved the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv in May 2018.
Palestinians claim the eastern sector of Jerusalem, captured by Israel from Jordan in 1967, as the capital of a future state. Several other countries also have recognized Jerusalem or its predominantly Jewish western sector as the capital of Israel since the U.S. move. But most nations have declined to do so.
Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced companion bills last month that would seek to codify a U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a move they say would prevent a future U.S. president from undoing Trump’s declaration.
As of Tuesday, U.S. news site Al-Monitor said no Democrats had agreed to support the bills, with only Republican lawmakers sponsoring the legislation in the House and Senate. There was no word on whether or when the bills would be put to a vote.
On the surface, it may look as though the average U.S. media consumer is awash in choices: websites, podcasts, cable and broadcast TV, satellite and over-the-air radio, and yes, even printed newspapers. But the reality is different.
There is an oft-quoted line from Thomas Jefferson about the importance of a free press to the stability of the newly formed United States: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” he wrote to a colleague, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Almost always, though, the words Jefferson wrote next are forgotten. He added, “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”
His insight was that a press free from government interference is a necessary condition for a healthy democracy, but not a sufficient one. A free press isn’t very useful if nobody has access to relevant reporting on the issues that affect them.
If Jefferson were able to look at the media landscape in his country today, particularly at the local level, he would almost certainly be worried.
News sources, particularly local ones, are increasingly controlled by a limited number of companies that have bought up smaller news organizations and consolidated them.
This is perhaps most visible in the world of newspapers. Twenty percent of the newspapers that were active 15 years ago have been shut down, according to the University of North Carolina, leaving hundreds of locales without a local paper.
Employment in newspaper newsrooms has fallen by 47% since 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, companies like GateHouse Media and Gannett control hundreds of publications using centralized news gathering that decreases the focus on their communities.
In August, the two companies announced a plan to merge, a deal that would create a company controlling more than 250 daily newspapers, as well as hundreds more weeklies and community papers. The merged companies would be several times larger than the next biggest newspaper company, Digital First Media, which in 2018 owned 51 daily papers and 158 other publications.
Digital First, which is owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, has been at the forefront of another troubling trend: buying up newspapers, laying off newsroom staff, and liquidating the papers’ real estate assets.
Digital First, which also goes by MediaNews Group, or MNG, did not respond to a request for comment from VOA. However, in response to a Washington Post story earlier this year, the company said “MNG is committed to the newspaper business and a long-term investor in the space. MNG’s focus is on getting publications to a place where they can operate profitably and sustainably and continue to serve their communities.”
Job cuts, quick profits
“They’re owned, essentially, by private equity companies, or even hedge funds at times, and they don’t particularly care about the quality of the journalism,” said Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and former public editor of The New York Times.
“What they’re there to do is to strip mine these properties and get as much profit from them as they can in the short term. And that is very bad for journalism. It’s very bad for journalists, because it often means round after round of job reductions, cutting costs in really draconian ways that hurt the news gathering process.”
Newspapers are not typically seen as a major profit-making venture. While they generate significant cash flow through advertising sales, that is offset by high production costs of personnel and the logistics of printing and delivery. Many are run by family foundations and other organizations that place some value on their public mission.
The strategy of many investment firms buying up newspaper chains has been to increase profits by slashing personnel costs.
In the broadcast world, the story is similar. Large companies have been buying up local stations and cutting costs by centralizing the production of much of the content they air. Most notorious among them is Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 193 stations across the country, reaching up to 40% of the U.S. population.
Sinclair is known for enforcing a sharply conservative political slant on its broadcasts, providing “must-run” content that appears on every station the company owns. It regularly requires its stations to air commentary by Boris Epshteyn, a friend of President Donald Trump’s family and a former political consultant to the president.
Last year, a video went viral in which dozens of Sinclair anchors could be seen repeating, verbatim, a script that echoed Trump’s complaints about “fake news.”
Rules that formerly limited the ability of individual companies to own a dominant share of the media outlets in a specific market have been slowly eased over the years. Then, in 2017, the Federal Communications Commission gutted many of the remaining restrictions, opening the door to single companies dominating individual markets in both broadcast and print.
The resulting consolidation has been “disastrous for local communities,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press, an organization that advocates for the decentralization of media. “We’ve gone from a more diverse localized media system to one increasingly controlled by a small handful of companies.”
“You used to get in your car in New York and drive to, I don’t know, Phoenix,” said Aaron. “Everywhere along the way, you would get incredibly different local voices, local flavors, local music. Now, you’re much more likely to get the same hit songs and Rush Limbaugh. So, we’ve lost some of that, you know, which I think has huge cultural value.”
The impact goes beyond culture, though, as Aaron and others have pointed out. It also has a direct impact on how Americans govern themselves.
“When sources of local and regional news dry up or go away,” Sullivan said, “there’s research that shows that the way people engage politically changes. They are going to be less likely to vote, they become more polarized, because for many years, the local newspaper might have been a way that people in that community were sharing a set of facts. Now, that’s gone or diminished.”
Last year, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard Universityassembled a list of academic studies that tied the loss of local news sources to a decline in both the quantity and quality of citizens’ civic engagement.
Social media news
To fill the gap, Sullivan said, people turn to less objective sources of news, like Facebook, or politically partisan cable television programming.
“It is really a very damaging thing for the way we talk to each other, the way we feel as a community and the way we deal with politics,” Sullivan said.
Identifying the disease and cataloging the symptoms is one thing. But finding a cure that will return the U.S. to a more Jeffersonian media model won’t be easy.
Sullivan argued that the growth of nonprofit news organizations is a hopeful sign that an alternative to corporatized media may be available. Groups such as Report for America provide funding so that young journalists can work in local media outlets, providing them important training while supplementing understaffed news outlets.
Some nonprofit publications like The Texas Tribune and Voice of San Diego have been able to make important contributions to their communities.
But nonprofits can’t bridge the gap entirely, and Sullivan and others worry that the advertising-dependent business model of traditional journalism — particularly newspapers — has been so thoroughly broken by the rise of digital media that trying to rebuild it on the same design will be impossible.
That’s why Aaron and his organization want the federal government to get involved. Free Press argues for a return to tighter federal restrictions on media consolidation, including the breakup of existing conglomerates. They also call for federal investment through grants or tax incentives to support local news.
“If local journalism is important to making sure democracy survives, then we need the policies to actually match that need,” he said. “And right now, we don’t have them.” (VOA)