A Textbook Case of Willful Distortion
HarperCollins says it’s sorry. It says it regrets not including Israel on a map of the Middle East in an atlas it published and distributed in the Middle East. It says all remaining copies of the atlas will be pulped.
The Collins Primary Geography Atlas for the Middle East with a map that omitted Israel was described by the publisher in sales information as “an ideal school atlas for primary school geographers.” A fact checker, says a security officer for HarperCollins—the company refused to allow anyone from its Editorial, Marketing, or Media Relations offices talk to reporters—was “disciplined.” But, this was not a case of a bumbling fact checker who didn’t check the facts. This was a willful and deliberate decision by executives of the HarperCollins subsidiary, Collins Bartholomew, which concentrates on maps, to wipe Israel off the map—literally.
The reason, said the company, was because of “local preferences.” In this case, “local preferences” means, said a representative for Collins Bartholomew, to include Israel on a Middle East map would be “unacceptable” to certain Middle East countries. “Unacceptable” translates solely as a loss of sales.
The omission was discovered by Bishop Declan Lang and reported in The Tablet, a Catholic news weekly published in England. Lang told the Tablet that the publication of the atlas with Jordan and Syria covering the space of Israel “will confirm Israel’s belief that there exists a hostility towards their country from parts of the Arab world [and] will not help to build up a spirit of trust leading to peaceful coexistence.” Dr. Jane Clements, director of the Council of Christians and Jews, told the Tablet, “Maps can be a very powerful tool in terms of de-legitimising ‘the other’ and can lead to confusion rather than clarity.”
Only after the Tablet’s news story was published—and HarperCollins subsequently received extensive condemnation from throughout the world—did the company issue a one-paragraph apology, which it posted on Facebook, and remove the atlas from sale.
In 2001, HarperCollins stopped distribution of a book by Michael Moore, although there were 50,000 copies in its warehouse about to be released to bookstores. The company demanded that Moore kill three chapters of the book and pay the company $100,000 for print costs of the revised book. The chapters attacked President George W. Bush and raised questions about corporations and the government. HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, which also owns Fox News.
These aren’t isolated instances of a publisher using the power of the press to change facts and suppress truth. Ever since 1948, when Israel was declared a country, publishers in countries hostile to Israel have not only refused to acknowledge Israel but have excluded it from maps and travel routes.
Majority cultures write the histories, and their texts often reflect their biases and political agenda. During the twentieth century, Japanese texts overlooked the slaughter of thousands of Chinese civilians; Soviet texts under the Stalin regime failed to include the work of Leon Trotsky or mention America’s massive economic and humanitarian assistance to that country; and the texts of all countries reported little about the Holocaust.
Publishers in America, trying to reap the widest possible financial benefit by not offending anyone, especially school boards, often force authors to overlook significant historical and social trends. For more than a century, books which targeted buyers in the North consistently overlooked or minimized Southern views about the Civil War; other books, which targeted a Southern readership, discussed the War of Northern Aggression or the War Between the States.
Almost all media overlooked significant issues about slavery, the genocide against Native Americans, the real reasons for the Mexican-American War, the seizure of personal property and subsequent incarceration of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, the reasons why the United States went to war in Vietnam, the first Gulf War and, more recent, the war in Iraq.
Textbook publishers, choosing profits over truth, often glossed over, or completely ignored until years or decades later, the major social movements, including the civil rights, anti-war and peace movements of the 1960s and the emerging environmental movement of the 1970s. It was the underground and alternative press that presented the truth that the establishment press under-reported or refused to acknowledge, timidly accepting the “official sources.”
To establish standards for the study of history in the public schools and to correct some of the nation’s textbook wrongs, the National Endowment for the Humanities, under Congressional mandate, gave $1.75 million to UCLA’s National Center for History in the Schools to bring together a wide range of academics to study the problems and to recommend a model text that would present history as it was, rather than what we hoped it was. The concept was good; the execution was abysmal.
The Center rightly determined that texts were “sugar-coating” and distorting American history, that there was an over emphasis upon a recitation of facts and in recounting the deeds of a few people, mostly white males, but far too little discussion about major trends and social issues that defined the American republic.
But, the Center did exactly what it condemned. In a 271-page document at the end of 1994, it presented a distorted overview that the formation of the United States was a convergence of Islamic, African, and European influence, and discounted western European influence. It claimed the nation’s history is little more than struggle, conflict, and the abuse of the rights of people. It barely discussed the historic role of a free press and of free speech, mentioned the Gettysburg Address only briefly, and relegated the complexities of the “cold war” as merely a “quarrel” among imperialistic nations.
The Committee’s proposed guidelines, although rightly adding many civil rights leaders, left out Eli Whitney, Thomas Edison, and the Wright Brothers among many other scientists; it overlooked Daniel Webster and other major diplomats and politicians; and it gave few lines to innumerable creative artists. However, the emperor of an ancient African civilization was praised, as were numerous individuals, often female or of minority cultures, who were merely footnotes in America’s 300-year history.
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels correctly argued that if someone tells a lie long enough and with enough intensity, it becomes the truth. But, poet John Milton gave a greater truth three centuries earlier. “Let her [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” he rhetorically asked.
Publishers may whitewash certain facts or movements. They may even eliminate certain truths in order to increase sales. But, eventually, truth will emerge.
[Dr. Brasch is the author of 20 books, all of which were fact-checked. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth look at the economic, health, and environmental effects of horizontal fracking throughout the country. He is an award-winning journalist and professor emeritus of mass communications.]