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#OtvFACTS: What the Media Gets Wrong About Israel

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Written by MATTI FRIEDMAN

image

A Reuters truck drives through a bombed refugee camp in
Gaza. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

During the Gaza war this summer, it became
clear that one of the most important aspects of
the media-saturated conflict between Jews and
Arabs is also the least covered: the press itself.
The Western press has become less an
observer of this conflict than an actor in it, a
role with consequences for the millions of
people trying to comprehend current events,
including policymakers who depend on
journalistic accounts to understand a region
where they consistently seek, and fail, to
productively intervene.
An essay I wrote for Tablet on this topic in the
aftermath of the war sparked intense interest.
In the article, based on my experiences
between 2006 and 2011 as a reporter and
editor in the Jerusalem bureau of the
Associated Press, one of the world’s largest
news organizations, I pointed out the
existence of a problem and discussed it in
broad terms. Using staffing numbers, I
illustrated the disproportionate media
attention devoted to this conflict relative to
other stories, and gave examples of editorial
decisions that appeared to be driven by
ideological considerations rather than
journalistic ones. I suggested that the
cumulative effect has been to create a grossly
oversimplified story—a kind of modern
morality play in which the Jews of Israel are
displayed more than any other people on
earth as examples of moral failure. This is a
thought pattern with deep roots in Western
civilization.
But how precisely does this thought pattern
manifest itself in the day-to-day functioning,
or malfunctioning, of the press corps? To
answer this question, I want to explore the
way Western press coverage is shaped by
unique circumstances here in Israel and also
by flaws affecting the media beyond the
confines of this conflict. In doing so, I will
draw on my own experiences and those of
colleagues. These are obviously limited and
yet, I believe, representative.

image

A rally in support of Islamic Jihad at Al-Quds University in
East Jerusalem, in November 2013 (Courtesy of Matti
Friedman)

I’ll begin with a simple illustration. The above
photograph is of a student rally held last
November at Al-Quds University, a
mainstream Palestinian institution in East
Jerusalem. The rally, in support of the armed
fundamentalist group Islamic Jihad, featured
actors playing dead Israeli soldiers and a row
of masked men whose stiff-armed salute was
returned by some of the hundreds of students
in attendance. Similar rallies have been held
periodically at the school.
I am not using this photograph to make the
case that Palestinians are Nazis. Palestinians
are not Nazis. They are, like Israelis, human
beings dealing with a difficult present and
past in ways that are occasionally ugly. I cite it
now for a different reason.

Such an event at an institution like Al-Quds
University, headed at the time by a well-
known moderate professor, and with ties to
sister institutions in America, indicates
something about the winds now blowing in
Palestinian society and across the Arab world.
The rally is interesting for the visual
connection it makes between radical Islam
here and elsewhere in the region; a picture
like this could help explain why many
perfectly rational Israelis fear withdrawing
their military from East Jerusalem or the West
Bank, even if they loathe the occupation and
wish to live in peace with their Palestinian
neighbors. The images from the
demonstration were, as photo editors like to
say, “strong.” The rally had, in other words,
all the necessary elements of a powerful news
story.
The event took place a short drive from the
homes and offices of the hundreds of
international journalists who are based in
Jerusalem. Journalists were aware of it: The
sizable Jerusalem bureau of the Associated
Press, for example, which can produce several
stories on an average day, was in possession
of photos of the event, including the one
above, a day later. (The photographs were
taken by someone I know who was on campus
that day, and I sent them to the bureau
myself.) Jerusalem editors decided that the
images, and the rally, were not newsworthy,
and the demonstration was only mentioned by
the AP weeks later when the organization’s
Boston bureau reported that Brandeis
University had cut ties with Al-Quds over the
incident. On the day that the AP decided to
ignore the rally, November 6, 2013, the same
bureau published a report about a pledge
from the U.S. State Department to provide a
minor funding increase for the Palestinian
Authority; that was newsworthy. This is
standard. To offer another illustration, the
construction of 100 apartments in a Jewish
settlement is always news; the smuggling of
100 rockets into Gaza by Hamas is, with rare
exceptions, not news at all.
I mention these instances to demonstrate the
kind of decisions made regularly in the
bureaus of the foreign press covering Israel
and the Palestinian territories, and to show
the way in which the pipeline of information
from this place is not just rusty and leaking,
which is the usual state of affairs in the media,
but intentionally plugged.
There are banal explanations for problems
with coverage—reporters are in a hurry,
editors are overloaded and distracted. These
are realities, and can explain small errors and
mishaps like ill-conceived headlines, which is
why such details don’t typically strike me as
important or worth much analysis. Some say
inflations and omissions are the inevitable
results of an honest attempt to cover events in
a challenging and occasionally dangerous
reporting environment, which is what I
initially believed myself. A few years on the
job changed my mind. Such excuses can’t
explain why the same inflations and omissions
recur again and again, why they are common
to so many news outlets, and why the simple
“Israel story” of the international media is so
foreign to people aware of the historical and
regional context of events in this place. The
explanation lies elsewhere.

To make sense of most international
journalism from Israel, it is important first to
understand that the news tells us far less
about Israel than about the people writing the
news. Journalistic decisions are made by
people who exist in a particular social milieu,
one which, like most social groups, involves a
certain uniformity of attitude, behavior, and
even dress (the fashion these days, for those
interested, is less vests with unnecessary
pockets than shirts with unnecessary buttons).
These people know each other, meet regularly,
exchange information, and closely watch one
another’s work. This helps explain why a
reader looking at articles written by the half-
dozen biggest news providers in the region on
a particular day will find that though the
pieces are composed and edited by completely
different people and organizations, they tend
to tell the same story.
The best insight into one of the key
phenomena at play here comes not from a
local reporter but from the journalist and
author Philip Gourevitch. In Rwanda and
elsewhere in Africa, Gourevitch wrote in 2010 ,
he was struck by the ethical gray zone of ties
between reporters and NGOs. “Too often the
press represents humanitarians with
unquestioning admiration,” he observed in The
New Yorker . “Why not seek to keep them
honest? Why should our coverage of them
look so much like their own self-
representation in fund-raising appeals? Why
should we (as many photojournalists and
print reporters do) work for humanitarian
agencies between journalism jobs, helping
them with their official reports and
institutional appeals, in a way that we would
never consider doing for corporations,
political parties, or government agencies?”
This confusion is very much present in Israel
and the Palestinian territories, where foreign
activists are a notable feature of the
landscape, and where international NGOs and
numerous arms of the United Nations are
among the most powerful players, wielding
billions of dollars and employing many
thousands of foreign and local employees.
Their SUVs dominate sections of East
Jerusalem and their expense accounts keep
Ramallah afloat. They provide reporters with
social circles, romantic partners, and
alternative employment—a fact that is more
important to reporters now than it has ever
been, given the disintegration of many
newspapers and the shoestring nature of their
Internet successors.
In my time in the press corps, I learned that
our relationship with these groups was not
journalistic. My colleagues and I did not, that
is, seek to analyze or criticize them. For many
foreign journalists, these were not targets but
sources and friends—fellow members, in a
sense, of an informal alliance. This alliance
consists of activists and international staffers
from the UN and the NGOs; the Western
diplomatic corps, particularly in East
Jerusalem; and foreign reporters. (There is
also a local component, consisting of a small
number of Israeli human-rights activists who
are themselves largely funded by European
governments, and Palestinian staffers from
the Palestinian Authority, the NGOs, and the
UN.) Mingling occurs at places like the lovely
Oriental courtyard of the American Colony
hotel in East Jerusalem, or at parties held at
the British Consulate’s rooftop pool. The
dominant characteristic of nearly all of these
people is their transience. They arrive from
somewhere, spend a while living in a peculiar
subculture of expatriates, and then move on.
In these circles, in my experience, a distaste
for Israel has come to be something between
an acceptable prejudice and a prerequisite for
entry. I don’t mean a critical approach to
Israeli policies or to the ham-fisted
government currently in charge in this
country, but a belief that to some extent the
Jews of Israel are a symbol of the world’s ills,
particularly those connected to nationalism,
militarism, colonialism, and racism—an idea
quickly becoming one of the central elements
of the “progressive” Western zeitgeist ,
spreading from the European left to American
college campuses and intellectuals, including
journalists. In this social group, this sentiment
is translated into editorial decisions made by
individual reporters and editors covering
Israel, and this, in turn, gives such thinking
the means of mass self-replication.

image

A Palestinian protester escapes tear gas fired by Israeli
security forces during a demonstration in a West Bank
near Ramallah. (Darren Whiteside/Reuters)

Anyone who has traveled abroad understands
that arriving in a new country is daunting,
and it is far more so when you are expected to
show immediate expertise. I experienced this
myself in 2008, when the AP sent me to cover
the Russian invasion of Georgia and I found
myself 24 hours later riding in a convoy of
Russian military vehicles. I had to admit that
not only did I not know Georgian, Russian, or
any of the relevant history, but I did not know
which way was north, and generally had no
business being there. For a reporter in a
situation like the one I just described, the
solution is to stay close to more
knowledgeable colleagues and hew to the
common wisdom.
Many freshly arrived reporters in Israel,
similarly adrift in a new country, undergo a
rapid socialization in the circles I mentioned.
This provides them not only with sources and
friendships but with a ready-made framework
for their reporting—the tools to distill and
warp complex events into a simple narrative
in which there is a bad guy who doesn’t want
peace and a good guy who does. This is the
“Israel story,” and it has the advantage of
being an easy story to report. Everyone here
answers their cell phone, and everyone knows
what to say. You can put your kids in good
schools and dine at good restaurants. It’s fine
if you’re gay. Your chances of being beheaded
on YouTube are slim. Nearly all of the
information you need—that is, in most cases,
information critical of Israel—is not only
easily accessible but has already been reported
for you by Israeli journalists or compiled by
NGOs. You can claim to be speaking truth to
power, having selected the only “power” in
the area that poses no threat to your safety.
Many foreign journalists have come to see
themselves as part of this world of
international organizations, and specifically as
the media arm of this world. They have
decided not just to describe and explain,
which is hard enough, and important enough,
but to “help.” And that’s where reporters get
into trouble, because “helping” is always a
murky, subjective, and political enterprise,
made more difficult if you are unfamiliar with
the relevant languages and history.
Confusion over the role of the press explains
one of the strangest aspects of coverage here
—namely, that while international
organizations are among the most powerful
actors in the Israel story, they are almost
never reported on. Are they bloated,
ineffective, or corrupt? Are they helping, or
hurting? We don’t know, because these groups
are to be quoted, not covered. Journalists cross
from places like the BBC to organizations like
Oxfam and back. The current spokesman at
the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in
Gaza, for example, is a former BBC man. A
Palestinian woman who participated in
protests against Israel and tweeted furiously
about Israel a few years ago served at the
same time as a spokesperson for a UN office,
and was close friends with a few reporters I
know. And so forth.

International organizations in the Palestinian
territories have largely assumed a role of
advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians and
against Israel, and much of the press has
allowed this political role to supplant its
journalistic function. This dynamic explains
the thinking behind editorial choices that are
otherwise difficult to grasp, like the example I
gave in my first essay about the suppression
by the AP’s Jerusalem bureau of a report
about an Israeli peace offer to the Palestinians
in 2008, or the decision to ignore the rally at
Al-Quds University, or the idea that Hamas’s
development of extensive armament works in
Gaza in recent years was not worth serious
coverage despite objectively being one of the
most important storylines demanding
reporters’ attention.
As usual, Orwell got there first. Here is his
description from 1946 of writers of communist
and “fellow-traveler” journalism: “The
argument that to tell the truth would be
‘inopportune’ or would ‘play into the hands
of’ somebody or other is felt to be
unanswerable, and few people are bothered
by the prospect that the lies which they
condone will get out of the newspapers and
into the history books.” The stories I
mentioned would be “inopportune” for the
Palestinians, and would “play into the hands”
of the Israelis. And so, in the judgment of the
press corps, they generally aren’t news.

In the aftermath of the three-week Gaza war
of 2008-2009, not yet quite understanding the
way things work, I spent a week or so writing
a story about NGOs like Human Rights Watch,
whose work on Israel had just been subject to
an unusual public lashing in The New York Times
by its own founder, Robert Bernstein. (The
Middle East, he wrote , “is populated by
authoritarian regimes with appalling human
rights records. Yet in recent years Human
Rights Watch has written far more
condemnations of Israel for violations of
international law than of any other country in
the region.”) My article was gentle, all things
considered, beginning like this:
JERUSALEM (AP) _ The prickly
relationship between Israel and its
critics in human rights organizations has
escalated into an unprecedented war of
words as the fallout from Israel’s Gaza
offensive persists ten months after the
fighting ended.
Editors killed the story.
Around this time, a Jerusalem-based group
called NGO Monitor was battling the
international organizations condemning Israel
after the Gaza conflict, and though the group
was very much a pro-Israel outfit and by no
means an objective observer, it could have
offered some partisan counterpoint in our
articles to charges by NGOs that Israel had
committed “war crimes.” But the bureau’s
explicit orders to reporters were to never
quote the group or its director, an American-
raised professor named Gerald Steinberg. * In
my time as an AP writer moving through the
local conflict, with its myriad lunatics, bigots,
and killers, the only person I ever saw
subjected to an interview ban was this
professor.
When the UN released its controversial
Goldstone report on the Gaza fighting, we at
the bureau trumpeted its findings in dozens of
articles, though there was discussion even at
the time of the report’s failure to prove its
central charge: that Israel had killed civilians
on purpose. (The director of Israel’s premier
human-rights group, B’Tselem, who was
critical of the Israeli operation, told me at the
time that this claim was “a reach given the
facts,” an evaluation that was eventually
seconded by the report’s author. “If I had
known then what I know now, the Goldstone
Report would have been a different
document,” Richard Goldstone wrote in The
Washington Post in April 2011.) We understood
that our job was not to look critically at the
UN report, or any such document, but to
publicize it.
Decisions like these are hard to fathom if you
believe the foreign press corps’ role is to
explain a complicated story to people far
away. But they make sense if you understand
that journalists covering Israel and the
Palestinian territories often don’t see their
role that way. The radio and print journalist
Mark Lavie, who has reported from the region
since 1972, was a colleague of mine at the AP,
where he was an editor in the Jerusalem
bureau and then in Cairo until his retirement
last year. (It was Lavie who first learned of the
Israeli peace offer of late 2008, and was
ordered by his superiors to ignore the story.)
An Indiana-born Israeli of moderate politics,
he had a long run in journalism that included
several wars and the first Palestinian intifada,
and found little reason to complain about the
functioning of the media.
But things changed in earnest in 2000, with
the collapse of peace efforts and the outbreak
of the Second Intifada. Israel accepted
President Bill Clinton’s peace framework that
fall and the Palestinians rejected it, as Clinton
made clear . Nevertheless, Lavie recently told
me, the bureau’s editorial line was still that
the conflict was Israel’s fault, and the
Palestinians and the Arab world were
blameless. By the end of Lavie’s career, he was
editing Israel copy on the AP’s Middle East
regional desk in Cairo, trying to restore
balance and context to stories he thought had
little connection to reality. In his words, he
had gone from seeing himself as a proud
member of the international press corps to
“the Jew-boy with his finger in the dike.” He
wrote a book, Broken Spring , about his front-
row view of the Middle East’s descent into
chaos, and retired disillusioned and angry.
I have tended to see the specific failings that
we both encountered at the AP as symptoms of
a general thought pattern in the press, but
Lavie takes a more forceful position, viewing
the influential American news organization as
one of the primary authors of this thought
pattern. (In a statement , AP spokesman Paul
Colford dismissed my criticism as “distortions,
half-truths and inaccuracies,” and denied that
AP coverage is biased against Israel.) This is
not just because many thousands of media
outlets use AP material directly, but also
because when journalists arrive in their offices
in the morning, the first thing many of them
do is check the AP wire (or, these days, scroll
through it in their Twitter feed). The AP is like
Ringo Starr, thumping away at the back of the
stage: there might be flashier performers in
front, and you might not always notice him,
but when Ringo’s off, everyone’s off.
Lavie believes that in the last years of his
career, the AP’s Israel operation drifted from
its traditional role of careful explanation
toward a kind of political activism that both
contributed to and fed off growing hostility to
Israel worldwide. “The AP is extremely
important, and when the AP turned, it turned
a lot of the world with it,” Lavie said. “That’s
when it became harder for any professional
journalist to work here, Jewish or not. I reject
the idea that my dissatisfaction had to do with
being Jewish or Israeli. It had to do with being
a journalist.”

image

A Hamas fighter inside an underground tunnel in Gaza in
August 2014, during a tour for Reuters journalists
(Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

In describing the realities of combat in the
Second World War, the American critic Paul
Fussell wrote, the press was censored and
censored itself to such an extent that “for
almost six years a large slice of actuality—
perhaps one-quarter to one-half of it—was
declared off-limits, and the sanitized and
euphemized remainder was presented as the
whole.” During the same war, American
journalists (chiefly from Henry Luce’s
magazines) were engaged in what Fussell
called the “Great China Hoax”—years of
skewed reporting designed to portray the
venal regime of Chiang Kai-shek as an
admirable Western ally against Japan. Chiang
was featured six times on the cover of Time ,
and his government’s corruption and
dysfunction were carefully ignored. One
Marine stationed in China was so disillusioned
by the chasm between what he saw and what
he read that upon his discharge, he said , “I
switched to Newsweek .”
Journalistic hallucinations, in other words,
have a precedent. They tend to occur, as in the
case of the Great China Hoax, when reporters
are not granted the freedom to write what
they see but are rather expected to maintain a
“story” that follows predictable lines. For the
international press, the uglier characteristics
of Palestinian politics and society are mostly
untouchable because they would disrupt the
Israel story, which is a story of Jewish moral
failure.
Most consumers of the Israel story don’t
understand how the story is manufactured.
But Hamas does. Since assuming power in
Gaza in 2007, the Islamic Resistance Movement
has come to understand that many reporters
are committed to a narrative wherein Israelis
are oppressors and Palestinians passive
victims with reasonable goals, and are
uninterested in contradictory information.
Recognizing this, certain Hamas spokesmen
have taken to confiding to Western journalists,
including some I know personally, that the
group is in fact a secretly pragmatic outfit
with bellicose rhetoric, and journalists—eager
to believe the confession, and sometimes
unwilling to credit locals with the smarts
necessary to deceive them—have taken it as a
scoop instead of as spin.
During my time at the AP, we helped Hamas
get this point across with a school of reporting
that might be classified as “Surprising Signs of
Moderation” (a direct precursor to the
“Muslim Brotherhood Is Actually Liberal”
school that enjoyed a brief vogue in Egypt). In
one of my favorite stories, “More Tolerant
Hamas” (December 11, 2011), reporters quoted
a Hamas spokesman informing readers that
the movement’s policy was that “we are not
going to dictate anything to anyone,” and
another Hamas leader saying the movement
had “learned it needs to be more tolerant of
others.” Around the same time, I was
informed by the bureau’s senior editors that
our Palestinian reporter in Gaza couldn’t
possibly provide critical coverage of Hamas
because doing so would put him in danger.
Hamas is aided in its manipulation of the
media by the old reportorial belief, a kind of
reflex, according to which reporters shouldn’t
mention the existence of reporters. In a
conflict like ours, this ends up requiring
considerable exertions: So many
photographers cover protests in Israel and the
Palestinian territories, for example, that one of
the challenges for anyone taking pictures is
keeping colleagues out of the frame. That the
other photographers are as important to the
story as Palestinian protesters or Israeli
soldiers—this does not seem to be considered.

In Gaza, this goes from being a curious detail
of press psychology to a major deficiency.
Hamas’s strategy is to provoke a response
from Israel by attacking from behind the
cover of Palestinian civilians, thus drawing
Israeli strikes that kill those civilians, and then
to have the casualties filmed by one of the
world’s largest press contingents, with the
understanding that the resulting outrage
abroad will blunt Israel’s response. This is a
ruthless strategy, and an effective one. It is
predicated on the cooperation of journalists.
One of the reasons it works is because of the
reflex I mentioned. If you report that Hamas
has a strategy based on co-opting the media,
this raises several difficult questions, like,
What exactly is the relationship between the
media and Hamas? And has this relationship
corrupted the media? It is easier just to leave
the other photographers out of the frame and
let the picture tell the story: Here are dead
people, and Israel killed them.
In previous rounds of Gaza fighting, Hamas
learned that international coverage from the
territory could be molded to its needs, a lesson
it would implement in this summer’s war.
Most of the press work in Gaza is done by
local fixers, translators, and reporters, people
who would understandably not dare cross
Hamas, making it only rarely necessary for
the group to threaten a Westerner. The
organization’s armed forces could be made to
disappear. The press could be trusted to play
its role in the Hamas script, instead of
reporting that there was such a script. Hamas
strategy did not exist, according to Hamas—
or, as reporters would say, was “not the
story.” There was no Hamas charter blaming
Jews for centuries of perfidy, or calling for
their murder; this was not the story. The
rockets falling on Israeli cities were quite
harmless; they were not the story either.
Hamas understood that journalists would not
only accept as fact the Hamas-reported
civilian death toll—relayed through the UN or
through something called the “Gaza Health
Ministry,” an office controlled by Hamas—but
would make those numbers the center of
coverage. Hamas understood that reporters
could be intimidated when necessary and that
they would not report the intimidation;
Western news organizations tend to see no
ethical imperative to inform readers of the
restrictions shaping their coverage in
repressive states or other dangerous areas. In
the war’s aftermath, the NGO-UN-media
alliance could be depended upon to unleash
the organs of the international community on
Israel, and to leave the jihadist group alone.
When Hamas’s leaders surveyed their assets
before this summer’s round of fighting, they
knew that among those assets was the
international press. The AP staff in Gaza City
would witness a rocket launch right beside
their office, endangering reporters and other
civilians nearby—and the AP wouldn’t report
it, not even in AP articles about Israeli claims
that Hamas was launching rockets from
residential areas. (This happened.) Hamas
fighters would burst into the AP’s Gaza bureau
and threaten the staff—and the AP wouldn’t
report it. (This also happened.) Cameramen
waiting outside Shifa Hospital in Gaza City
would film the arrival of civilian casualties
and then, at a signal from an official, turn off
their cameras when wounded and dead
fighters came in, helping Hamas maintain the
illusion that only civilians were dying. (This
too happened; the information comes from
multiple sources with firsthand knowledge of
these incidents.)
Colford, the AP spokesman, confirmed that
armed militants entered the AP’s Gaza office
in the early days of the war to complain about
a photo showing the location of a rocket
launch, though he said that Hamas claimed
that the men “did not represent the group.”
The AP “does not report many interactions
with militias, armies, thugs or governments,”
he wrote. “These incidents are part of the
challenge of getting out the news—and not
themselves news.”
This summer, with Yazidis, Christians, and
Kurds falling back before the forces of radical
Islam not far away from here, this ideology’s
local franchise launched its latest war against
the last thriving minority in the Middle East.
The Western press corps showed up en masse
to cover it. This conflict included rocket
barrages across Israel and was deliberately
fought from behind Palestinian civilians, many
of whom died as a result. Dulled by years of
the “Israel story” and inured to its routine
omissions, confused about the role they are
meant to play, and co-opted by Hamas,
reporters described this war as an Israeli
onslaught against innocent people. By doing
so, this group of intelligent and generally well-
meaning professionals ceased to be reliable
observers and became instead an amplifier for
the propaganda of one of the most intolerant
and aggressive forces on earth. And that, as
they say, is the story.

  • This article originally stated that NGO Monitor
    President Gerald Steinberg was American-born. He
    was born in the U.K. and raised in the U.S. We regret
    the error.

Originally published on The Atlantic.

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