Israel’s management of media coverage during Operation Protective Edge was a strategic success, describing a well-oiled press machine able to stay consistent and on-message across multiple government sectors.
“Lawrence of Arabia once said the best weaponry in the arsenal of the commander is the printed press – that was in 1916,” said IDF Spokesman Lt.- Col. Peter Lerner, speaking at a conference on Sunday at Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
“Today we would say it’s Twitter or something like that.”
Multiple government panel speakers, including Lerner and Government Press Office director Nitzan Chen, described media portrayal of the war as a rhetorical battleground where this time Israel faired better than in previous conflicts, but still faced stacked odds.
Chen said Israel’s communication apparatus has learned to not merely “turn the other cheek” to unfaithful portrayal but instead to actively pursue better coverage.
“If they spit on us, we don’t say that it’s rain,” he said. “If a correspondent lies and writes things that are not his or her interpretation of reality, we don’t give up. We pick up the phone, we reprimand, and if need be we threaten, because we’re not suckers.”
Yarden Vatikai, the head of the National Information Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office, described how in previous conflicts the government lacked a cohesive media strategy.
“The military spoke in political terms, politicians spoke in military terms, it was a big mess,” he said.
Arthur Koll, the deputy director of the Foreign Ministry, said Israel had undergone a “quantum leap” before the recent coverage.
“We are talking about over 2,500 encounters with the media over a period of 50 days – 2,500 encounters,” Lerner said.
“And this includes joining IDF forces, exposing the tunnels as deep as they go, and 50 media outlets who came to the tunnel entrances we showed them and broadcast live from them.”
Lerner said that the IDF reached 570 million people on Facebook during the war in 6 languages.
“Media outlets can be very envious of these figures,” he added.
The topic of discussion strayed to media coverage of last week’s terrorist attack in Har Nof, during which the Government Press Office released pictures of bloody prayer objects that spread rapidly over the Internet.
Multiple speakers criticized headlines in outlets such as CNN, which originally reported the Har Nof attack as having taken place in a “mosque” and failed to adequately distinguish between victims and perpetrators.
“Hours after the attack CNN still talked about four plus two, in other words that terrorists are counted among the victims,” Chen said.
He said he had spoken with the CNN editor in Atlanta about the issue and concluded that malicious intent rather than negligence was behind this coverage.
Heated exchanges erupted in each of the conference’s three panels, which featured journalists on both sides of the political spectrum alongside the government’s top representatives.
Sitting next to Chen at the panel, former Haaretz editor Hanoch Marmari called his office a “ministry of propaganda,” saying it aided in the “tabloidization of the media” by choosing to release bloody pictures of the Har Nof attack – unusual for a government that typically stifles such graphic images out of respect for the dead.
Chen fired back, saying, “Thank God the Haaretz newspaper is not the Israeli mainstream.”
But the day’s most contentious figure was New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, who drew criticism from members of the crowd as well as fellow panelists.
“I was going to bring my Kevlar vest, but I left it in the hopes of a good dialogue,” she said before beginning her talk.
She said Israeli media culture is characterized by “myopia where each partisan looks at the articles or the TV reports focusing on the parts that they think offend their narrative or their arguments.”
She singled out the advocacy group Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, known as CAMERA.
“They are not for accuracy in Middle East reporting, they are for promoting the Israeli point of view,” she said, adding that it is “perfectly within their right” to pursue that mission.
Speaking at a later panel, CAMERA’s Israel director, Tamar Sternthal, said Rudoren’s remarks “misrepresented” the organization’s strategy and goals. She went on to criticize The New York Times coverage of Israel, pointing out what she said were skewed headlines such as "Palestinians are suspected as two Israelis die in knife attacks," referring to two fatal stabbings that took place in one day earlier this month.
She also mentioned other incidents when, she said, CAMERA exposed unfair coverage in The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.
Chen, whose office is responsible for issuing journalists permits to cross the Gaza border, also painted a picture of chronic misrepresentation.
“Out of 1,400 journalists who covered Protective Edge, there were four or five righteous people who covered it objectively, whether in real time or after they returned to their home base,” he said, adding that the number of such journalists might possibly go as high as 20.
“The essence is very simple: foreign press doesn’t work for us,” he said.
The conference was organized by the Center for International Communication and Bar-Ilan’s School of Communication.
Other panel speakers included German-language journalist Gisela Dachs, former AP Jerusalem correspondent Matti Friedman, and Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Paul Hirschson.
Regardless of vocation and politics, all those involved in covering, or managing media coverage during, Operation Protective Edge described it as a hectic period.
Hirschon, for instance, said he was interviewed about 150 times, practically living in his car, where he kept extra suits, ties and jackets.
“I wasn’t too concerned about the shoes, because they only film from the chest upward,” he said.