Israel’s increasingly hostile condemnations of the foreign press are beginning to verge on incitement, Associated Press bureau chief Josef Federman claimed during a talk with American-Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.
Such complaints “have begun to border on incitement against the foreign media,” Federman said last week, referencing criticism of coverage of recent terrorist attacks around the country, including the Government Press Office’s threat to revoke CBS’s press credentials over a controversial headline.
“It has become very unpleasant being a journalist in this country. Not only do politicians accuse us of being hostile, we are accused of staging events for the media..., [and the GPO], which is part of the Prime Minister’s Office, [has] threatened to revoke people’s press credentials because they didn’t like headlines. So now the GPO is in the business of telling people and deciding what’s acceptable and not acceptable,” he lamented.
“It’s unpleasant... when we were summoned to the Knesset to defend ourselves. I mean, can anyone here imagine Congress summoning the international media in Washington to complain about coverage of the White House? It’s ridiculous. It’s undignified for a country that calls itself a democracy.”
Federman’s comments come amid a groundswell of public opprobrium aimed at the foreign press, which many accuse of harboring a bias against the Jewish state.
The anger stems from the perception that articles and headlines are written in a manner that inverts victims and perpetrators such as when CBS reported, “3 Palestinians killed as daily violence grinds on,” despite the fact that the three Palestinians had been killed while carrying out a terrorist attack. It was this headline that led to the flap between the government and the American network.
Other examples Israelis often hold up are the assertion by Ayman Mohyeldin of MSNBC on live television that an Arab man who was shot while charging police with a knife appeared to be unarmed – even though he was filmed running with the blade in his hand – and CNN’s 2014 headline “4 Israelis, 2 Palestinians dead in Jerusalem,” which failed to account for the fact that the two Palestinians were killed after they murdered the four Israelis.
The perception of biased media is increased for many by comments such as those recently made by Andrew Holden, the editor-in-chief of Australia’s The Age, who told the Jewish Community Council of Victoria that the death of Jews does not sell papers.
“In two pages of [world news] print each day to cover everything that’s happening across the world, those stories matter to this [the Jewish] community... but to the broader community of Melbourne, it’s not one of the major stories of the world,” the Herald Sun quoted him as saying.
Then there are those who would assert that Israel certainly does have a history of making mistakes in handling the foreign media, with The Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz reporting in 2011 how dozens of journalists walked out of a press conference showing off a captured Iranian weapons ship after being made to wait in the burning sun for an hour and a half.
“Israel shoots itself in the foot every time,” one correspondent who was present at the press conference commented. “Now, at least, everyone will understand why the pictures of the weaponry aren’t going to be broadcast all over the world.”
Less than two months earlier, this writer was at a GPO reception when the prime minister’s security detail made several reporters, both foreign and domestic, remove their pants to gain entry. A pregnant Al Jazeera correspondent who refused to remove her bra was turned away.
It is precisely this kind of behavior Defense News’ Israel bureau chief Barbara Opall- Rome complained about last week when she told representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that while overseas correspondents here are “not inherently biased and [are] constantly striving for objectivity,” it remains hard to report when the foreign press is not given the same access as their local counterparts.
Press conferences are “often segregated,” if foreign reporters are invited at all, and the “foreign press here isn’t even accorded the courtesy of receiving the same press releases that are distributed to the local media,” she said.
The issue of foreign correspondents in Israel burst into the headlines last week when border police detained Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief William Booth outside the Damascus Gate on suspicion of incitement. He was released within an hour, after the suspicions were proved baseless.
Following the incident, the Columbia Journalism Review ran an in-depth piece by Gregg Carlstrom, the Tel Aviv-based correspondent for The Times of London and The Economist, titled, “What’s driving Israel’s media crackdown,” in which he claims that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has extended his reach over every corner of the Israeli media.”
A week earlier, a special meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee subcommittee on legal warfare heard from the head of the Foreign Press Association, Reuters Bureau chief Luke Baker, who denied that the foreign press in Israel was biased against Israel.
Complaining about Israeli responses to his coverage, Federman rejected the Israeli “myth” that the foreign press, which is composed of more than 400 outlets, is a “monolithic entity.”
Describing the complicated worldwide network of editors, reporters and fact checkers working for AP, as well as the large staff of Israeli and Palestinian journalists employed by his agency, he said that if a mistake were made, he would hear about it in near real-time.
“So, to think that we can sit around trying to scheme on some sort of agenda picking one side over the other is not only impossible, it’s ludicrous because there are so many safeguards in place to prevent this,” he said.
Most mistakes, he said, come from either haste or carelessness, “usually by somebody in another city who is not familiar with the story,” and are usually fixed quickly.
The Palestinians also believe the media are biased for relying so heavily on official Israeli military and police accounts, he continued, adding that he gets criticism from both sides and saying “the people that tend to accuse the media of bias are the ones who themselves have the bias.”
“We rely heavily on Israeli Jewish Hebrew-speaking former IDF-serving people to cover the news in Israel,” Federman added, describing his foremost challenge as keeping everybody in harness together.
“Are people biased?” he asked. “Probably.
Everybody is shaped by their own personal life experiences, obviously. Our job, and my job, is to take all of this knowledge and all of this experience and make sure that everybody remains committed to the mission, and we do it, we do a pretty good job most of the time,” despite having reporters from both sides of the conflict who have seen horrible things and experienced personal trauma and loss.
Not everybody in the foreign media agrees with Federman, however.
In a widely circulated article in Tablet magazine in late 2014, former AP correspondent Matti Friedman asserted that mainstream media coverage of the conflict presents “nearly no real analysis of Palestinian society or ideologies, profiles of armed Palestinian groups, or investigation of Palestinian government.”
“Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate. The West has decided that Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel, so that opinion is attributed to them as fact, though anyone who has spent time with actual Palestinians understands that things are (understandably, in my opinion) more complicated. Who they are and what they want is not important: The story mandates that they exist as passive victims of the party that matters.”
Friedman recalled having himself deleted information from stories in response to Hamas threats against one of his colleagues in the Gaza Strip.
AP responded harshly to Friedman’s tellall account and especially to his contention that its editors suppressed a story on an offered West Bank pullout by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. AP said its former employee’s accusations were “demonstrably false, as AP ran stories about it in the weeks after it was supposedly made.”
However, soon after, Mark Lavie, another former AP reporter, came forward, writing on his blog that he was the author of the piece in question and that “AP suppressed a world-changing story for no acceptable reason,” and that “it fit a pattern, described by Matti, of accepting the Palestinian narrative as truth and branding the Israelis as oppressors.”
Brendan O’Neill, an editor at the British newspaper The Telegraph, agrees with Friedman’s views on coverage of the conflict, having told the Post last year that Israel is frequently “demonized” while the Palestinians are “infantilized,” meaning “both sides have been treated pretty badly by the European media.”
“Palestinians are presented as either victims in much of the Western media” or their actions are explained away as seen in reporting on the recent wave of stabbing attacks in which “reporters are saying ‘they are in a state of despair, they have no choice,’” he said.
“I think it’s because [reporters] have a preordained narrative and have a tendency to fit everything into it even if it doesn’t fit,” O’Neill continued, saying it is easier to sell a conflict as black and white, especially when many people “define themselves” through their views, which turn being pro-Palestinian into a “shortcut to a moral high ground.”
Opall-Rome said part of the conflict over reporting comes down to semantics. Given that the media generally use the term “terrorism” to denote acts of violence against unarmed civilians, it should not be extended to incidents such as the kidnapping of IDF tank gunner Gilad Schalit or recent attacks against uniformed soldiers and policemen.
“We do not consider that acts of terror, because the victims were in uniform at the time,” she said.
Other incidents, such as the stabbing last month of Dafna Meir, a mother of six “who was brutally murdered in her home,” poses a dilemma for some members of the press corps.
“She is an unarmed civilian no matter where she lives, but the fact that she lives in [the settlement of] Otniel does make it...
blurs the lines for other [media] organizations,” Opall-Rome continued, explaining that there are news organizations that “consider attacks taking place beyond the Green Line as ‘collateral damage,’ the bloody price that we all have to pay for this interminable conflict.”
“And what about the lone wolves,” she asked. “I mean, what do you call a 12-yearold wielding a knife, what about a 15-yearold with scissors in her school bag? Is she a terrorist?... I would argue that this is not bias, that in the case of these lone wolf attackers we would call them assailants, we would call them perpetrators. And when the motive is not quite clear, we would call them alleged offenders.”