The head of the Foreign Press Association in Israel, Reuters Bureau chief Luke Baker, denied on Tuesday that there has been media bias against Israel.
Baker testified to a special meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee subcommitee on legal warfare that, whenever news happens, his bureau goes through a vigorous process of reporting, checking facts and providing information.
Since the current violence began in the fall, he said Reuters had published some 700 headlines about it, and only one, which was corrected, received complaints.
The head of the subcommittee, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union), made a point of saying at the start of the hearing that it was “not intended to court martial the foreign press,” but Baker was on the defensive at the meeting and in a statement he released ahead of it.
“My problem here is that the premise of the hearing seems to be that the foreign press has to prove that it is not biased,” he told the MKs. “There have been very few factual errors. I fail to see that the media has something to answer for in terms of systemic bias.”
Baker said questions should be directed as to whether the Israeli government, army and police should be making their messaging clearer. He went further in a statement released by the FPA board ahead of the hearing.
“May we state first that we disagree with the premise of the hearing,” the statement said. “It presupposes two things: that the foreign media are biased and that supposed bias undermines Israel’s ability to quell terrorist attacks. We do not agree that the foreign media are biased, and the legitimacy of Israel’s campaign against terrorism is entirely determined by how Israel conducts that campaign. It has nothing to do with the foreign media.”
Baker and his board admitted in the statement that there have been cases in which headlines in the international media have been poorly chosen and failed to accurately reflect developments on the ground. He said they were pointed out and corrected as rapidly as possible.
“Mistakes are made in all professions,” he wrote. “Isolated mistakes – and given the vast coverage of this story, they are extremely isolated – do not constitute institutional bias.
It should also be pointed out that headlines are never the full story and are usually not written by journalists on the ground, but by editors sitting in New York, London or other headquarters.”
Headline writing by editors abroad was the case with a controversial headline by CBS following last week’s murder of border policewoman Hadar Cohen near the Damascus Gate: “Three Palestinians killed as violence grinds on.”
Baker pointed out that such headlines were caused by questions editors must answer regarding sometimes conflicting goals of accuracy and speed. He noted that when the headline was published, Cohen had not officially been pronounced dead, and that, although organizations that complained about the headline take credit for it being changed, it would have been changed anyway when Cohen’s death was confirmed.
Bloomberg bureau chief Gwen Ackerman said that in her 32 years reporting from Israel she has noticed that “everyone tries to be fair,” adding that both the foreign press and Israel spokespeople have gotten better.
Government Press Office director Nitzan Chen told the MKs that when CBS had a similar headline following a December 24 terrorist attack, the president of the network apologized and said junior staffers had made mistakes. He said he had received no response since the GPO complained about the Cohen headline.
“Since October, most reports of the foreign press have been reasonable,” Chen told the MKs. “There have been four or five incidents in which headlines after a terrorist attack were so twisted that news consumers in that country would have received the opposite impression.”
Besides the CBS headlines, Chen singled out a BBC headline from October: “Palestinian shot dead after Jerusalem attack kills two” about a Palestinian terrorist who was killed after murdering two Jewish civilians in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Livni said she initiated the hearing because of her frustration with the Cohen headline.
“I wanted to asked the GPO whether it was a one-time thing or a pattern that must be dealt with,” she said.
“I wanted to check how our public diplomacy bodies deal with such things.”
She warned that such a question impacted whether Israel would be subjected to international inquiries and appeals to the International Criminal Court, so it was critical for Israel’s defense and must be seen as a battlefield for Israel.
“There have been examples of equating terrorists and their victims,” she said. “This creates the wrong impression of a strong country against the victims who are the Palestinians.”
The hearing was attended by Zionist Union MKs Shelly Yacimovich and Nachman Shai, Likud MK Anat Berko and Kulanu MK Michael Oren, a former ambassador to the United States.
Oren asked Baker why the foreign press covers the conflict in Israel with so much more staff than the conflict in Syria, and lamented that there had been too much coverage for what is happening near the Damascus Gate and not enough in Damascus where more than 200,000 people had been killed.