It is no secret that the foreign press too often distorts events in Israel. Likewise, the fact that the Government Press Office (GPO) is rather impotent in improving the coverage is no secret.
A blatant example was the CBS February 2 headline “3 Palestinians killed as daily violence grinds on” in the aftermath of the terrorist attack that took the life of Hadar Cohen. Nitzan Chen, GPO director, reacted sharply, announcing he was considering rescinding the official certification of the journalists involved. Nothing of the sort happened. The only result was that CBS changed the headline to “Palestinians kill Israeli officer, wound another before being killed.”
Is it really impossible to change the situation? Why does Israel face a hostile press? Are answers to the two questions interrelated? The GPO does not itself gather the needed information. This is done by those individuals and organizations that care to do so.
One of them is Kenneth Abramowitz, founder and president of SaveTheWest.com, which seeks “to advance knowledge concerning the foundational underpinnings of Western civilization” as well as advance strategies, tactics and common-sense solutions for its survival. Abramowitz, who has also funded the Israeli Media Criticism Prize for the past 13 years, commissioned Jon Sutz to look into The Huffington Post, one of the most popular and influential news websites, with nearly 130 million monthly readers from its 15 international editions.
The results were damning.
Sutz’s documentary portrays “a systemic anti-Semitic bias and... even justif[ ication]” of terrorism against Jews in the name of “Palestine.” The study found that 90 percent of Arab terrorist attacks between September 13 and November 30, 2015, never appeared on either the front page or world page of the Huffington Post.
Of the 11 stories that did appear, nine were manipulated to blur the distinction between Palestinian terrorists and their Jewish victims, or to evoke sympathy for Palestinians. In several incidents, HuffPost editorials whitewashed and legitimized the Palestinian narrative.
Does anyone in Israel know about this? Does the GPO? This is by no means an isolated event. Britain’s The Guardian also engages in the systematic distortion of events here. Its headlines following terrorist acts are invariably a description of the Palestinians who were killed, employing words that soften the harsh reality of Arab terrorism. On October 17, 2015, the headline was, “Four Palestinians shot dead after attempted stabbings.” On December 18: “Two Palestinians shot dead by Israeli forces as violence flares.” On February 14, “Three Palestinian teenagers shot dead on West Bank.” In all cases, those Palestinians shot were terrorists intent on murdering innocent civilians. Violence did not just “flare,” it was perpetrated by the terrorists.
Various NGOs work hard to report press manipulations. CAMERA and HonestReporting in the US, Presspectiva here in Israel, UK Media Watch in the United Kingdom and Audiatur in Switzerland are but a few examples. But what does anyone here in Israel know about them? Does the GPO do anything to bring their work to the attention of the media? At this past Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarked that “we are taking action against media channels that encourage the murder of Israelis and Jews... I spoke with French President Francois Hollande... and requested that the French broadcasts of the Al Aksa channel be taken off the air.” That was indeed done but Netanyahu admitted it had gone back on air via another satellite.
Netanyahu did not even mention the “standard” foreign press and its perversions.
Finished with her stint as the bureau head of The New York Times in Israel, Jodi Rudoren was interviewed by her own paper on March 3. Her line was that media watchdogs critical of her Israel coverage do not base their critique on journalistic values.
In her mind, critics are advocates whereas knowledgeable media figures say her output was okay.
Her arrogance is noteworthy. Especially when it comes from those who usually describe themselves as liberal and seek to protect freedom of expression.
Her attitude echoed the words of Luke Baker, a Reuters journalist and head of Israel’s Foreign Press Association, at a Knesset subcommittee meeting on the issue of false or biased reporting on Israel news in international media on February 9, 2016. He claimed there is “a pretty rigorous process of reporting and checking facts.” There are errors, he admitted, and “sometimes it’s been harder to correct them than others,” but there is little “to answer in terms of systemic bias.” Nitzan Chen was present but did he present Baker with the facts? No.
Could it be that the GPO simply does not know them? It was the Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni who was the moving force for the deliberations in the Knesset over the perceived unethical behavior of the foreign media. Her interest, as is ours, was what changes could be made to the procedural work of Israeli spokespersons.
MK Michael Oren (Kulanu) bemoaned the lack of coordination among the various organs of state that deal with putting out the message as well as orchestrating a stronger element of being “on the same track.” Oren pointed to the need for further streamlining and shaming such news outlets.
Livni also bemoaned the slowness of the IDF Spokesman’s Office in responding to outlandish claims of wrongdoing. All GPO head Nitzan Chen could add was to confirm that occasionally “headlines published about terror attacks were distorted.”
One of us (YM) was present at a session of the US Conference of Presidents’ Leadership Mission to Israel on February 18 devoted to the question whether there is a double standard in media portrayals of Israel. The panel comprised Barbara Opall- Rome, Israel bureau chief of Defense News, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, IDF spokesperson for foreign press, Udi Segal, Channel 2 diplomatic correspondent, Josef Federman, the Associated Press Israel bureau chief, and was moderated by David Horovitz, Times of Israel editor.
Both Horovitz and Lerner highlighted the lack of context and perspective that can taint media reports, with Lerner suggesting that “there needs to be a fuller story [told].”
But Segal countered that “Israel should not be complaining about unfairness in the media.” In fact, foreign journalists should be given more access to information, said Segal.
It was Federman who proved just how weak our professionals are. His statement “it has become very unpleasant to be a journalist in this country” wafted by with no outcry. Lerner, the IDF spokesperson to the foreign press, knows that this is not the case, but did not respond. With no media watch NGO rep on the panel to provide expert testimony, Federman continued in an Orwellian fashion, saying, “There is very little intentional distortion, errors are usually due to haste or carelessness, and are generally corrected quickly.” The examples we cited above, from the Huffington Post and the Guardian, certainly negate Federman’s assertions.
So what can be done to change the situation? We will provide our answers next week.The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).