Hebrew-language journalism in Israel is robust, comprehensive and
often-courageous, but it has several flaws that ought to be brought to light if
only to stimulate self-criticism and if possible, improvement.
them is the failure to deploy correspondents swiftly to places where on-the-spot
coverage should be provided by competent and experienced Israeli
Another is the recent use of homebased reporters, especially
by the three TV stations, to summarize and explain events which they witness
second hand and about which their ability to provide authentic analysis is
limited at best.
There are many other shortcomings which will be cited in
due course such as the failure to assign correspondents to the capitals of the
two Arab states with which Israel has peace treaties – Egypt and
In effect, Channels 1, 2 and 10 have created an unprecedented
means of reporting news from abroad: They use (locally based) “foreign news
correspondents” or “foreign news editors” who get their information by watching
TV broadcasts mainly from the places where newsworthy events occur and discuss
it as if they were there.
This technique is highly questionable from the
standpoint of authenticity and professionalism. It runs counter to the slogan
that used to run atop reports from abroad in the short-lived daily Hadashot
wit “He (or she) was there!” It also contradicts the principle that foreign
developments often have unique implications that can be discerned only by
Israeli correspondents whose primary concern, naturally, is their bearing on
Israel’s government and population.
The latter consideration is based on
the principle to which truly democratic countries adhere according to which
foreign correspondence provides the respective voters with criteria with which
to judge the wisdom or effectiveness of their governments’ foreign policy. By
the same token, the albeit credible and intelligent reporting of American,
British, French correspondents, among others of their ilk, cannot be a
substitute for an Israeli colleague at the scene.
There is an exception
to this principle, however. An editor who understands that the area to which he
would like to send a correspondent is extremely dangerous can and should decide
not to let any of his staff members enter it.
Cairo’s Tahrir Square was
in that category during the Egyptian uprising against president Hosni
(This brings to mind a situation that occurred on the first day
of the Six Day War, 44 years ago. I came under direct fire by Jordanian snipers
while driving up to the UN Truce Supervisory Organization headquarters on the
Hill of Evil Counsel in Jerusalem.
My car was hit by two bullets,
something I did not realize until my arrival at the UNTSO parking lot. Being an
inexperienced war correspondent, I thought I had a terrific story for the
Group-W Westinghouse Broadcasting Company stations for which I had begun working
two months earlier. However, when our chief correspondent, Jerry Landay,
who had just returned from the Egyptian front and was about to file from Tel
Aviv was told by me that one of my stories would be about the shooting, he
‘chewed me out’ in military style.
“Don’t you know that a dead
correspondent is a worthless correspondent?” he asked.
I never forgot
that unexpected reprimand, and have acted accordingly ever since.
when the TV channels maintain permanent correspondents in major capitals, such
as Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Rome, their editors rarely if ever
instruct them to go to the scene in the countries where they are based to cover
that action there.
As a result, it is common to see footage taken in New
York being described by correspondents voicing it over in Washington. What the
general public does not know is that TV narration is scrutinized by editors at
networks such as CNN as scrupulously as is the relevant video, and they in turn
simply disregard the fact their accounts cannot be infused with statements that
only an eyewitness can deliver.
It is hard to understand why Israel’s
news media editors did not seize the opportunity granted by the peace treaties
with Egypt and Jordan to assign correspondents to these two neighboring states
which are crucial from the standpoint of Israeli national security.
was a brave attempt in 1979, immediately after peace was proclaimed in El-Arish,
to assign reporters to Cairo – notably Yoram Hamizrachi who filed to one of the
afternoon dailies – but his stint was the first and last. There were hints from
various sources that Israeli journalists’ personal security could not be
guaranteed. But this consideration was not aired with regard to the diplomats
promptly sent to the Egyptian capital.
And with the situation in Jordan a
constant subject of justifiable concern and/or interest, it is incredible that
no component of Israel’s Hebrew TV, radio and press maintains a permanent
correspondent in Amman.
As for the way official information is
disseminated, the situation here is also defective.
The fact that the
public radio station (Israel Radio) keeps a single in-house correspondent at the
Prime Minister’s Office does not square with the way journalism should operate
in a democracy. He or she does not have a counterpart at the White House
or at 10 Downing Street. These sites are covered by teams of accredited
journalists who benefit from comprehensive and frequent briefings and thereby
are able to generate numerous stories about highlevel decisions and major
actions by the respective national leaders.
characteristic of Israel’s news coverage is the existence of so-called cells
in Hebrew) comprised of reporters who write about the police, army, Shin
Bet (Israel Security Agency), Mossad, transport or other governmental entities
The cell members are made privy (exclusively) to the latest
information while their colleagues, especially those from the foreign news
media, are not.
With regard to the police reporters’ cell, it is obvious
that its members are inundated by well-calculated leaks meant to bolster the
charges against newsworthy suspects. The derogatory information that this
produces often is so impressive that the initial if not dominant conclusion
reached by the general public is that the suspect undoubtedly is guilty. It is
as if there were two trials in such cases – one in the media and the other,
which often is an anti-climax, in court. This is not the way it should be in a
democracy in which a defendant is presumed to be innocent unless he or she is
A final word is warranted with regard to the dissemination
of news relating to military affairs. In the years immediately before and long
after the Six Day War there was direct and professionally fruitful contact
between foreign correspondents and the various military spokesmen. Not
only was it possible to reach the spokesman personally by telephone or to obtain
an immediate interview, but there were also frequent briefings.
unforgettable example was the way in which the late Maj-Gen. Aharon Yariv,
then-chief of Military Intelligence, summoned the correspondents for a detailed
briefing immediately after the first Katyusha rocket was fired at Israel by
Palestine Liberation Organization personnel based in Lebanon. His message was
that the Katyushas’ debut was a major change in the tactical status
There were no similar briefings about the introduction of the
home-made Kassam missiles fired by Hamas from the Gaza Strip or of the
Soviet-type Grad projectiles.
In fact, for more than a decade, the IDF
spokesmen have been avoiding direct contact with representative of the foreign
media, as have their superiors, the chiefs of Military Intelligence. The former
operate through auxiliary offices in which lower-echelon personnel are evidently
not allowed to explain or elaborate on the contents of military communiques and
in which correspondents who persist are transferred to the North American or
other geographical desks where explicit replies are a rarity or take hours to
Most foreign correspondents (myself included) do not even know
the incumbent IDF spokesman’s name, if only because they have had no contact
In short, Israel – which once was regarded in international
journalistic circles as a foreign correspondent’s paradise – has become a highly
institutionalized locale in which the once-resented Military Press Censorship is
the least troublesome entity while the ostensible news disseminators have become
a major obstacle. Fortunately, such criticism cannot be leveled against the
Foreign Ministry, which has always been comparatively open and accessible to
correspondents’ queries.The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.