Self-inflicted wounds

Danny Seaman’s farewell interview underlined how Israel is shooting itself in the foot when it come to the foreign press.

November 8, 2010 01:55
3 minute read.
Outgoing Government Press Office head Danny Seaman

311_Danny Seaman. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

It was with great interest that I sat down to read the revealing interview with Danny Seaman, outgoing chief of the Government Press Office, conducted by Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief David Horovitz, which was published on Friday. Anyone who cares about Israel’s image in the foreign press must read it. Agree or disagree with Seaman, it’s rare that you’ll ever encounter a professional on his level being so publicly candid about key issues and obstacles which one would encounter in such a difficult position.

Seaman made some very interesting points but, at the end of the day, putting his personal politics aside, much of the interview was devoted to giving examples of how the State of Israel is shooting itself in the foot when it comes to dealing with the foreign press.

One of his main sticking points is the infamous “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem. As of today, there are at least four official entities dealing with the foreign press: the Ministry of Public Diplomacy (under which the GPO operates), the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and the IDF Spokesman’s Office. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize what this has led to. Initially in the interview Seaman described it as “bureaucratic envy,” but later admitted that the GPO was “constantly fighting for budgets, for our place among government bureaucracies...always facing threats” (as to taking positions on an issue).

This, of course, is the wrong way to go. You can’t have mixed messages when it comes to the country’s image. Professional opinions, not political ones, must be weighed and the decision has to be taken on how to handle each situation as it comes up. I’m not saying who must make those decisions, but everyone who deals with the foreign press must toe the line. In addition, if an agency is constantly fighting for its budget, that spells trouble. It means that someone somewhere is trying to limit its activities and thereby sideline it.

ONE OF Seaman’s opinions I agree with completely is calling out media outlets which lie, distort or misrepresent the facts. Israel is the media center for the Middle East, and we allow journalists access to everything that would be permitted in other democracies. With that said, if a correspondent is not playing by the rules of journalistic ethics, he should be sanctioned. If an editor or producer isn’t demanding that both sides of a story be included, we should be going to his competitors and the world to tell them as much.

Having said that, Seaman points out that even when good journalists want to do their job and get a balanced view of a story, it’s not easy to verify and authenticate facts or get the right people to talk. So whose job is it to provide them with that much-needed information? Are journalists running into that same “bureaucratic envy” on the Israeli side?

One thing on which I might be in disagreement with Seaman is his statement that “[our enemies] tried to beat us on the battlefield. They tried defeating us on the low-intensity battlefield. When they lost on these two levels, they suddenly understood that the only way to fight us today is to delegitimize our right to exist.”

Personally, I don’t see that our enemies have accepted defeat on the battlefield. Hizbullah and Hamas are arming themselves to the teeth and it’s not for show. Whether they believe that they can actually defeat us is up for interpretation, but from the strict military perspective, we are in danger. The point I see as most relevant from his statement is the fact that people do not understand that the media arena is a battleground just like any other.

We cannot afford to have the entities fighting this battle be overextended or underfunded. We cannot afford political appointments or intergovernmental infighting. And most importantly, we must have them manned by experienced media professionals who understand the intricacies of working with the foreign press. It’s the only way we’ll even have a chance to win the media war.

The writer is an independent media consultant, an adjunct lecturer at IDC Herzliya’s School of Communications and a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York.

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