Getting the full story

With correspondents in Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan and Israel, Felice Friedson, The Media Line CEO, is bringing journalists together.

felice friedson 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
felice friedson 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Think of a journalist and the image that comes to mind is of someone bookish, somewhat unkempt, with a pile of papers scattered on a desk littered with empty coffee cups. Felice Friedson does not fit that mold. The cofounder and CEO of The Media Line greets me in the stylish Jerusalem offices of the American news agency, wearing a sharply cut suit worthy of a Wall Street corporate power dresser.
There is no newsroom hustle and bustle at The Media Line; you could hear a pin drop – and find it. In fact, the setting feels more like a marketing firm and Friedson looks as if she is about to deliver her pitch as we sit down for an interview in the conference room. But the appearance is deceptive. Friedson turns out to be passionate about news, is ardent about journalism’s ability to open up people’s eyes and bring down barriers, and believes in getting out onto the street to find the real story.
Friedson did in fact start out as a marketing executive, but later, together with her husband, Michael, launched a radio show operating out of Florida and focusing on Israel and Middle East affairs. That operation was to grow into The Media Line.
“For all the interest in the Middle East, we weren’t getting the complete picture,” says Friedson, a broadcast major, explaining her decision to move from marketing to media.
“The Media Line was established as an American non-profit agency to enhance the coverage of the Middle East. There’s no shortage of reporters in the region, but very often there is a shortage of giving the complete story. My husband and I co-founded The Media Line to give in-depth reporting, to cover the Middle East at large – whether it’s Yemen, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian areas, the whole region – to be able to basically shape world opinion. So we view ourselves as a small AP or Reuters, as a service.”
How do you differentiate yourself from other wire services?
Our focus is only the Middle East. We’re not trying to conquer the world. We’re saying that our focus is one very vital region strategically, politically, culturally, socially – one that has tremendous impact. A lot of people come to a region and they’re not reporting from that street, whether it’s Ramallah, whether it’s Kabul and whether it’s Jerusalem. I think that it’s really important that you have people in the field that speak the languages, that understand the difference in nuance and dialect and can tell the story properly.
What is your editorial vision for The Media Line?
There is no political agenda. I think that the biggest problem that the world faces today... is the fact that they can’t turn to a source and just say “I want the facts.” I don’t want to sit there and just get somebody’s opinion or somebody’s political bent. You know, many people purchase their newspapers based on their political agendas because they agree with that school of thought. I always argue: “Buy a newspaper you don’t agree with so you can understand all schools of thought [in order] to be able to begin to understand a region.”
You mentioned that you are a nonprofit. Do you see nonprofit as being the future of media?
That’s interesting. When we began to create this, maybe there was some vision, I’m not saying that we had all the answers. But we were one of the first to create a nonprofit model. Now there are many institutions, quite a number of news organizations going that same path. I think that it definitely is a way to go because the advertising isn’t out there, and you don’t want to have your newspaper driven by the advertising because then in one way you’re beholden.
So who finances The Media Line?
We have small membership donations, and foundations of various sizes. We will not take funding based on agenda. If somebody has an agenda or somebody feels that they can use us to push, be it a political agenda, or a concept, or even a product, we will decline their funding.
You work a lot with evangelical groups.
No, that’s a misunderstanding. We work with all news entities. As a matter of fact the majority of the entities we work with are secular. We have niche markets that we have worked with over the years whether it be the Christian market, the Jewish market or the Muslim market, and I think that it’s almost equal today in terms of the niche markets.
The Jerusalem Post is one of the places that we provide content to. You can pick up a newspaper any day or look on the Internet site and The Media Line is feeding content just like AP or Reuters. It’s the same with Al Quds, the largest Palestinian newspaper, the LA Times, the Egypt Daily News. I can go on and on. It’s the same thing with the distributor All Headline News, it’s one of the large distribution agencies in the United States. So no, our base is secular.
The television that we put out, for example, we partner with PBS’s World Affairs program World Focus. This is a daily program and we are one of the partners; they worked a content deal with us. In some cases it’s monetary, in some cases it’s not. We provide news to 70 stations around the United States in situations like that.
In terms of the Christian market, there are certain radio stations that might take the hour program called Mideast Week...mostly they’ve been secular stations around the US over the years. The same thing with the daily newsletter, called the Mideast Daily News, that we put out. That goes everywhere – to government officials around the world, to anything from the American Task Force on Palestine to the Israel-American Friendship League. So the variable is huge in terms of reach, and we are very strong proponents of reaching the three religious communities in terms of thought. We are not a religious vehicle in any shape or form; we are just trying to have mass appeal. It is the Middle East.
Where are your correspondents based?
We have people all over, Jordan, Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Gaza, the PA, Israel, to name a few.
Do they ever encounter any problems as correspondents working for an American agency with a hub in Israel?
In addition to our bureau in Jerusalem, we’re actively working in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip just as almost all Western agencies are doing. One of our reporters was almost killed because his byline for The Media Line was seen in The Jerusalem Post, the presumption being that the writer worked for “Zionists.” Fortunately, the threat was extinguished when the writer was able to show the Post was just one of many taking The Media Line’s content.
Where was that?
In Mogadishu, Somalia, and that wasn’t the only situation.
What is the state of press freedom in those countries you operate in?
I think that you can’t just say freedom of press is nonexistent. I think you have levels.... For instance, Saudi Arabia. We did a report on women in the media in Saudi Arabia. You see that while it [doesn’t meet] Western style standards, there has been a slow change because King Abdullah is allowing slow change. Then you also have many students of journalism and political thought that leave their countries and go abroad and see what Western-style democracy is. It doesn’t mean that they’re coming back to enforce Western-style democracy… maybe somewhere in between. This I think is what helps encourage freedom, and we help to reinforce those exact issues both here in Israel and with Palestinian journalists as well as around the region. It’s something we strive for every single day.
Specifically, what is the state of press freedom in the Palestinian territories and the Gaza Strip?
Well, that brings up our initiative, The Mideast Press Club, and the reason the press club was created. After the second intifada there was a real lack of cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli journalists. Some might ask, “well, why is that important?” It’s very important because in order to have a complete story you have to have access. You have to know journalists on the other side – whether you’re an Israeli or a Palestinian – to be able to talk about what’s happening on the ground, and it doesn’t help anyone to not be able to report that total story.
There had been many efforts that had begun through peace initiatives that did not succeed. But they weren’t journalistic efforts. Our goal was not to go in and create a peace initiative, our goal was to state that this a very defined discipline, a discipline that needs colleagues speaking to each other, understanding each other, being able to call each other up for a source. We have developed that in the last five years. For example, we’ve brought in journalistic icons like Marvin Kalb [the founder of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy] to hold master classes; theorists in journalism teaching journalism.
You know, you find very often that there are many Palestinians who don’t write in English. English is an important tool today because many of the foreign press won’t hire someone who doesn’t speak English and then they have to hire stringers, and they’re writing the stories themselves. This is commonplace among the biggest of agencies. I think strong teaching skills, particularly on the Palestinian side, is something that will help them toward the Fourth Estate, which is imperative for the future Palestinian state.
Do you facilitate visits of Israeli journalists to the Palestinian territories?
Actually, all the time, and it’s not an easy task. I’m proud to say that many journalists have gone back and forth. We have brought Israelis from Haaretz, Yedioth, and from Israel Radio into Ramallah to meet their respective media outlets. An example is this major Knesset event that we held recently. We brought journalists back and forth. We brought journalists from Al-Ayyam, the largest newspaper in the Palestinian territories, into Israel, and also from Al-Hayat, Al Jadeeda and Al-Quds, and they visited Yedioth and Haaretz for the first time. I think that was a very, very important barometer, opening up eyes for some of the journalists that live just miles apart not knowing who they are....
Bringing the Palestinians to the Knesset for the first time didn’t happen in a vacuum. We were co-hosting this event with [Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman] Tzahi Hanegbi; I went to him and he had the vision to understand the value and how important this was. I think it was an amazing event to be able to bring with great difficulty these Palestinians into the Knesset. It wasn’t just the usual security background checks. The protocol department in the Knesset didn’t even know how to handle this so easily because it hadn’t been done before, so there were a lot of complications and they were very helpful.
We had Ruby Rivlin, the Knesset Speaker, greet them, which is a statement in itself, and there were other speakers – Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister; Avishay Braverman, minister of minorities, and Ahmed Tibi, who is also one of the deputy speakers. I think it was a phenomenal statement and testament to democracy.... I think that moment has opened the door to the next five years in terms of what can be done on both sides with journalists and how that will shape the region.
What about Israelis visiting the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah?
We’ve done that. As a matter of fact [Post editor-in-chief] David Horovitz went with us when we went to the Palestinian Legislative Council. We’ve brought women journalists to meet with their peers during the height of the [Palestinian] elections, when no one knew whether Hamas was going to win. We’re going to be doing a lot more of it and we’re excited that this is going to shape the future.
Do you think media can change mind-sets? Can media perceptions trickle down and change how people view each other?
That’s a very important question. One man’s truth is another man’s propaganda. I think the biggest problem that we face is that there are organizations that exist here – many have popped up on both sides – that masquerade as journalistic institutions. Well, then say so. Don’t claim if you’re an opinion writer that this is not an opinion. By that same token, these organizations need to come clean and state this in the same way that a blogger might say, ‘This is my opinion.’
So if you look at your question as asking about the shaping of the future, then serious journalistic standards need to be adhered to, need to be taught, skills need to be honed. I think the field of journalism is something we are all working at every single day. We don’t always have the answers. We also don’t have to always look at a story and say that it requires both sides. Some stories don’t, and it’s a matter of understanding what makes a complete story.
So, a person who believes in his advocacy, whether it’s an Israeli or a Palestinian – and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is probably an amazing tutorial in this area – wants a full story told, and that’s where we fall behind. So if we can turn that around and reshape those strategies in journalism and really take out the problems in this area – and that means too much propaganda – and adhere to classic standards of journalism, then I think we can make a difference.
You’re looking for a complete story, yet much of the media is becoming more and more shallow.
There is a danger there. Whether you’re buying a product because advertising is driving it, whether you’re going to decide how you’re going to buy a stock tomorrow, or whether you’re going to make a decision to elect some official, if you’re not getting that information flow accurately – and this is just what we’re talking about – then you are hurting yourself. Biased or slanted journalism is hurting the world at large, and ultimately I think that it’s going to yield a big disaster. Credibility is at issue.
Do people really want deep coverage of things? Most people just want...
Entertainment. Entertainment journalism is probably what’s destroying the market today.... I think you need to educate the public that it’s not about shallow journalism, it’s not about instantaneous gratification. At the end of the day everyone needs to make hard decisions – whether it’s what college I’m going to, what profession I’m going into or what car I’m going to buy. They need information, not advertising, PR-based fluff.

At a conference you organized in Brazil, Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy charged the Israeli media with being complicit in “extending occupation.”
I didn’t bring Gideon Levy. He wasn’t brought there through the Middle East Press Club. I can’t answer for him. I look at different barometers. Let’s look at American-style democracy in journalism. It’s different for an Israeli or a Palestinian and again they don’t have to be equal. On the other hand you have the issue of government-owned entities, including in Israel, whether it’s Army Radio or IBA, and then on the Palestinian side you have many newspapers that have governmental ownership. The big question of course is: how much can you say without scrutiny and how much liberty [do] you have?
Some of that has changed. I think there are small changes. When you see a newspaper like Al-Quds, they have been taking Media Line content for four years and nothing has been stopped. That to me is freedom.... We always look for the bad and not for the good. When the good exists it needs to be stated. And that’s probably the biggest problem you see with advocacy organizations where they look at satellite TV and look at newspapers, particularly in the Arab world, and find the bad. But where’s the good? There is good and there is change, but if you don’t reinforce that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Going back to the issue of what someone like Gideon Levy says, and again I would rather you ask him, but the issue is that the more journalists that you give access to, to let Palestinian journalists come into Israel and tell a story and not be afraid of them; the more journalists from Israel you allow to see what’s happening economically, socially, culturally; [the more] you have the ability to have your own eyes tell the story. Otherwise, you’re shaping it from a telephone call and you cannot tell that story. Seeing is believing.
Can you tell us about your experiences traveling in the Arab world?
I’ve met fascinating people, really fascinating people. From the grandson of an Iraqi prime minister to a Palestinian-American running for governor of Texas. I think that there are some very interesting people who are out there trying to make a difference in terms of the whole picture. These kinds of people that I’ve met are also interested in the economic boom in the region, and frankly when people talk about peace in the future, frankly I don’t know whether I believe in the term “peace initiatives” – I think that’s overused. I think that the economy is what’s going to shape the future, the journalists that tell the economic stories, that tell the cultural stories, that tell the social stories are going to shape the future. I believe that educating our children to get the whole picture on all sides, to really not shape their minds by holding back, by being afraid of the truth of history, is what’s going to yield a better place in this region.
What do you think of the whole issue of fundamentalism in the Arab world? How do you see the battle between fundamentalists and modernists?
I think it’s about the fact that there are good people in every country in the Middle East – witness what is going on in Iran – and those numbers grow based on being able to have movement, whether having freedom to express themselves openly or discreetly; whether it’s the ability to leave a country and go outside and talk about what’s happening. I think by empowering the moderates you’re going to shift the balance of the fundamentalism that everyone is concerned about. More emphasis needs to be placed on giving the power to these amazing people – women and men who are changing things in their countries in the Middle East, especially in countries like Yemen, Iran, Somalia and Iraq.
There are elections due to take place in Iraq and there is a charter that 25 percent of that election has to include women, and I know of a legislative group going over there to empower women to partake in the elections.
Is there room for engagement with those defined as fundamentalists?
Well, you can’t say I’m going to speak to this terrorist group but not to that terrorist group, and this is redefined all the time even within the American government. Hizbullah is okay for Lebanon but Hamas is forbidden to the Palestinians. Egypt has its plate full with the Muslim Brotherhood. Everybody has their own fear factor. It’s not for me to state on a personal level [what] I think of engaging a fundamentalist, and for that matter how you define that is where I want to go.
I think that it’s something that needs to be judged on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think you can just say in one fell swoop, “I’m not going to talk to fundamentalists.” That’s not a position that makes sense. I think that you have to analyze each and every position at that political moment.

As a commentator on Middle East affairs, how would you grade President Obama’s first year in office vis-a-vis the region?
When it comes to these issues I am very cautious to respond. I’m a journalist and I view myself as giving facts. When I write an opinion piece I will give a full spectrum of thought and how I came to that. In the case of President Obama, I think that there are things he’s done well and things that he hasn’t, but I’m not going to sit here as an American and grade the president. It’s my job to give the information in terms of what is Obama doing, what different people say about what he is doing and not let people judge my particular opinion in this case because I am not a commentator, I am a journalist.
The Media Line has been operating a Jerusalem office for 10 years. Have your opinions shifted in the time you have been here?
Yes. And that goes back to the question on Obama, where I can answer:The most important lesson I have learned is don’t prejudge. I have metmany Palestinians and many Israelis and many people from around theMiddle East, and people are human. They are different, they havedifferent political thought. It’s not that every Israeli wants to killa Palestinian and every Palestinian wants to kill an Israeli; there’s anice happy medium somewhere. I learned that I need to be on the street.
Mymessage, if it would be anything to President Obama, or anyone in theregion, would be: Get on the street – meet people, talk to them – gosee the first planned Palestinian city; go see the hi-tech industry andthe water innovation that’s going on in Israel. Don’t read about it,get down and get dirty. And the same goes for the citizen alike, youcan’t live your life through a newspaper and through sound bites,you’ve got to go and see for yourself.