Media Comment: Israel’s journalists abroad

As long as there has been media, there has been media criticism.

Thomas Friedman 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Thomas Friedman 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As long as there has been media, there has been media criticism. Consider the following statement relating to our local media: “Over the past few months, [in] the news being reported from Eretz Yisrael... from a certain section of the Jewish media, there is a desire to eliminate the Zionists and Land of Israel from memory. This press ignores all the good news... and exaggerates every negative rumor... this paper does not publish any positive item of Zionist endeavor nor any story that could possibly stir feelings of hope for Zionist realization. To the contrary, it prints any and all bad news and, for good measure, does so... with large headlines and out-of-proportion style, as if calling out to its readers: look what’s happening in the land of Israel and be warned.”
These words, eerily echoing present reality, originally appeared in the March 1920 issue of the Ha-Mizrachi weekly, and were directed at the Agudat Israel newspaper Der Yud. They were written by “Ben-Avraham,” a pen name of Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum. Nissenbaum was incensed at the biased coverage which sought to diminish any Zionist achievement, even to the extent that facts were ignored or misrepresented. He was bothered because the Agudah’s theologically-based anti-Zionism was blinding them to reality and therefore, their “news” was essentially lies.
He was especially upset at the cavalier attitudes taken by the Agudah in the wake of the events at Tel Hai two weeks earlier, when Yosef Trumpeldor and seven other pioneers were murdered, and following earlier Arab demonstrations against Jewish immigration and land development. Ninety-three years later, the same journalistic paradigm of presenting ideological, political or other personal partisan outlooks rather than simply reporting the news, or providing readers with balanced commentary, is with us still.
In our December 21, 2011, column, we referred to the “boomerang effect” which “occurs when local media exploit their connections with the foreign press to impact Israeli society.” This usually happens when a local journalist finds himself faced with either legal restrictions, most often military censorship, or the objections of his editor. The solution is to pass the story abroad, wait until it is published there and then, unencumbered, print the story in Israel.
Local journalists’ relationship with the foreign press of course has other dimensions, such as greater exposure, fame, status, etc. Financial remuneration, especially in view of the sometimes meager salaries of journalists in Israel, may also play a role.
Then there are the op-ed columns written by Israelis and published in prestigious periodicals abroad. Typically, the Israelis so honored the more strident voices of Israel’s Left. The names Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman are prominent on this list. A recent New York Times op-ed by Dani Dayan, at the time chairman of the Yesha Council, was news primarily because his appearance in that paper was so unusual.
There are, too, political advocates that publish both locally and abroad. Yitzhak Laor of Haaretz and the British New Left Review is one example. The late Amos Elon, of Haaretz and the New York Review of Books, was another. The radically progressive NYRB hosts also other knowledgeable Israelis such as Peace Now founder and Hebrew University Professor Avishai Margalit. Another of that university’s progessives, Professor Moshe Zimmermann, was hosted in Germany’s Der Spiegel in April last year. He wrote that “Günter Grass Has Aided Israel's Right Wing” in response to Grass’s anti-Semitic poem. This dual relationship with the foreign media representation affords a distinct advantage to those in the leftist camp.
But “the times, they are a’changin.” No, right-wing Israelis are not becoming cultural icons abroad. But foreign correspondents have lately been quoting more Israeli journalists than academics. This turns the concept of reporting on its head: the Israeli journalists themselves have become the news.
Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Thomas Friedman of The New York Times have often relied upon Ari Shavit of Haaretz. On March 12, 2013, Shavit was granted an oped column in the New York Times to expound upon his “New Peace” concept. Shavit is an example of a doublebarreled weapon: he’s provided column inches as a commentator of views and provides correspondents with news. In Israel, he is a regular on Channel 1 TV’s Friday night weekly magazine, with no one to balance him.
However, the overwhelming character of the opinions popularized by these relationships between foreign correspondents and their “favorite Israelis,” and between these Israelis and their op-ed columns, are not representative of Israel’s population, at least as it was reflected on election day; they over-represent Israel’s extreme Left.
The journalistic symbiosis is mutual. We are seeing more and more Israeli journalists working, in addition to their positions in the Israeli media, in media outlets, newspapers, magazines and websites abroad. Here too, the presence of left-leaning Israeli journalists dominates.
Consider the following few examples: Anshel Pfeffer, who a journalist at Haaretz and whose column “Jerusalem and Babylon” appears every Friday, is also a special correspondent at The London Jewish Chronicle, a featured guest at The Economist, traditionally unfavorable to Israel, and a guest columnist at the anti-Zionist Guardian and the critical Forward.
Akiva Eldar, formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz, is now a contributing writer for the new Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse whose line favors a weakened Israel. The same goes for Mazal Mualem, currently of Ma’ariv but for 12 years of Haaretz.
Ronen Bergman, the Senior Correspondent for Military and Intelligence Affairs for the anti-Netanyahu Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper and commentator for TV Channel Ten, advertises that he is also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. Gideon Levy and less frequently, Amira Hass, recent ‘stars’ in media scandals, are published in The Guardian. Natan Guttman is the Forward's Washington bureau chief, joining its staff in 2006 after serving as correspondent for Ha'aretz and The Jerusalem Post but at the same time continuing to report for Israel’s Channel 1 TV.
Professor Richard Landes has written of the challenges of Israel’s “cognitive war,” claiming that “the mainstream news media – their journalists, editors, producers – constitute a central front of this cognitive war: the ‘weak’ but aggressive side cannot have success without the witting or unwitting cooperation of the enemy’s journalists....
This lethal journalism has poisoned the West, given wings to global jihad, and literally allowed an aggressive Muslim Street to take root in Europe and other Western democracies.”
A facilitator of this front Israel faces, and that too often contributes to a weakening of the country’s defenses, is the ability of a certain clique of journalists to straddle multi-media platforms and feed an unsuspecting public ideologically driven and less-than-ethical reporting and commentary.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch