No longer a journalist’s paradise

Israel – once regarded as a foreign correspondent’s paradise – has become a highly institutionalized locale.

Photojournalists photographers journalists reporters 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Photojournalists photographers journalists reporters 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
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.
One of them is the failure to deploy correspondents swiftly to places where on-the-spot coverage should be provided by competent and experienced Israeli observers.
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 Jordan.
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, to 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 Mubarak.
(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.
Even 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.
There 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.
Another unusual characteristic of Israel’s news coverage is the existence of so-called cells (ta’im in Hebrew) comprised of reporters who write about the police, army, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Mossad, transport or other governmental entities respectively.
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 found guilty.
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.
One 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 quo.
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 receive.
Most foreign correspondents (myself included) do not even know the incumbent IDF spokesman’s name, if only because they have had no contact with him.
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.