By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
“It has become very unpleasant being a journalist in this country. Not only do politicians accuse us of being hostile, we are accused of staging events for the media,” said Associated Press bureau chief Josef Federman claimed during a talk with American-Jewish leaders in Jerusalem recently. He described the criticism of the foreign media, especially by Knesset members, the Prime Minister’s office and the government press office as bordering on “incitement” against foreign media. “So now the GPO is in the business of telling people and deciding what’s acceptable and not acceptable,” he was quoted as saying.
The most recent controversy began with a February 3 headline by CBS that claimed “three Palestinians killed as daily violence grinds on,” a headline many in Israel objected to because it didn’t take into account the three Palestinians were perpetrating an attack that cost a policewoman her life. Does daily violence “grind on” when CBS reports a killing of a US policeman, because America has high rates of gun violence, one might wonder?
There is a great deal of resentment and anger at foreign media in Israel and among pro-Israel groups. Some of that frustration and vitriol is misguided or exaggerated. But that doesn’t mean foreign media is entirely blameless or never gets the story wrong. BBC has recently announced that it will make “fakery training” a par for the course, so if it can do that in the UK, why not be self-critical in the Middle East?
Many media all over the world get headlines wrong. During a breaking story information is not always available. Sometimes local reporters will pass on bad information, or editors will change headlines to make them fit a certain narrative. Bias can enter at numerous points along the way, but it is just as likely to be a bad mistake, as a well-crafted agenda, or just an attempt to get more clicks and shares. A recent article I critiqued on twitter included a headline that clearly did not reflect the overall content of the article, like in order to get more clicks online. Another article that initially claimed to reveal that Israel police “admitted” Hamas didn’t kidnap teens later updated and changed its overall story to reveal that the original article was almost precisely the opposite of what had happened, because it had relied on bad information from another journalist, clearly motived by a desire to “break” news.
Rather than admit any of this, the foreign media in Israel acts with an iron wall against critique. The foreign media portrays itself not only as victims but also as above criticism. Any criticism is deemed a threat. There is virtually no debate with external critics and little debate internally. Reporters and bureau chiefs rarely or never acknowledge mistakes and bias. When an MSNBC reporter filmed a stabbing attack but tweeted that the attacker was “gunned down” with no mention of the fact he had been charging police with a knife, a similar circle of recriminations ensued as with the CBS report. Did MSNBC discipline the reporter, did it engage in a dialogue with critics? No.
In July of 2014 when CNN’s Diana Magnay called Israelis “scum” she was transferred, but as with all the cases, there was no real discussion about how and why she was wrong. Why the visceral dislike for young Israelis who were rude? If she had dealt with similar treatment in Gaza, Egypt, Iran, China, or basically anywhere else in the world, would she have had such contempt and expressed it? The media giant acts like the real problem is that she got caught, and that critics noticed her tweet. Had she tweeted the same thing and no one complained, would she have been transferred or critiqued internally?
Instead of a healthy debate, the concept among the foreign media in Israel is to portray Israel’s sensitivity as the problem. Israel is portrayed as a thuggish country where media is frequently subjected to threats and abuse, and is where it must be overly careful, lest the pro-Israel crowd attack it. Foreign media professionals complain they are under an endless spotlight. Jodi Rudoren for instance ran into controversy early on over social media use. Others debated whether reporters should have their social media posts vetted, as if the real problem is the public critique, rather than the irresponsibility of the journalist who doesn’t self-censor. You’d think being a bureau chief of a major newspaper would make one cognizant their social media use will be closely followed and that tweets showing sympathy in a conflict will obviously be pounced upon. The pouncers aren’t the problem, the judicious use of social media is.
Pro-Israel organizations such as CAMERA, Honest Reporting or UK media watch are viewed as the “problem” and there is no interest in accepting their critique as fair or even worth discussing. When Matti Friendman wrote a scathing attack on media bias against Israel it was mostly dismissed by former colleagues. Every time you read an article about the bias of foreign media regarding Israel, the pushback is simply that the author noting the bias is themselves biased for being pro-Israel. There is never a healthy discussion about where media may have gotten something wrong. Matti Friedman accused the media of forms of anti-semitism, a problematic accusation, because that can only be met with the retort that the coverage is not anti-semitic, any other response would have to admit that many journalists are anti-semites. But one response that none of the foreign media thought to include was to note that the seemingly biased coverage of Israel was related more to foreign media taking its cue from critical Israeli media, than a visceral conspiracy against the Jewish state.
I’ve analyzed articles that are blatantly false about Jerusalem, in a way an article would never get basic facts wrong about another major city. How did Sarah Helm at Newsweek get away with claiming in her article that “the charred body of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy from Wadi Joz, an area near the Old City, was found,” referring to Mohammed Abu-Khdeir. Abu-Khdeir was from Beit Hanina or Shuafat, not Wadi Joz. Later Helm wrote, “A mother sits amid the rubble of her home – demolished because her son drove his car into a line of Jewish settler commuters, killing two.” The “Jewish setter” victims were Karen Yemima Mosquera, a 22-year old Ecuadorian citizen, and 3-month-old Chaya Zissel Braun. What did the Ecuadorian and the little baby “settle”? They didn’t live in the West Bank. Why was Helm allowed to turn them into “settlers”? Why was basic information allowed to be invented at Newsweek? Because facts don’t matter when it comes to Israelis or Palestinians. They are both seen as dehumanized and basic journalist principles that would apply in London or New York, such as not confusing Queens and Brooklyn, don’t apply in the Middle East. That’s why the Har Nof synagogue attack became, “a rabbi and three other men were killed in a Jerusalem synagogue.” Actually all of the men were rabbis.
This is just one article. It’s emblematic of the problem, BBC’s Panorama made a similarly inaccurate agenda-laden program about the Jerusalem light rail. No one has bothered to change the information in the Newsweek story. Any complaints about it’s obvious factual problems are portrayed as incitement by the rabid pro-Israel crowd against the poor victim journalist. There is almost never an attempt to make amends and discuss how media got the story wrong. Corrections, if they are made, are made quietly. Even pictures with atrocious captions, showing a gas station on the temple mount, or saying a Jewish victim is Palestinian, or even inventing images by adding smoke to them to imply worse bombing than exists, are simply removed. There is never any kind of internal self-critique.
Journalists view working in Israel as “unpleasant” without ever wondering why so many of their colleagues have such a loathing and dislike for Israel that is rarely applied to other countries. In other countries the government and the people are often seen as distinct. Turkey for instance may have a government that some find problematic, but Turkish people are not the problem. Iranians are almost always praised for being wonderful. Regimes that demand media portray them in a positive light, find a willing and complacent media. I’ve sat with journalists who massaged headlines to make the regime look positive, and changed stories so that they wouldn’t “get in trouble.” But with Israel of course the country is perceived as a western democracy, so the thuggish policies of neighboring regimes, are expected not to occur.
But oddly the feeling that the Israeli democracy should be held to a high standard, is transformed into a narrative in which not only Israel’s government is seen as problematic, but Israeli people are seen as either negative, or as not even deserving of discussion. When the Guardian‘s Harriet Sherwood left Gaza, she penned a long loving article about the “people” there, recalling the “resilience, creativity and humor of its people,” detailing their “fortitude” and “spirit.” The words “the people” of Gaza appear at least nine times in the 2,000-word piece. We must “understand the people”; “the people are reeling”; “I had been fascinated by this place, its people”; “Israel’s grinding oppression of the Palestinian people”; “acute impact on ordinary people”; “humor of ordinary people”; “overwhelmingly decent people”; “the people of Gaza need luck.”
You’ll never find such loving adoration for the “Jewish people” among a mainstream foreign journalist. You’ll never find such praise for the Israeli “people.” Israelis are not a “people” because they are seen as Western. Gazans are an amorphous group, because of the neo-orientalism of the journalists. That neo-orientalism works in the favor of Palestinians, even though it dehumanizes them as much as it does Israel, lionizing one, and critiquing the other. One journalist from Croatia when explaining why she detested ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities but found similarly conservative Gaza romantic, explained “I expect more of the Jewish people.” In short: If Haredim just converted to Islam, they would be given the Sherwood treatment.
Media in the West views itself as speaking truth to power. It is the duty of the media to critique. Israeli media, in a classic western sense, is highly critical of the country, especially on the left. In fact, when it comes to calling Israel “fascist”, “apartheid”, “similar to ISIS” Israelis excel just as much as any foreign media and probably more so. However in most of the western countries that the western foreign journalists come from, there tends to be a healthy debate from left to right. Foreign media in Israel tend to turn Israel into the “right” and the Palestinians into the “right” and therefore any critique of media treatment of Israel is just a right wing assault on the “freedom of the press.”
Overall large media organizations tend to be bad at critiquing themselves. Thus in the Israeli context the critique the foreign media is subjected to is portrayed as an attack on media freedom itself, rather than a debate that is healthy for democracy. Media views itself as a fraternity, an attack on one is an attack on all. When Washington Post Bureau chief William Booth was detained with a colleague on February 16, it was rightly seen as distressing for press in general. But bad decisions by local police are not part of a vast incitement conspiracy. Much of the critique of foreign media is legitimate, and some of it deserves to either be robustly responded to, taken in stride or accepted. But the media says no. No discussion, no debate. An attempt by a Knesset sub-committee to look into biased coverage in early February was seen by the Foreign Press Association, as similar to the policies of “Russia, Turkey or Saudi Arabia.” Interesting comparison, although foreign media in those countries tend to heap praise on them or at least tip-toe in their coverage.
So why can’t foreign media in Israel critique itself, debate itself and discuss why headlines or stories are misleading as wrong? Why always shoot the messenger? Because media wants to speak truth to power, but not speak to itself.
And the media is powerful.
Revenue for CBS was $15 billion last year, for Comcast, which owns NBC and MSNBC, it was $74 billion, the New York Times is less at $1.5 billion, Time Warner, which owns CNN, received $29 billion. The Washington Post was sold for $250 million to Jeff Bezos in 2013. These media companies earn more in revenue per year than the GDP of more than 100 countries in the world. And yet we are supposed to believe the foreign media is the victim in Israel, the victim of “incitement”?
The foreign media in Israel has behind it massive multi-national corporations. And yet despite all that, it’s reporters, editors and bureau chiefs can’t accept any critique. Over the years many members of the foreign press have intimated that they don’t want the critics to feel they can win. They don’t want to be shown as catering to the critics. Any public debate would therefore be “giving in” to the messengers. But admitting that basic information is frequently wrong, that bias and incompetence feed vainglorious perceptions of perfection in headlines and fact-checking, doesn’t tarnish foreign media. Someone who never admits they do wrong can never improve. The concept has become among the media that Israel and its often ham-handed supporters, are the problem. But Israel isn’t the problem. Lack of basic self-critique is a problem. The media should speak truth to its own power. It should have an open discussion, not simply close down debate and encourage critics to be censured for “threatening a free press.” Critiquing the press does not threaten it, in fact critique is part of the robust democracy and the nature of the free press.