A former AP editor on how Israel is reported

A very informative article by Matti Friedman, a former reporter and editor in Jerusalem for the Associated Press.

He observes:

The Western press has become less an observer of this conflict than an actor in it, a role with consequences for the millions of people trying to comprehend current events, including policymakers who depend on journalistic accounts to understand a region where they consistently seek, and fail, to productively intervene.

An example:

I’ll begin with a simple illustration. The above photograph is of a student rally held last November at Al-Quds University, a mainstream Palestinian institution in East Jerusalem. The rally, in support of the armed fundamentalist group Islamic Jihad, featured actors playing dead Israeli soldiers and a row of masked men whose stiff-armed salute was returned by some of the hundreds of students in attendance. Similar rallies have been held periodically at the school.I am not using this photograph to make the case that Palestinians are Nazis. Palestinians are not Nazis. They are, like Israelis, human beings dealing with a difficult present and past in ways that are occasionally ugly. I cite it now for a different reason.

Such an event at an institution like Al-Quds University, headed at the time by a well-known moderate professor, and with ties to sister institutions in America, indicates something about the winds now blowing in Palestinian society and across the Arab world. The rally is interesting for the visual connection it makes between radical Islam here and elsewhere in the region; a picture like this could help explain why many perfectly rational Israelis fear withdrawing their military from East Jerusalem or the West Bank, even if they loathe the occupation and wish to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors. The images from the demonstration were, as photo editors like to say, “strong.” The rally had, in other words, all the necessary elements of a powerful news story.

The event took place a short drive from the homes and offices of the hundreds of international journalists who are based in Jerusalem. Journalists were aware of it: The sizable Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press, for example, which can produce several stories on an average day, was in possession of photos of the event, including the one above, a day later. (The photographs were taken by someone I know who was on campus that day, and I sent them to the bureau myself.) Jerusalem editors decided that the images, and the rally, were not newsworthy

An example of how many won’t report anything that fits their worldview.

On the day that the AP decided to ignore the rally, November 6, 2013, the same bureau published a report about a pledge from the U.S. State Department to provide a minor funding increase for the Palestinian Authority; that was newsworthy. This is standard. To offer another illustration, the construction of 100 apartments in a Jewish settlement is always news; the smuggling of 100 rockets into Gaza by Hamas is, with rare exceptions, not news at all.

Only news that makes look bad is regularly reported.

In my time in the press corps, I learned that our relationship with these groups was not journalistic. My colleagues and I did not, that is, seek to analyze or criticize them. For many foreign journalists, these were not targets but sources and friends—fellow members, in a sense, of an informal alliance. This alliance consists of activists and international staffers from the UN and the NGOs; the Western diplomatic corps, particularly in East Jerusalem; and foreign reporters. (There is also a local component, consisting of a small number of Israeli human-rights activists who are themselves largely funded by European governments, and Palestinian staffers from the Palestinian Authority, the NGOs, and the UN.) Mingling occurs at places like the lovely Oriental courtyard of the American Colony hotel in East Jerusalem, or at parties held at the British Consulate’s rooftop pool. …

In these circles, in my experience, a distaste for Israel has come to be something between an acceptable prejudice and a prerequisite for entry. I don’t mean a critical approach to Israeli policies or to the ham-fisted government currently in charge in this country, but a belief that to some extent the Jews of Israel are a symbol of the world’s ills, particularly those connected to nationalism, militarism, colonialism, and racism—an idea quickly becoming one of the central elements of the “progressive” Western zeitgeist, spreading from the European left to American college campuses and intellectuals, including journalists. In this social group, this sentiment is translated into editorial decisions made by individual reporters and editors covering Israel, and this, in turn, gives such thinking the means of mass self-replication.

Group think.

Around this time, a Jerusalem-based group called NGO Monitor was battling the international organizations condemning Israel after the Gaza conflict, and though the group was very much a pro-Israel outfit and by no means an objective observer, it could have offered some partisan counterpoint in our articles to charges by NGOs that Israel had committed “war crimes.” But the bureau’s explicit orders to reporters were to never quote the group or its director, an American-raised professor named Gerald Steinberg.* In my time as an AP writer moving through the local conflict, with its myriad lunatics, bigots, and killers, the only person I ever saw subjected to an interview ban was this professor.

And this is why trust in media is so low.

Hamas’s strategy is to provoke a response from Israel by attacking from behind the cover of Palestinian civilians, thus drawing Israeli strikes that kill those civilians, and then to have the casualties filmed by one of the world’s largest press contingents, with the understanding that the resulting outrage abroad will blunt Israel’s response. This is a ruthless strategy, and an effective one. 

Highly effective.

The AP staff in Gaza City would witness a rocket launch right beside their office, endangering reporters and other civilians nearby—and the AP wouldn’t report it, not even in AP articles about Israeli claims that Hamas was launching rockets from residential areas. (This happened.) Hamas fighters would burst into the AP’s Gaza bureau and threaten the staff—and the AP wouldn’t report it. (This also happened.) Cameramen waiting outside Shifa Hospital in Gaza City would film the arrival of civilian casualties and then, at a signal from an official, turn off their cameras when wounded and dead fighters came in, helping Hamas maintain the illusion that only civilians were dying.

Media manipulation.

He also writes on the recent events in Gaza:

The attempts to breach the Gaza fence, which Palestinians call the March of Return, began in March and have the stated goal of erasing the border as a step toward erasing Israel. A central organizer, the Hamas leader Yehya Sinwar, exhorted participants on camera in Arabic to “tear out the hearts” of Israelis. But on Monday the enterprise was rebranded as a protest against the embassy opening, with which it was meticulously timed to coincide. The split screen, and the idea that people were dying in Gaza because of Donald Trump, was what Hamas was looking for.

The press coverage on Monday was a major Hamas success in a war whose battlefield isn’t really Gaza, but the brains of foreign audiences.

Israeli soldiers facing Gaza have no good choices. They can warn people off with tear gas or rubber bullets, which are often inaccurate and ineffective, and if that doesn’t work, they can use live fire. Or they can hold their fire to spare lives and allow a breach, in which case thousands of people will surge into Israel, some of whom — the soldiers won’t know which — will be armed fighters. (On Wednesday a Hamas leader, Salah Bardawil, told a Hamas TV station that 50 of the dead were Hamas members. The militant group Islamic Jihad claimed three others.) If such a breach occurs, the death toll will be higher. And Hamas’s tactic, having proved itself, would likely be repeated by Israel’s enemies on its borders with Syria and Lebanon.

Useful to have this more balanced perspective.

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