In mid-April, a bomb factory “work accident” that Palestinian spokesmen falsely described as an Israeli rocket attack ripped through the Ramallah Force-17 headquarters. As newspeople descended on the scene and got to work, Palestinian Authority security personnel roughly confiscated film from photographers and TV cameramen.
“They made it quite clear,” says Mark Lavie of the Associated Press, that anyone who resisted “would not have a happy day.”
As a result, photos of the blast did not appear on TV screens. Some news services did not even bother to report the film confiscation. But the false accusation of an Israeli rocket attack lingered in media reports for the next day or two.
In a sea of details, do such omissions and shadings accumulate to resemble systematic media bias against Israel? Do individual media outlets purposely slant the news to favor the Palestinian side? Or is anti-Israel media bias a myth, with reporters, under constant pressure to be first with breaking news, doing their best to explain fast-moving and highly emotional events?
A three-month investigation of the foreign press in Israel reveals that some foreign correspondents do impose their private sympathies on the news they report. More ominous for accurate reporting, however, is the success of the Palestinian Authority, through intimidation of journalists and manipulation of the journalistic process, in making sure that its version of events dominates the West’s television screens and newspapers.
Meanwhile, Israel’s own efforts to deliver its message — ineffective, as even Ariel Sharon’s media chief acknowledges — add yet another reason that Israel seems to be losing the media war.
Obstruction And Intimidation
During the Oct. 12 lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, Palestinian police as well as demonstrators, eager to keep the event from the world media, punched, kicked and even threatened journalists with knives in order to confiscate their film, according to eyewitnesses. A local photographer for a major American daily was kept by PA police from recording the crowd’s celebratory dancing after the murders. Ominously, she adds now that it “would jeopardize my security to be quoted by name.” Like many journalists interviewed for this article, she asked not to be named.
After the lynching, when an Italian news crew’s video was broadcast worldwide, Italian journalist Ricardo Cristiano — apparently concerned that he would be associated with the crew — wrote a letter of apology to the official PA newspaper Al Hayat, promising to “respect” the PA’s “rules” for journalists.
In March, in an atmosphere hot with suspicion and hostility, Marwan Barghouti, leader of the PA’s Tanzim militia, warned outright that any Israeli journalist who entered PA areas would be killed. Since then, most Israeli journalists either stay home or make sure to be accompanied by well-connected Palestinians.
Barghouti also threatened harm to any Palestinian who cooperated with Israeli news people, ratcheting up the danger for Palestinian journalists, who have long been under implied or explicit threat if their coverage displeases a high official or is labeled harmful to the Palestinian “cause.”
In short, the Palestinian campaign to control the news by force or threat, while not new, has become pandemic. Since it is largely restricted to local journalists, foreign correspondents generally fail to see it. With the media battle less a war of words than of pictures, foreign print journalists are, in fact, the group least likely to feel the pressure. And if on occasion they do see it, they generally shrug off as insignificant its effect on the news.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Palestinian intimidation is merely a local issue. It is not. Because the process of gathering and disseminating news to Western media now depends so much on Palestinian journalists, their allegiances and the pressures on them have a crucial effect on how news from Israel is reported worldwide.
According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ), for years the Palestinian Authority has “muzzled local press critics via arbitrary arrests, threats, physical abuse, and the closure of media outlets,” thereby frightening most Palestinian journalists into self-censorship.
“It’s a Mafia situation,” corroborates a Palestinian journalist, citing journalists being “threatened, beaten and made the targets of death threats, even from high officials such as [West Bank Preventive Security Service commander Jibril] Rajoub and Barghouti. And they do not report it,” he adds, either to their employers or to professional organizations, because any complaint would only increase their danger while, if it interfered with their access to officials, putting their jobs at risk.
The 220-member Foreign Press Association has neither investigated nor undertaken action against Palestinian intimidation of journalists. “The FPA doesn’t want to piss off the Palestinian Authority,” snorts one foreign correspondent.
The New York Times correspondent Bill Orme, the member of the FPA board of directors who monitors problems of press freedom and press access — “not press bias,” he is quick to say — acknowledges that the FPA has not “gotten into” the subject of intimidation. “We’re a member organization, we respond to complaints,” he explains. Having received no complaints about intimidation, the FPA ignores it.
Violence against journalists does not only originate from the Palestinian side, however. Nearly two dozen journalists, mostly Palestinians, have been shot by Israeli soldiers, including CNN’s Ben Wedeman, wounded in the back by live fire in Gaza. Some have suffered very serious wounds. In only one or two cases has the IDF’s investigation resulted in identifying or punishing the perpetrator.
Ranaan Gissin, foreign press and public affairs adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, says the problem is that journalists “want to be where the action is — they want to see the bullet come out of the barrel.” Because they work in the line of fire, it is difficult, he says, for soldiers to distinguish them from demonstrators.
However, according to the CPJ, Israeli security forces and Jewish settlers have beaten journalists covering the political violence, in some cases with Israeli soldiers looking on. The BBC’s Paul Adams recounts that his camera crew was manhandled and had its car tires slashed by Jews in Elon Moreh, a West Bank settlement. (Adams was also roughed up by a Palestinian crowd in Bethlehem and forced to flee with his camera crew. The Elon Moreh event became part of a BBC report; the Bethlehem incident did not.)
While maintaining its silence on Palestinian intimidation of journalists, the FPA has firmly protested Israeli violence against journalists with letters to high government officials. No journalists interviewed believe, however, that shootings by Israeli soldiers represent Israeli government policy or that soldiers are targeting them specifically as journalists, let alone as individuals.
Nor do Israeli officials threaten journalists, take sanctions against those whose reporting displeases them or try to control what journalists write.
But those are exactly the techniques that have helped the Palestinian Authority determine a lot of what Americans and Europeans see and read in the “news from Israel.”
As the Palestinian uprising grinds on, the words and especially the pictures that record it are molded mostly by Palestinians.
How did such an extraordinary situation develop?
Those Israeli journalists who still go into Palestinian areas make certain to be accompanied by Palestinians whose connections with the security services can protect them.
“But if you’re accompanied in this way, you’re also restricted in what you see and are able to report,” points out Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian reporter for Israeli, American and Arab outlets. “It’s a little like the way foreign journalists in Syria or Iraq are followed by security people all the time.”
Foreign journalists — many of whom also don’t go out into the field — commonly rely on Palestinian stringers for information.
“The Palestinian stringers feed the foreign press with material that is acceptable to the Palestinian authorities,” says Abu Toameh. A journalist, he adds, is “totally in their hands.”
Foreign journalists also rely on Palestinian assistants, called “fixers,” who know the language, can ensure easy access to officials and events, and will arrange anything a reporter needs, from a driver to a translator. These fixers are not professional journalists and are often affiliated with a political or security group — part of their job is to impose their point of view.
As for pictures, 80 percent of camera people now working in PA areas are Palestinians, estimates a journalist for a Dutch agency, “so the pictures, with all their pathos and drama, come from the Palestinian side.”
Her estimate may be low. Veteran Israeli commentator Ehud Ya’ari judges that “over 95 percent” of the pictures shipped to foreign and Israeli channels are supplied by Palestinian film crews.
In a recent article in the Jerusalem Report, Ya’ari wrote that Palestinians now “have effectively taken control of the reporting on the intifada. The vast majority of information of every type coming out of the area has been filtered through Palestinian eyes, or often, has actually been composed in the first place by Palestinians.”
In short, news from Israel is generated by people loyal to and afraid of the Palestinian authorities.
“They simply don’t dare film anything that could embarrass the Palestinian Authority,” Ya’ari concludes. “So the cameras are angled to show a tainted view of the Israeli army’s actions, never focus on the Palestinian gunmen and diligently produce a very specific kind of close-up of the situation on the ground.”
Ya’ari himself does not go into Palestinian areas. Abu Toameh, who does, calls Ya’ari’s analysis “200 percent correct.”
But are the foreign correspondents, journalists who have reached the top of their professions, so lazy or easily fooled as to accept propaganda for truth?
No doubt some are but Fiamma Nirenstein, correspondent for the Italian daily La Stampa, offers a different theory of why news reports are so often unsympathetic to Israel. The journalists, she hypothesizes, are the victims of their own nearly uniform “predilections” to see events within a left-wing, pro-Palestinian and often unrealistically romanticized framework.
That is, many correspondents accept what comes to them from Palestinian sources because they are already predisposed to mold events into a similar form.
The Mind Of The Journalist
“A foreign journalist who claims to be ‘objective’ will be boring or a liar,” proclaims Sam Kiley of the London Times. “There are lots of truths in this conflict.”
Many would agree that the foreign press is not objective. But if so, why do so many correspondents seem to see the same truth? “They feel they must help the Palestinians,” says Nirenstein.
The correspondents don’t deny their private judgments.
“My sympathies are for the victim,” says one — he means the Palestinians. “The Jews use their history of persecution to make the Americans and Europeans feel sorry for them,” objects another, likewise off the record.
Dutch TV’s Conny Mus identifies as central “the fact that a mighty army is using all its might to kill a smaller force.” Mus goes on to contend that the press presents “an accurate picture” of events and that pro-Israel readers think the news is skewed only because they “don’t know what is happening on the Palestinian side.”
To an extent he’s right — Jews often don’t like to see Israel in a bad light, even when the facts are reported accurately. Critics of the media sometimes object to what they regard as “pro-Palestinian” stories merely because they don’t like their point of view challenged.
But a report can be accurate and still miss the point. For example, an article may emphasize the number of Palestinian casualties, as if body count is an objective measure, without indicating that the Israeli dead have been mostly innocent civilians, not armed rioters and terrorists. Many journalists simply note Israel’s “conquest” of the West Bank, never indicating that this conquest came in a defensive war against Jordan, and that the Palestinians were never sovereign there.
As Andrea Levin of CAMERA, the energetic and sometimes shrill media-watchdog group, points out, reporters “may cover a story and get the micro issues correct [while] getting the macro issue completely wrong.”
Nirenstein sees her colleagues romanticizing the Palestinians as David fighting the Israeli Goliath, as if the underdogs are by definition the good guys. That, she writes in the January issue of Commentary magazine, places the journalists — whom she characterizes as “iconoclastic, sporty, ironic, virtually all of one mind” — on the wrong side of the cultural gap between “Western and Eastern civilizations, between democracy and dictatorship, between the Judeo-Christian world and the world of Islam.”
The journalists’ mind-set may also come from what an American-Israeli journalist castigates as “massive ignorance.”
Many correspondents get little or no preparation time before being dropped into Jerusalem and Ramallah. Once on the ground, they must play catch-up, learning on the job, often from other foreign correspondents.
“We are very superficial,” acknowledges the Frankfurter Allgemeiner’s Dr. Jorg Bremer disarmingly. “If we cover the news every day, when do we have time to read a book?”
This lack of preparation nearly mandates that correspondents put the template of previous postings onto a situation with a very different history and particulars. CNN’s Jerusalem bureau chief Mike Hanna, for example, has been characterized by novelist Naomi Ragen and others as hard-wired by his 20 years as a correspondent in South Africa to see the situation in Israel in terms of “black and white” — an oppressor and an oppressed.
But issues of journalistic judgment and private sensibility are one thing. Lurking behind them is the larger question of whether reportorial sympathy slips into outright bias — and if bias then becomes purposeful manipulation of the news.
Troubling incidents of misreporting and underreporting abound. Media watchdog groups have accused The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and London Times, along with the Washington Post, CNN, Sky News, Reuters, the BBC and other outlets, of editing news stories to minimize Palestinian misdemeanors and emphasize Israeli ones, to shift sympathy away from Israel or to make Israel look like the aggressor. The media have also been charged with ignoring stories that supply context crucial to understanding the facts on the ground when such stories show the Palestinians in a less than positive light.
Such largely ignored subjects include accounts of Palestinian Red Crescent ambulances carting rocks and Molotov cocktails to flashpoints, the purposeful use of civilians as cover by Palestinian combatants, Palestinian encouragement and even busing of children to join violent demonstrations and the staging of “spontaneous demonstrations” for optimal media coverage (and the failure of reporters to describe them as staged). There is also the ceaseless incitement of hatred against Jews and Israelis in the Palestinian (and other Arab) media, which many correspondents and their editors view, astonishingly, as irrelevant to the national conflict they are reporting.
Many media outlets, moreover, promulgate as fact their own views on political questions that remain in dispute. The Independent and CNN, for example, routinely call Israeli settlements “illegal under international law,” although the issue is not clear. Reuters, its bureau in Jerusalem staffed by a high percentage of Palestinian journalists, now refers to Gilo, a neighborhood incorporated by Israel into municipal Jerusalem, as a “settlement,” giving a radical Palestinian take on the issue.
Do such choices reflect political bias? Journalistic negligence? Lack of historical context inherent in a culture of sound bites? A useful glimpse at the unpalatable “other side of the story”? Or even a slanting of coverage by the international networks, such as CNN and BBC, to help them “penetrate” Arab and Muslim media markets?
The worldview of the journalist wafts outward from the evening TV and the morning paper. Consumers of the news may not know that they are getting a partial story — even if they recognize that any story repeated often enough will, like blanket advertising, finally leave its mark on the public mind.
The Quality Of Israeli ‘Hasbara’
But it’s not just the other guy’s fault. If Israel is losing the crucial second war of media coverage, the woeful inadequacy of its hasbara — its efforts at explaining its policies — is also to blame, and has been a problem discussed but not dealt with effectively for many years.
Ironically, in their shop talk, even staunchly pro-Israel journalists sing the PA’s praises. “A gem in the hands of the media,” says David Bedein, whose Israel Media Resources agency is commonly associated with the Israeli right. Bedein praises especially the PA’s accessibility and openness.
Matthew Kelman, a correspondent for USA Today, calls the PA “a pleasure to deal with. Their officials offer to help, they’re easy to deal with, they give easy access, they’re more friendly and warm than the Israelis — and they have better stories.”
Nobody says anything like that about Israel’s media apparatus. On the contrary — and off the record — reporters who care agree that Israel “couldn’t be doing a worse job” of hasbara, as one of them puts it.
“The spokespeople don’t know how to talk to the camera,” he says with exasperation, “they have poor English, they often appear in uniform, which makes them seem like part of the problem, and they speak in bombastic, self-righteous terms.”
Another calls Israeli media officials “prickly” and complains, “They don’t call back, they leak information selectively, they sometimes don’t release information even when they have it.”
A third narrates an emblematic encounter with a ministry press officer who, citing a court’s gag order, refused him information for an article he was writing. A few days later he saw the information in a Hebrew weekly. “The press guy didn’t even know the gag order had been lifted,” he fumes.
Reasons for the ineffectiveness of Israel’s hasbara include budget cuts, especially in the Government Press Office; bureaucratic infighting between the Prime Minister’s office, the GPO and individual ministries; overwork, arrogance and plain incompetence. “Israel doesn’t realize the effect,” sighs a reporter.
“Our story is very complex to deliver,” protests the prime minister’s media chief, Ranaan Gissin, “while their story lends itself to simple treatment.” He admits that Israel’s hasbara has suffered from “technical problems,” including inadequate spokespeople. But now, he promises, “I am sending people who can deliver,” and he says he has made other changes to improve Israel’s performance in the media war.
It may not be enough. While Israel’s Government Press Office simply issues each new journalist a press card and lets him fend for himself, says Steven Rosenberg, editor of the Boston Jewish Advocate, the Palestinians will approach him offering a wide network of help.
“When background information, photos, interviews and briefings are readily abundant,” Rosenberg points out, “it makes a reporter’s life much easier.” Such guidance can also help to shape the reporter’s understanding of the events he’s writing about in one direction or the other.
Israel’s current foreign minister, Shimon Peres, is famously quoted as remarking that a good policy requires no hasbara while a bad policy can’t be helped by hasbara.
That may be true in a perfect world. So far as fighting the media war is concerned, Israel doesn’t yet seem to realize that it isn’t living in a perfect world.