Beating press bias at its own game
Media analyst Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld collects negative news on the Netherlands to prove the ease of creating anti-Israel attitudes.
At the very end of his term, the Dutch Ambassador to Israel, Bob Hiensch, is being forced to contend with an unprecedented phenomenon: Holland-bashing. This parting gift is the work of media analyst Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, who recently began teaching a seminar called "Bad News about the Netherlands." Gerstenfeld hopes to counter what he calls the partial and biased reporting on Israel in the Netherlands. About a dozen people meet once a week at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), the veteran nonprofit think tank headed by former UN ambassador and senior Likud official Dore Gold, to hear Gerstenfeld - the chairman of JCPA's board of fellows - deliver a biased media review of the kingdom.
Hiensch indicated that he regarded the project as simplistic and naive, but Gerstenfeld says he is "merely employing the methods that some in the Dutch media are using to report about Israel, but we publicize the fact that we are presenting a distorted image whereas they claim to report objectively. Plus, we state the facts instead of falsifying them with so-called explanations."
If not for the seminar's title, latecomers to the center's conference room might understandably think they had joined an action group on Sudan rather than a learning forum on the Netherlands. In a single week, Gerstenfeld highlighted abuse of asylum seekers by the state, government officials inciting racial discrimination, death threats against politicians and reports of civilians being tortured and executed by soldiers.
Afterward, participants ask about the overall goal of the seminar. "Many foreign journalists here are interested in instilling prejudice against Israel. The spreading anti-Israeli sentiment is proof of their success," says Gerstenfeld, who immigrated to Israel from the Netherlands about 40 years ago. He explained that he decided to copy the strategy of Israel's detractors in order to "agitate the Dutch public into thinking twice and to ultimately question the reports that they hear about Israel."
One participant isn't convinced Gerstenfeld's strategy will work. "Moaning about the government is a national pastime in Holland. For the Dutch, every day is a bad news day. I doubt more of the same could really shock them."
Ironically, perhaps, the Dutch media seem to be highly interested in Gerstenfeld's project. Two national radio stations have contacted him and one of the country's most important dailies, Volkskrant, ran an in-depth article on his initiative.
"The Dutch haven't quite developed the thick skin that we have as Israelis to outside acrimonious criticism. Maybe that's why the seminar is generating such interest there," Gerstenfeld suggested. "And by successfully blackening Holland's name despite its positive image abroad, we are demonstrating how easy it is to portray any country as a brutal police state."
As a result on the media exposure in the Netherlands, Gerstenfeld has been able to delegate the task of gathering news to volunteers, both Jews and non-Jews, who e-mail him their "gems" from the Dutch media. "We are considering opening a weekly bad-news Internet blog. There is a tremendous willingness out there, so the whole project requires very little effort on our part," Gerstenfeld said.
He hopes to recreate his success with the Netherlands with other European countries, including Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Belgium. "I hope others will use our model to level the playing field. I had no idea this would generate such hype, but we seem to have struck a nerve," Gerstenfeld said.
The Dutch ambassador, who is scheduled to leave Israel next week, does not share Gerstenfeld's enthusiasm.
"I am not going to comment on the free press, whether Dutch, Israeli or international," Hiensch told Haaretz. He added, however, that "Israel does indeed generate a lot of negative publicity in the world press, and it is a relevant question to wonder why. To blame this, however, on the media is too easy and even naive."