Why Journalists Say Israeli-Arab Reporting Is 'Rigged’

Ex-AP correspondent Matti Friedman’s article on the 'insider’ view of reporting on Israel went viral on Facebook. Friedman tells Haaretz why he thinks there is something wrong with global coverage of Israel.

Dafna Maor
Dafna Maor
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Protesters against military action in Gaza gather by the BBC building in central London, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014.
Protesters against military action in Gaza gather by the BBC building in central London, Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014.Credit: AP
Dafna Maor
Dafna Maor

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict receives a disproportionate amount of attention in relation to its size and importance in the world; journalists follow the herd and suffer from groupthink; and there is fear of Palestinian censorship, backed up by threats.

These are just a few of journalist Matti Friedman’s claims against the foreign media and its coverage of Israel.

“As a former insider, and as an Israeli with left-wing opinions that are not radical, I think the decisions that the bureaus of the large global media outlets in Israel make are politically motivated and disguised as motivated by journalistic considerations,” says Friedman, a Canadian-born journalist who immigrated to Israel in 1995 and worked as a reporter for the Associated Press.

During his career he has worked as a reporter in Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Moscow and Washington, D.C.

In 2013 he published “The Aleppo Codex: In Pursuit of One of the World’s Most Coveted, Sacred and Mysterious Books” (Algonquin Books).

His article about press coverage of Israel, entitled “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth,” which appeared in Tablet magazine in late August, was shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook and made a good many waves.

In his article, he compares the coverage of Israel to that of other large news events all over the world.

“News organizations have nonetheless decided that this conflict is more important than, for example, the more than 1,600 women murdered in Pakistan last year (271 after being raped and 193 of them burned alive), the ongoing erasure of Tibet by the Chinese Communist Party, the carnage in Congo (more than 5 million dead as of 2012) or the Central African Republic, and the drug wars in Mexico (death toll between 2006 and 2012: 60,000), let alone conflicts no one has ever heard of in obscure corners of India or Thailand. They believe Israel to be the most important story on earth, or very close,” he wrote.

He suggests an explanation for the way Israel is covered.

“The people who make the decisions at the newspapers – I speak from direct experience – are hostile toward Israel. They see themselves as part of an ideological alliance that includes NGOs and UN agencies.

“The move in social circles that are pro-Palestinian and hostile toward Israel and, and they see journalism not as a way to explain the complex story to people but as a political weapon with which they arm one side in the conflict,” he writes.

Friedman is one of a few journalists making such claims about the foreign media. Other veteran journalists who share his view include Tom Gross, a commentator on international affairs and a former reporter on the Middle East for the Sunday Telegraph; Richard Behar, who published an exposé in Forbes entitled “The Media Intifada: Bad Math, Ugly Truths about New York Times in Israel-Hamas War”; and Richard Miron, formerly a BBC reporter on Middle East affairs, who wrote about the subject for Haaretz (“Media self-reflection on Gaza war coverage is necessary, but unlikely,” September 1, 2014).

White superpower

“One should not forget that the media is full of stereotypes and mistakes about many issues. Yet when every allowance has been made, the sustained bias against Israel is, I believe, in a league of its own,” Gross told Haaretz.

“There are a mix of reasons for this,” Gross says. “Foreign news reporters tend to want to change the world and to challenge the big powers. In their heads, Israel is a big power, partly because they view Israel as very close to America, perhaps more than it actually is. To them, attacking Israel is attacking America.”

“Another reason is that many have a kind of guilt about being white and Western, and the history of their own colonization. Israel is perceived as a white country and the Palestinians are perceived as non-white, even though in fact many Palestinians have lighter skin than some Israelis. Many Western journalists abroad have barely heard of the fact that there are Sephardi or Mizrahi Jews.”

“And then there is the fact that Israel is a Jewish state,” Gross adds. He cites coverage of the involvement of France, which could also be viewed as a white superpower, in three wars taking place in Africa.

“There are very few American or British journalists covering the conflicts in Mali or the Central African Republic – though France is perceived as a white country. If France was a Jewish country, the BBC would most probably send large numbers of reporters there, like it does Gaza,” Gross says.

One of the biggest stories of the year

In early 2009, two of Friedman’s colleagues received information about a significant peace initiative that Ehud Olmert, who was prime minister at the time, had offered the Palestinian Authority, which turned it down. “This had not been reported yet and it was – or should have been – one of the biggest stories of the year. The reporters obtained confirmation from both sides and one even saw a map, but the top editors at the bureau decided that they would not publish the story,” Friedman writes.

“Some staffers were furious, but it didn’t help. Our narrative was that the Palestinians were moderate and the Israelis recalcitrant and increasingly extreme. Reporting the Olmert offer – like delving too deeply into the subject of Hamas – would make that narrative look like nonsense. And so we were instructed to ignore it, and did, for more than a year and a half,” Friedman says. AP’s former head of Mideast reporting, Steven Gutkin, wrote in response to Friedman’s story: “The story was little more than well-written hogwash,” and denied that any decision making was influenced by prejudice.

According to Friedman, activism has trickled into the profession. “It’s political activism disguised as journalism,” he says. If you don’t agree to run the most important story of the year because it will make Israel look good, then you are an activist. You are here not to explain, but to use your influence for the benefit of your own side.”

Hamas covenant

Friedman also points out that AP has never mentioned Hamas’s covenant – which calls explicitly for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews, and blames the Jews for the French Revolution and the communist revolution in Russia – once in its reports, even though Hamas won the elections in Gaza.

Gross says that the reason for this among many is not because of any great affection for the Palestinians. “It’s not because they particularly like the Palestinians, or because Arab governments are paying them. For some at least, they are – perhaps unconsciously – uncomfortable with Jews, or at least with the idea of a Jewish state,” he says, though he adds that he does not think they are knowingly anti-Semitic.

Gross says of his own experience, “Many of my colleagues at the BBC would be shocked at the idea that they were anti-Semitic. But the coverage of Israel makes them feel better about their own colonialism.”

Both Friedman and Gross feel that the bias also does a disservice to the Palestinians, though not to Hamas.

Friedman points out in his article that there’s nearly “no real analysis of Palestinian society or ideologies, profiles of armed Palestinian groups, or investigation of Palestinian government. Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate.

“The West has decided that Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel, so that opinion is attributed to them as fact, though anyone who has spent time with actual Palestinians understands that things are (understandably, in my opinion) more complicated. Who they are and what they want is not important: The story mandates that they exist as passive victims of the party that matters.”

Gross, during our meeting in Tel Aviv, says he believes the anti-Israeli rhetoric encourages entrenchment among the Palestinian leadership and helps deter them from making the compromises necessary to achieve any long-lasting solution with Israel.

“Most Israelis think the media is biased because the Arabs have a lot of money, or they spend a lot of money on PR,” Gross says. “This may be true up to a point, but it’s just a small part of the reason that they’re biased.”

“And some of the bias may be subconscious or because they’re lazy. And they’re human beings, and human beings are often not objective. It’s also groupthink. They follow each other.”

Another problem, according to Friedman, is the revolving door between the profession of journalism and political involvement – in other words, the movement of people from journalism to large international NGOs or the United Nations.

“The journalists do not see those organizations or the UN as subjects to cover even though they are the strongest players working here,” he says. “There is no critical coverage of the UN even though it is swollen, inefficient and often corrupt.”

Friedman also points to laziness. “Many of the foreign journalists do not know the history,” he says.

“They do not know Hebrew or Arabic, and they have no real grasp of what is happening. Because of that, they stick to their colleagues’ story and move with the herd. The AP is a large organization and, like Reuters, part of the herd. Both agencies make similar decisions.

“The reason we did not know that the Middle East was about to erupt like a volcano was that the foreign media was busy counting houses in settlements.

“Israel is a tiny village on the side of a volcano, but the media describes it as the volcano itself. When we look into this distortion more deeply, we see that it is part of a problem that has been going on for the past five years – a problem that will be studied in journalism schools in the future.”

Friedman elaborates on the implications of the media’s faulty coverage of Israel.

“It reached an extreme situation this summer. The media outlets agreed to serve as part of Hamas’ military operations. Strategically speaking, Hamas knew it could rely on the foreign media’s cooperation – that it would not show rocket launches or combatants or speak at all about what Hamas wanted to accomplish. They knew, from the experience of the past few years, that the foreign media would cooperate. The foreign media served as Hamas’ deadliest weapon, and so we need to understand the media. This is no marginal subject for research, but a major part of the story.”

He estimates the chances that this attitude will change as slim to none. “My article was reported about in the [Wall Street] Journal and in the Washington Post, and I was interviewed on CNN,” he says. “There are signs that they are willing to take these assertions seriously. But it’s like an aircraft carrier: it’s impossible to change direction easily. I haven’t seen any reason to be optimistic over the past six years. As Israelis, we need to realize that at the moment, the game is rigged.”

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