Wednesday, September 17, 2014

  • Wednesday, September 17, 2014
  • Elder of Ziyon
Matti Friedman, who wrote a hugely important expose of how AP and the rest of the mainstream media reports from the Middle East, has written a followup article in Tablet. He discusses the positive reaction the article received - even from fellow journalists - and he rebuts a critique from one of his former bosses:

There has been no serious public response to the piece, however, from inside the system I’m criticizing—no denials of the examples I gave, no explanations for the numbers I cite, no alternative reasons for the problems I describe. This uncomfortable silence is an admission.

Here I would like to reply briefly to the closest thing to an official explanation that has emerged so far. This is a short essay published by Steven Gutkin, the AP’s former bureau chief in Jerusalem, in the paper he currently runs in Goa, India, and highlighted here at Tablet last week. The article is important for reasons I believe its author did not intend.

...Most strikingly, Steve is happy not only to confirm the media’s obsession with Jews but to endorse it. If he thinks there’s any journalistic problem in a news organization covering Israel more than China or the Congo, he doesn’t say so. He thinks, in fact, that Jews—the “people of the Bible,” or perhaps the “persecuted who became persecutors”—are really, really interesting. His piece is, in other words, a confirmation of my argument mistaking itself for a rebuttal.

As for two of the most serious incidents I mentioned, a careful reader will note that Steve concedes them. Both have ramifications beyond the specifics of this story.

1. To the best of my knowledge, no major news organization has publicly admitted censoring its own coverage under pressure from Hamas. A New York Times correspondent recently said this idea was “nonsense.” Responding to an Israeli reporter asking about my essay, the AP said my “assertions challenging the independence of AP’s Mideast news report in recent years are without merit.” But the AP’s former Jerusalem bureau chief just explicitly admitted it. He confirms my report of a key detail removed from a story during the 2008-2009 fighting—that Hamas men were indistinguishable from civilians—because of a threat to our reporter, a Gaza Palestinian.

He goes even further than I did, saying printing the reporter’s original information would have meant “jeopardizing his life.” The censored information in this case is no minor matter, but the explanation behind many of the civilian fatalities for which much of the world (including the AP) blamed Israel. Steve writes that such incidents actually happened “two or three times” during his tenure. It should be clear to a reader that even once is quite enough in order for a reporter living under Hamas rule to fall permanently in line. This means that AP’s Gaza coverage is shaped in large part by Hamas, which is something important that insiders know but readers don’t.

I’m not saying the decision to strike the information was wrong—no information is worth the life of a reporter. But I am saying that the failure to get it out some other way, or to warn readers that their news is being dictated by Hamas, is a major ethical shortcoming with obvious ramifications for the credibility of everyone involved. The AP should address this publicly, and all news organizations working here need to be open about this now.

2. I wrote that in early 2009 the bureau wouldn’t touch an important news story, a report of a peace proposal from the Israeli prime minister to the Palestinian president. This decision was indefensible on journalistic grounds. A careful reader will notice that Steve does not deny this. He can’t, because too many people saw it happen, and a journalist as experienced as Steve might assume, correctly, that at least some of them vetted my account before it was published. He merely quibbles with a marginal detail—the nature of a map that one of the reporters saw. I repeat what I wrote: Two experienced AP reporters had information adding up to a major news story, one with the power to throw the Israeli-Palestinian relationship into a different light. Israelis confirmed it, and Palestinians confirmed it. The information was solid, and indeed later appeared in Newsweek and elsewhere. The AP did not touch this story, and others, in order to maintain its narrative of Israeli extremism and Palestinian moderation.

Failing to report bad things that Hamas does, and good things that Israel does, which is what these examples show, creates the villainous “Israel” of the international press. That these failures mislead news consumers is clear. But they also have a role in generating recent events like a mob attack on a Paris synagogue, for example, or the current 30-year-high in anti-Jewish incidents in Britain. There are several causes behind such phenomena, and editorial decisions like these are among them. But this is one subject about which the AP bureau chief, for all of his Jewish ruminations, has nothing to say. The press corps is obviously not “teeming with anti-Semitism.” But neither is it teeming with responsibility or introspection, and the kind of thinking that has taken hold there should have all of us deeply concerned.
Friedman also links to a piece I hadn't seen, from Richard Miron, former BBC correspondent, who confirms his experiences of anti-Israel bias from within media organizations:

Israel must be held to account not in comparison to elsewhere in the Middle East, but rather to other Western armies operating under similar conditions. And yet in reading and watching the coverage out of Gaza, it seems the media held Israel to an altogether different standard. Civilian casualties were often portrayed as the consequence of deliberate Israeli vengefulness and bloodletting.

I have seen for myself how Western armies operate during conflicts in the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere, and tragically there is no such thing as a clean conflict.

I still have the photos I took in an Afghan village of what remained after a U.S. air strike destroyed a family compound killing about 50 civilians in pursuit of one Al-Qaida operative. While there has been some questioning by the media over the extent of civilian casualties (numbering in their tens of thousands) in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, it has been muted by comparison to Gaza.

Where Matti Friedman is entirely correct is in the failure of news organizations and their correspondents to point out the controls and "pressures" both implicit and explicit exerted upon them in Gaza by the all-pervasive and tightly-run Hamas media operation. This inaction can only be seen as – at best – moral cowardice by media organizations.

It was also notable in what remain unobserved. One senior BBC correspondent wrote after a week of reporting in Gaza that “he saw no evidence ... of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.” This is a very strange statement. Firstly, just because the journalist didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t occur, particularly when missiles aimed at Israel were emerging from built-up areas inside Gaza. Secondly, knowing Gaza’s physical geography, it’s safe to conclude that if Hamas operatives did come out from the territory’s packed urban confines, they would have been quickly struck by an Israeli drone or aircraft fire. If they weren’t in the open, they were by definition sheltering in civilian neighbourhoods – thus they were using human shields (similar to the way other guerilla forces – such as the Taliban – operate).


...[T]he (Western) media must also account for itself and for its own conduct, including apparent omissions and failures in the reporting of the conflict. It must question where reporting may have ended and emoting began; if it held Israel to a standard apart from all others; and why it allowed Hamas a free pass in controlling the flow of information.

Its coverage had consequences in fuelling the passions (and hatred) of many on the streets of Paris , London and elsewhere toward Israel, and, by extension, toward Jews.

The media is instinctively averse from turning the lens of scrutiny upon itself, and will – in all likelihood – veer away from any self-examination. It is better at calling out the wrongdoing of others than admitting to its own faults. But whatever it chooses to do or not, the picture the media painted of Gaza 2014 and its consequences are already etched in the consciousness of many around the world, and will serve as a further chapter in this never-ending story.
Unfortunately, he is right. The institutions that are charged with discovering and publicizing abuses - the media and NGOs - are the very ones who are the least likely to take a long, hard look at their own internal bias and corruption.

In this case, both Friedman and Miron point out that this significant bias against Israel has a serious effect in promoting today's antisemitism. Casual readers of the media's coverage of the Middle East simply do not have the tools to know that they are being fed a narrative, and not the truth. This has already led to a generation of ill-informed people and this manifests itself in politics and education.

It is a big deal, and nothing significant is being done to address it.

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