Manfred Gerstenfeld: HOW ISRAEL CAN FIGHT MEDIA-BASED DELEGITIMIZATION

 

 

 

 

 

Media play a major role in the delegitimization and demonization of Israel.  Their share in this process cannot be assessed scientifically. Yet over 40% of citizens of the European Union — aged 16 years or older – believe that Israel is a Nazi state, or alternatively, think that Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians. There is no doubt that this demonic image of Israel has been partly caused by many media. 

 

Several studies show these statistics. The largest study on this subject was conducted and published in 2011 by the University of Bielefeld, Germany. It covered seven EU countries in which more than half of the European population lives:  the Netherlands, Italy, Hungary, UK, Germany, Portugal, and Poland.[1]  Studies in Switzerland[2] and in Norway[3] gave similar results. 

 

Evidently, there are many other factors besides the media which have led to these abysmal beliefs. Politicians, trade unions, NGOs, various — mostly liberal — church leaders, academics, the Palestinian lobby, as well as others, play a major role in the demonization process. Contributors include the United Nations, and some of its associated bodies, such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

 

Media and Media Watchers

 

Over the past decades, anti-Israeli media have made the most of a unique situation. The freedom of the press includes the freedom to cheat, lie, incite, often to extremes, and the liberty to ignore essential facts at will. Media have the power to criticize others, relentlessly and sometimes brutally, and yet there are few ways to take them to task. There are hardly any checks and balances. The work of their staff is only subject to that particular media's rules of self-regulation. Except in extreme cases, journalists are not accountable to anyone outside their profession.

 

Reporters are free to choose which facts they will mention and which they will omit, even if such tactics lead to major distortions of their readers' perceptions. Their means of slanting information, if they wish to do so, are almost unlimited. In addition, media rarely criticize each other, even though it would create much greater accountability among journalists.

 

The battle against big media’s delegitimization of Israel is being fought by a few media watch organizations. Media watching can be defined as critically examining one or more media on a regular or recurrent basis. It usually results from a conviction that certain media are biased against a cause that the monitoring body or individual supports. Media-watching activities include collecting, analyzing, and publishing data.[4]

 

Media watchers are fulfilling an important role in exposing the bias of anti-Israeli media. Yet even the best known among them, such as CAMERA[5] and HonestReporting[6], only reach a limited number of addressees if one compares it to the audience of the media themselves.  

 

The Absence of an Israeli Anti-Propaganda Agency

 

In the current reality, Israel is being attacked on many fronts. The main one is the military battlefield, and to counteract this, Israel has developed an advanced structure – the Israeli army, the IDF.  Another front concerns intelligence, and Israel has three intelligence services which have undertaken remarkable feats over the decades: the Mossad, the domestic intelligence service, Shabak, and the military intelligence service, Aman.  The growing number of cyberattacks on Israel has led to heavy investment in cybersecurity.[7] Israel hopes to become a world leader in this field. 

 

In the area of propaganda, however, which has led to the demonization and partial delegitimization of Israel, there is no such opposing force. One might say that at present, many delegitimizers and demonizers have “a free anti-Semitic lunch.” The situation can only improve in a substantial manner if the Israeli government sets up a properly funded anti-propaganda structure.  Such an agency would lay the groundwork for action concerning biased media and others who demonize and delegitimize Israel or the Israeli government.

 

The anti-propaganda agency’s research department would have to establish a database which would contain both historical and behavioral information on specific enemies of Israel, whether their anti-Semitism is partial or full-blown. A newspaper, for example, can be an enemy of Israel even if it occasionally publishes a positive item about the country, in between publishing mainstream negative information on Israel. Post-modern times have greatly strengthened and expanded the phenomenon of the “part-time anti-Semite.” These are people who commit anti-Semitic acts intermittently, and on a few occasions may even make positive gestures toward Jews and Israel. Several contemporary left-wing and other political leaders regularly commit anti-Semitic acts, including applying double standards against Israel. Similarly, media can be part-time enemies of Israel. 

 

A second activity of the Israeli anti-propaganda structure would be to monitor ongoing issues. On some media, the major pro-Israeli media watchers are already doing an excellent job and have done so for many years. Their work would be an extremely valuable asset for the monitoring division of a future anti-propaganda agency.

 

The third division of the anti-propaganda agency would deal with activism. This is a delicate subject for a state-controlled body. Yet the intelligence services of many countries are activist bodies under the aegis of the government. The operational branch of the new Israeli structure would have to develop increasingly effective methods to fight the anti-Israeli propaganda, as well as anti-Semitism. It would have to assess which activities it would undertake itself, and which would be delegated to and implemented by others, such as other government services, non-governmental bodies in Israel and abroad, or even some individuals.[8] As far as the battle against hostile media is concerned, the reality of free speech within democracies dictates that this fight has to be conducted in a more sophisticated matter.   
 

The News Agencies

 

In today’s media market, much of the international news is provided by big news agencies. The most important ones by far are Reuters and The Associated Press, both of which are biased against Israel. A former AP journalist managed to publicly expose the distorted methods of AP’s Israel office. In August 2014, after he had left AP, Matti Friedman wrote about his experiences working at the agency’s Israel office. In his words:

 

Israeli actions are analyzed and criticized, and every flaw in Israeli society is aggressively reported. In one seven-week period, from Nov. 8 to Dec. 16, 2011, I decided to count the stories coming out of our bureau on the various moral failings of Israeli society – proposed legislation meant to suppress the media, the rising influence of Orthodox Jews, unauthorized settlement outposts, gender segregation, and so forth. I counted 27 separate articles, an average of a story every two days. In a very conservative estimate, this seven-week tally was higher than the total number of significantly critical stories about Palestinian government and society, including the totalitarian Islamists of Hamas that our bureau had published in the preceding three years.[9]

 

Friedman later wrote an article in The Atlantic entitled, “What the Media Gets Wrong about Israel.” The article further exposed how the AP intentionally reported stories that cast Israel in a negative light and chose not to report on Palestinians behaving badly.[10]

 

The reaction of Friedman’s former boss at AP, Steven Gutkin bordered on the ridiculous. It consisted mainly of an ad hominem attack on Friedman. Strangely enough, his former boss chose to publicize his response using the local Indian website Goa Streets, his new place of employment after leaving AP.[11]

 

Searching for those who will tell

 

Friedman’s publications may serve as an excellent example for the potential activities of the anti-propaganda structure. Friedman made his disclosures at his own initiative. There are a few other journalists who have done the same.  For instance, Hans Mol, a retired journalist of the Dutch liberal daily, NRC-Handelsblad, has published a book about the paper’s anti-Israeli positions. He writes, “In its reporting about Moroccans, about Muslims and about Islam, about Israel and the Middle-East conflict, the paper has increasingly chosen its side: in favor of Hamas and against Israel, in favor of multiculturalists against critics of Islam; for covering up, and against disclosure.”[12]

 

The anti-propaganda agency, in collaboration with media watchers, could start to systematically search for journalists who have worked for major media and then either left or retired. Among these journalists, they could look for those who are either pro-Israel or have grievances against their former employer and who are willing to relate information about how the anti-Israel bias functions. Such a tactic is a low-cost activity which can yield much information.  

 

The classic form of media analysis can also be very useful. It is not difficult to get an idea of the pronounced bias AP maintains against Israel, beyond what Friedman has already written. Part of it is easy accessible online, and much can be obtained from media watchers such as CAMERA and HonestReporting. 

 

A Few Examples

 

The anti-Israel bias can be illustrated by some examples. In 2001, Associated Press was one of several organizations who received HonestReporting’s Dishonest Reporting Award. HonestReporting mentioned, for example, that when a Palestinian sniper murdered a 10-month-old Jewish baby in Hebron, the AP published an article titled, “Jewish toddler dies in West Bank.” They made no mention of who perpetrated the murder, and readers could easily get the impression that the baby had died from natural causes or from an unfortunate accident. Several other such examples were given by HonestReporting.[13]

 

Later in 2001, American journalist Jeff Helmreich analyzed in a detailed article how AP had covered Yasser Arafat’s Al-Naqba Speech that May. He wrote, “By the time it reached the newspapers, entire sentences and clauses had been excluded; moderating words had been added; fiery attacks — like a slur about the United States — had been cleaned out; statements had been condensed, enhanced, or otherwise altered. In short, AP's purported ‘excerpts’ of Arafat's remarks were at best edited, at worst fabricated. Moreover, they served to distort — and significantly soften — the message that passed through Arafat's lips.”[14]

 

As previously indicated, one only has to go through CAMERA and HonestReporting’s material about AP in order to start building up a sizable database of its bias and errors. On March 3, 2003, AP published an obituary for a former Israeli diplomat, Shlomo Argov. CAMERA points out that the article mentioned that his attempted assassination in London in 1982 by Palestinian terrorists had triggered Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Yet the obituary conveniently neglected to mention the seminal factors which prompted the Lebanon invasion – the constant shelling, illegal arms buildup, and terrorism. AP thus seriously misrepresented history.[15]

 

Later in 2003, HonestReporting pointed out that on November 8th, AP had released a list of recent terror attacks that had occurred worldwide. The list noted incidents Islamic terrorism that had taken place since 1998 around the globe, but completely ignored all Palestinian attacks that occurred in Israel. The next day, Reuters released a similar list of “worst guerrilla attacks since September 11th”.  It omitted all terror attacks in Israel.[16]

 

A more recent example of AP bias occurred in October 2014. A terrorist from East Jerusalem rammed his car into a crowd, killing two people, one of them an infant, and injuring several more. The terrorist was shot by the police. AP reported on this incident in an article headlined, “Israeli Police Shoot Man in East Jerusalem.” The article also began with the words, “Israeli police say they have shot a man whose car slammed into a crowded train stop in east Jerusalem, in what they suspect was an intentional attack.” Only after a public outcry was the article edited to reflect what had really happened. An analysis of this case by Israeli journalist Ariel Cahana also describes how other big media also distorted this incident by presenting it as a road accident and not as an intentional terror attack on civilians.[17]

 

All of these examples are but a small selection of the bias concerning AP, a single, albeit important source for many media. It could easily be expanded to dozens, if not hundreds, of other media. 

 

A similar analysis could be made of Reuters’ reporting. CAMERA has also devoted much attention to The New York Times, which is among the world’s most important media.[18] CAMERA currently monitors its activities and has publications on the paper’s bias, systematically covering articles of this daily on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict during certain periods.

 

Media watchers can publicize errors and bias, and they can attempt to discuss such bias with media editors. Sometimes they even come up with innovative solutions. In January 2014, CAMERA put up a three-story billboard advertisement on a building facing the Times’ headquarters. The initial text read, “Would a great newspaper slant the news against Israel? The New York Times does.” The text went on to say: “Misrepresenting facts, omitting key information, skewing headlines and photos.” Under this it said, “Stop the bias. CAMERA.”[19]
 

 

The Israeli Government Must Step In

 

There is a limit to what voluntary, grass-roots organizations can do. They can expose media, but they cannot punish their bias. The Israeli government must step in and develop the media strategy of a future anti-propaganda agency. 

 

This has to be done not by limiting freedom of speech, but on the basis of limiting the publications of lies. Israeli government officials can start exposing biased media. For example, at the start of press conferences, they can mention the most recent proven bias of one of the media present. Israel can refuse to provide press cards to biased reporters, indicating that these cards are not intended for non-reporters, i.e., frequent liars and anti-Israel inciters. 

 

All this could be but a very primitive beginning for an anti-propaganda agency. One has to realize that the Israeli army and the Israeli intelligence services today are far more sophisticated than when they began their activities. A similar process would occur with a governmental anti-propaganda agency, once it is established. Its methods would advance over time. 



[1] library.fes.de/pdf-files/do/07908-20110311.pdf.

[2] “Kritik an Israel nicht deckungsgleich mit antisemitischen Haltungen,” gfs.bern, 28 March 2007. (German)

[3] “Antisemittisme i Norge? Den norske befolkningens holdninger til jøder og andre minoriteter,” HL-senteret, 20 May 2012, http://www.hlsenteret.no/publikasjoner/antisemittisme-i-norge. (Norwegian)

 

[4] Manfred Gerstenfeld and Ben Green, “Watching the Pro-Israeli Media Watchers,” Jewish Political Studies Review 16, 3-4 (Fall 2004): 33-58.

[5] http://www.camera.org/

[6] http://honestreporting.com/

[7] “Netanyahu: We’re building a digital Iron Dome,” Jerusalem Post, 1 January 2013.

 

[8] Manfred Gerstenfeld, “How to efficiently fight anti-Israel propaganda?,” The Jerusalem Post, 25 November 2014.

[9] Matti Friedman, “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth,” Tablet, 26 August 2014.

[10] Matti Friedman, “What the Media Gets Wrong About Israel,” The Atlantic, 30 November 2014.

[11] Steven Gutkin, “My Life As An AP Bureau Chief In Israel,” Goa Streets, 25 September 2014.

 

[12] Hans Mol, Hoe de nuance verdween uit een kwaliteitskrant; NRC Handelsblad neemt stelling tegen Israel, (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2011) 10. [Dutch]

[13] “Dishonest Reporting ‘Award’ for 2001,” HonestReporting, 7 January 2002.

[14] Jeff Helmreich, “Journalistic License: Professional Standards in the Print Media’s Coverage of Israel,” The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 15 August 2001.

[15] “Thumbs Down to Steve Weizman, CAMERA, 3 March 2003.

[16] “AP, Reuters Omit Terror in Israel,” HonestReporting, 12 November 2003.

[17] Ariel Cahana, “How the Murder of a Jewish Baby is Reported Worldwide,” Israel National News, 24 October 2014.

[18] “Indicting Israel: New York Times Coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict,” CAMERA, 15 October 2013.

[19] Andrea Levin, “CAMERA Billboard Campaign Calls out New York Times Bias against Israel,” 27 January 2014, www.camera.org.