Matti Friedman’s analysis of AP’s biased reporting and their boycott of NGO Monitor

Anti-Israel media bias

Anti-Israel media bias

Former AP journalist Matti Friedman, who wrote a blistering essay in the summer about AP’s anti-Israel bias, has hit it out of the ball park once again with another long report in The Atlantic online magazine. This time Friedman’s focus is on AP’s refusal to interview or quote right-wing NGOs, and in particular NGO Monitor, which as its name implies is an NGO that monitors NGOs for anti-Israel bias. The organization is founded and run by Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University.

Here are some select quotes (emphases are mine) – and apologies for the very long quotes, but it’s so hard to cherry-pick just a few. The whole article is excellent – just go and read the whole article:

There are banal explanations for problems with coverage—reporters are in a hurry, editors are overloaded and distracted. These are realities, and can explain small errors and mishaps like ill-conceived headlines, which is why such details don’t typically strike me as important or worth much analysis. Some say inflations and omissions are the inevitable results of an honest attempt to cover events in a challenging and occasionally dangerous reporting environment, which is what I initially believed myself. A few years on the job changed my mind. Such excuses can’t explain why the same inflations and omissions recur again and again, why they are common to so many news outlets, and why the simple “Israel story” of the international media is so foreign to people aware of the historical and regional context of events in this place. The explanation lies elsewhere.

To make sense of most international journalism from Israel, it is important first to understand that the news tells us far less about Israel than about the people writing the news. Journalistic decisions are made by people who exist in a particular social milieu, one which, like most social groups, involves a certain uniformity of attitude, behavior, and even dress (the fashion these days, for those interested, is less vests with unnecessary pockets than shirts with unnecessary buttons). These people know each other, meet regularly, exchange information, and closely watch one another’s work. …

The best insight into one of the key phenomena at play here comes not from a local reporter but from the journalist and author Philip Gourevitch. In Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa, Gourevitch wrote in 2010, he was struck by the ethical gray zone of ties between reporters and NGOs. “Too often the press represents humanitarians with unquestioning admiration,” he observed in The New Yorker. “Why not seek to keep them honest? Why should our coverage of them look so much like their own self-representation in fund-raising appeals? Why should we (as many photojournalists and print reporters do) work for humanitarian agencies between journalism jobs, helping them with their official reports and institutional appeals, in a way that we would never consider doing for corporations, political parties, or government agencies?”

This confusion is very much present in Israel and the Palestinian territories, where foreign activists are a notable feature of the landscape, and where international NGOs and numerous arms of the United Nations are among the most powerful players, wielding billions of dollars and employing many thousands of foreign and local employees. Their SUVs dominate sections of East Jerusalem and their expense accounts keep Ramallah afloat. They provide reporters with social circles, romantic partners, and alternative employment—a fact that is more important to reporters now than it has ever been, given the disintegration of many newspapers and the shoestring nature of their Internet successors.

In my time in the press corps, I learned that our relationship with these groups was not journalistic.

In these circles, in my experience, a distaste for Israel has come to be something between an acceptable prejudice and a prerequisite for entry. I don’t mean a critical approach to Israeli policies or to the ham-fisted government currently in charge in this country, but a belief that to some extent the Jews of Israel are a symbol of the world’s ills, particularly those connected to nationalism, militarism, colonialism, and racism—an idea quickly becoming one of the central elements of the “progressive” Western zeitgeist, spreading from the European left to American college campuses and intellectuals, including journalists. In this social group, this sentiment is translated into editorial decisions made by individual reporters and editors covering Israel, and this, in turn, gives such thinking the means of mass self-replication.

Confusion over the role of the press explains one of the strangest aspects of coverage here—namely, that while international organizations are among the most powerful actors in the Israel story, they are almost never reported on. Are they bloated, ineffective, or corrupt? Are they helping, or hurting? We don’t know, because these groups are to be quoted, not covered. Journalists cross from places like the BBC to organizations like Oxfam and back. …

International organizations in the Palestinian territories have largely assumed a role of advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians and against Israel, and much of the press has allowed this political role to supplant its journalistic function. This dynamic explains the thinking behind editorial choices that are otherwise difficult to grasp, like the example I gave in my first essay about the suppression by the AP’s Jerusalem bureau of a report about an Israeli peace offer to the Palestinians in 2008, or the decision to ignore the rally at Al-Quds University, or the idea that Hamas’s development of extensive armament works in Gaza in recent years was not worth serious coverage despite objectively being one of the most important storylines demanding reporters’ attention.

In the aftermath of the three-week Gaza war of 2008-2009, not yet quite understanding the way things work, I spent a week or so writing a story about NGOs like Human Rights Watch, whose work on Israel had just been subject to an unusual public lashing in The New York Times by its own founder, Robert Bernstein. (The Middle East, he wrote, “is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.”) My article was gentle, all things considered, beginning like this:

Editors killed the story.

Around this time, a Jerusalem-based group called NGO Monitor was battling the international organizations condemning Israel after the Gaza conflict, and though the group was very much a pro-Israel outfit and by no means an objective observer, it could have offered some partisan counterpoint in our articles to charges by NGOs that Israel had committed “war crimes.” But the bureau’s explicit orders to reporters were to never quote the group or its director, an American-raised professor named Gerald Steinberg.* In my time as an AP writer moving through the local conflict, with its myriad lunatics, bigots, and killers, the only person I ever saw subjected to an interview ban was this professor.

The radio and print journalist Mark Lavie, who has reported from the region since 1972, was a colleague of mine at the AP, where he was an editor in the Jerusalem bureau and then in Cairo until his retirement last year.

Lavie recently told me, the bureau’s editorial line was still that the conflict was Israel’s fault, and the Palestinians and the Arab world were blameless. By the end of Lavie’s career, he was editing Israel copy on the AP’s Middle East regional desk in Cairo, trying to restore balance and context to stories he thought had little connection to reality. In his words, he had gone from seeing himself as a proud member of the international press corps to “the Jew-boy with his finger in the dike.” He wrote a book, Broken Spring, about his front-row view of the Middle East’s descent into chaos, and retired disillusioned and angry.

Lavie takes a more forceful position, viewing the influential American news organization as one of the primary authors of this thought pattern. (In a statement, AP spokesman Paul Colford dismissed my criticism as “distortions, half-truths and inaccuracies,” and denied that AP coverage is biased against Israel.) This is not just because many thousands of media outlets use AP material directly, but also because when journalists arrive in their offices in the morning, the first thing many of them do is check the AP wire (or, these days, scroll through it in their Twitter feed). …

Lavie believes that in the last years of his career, the AP’s Israel operation drifted from its traditional role of careful explanation toward a kind of political activism that both contributed to and fed off growing hostility to Israel worldwide. “The AP is extremely important, and when the AP turned, it turned a lot of the world with it,” Lavie said. “That’s when it became harder for any professional journalist to work here, Jewish or not. I reject the idea that my dissatisfaction had to do with being Jewish or Israeli. It had to do with being a journalist.”

And here we come to the worst part of this story – the malignant influence that this bias has on how the war was actually run:

Most consumers of the Israel story don’t understand how the story is manufactured. But Hamas does…

During my time at the AP, we helped Hamas get this point across with a school of reporting that might be classified as “Surprising Signs of Moderation” (a direct precursor to the “Muslim Brotherhood Is Actually Liberal” school that enjoyed a brief vogue in Egypt). In one of my favorite stories, “More Tolerant Hamas” (December 11, 2011), reporters quoted a Hamas spokesman informing readers that the movement’s policy was that “we are not going to dictate anything to anyone,” and another Hamas leader saying the movement had “learned it needs to be more tolerant of others.” Around the same time, I was informed by the bureau’s senior editors that our Palestinian reporter in Gaza couldn’t possibly provide critical coverage of Hamas because doing so would put him in danger.

Hamas’s strategy is to provoke a response from Israel by attacking from behind the cover of Palestinian civilians, thus drawing Israeli strikes that kill those civilians, and then to have the casualties filmed by one of the world’s largest press contingents, with the understanding that the resulting outrage abroad will blunt Israel’s response. This is a ruthless strategy, and an effective one. It is predicated on the cooperation of journalists.

When Hamas’s leaders surveyed their assets before this summer’s round of fighting, they knew that among those assets was the international press. The AP staff in Gaza City would witness a rocket launch right beside their office, endangering reporters and other civilians nearby—and the AP wouldn’t report it, not even in AP articles about Israeli claims that Hamas was launching rockets from residential areas.

Dulled by years of the “Israel story” and inured to its routine omissions, confused about the role they are meant to play, and co-opted by Hamas, reporters described this war as an Israeli onslaught against innocent people. By doing so, this group of intelligent and generally well-meaning professionals ceased to be reliable observers and became instead an amplifier for the propaganda of one of the most intolerant and aggressive forces on earth. And that, as they say, is the story.

Adding to the feeling of despair and outrage that this essay arouses in us, an Algemeiner article about this essay adds that the Haaretz too, an Israeli newspaper, also avoided quoting NGO Monitor and Gerald Steinberg:

Neither is the Israeli media immune from the practice of deliberately ignoring NGO Monitor’s critical analyses of NGO activities detrimental to Israel that attract millions of dollars in funding from foreign governments and foundations. “In one case, Haaretz published a report on an event in the European Parliament in which I spoke, without mentioning me or NGO Monitor,” Steinberg said. “The entire article was based on the distorted press releases from an Israeli NGO that sought to prevent my presentation. The Israel Press Council found Haaretz guilty of violating journalistic ethics, and ordered them to publish a correction.”

Steinberg added that Friedman’s claim of an AP ban on NGO Monitor had “been confirmed independently by others who worked at AP, and is consistent with the wider picture in which many journalists work closely with NGO officials, and reinforce their biases.”

Honest Reporting also covers this story and adds confirmation of Matti Friedman’s accusations by the Washington Post journalist Jackson Diehl, who tweeted:

How the cosy circle of journalists-NGOs-terror organizations will ever be broken should be the subject of a PhD thesis in group psychology. Sadly I can’t see this ever happening.

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5 Responses to Matti Friedman’s analysis of AP’s biased reporting and their boycott of NGO Monitor

  1. peteca1 says:

    YES, there is certainly a bias, or as one reader said, a “distaste” for Jews. I can observe that the world today is breaking down into many factions – with a lot of ethnic rivalry. But I would say that it is true, that the “distaste for Jews” seems to be growing and pervasive.

    I find this process troubling. And I will tell you why. About 10 years ago, I performed a self-study of the terrible events in Rwanda … the events that led to the genocide in Africa. The actual truth was shocking, Anne. The world sees this piece of history as a clash between tribes. Well yes, it was! But the way in which people were divided in Rwanda was horrifying. It was NOT the situation that these two tribes were separated because they lived in different regions – the people lived beside each other. It was NOT the case that they were easily distinguishable … due to inter-marriage it was often difficult to tell if a citizen of Rwanda belonged to one tribe or the other. It was NOT the fact that these tribes worshipped in different places. In some cases, when the genocide took place, the people doing the killing – actually slaughtering human beings – had worshipped together in the SAME building for years. They were old acquaintances and friends. So the actual reality of the genocide was horrifying – for deeply personal reasons!

    That genocide in Rwanda was orchestrated as a campaign of hate. And it began when one group of people in the country was dehumanized. In Rwanda, it began when the local politcians and radio stations started calling one group of people (the Tutsi’s – who became the victims) as “coackroaches”. Not human beings. Just insects.

    It is a very bad sign when things go this way. I dont need to tell you. The same campaign of hate existed against the Jews in Nazi Germany – also with horrendous results. So this widespread “distaste” for Jews … I find it very troubling.

    Pete, USA

    • anneinpt says:

      Pete, that is totally horrifying! I had read stories about the terrible human rights abuses and downright war crimes that were committed in Rwanda, but hearing it from an almost first hand study makes it so much worse. And yes, as you say, the genocide was not reported accurately in any media.

      Did you ever write up your study in any official form or publish it anywhere? It really would be worth doing so, for posterity’s sake if nothing else. Having historically accurate documents are extremely important to future generations.

      As you so correctly say, the dehumanizing is very reminiscent of the way the Jews were dehumanized in Nazi Germany.

      In fact, after the Rwandan genocide, it was Israelis who traveled there, or who brought survivors to Israel, in order to learn from Holocaust survivors how to get over the trauma and how to cope with the living memory of it all. Also Israeli survivors of terror attacks gave advice and psychological support, and Israel advisors set up support programs in Rwanda in order to help them cope and recover from the terrible trauma.

  2. Reality says:

    After reading such a depressing article, what can be done to correct matters? During the last war & still continuing, various groups including the IDF asked people to pass on & share various pictures,articles & videos.Obviously none of this works. So again I ask what can be done? A big part of the problem also lies with the US administration making absolutely clear their distaste for Israel.If they or England for that matter, would stand loud & clear & support Israel a lot of these “journalists”(I put them in quotation marks because it doesn’t take only a journalist to skew the truth) wouldn’t be so “politically correct” I include in this also Israels very left wing media who have to take a large part of the blame on these matters too.So what can be done? One thing that must be put into practice is for Israel to disallow free passage into & out of Gaza for any journalist especially in time of war. They very happily(or are too intimidated to print the truth as we heard directly after the last war) publish devastating lies which are wielded against us in the UN. Let them make their way through Egypt & take their lives in their hands. This must be made clear to them, that even if they feel their lives are in danger from Hamas we WILL NOT get them out. I know this is a disgusting way to act , but if they want to print any untruths about Israel in order to satisfy Hamas ,they should deal with the consequenses.(as we see what ISIS does to journalists they have no need of !). It is time for Israel to act offensively not defensively.

    • anneinpt says:

      I really don’t know what the answer is to this media bias. I don’t know if the Obama Administration is a cause or a symptom of the disease: Liberalism and human rights are the new religion, and Obama was elected under that flag. Israel is perceived as “violating” that liberalism and certainly is put over as violating human rights, and thus we get this vicious media coverage.

      Yes, maybe not letting journalist into Gaza would be a start, but I can’t see us not letting them out. It would never happen. Remember, Israel itself is a liberal society and we wouldn’t stoop as low as our enemies. It’s a tempting thought but it won’t happen, for better or (more likely) for worse.

      What we should do also is revoke the press credentials of those journalists and media outlets, eg NYT, AP, BBC – most of them actually – who spread lies and anti-Israel propaganda.

      Yes, they can do the same from outside Israel but they do love to be in Israel and feel heroic that they’re on the “front line”, and enjoy all our liberal lifestyle while trashing it in print at the same time.

      Israel and Jewish organizations should also sue these media for fanning the flames of the antisemitism which is now rife around the world.

  3. Pingback: Telling it like it is | Anne's Opinions

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