Panel says neutral reporting nearly impossible in Mideast

Much of the coverage of the crisis in the Middle East has been slanted against Israel, but the Jewish state also bears some blame in the negative press it has received, according to reporters who spoke last week at San Francisco's Reform Congregation Emanu-El.

Though there was some disagreement on the extent to which Israel has been victimized by a biased media, one thing was made clear — the sacrosanct tenet of objectivity holds little sway when discussing issues such as the al-Aksa intifada or Temple Mount.

The Nov. 30 panel discussion, co-sponsored by a number of Jewish community agencies as part of a series on the crisis in Israel, was moderated by Lisa Gann-Perkal, director of the San Francisco Israel Center.

The three panelists were Dan Mogulof and Bruno Wassertheil, both former correspondents for CBS News, and Peter Waldman, a former Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

"Perhaps we should replace objectivity with negotiated subjectivity," mused Mogulof, who covered the tense region for three years as the U.S. network's Israel bureau chief. Mogulof said that Israel was the recipient of negative coverage because of the underdog status accorded the Palestinians, a factor that also came into play when he covered the wars in Chechnya and Bosnia.

"Journalists are, after all, human beings, and there is a very human tendency to root for the underdog," he said, adding that the paradigm shifts every time a terrorist attack plays out against Israeli civilians.

"The great thing about being a reporter in the Middle East is that you can go from being a self-hating Jew to a Zionist lackey in less than 24 hours," quipped Mogulof.

Perhaps the true definition of a neutral reporter in the Middle East would be a "Swiss atheist," countered panelist Wassertheil, who served for 15 years as the chief radio correspondent for CBS Radio News in Israel.

Wassertheil's stint in Israel included coverage of the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War and the invasion of Lebanon, and gave him a bird's-eye view of the leaders that have shaped Israel's policies over the past three decades.

"Israel has a long history of eloquent political leaders who were experts at articulating their viewpoints, and fluent in English," said Wassertheil. "Unfortunately, Ehud Barak is not one of them."

Wassertheil pointed out that Prime Minister Barak, who attended Stanford, is much less versed in the nuances of the English language than Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, who has the press "wrapped around her finger."

Noting that the media, especially CNN (which all three panelists singled out for providing the most ill-informed and biased coverage), flock to Ashrawi for great sound bites, Wassertheil suggested that it is incumbent on Israel to promote a similar spokesperson.

"What we need is a Hanan Ashrawi minus the lies and exaggerations," Wassertheil told a tittering audience.

The enormous complexity in covering the Middle East is exacerbated by camera-ready events, according to Waldman, who recalled his first balagan (disaster) in 1991.

"I was told by some sources that there would be a riot at a village near where I was stationed. But when I got there, there was no tear gas, no rubber bullets and no rock-throwing, just a few teenagers holding Palestinian flags.

"But then, as if on cue, the Israeli military arrived, and the teenagers started throwing rocks. It was as if everyone was acting from a script, and had memorized their lines."

In "covering" the region, a reporter quickly learns the rules, according to Mogulof.

"The old axiom of 'if it bleeds it leads' is especially true in the Middle East," he said. "Nobody wants to hear about the average Palestinian or Israeli going about their business. They want to hear about the conflict and the drama."

That often prompted him to drive from an area of relative tranquility to a strife-torn village.

"Everyday, I got up and commuted to war," he said.

The free forum, called "Media Coverage of the Crisis: Biased or Balanced?" was organized by San Francisco's Jewish Community Relations Council and co-sponsored by a number of major Jewish agencies, in cooperation with Emanu-El.