Web site pounces on media accused of anti-Israel bias

NEW YORK — Nearly nine months into the Palestinian uprising, Jewish activists cite visits to Israel and street rallies as the two most effective ways to show solidarity with the Jewish state.

But the folks behind the Web site HonestReporting.com seem to have hit on a third approach — "cyber-activism."

The fledgling, New York-based outfit has quickly gained a devoted following by pouncing on media outlets they feel either are reporting inaccurately on Israeli-Palestinian violence or engaging in flat-out anti-Israel bias.

Derided by its enemies as a group of "Zionists" and "right-wing extremists," the Web site now has 13,000-plus members.

Several similar sites have sprouted in recent months, but HonestReporting distinguishes itself by including a sample letter of complaint for readers to send — and e-mail addresses of key editors and reporters at the offending news outlets.

"The media says it is committed to fair and accurate coverage, and what we're trying to do is to hold them to that standard," said Sharon Tzur, director of Media Watch International, which runs HonestReporting.

Explaining differences in connotation between "settlements" and "neighborhoods," or among "terrorists," "militants" and "activists," HonestReporting zeroes in on the word choices the media make and how those choices shape public opinion.

On March 26, for example, when 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass was shot by a Palestinian gunman, the online version of the Washington Post ran an Associated Press report headlined, "Jewish Toddler Dies in the West Bank."

Guided by an HonestReporting missive, members flooded the Post's Web site with complaints demanding a switch from passive to active language to describe an act in which a sniper had lined up the baby's head in the crosshairs of his rifle scope.

Within 90 minutes, HonestReporting says, the Post had changed the headline to "Jewish Baby Shot Dead on West Bank."

Perhaps even more significant than its efforts to sensitize or sting news outlets is the way HonestReporting empowers its members, many of whom are diaspora Jews frustrated by their inability to do more to help Israel.

Take Jonathan Reich.

A pediatric cardiologist in Lakeland, Fla., Reich is active in his synagogue and local Jewish federation.

But when Palestinian violence began last September, he sought ways to get involved as a means to "deal with my anger" at the situation, at the media, and at the international human rights organizations that seemed to be lining up against Israel.

"It can be very lonely sending e-mails" of complaint "or making long distance phone calls; you can't go on doing it unless you feel like you're actually doing something," Reich said.

Through HonestReporting, "if enough people write enough letters to enough journalists, these 'little' issues — which really are not so little — can be reported accurately," he said. "Journalists shouldn't be allowed to say whatever they want and not be called on it."

Reich said he's delivered to HonestReporting 30 members of his Conservative synagogue, which "gave them something to do instead of just sitting at home, wringing their hands and becoming apathetic."

Says Tzur: "We're trying to get the Jewish community active, informing them and giving them a platform to be active and make a difference."

HonestReporting was the brainchild of two Jewish university students in London.

In October, soon after the outbreak of violence, the pair grew upset with the portrayal of events in the British media, Tzur said.

Indeed, Jewish observers say the British media are among the most anti-Israel in Europe.

The two students created the HonestReporting Web site — writing and circulating occasional reports and rebuttals to the local media — during breaks from their studies.

Their site and e-mails grew in popularity.

By early winter, diaspora Jewish activists were imploring Israel to beef up its "hasbarah," a Hebrew term for public relations.

In December, the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox group focused on outreach to secular Jews, provided close to $150,000 in seed money to create Media Watch International for a dual purpose: to absorb HonestReporting and continue with its activism and media watchdog work, and to educate the media with position papers, Tzur said.

Position paper topics include "The Palestinian Authority and the Press: A History of Distortion and Intimidation," "Palestinian Children in Danger" and "Palestinian Denial of Religious Freedoms."

In February, minutes after Israelis elected as prime minister Ariel Sharon — often depicted in the media as a "hard-liner," "extremist" or even "war criminal" — Media Watch sent out a position paper to 1,200 American news outlets, explaining who Sharon really "is," Tzur said.

After the injection of Aish cash, individual donors — predominantly American — have picked up the slack, Tzur said.

Still, Media Watch and HonestReporting's staff of less than a dozen workers in Israel and New York operates on a monthly budget in the vicinity of $25,000, she said.

HonestReporting is set to launch a Spanish-language service based in Buenos Aires — at the behest of Argentine Jewish activists — to combat what they perceive as slanted reporting in the Argentine media, Tzur said.

Media Watch also is considering starting sites in Italy, France, Russia and South Africa.

Today, HonestReporting sends its members biweekly "missives," urging them to respond to bias or inaccuracy and praising outlets they believe provide fair, balanced coverage.

The site currently honors the National Post of Canada and the New Republic for such coverage.

Not surprisingly, HonestReporting has earned its share of enemies.

The site has a long-running feud with the Guardian, the London-based daily that is the newspaper of choice for left-leaning British intellectuals.

In February, HonestReporting members inundated the paper because of its perceived pro-Palestinian bent.

The paper's David Leigh responded with an article headlined "Media Manipulators," in which he hinted that the letter-writers were "right-wing extremists."

Leigh complained that the letters were "a bit scary in their violent tone," citing a snippet that reportedly read "The bloody Guardian… Have you killed a Jew today?"

An American Muslim news service, MSANEWS, reported the "Zionist pressure" applied to the Guardian, and encouraged its own members to join HonestReporting.

"It's good to know what our enemies are up to," said a posting on MSANEWS by a man named Bilal, who then cautioned, "obviously, do not use any Arab-sounding names."