Why Israel is losing the media war

In mid-April, a bomb factory "work accident" that Palestinian spokesmen falsely described as an Israeli rocket attack ripped through the Ramallah Force-17 headquarters. As newspeople descended on the scene, Palestinian Authority security personnel roughly confiscated film from photographers and TV cameramen.

"They made it quite clear," says Mark Lavie of the Associated Press, that anyone who resisted "would not have a happy day."

As a result, photos of the blast did not appear on TV screens. Some news services did not even bother to report the film confiscation. But the false accusation of an Israeli rocket attack lingered in media reports for the next day or two.

In a sea of details, do such omissions and shadings accumulate to resemble systematic media bias against Israel? Or is anti-Israel media bias a myth?

A three-month investigation of the foreign press in Israel reveals that some foreign correspondents do impose their private sympathies on the news they report.

More ominous for accurate reporting, however, is the success of the Palestinian Authority, through intimidation of journalists and manipulation of the journalistic process, in making sure that its version of events dominates the West's television screens and newspapers.

Meanwhile, Israel's own ineffective efforts to deliver its message add yet another reason that Israel seems to be losing the media war.

During the Oct. 12 lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah, Palestinian police as well as demonstrators, eager to keep the event from the world media, punched, kicked and even threatened journalists with knives in order to confiscate their film, according to eyewitnesses.

The Palestinian Authority police prevented a local photographer for a major American daily from recording the crowd's celebratory dancing after the murders. Ominously, she adds, it "would jeopardize my security to be quoted by name." In fact, like many journalists interviewed for this article, she asked not to be named.

In March, amid an atmosphere hot with suspicion and hostility, Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian Authority's Tanzim militia, warned outright that any Israeli journalist who entered Palestinian areas would be killed. Since then, most Israeli journalists either stay home or make sure to be accompanied by well-connected Palestinians.

Barghouti also threatened harm to any Palestinian who cooperated with Israeli news people.

In short, the Palestinian campaign to control the news by force or threat, while not new, has become pandemic. The 220-member Foreign Press Association has neither investigated nor undertaken action against Palestinian intimidation of journalists.

Violence against journalists does not only originate from the Palestinian side, however. Nearly two dozen journalists, mostly Palestinians, have been shot by Israeli soldiers (including CNN's Ben Wedeman, wounded in the back by live fire in Gaza). Some have suffered very serious wounds.

In only one or two cases has the IDF's investigation resulted in identifying or punishing the perpetrator.

Ranaan Gissin, foreign press and public affairs adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, says the problem is that journalists "want to be where the action is — they want to see the bullet come out of the barrel." Because they work in the line of fire, it is difficult, he says, for soldiers to distinguish them from demonstrators.

However, according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, Israeli security forces and Jewish settlers have beaten journalists covering the political violence, in some cases with Israeli soldiers looking on.

While maintaining its silence on Palestinian intimidation of journalists, the Foreign Press Association has firmly protested Israeli violence against journalists with letters to high government officials.

As the Palestinian uprising grinds on, the words and especially the pictures that record it are molded mostly by Palestinians. How did such an extraordinary situation develop?

Those Israeli journalists who still go into Palestinian areas make certain to be accompanied by Palestinians whose connections with the security services can protect them. "But if you're accompanied in this way, you're also restricted in what you see and are able to report," points out Khaled Abu Toameh, a Palestinian reporter for Israeli, American and Arab outlets. Foreign journalists — many of whom don't go out into the field — commonly rely on Palestinian stringers or freelancers for information.

"The Palestinian stringers feed the foreign press with material that is acceptable to the Palestinian authorities," says Abu Toameh.

Foreign journalists also rely on Palestinian assistants, called "fixers," who know the language, can ensure easy access to officials and events, and will arrange anything a reporter needs, from a driver to a translator.

Those fixers are not professional journalists, and are often affiliated with a political or security group; part of their job is to impose their point of view.

As for pictures, 80 percent of camera people now working in the Palestinian areas are Palestinians, a journalist for a Dutch agency estimates, "so the pictures, with all their pathos and drama, come from the Palestinian side."

Her estimate may be low. Veteran Israeli commentator Ehud Ya'ari judges that "over 95 percent" of the pictures shipped to foreign and Israeli channels are supplied by Palestinian film crews.

In short, news from Israel is generated by people loyal to and afraid of the Palestinian authorities. "They simply don't dare film anything that could embarrass the Palestinian Authority," Ya'ari concludes. "So the cameras are angled to show a tainted view of the Israeli army's actions, never focus on the Palestinian gunmen and diligently produce a very specific kind of close-up of the situation on the ground."

Ya'ari himself does not go into Palestinian areas. Abu Toameh, who does, calls Ya'ari's analysis "200 percent correct."

"A foreign journalist who claims to be 'objective' will be boring or a liar," says Sam Kiley of the London Times. "There are lots of truths in this conflict."

But if so, why do so many correspondents seem to see the same truth?

"They feel they must help the Palestinians," says Fiamma Nirenstein, correspondent for the Italian daily La Stampa. She sees her colleagues romanticizing the Palestinians as David fighting the Israeli Goliath, as if the underdogs are by definition the good guys.

Dutch TV's Conny Mus identifies as central "the fact that a mighty army is using all its might to kill a smaller force."

Mus goes on to contend that the press presents "an accurate picture" of events, and that pro-Israel readers think the news is skewed only because they "don't know what is happening on the Palestinian side."

To an extent he's right — Jews often don't like to see Israel in a bad light, even when the facts are reported accurately. But a report can be accurate and still miss the point. For example, an article may emphasize the number of Palestinian casualties, as if body count is an objective measure, without indicating that the Israeli dead have been mostly innocent civilians, not armed rioters and terrorists.

Many journalists simply note Israel's "conquest" of the West Bank, never indicating that this conquest came in a defensive war against Jordan, and that the Palestinians were never sovereign there. As Andrea Levin of CAMERA, a media-watchdog group, points out, reporters "may cover a story and get the micro issues correct [while] getting the macro issue completely wrong."

The journalists' mindset may also come from what an American-Israeli journalist castigates as "massive ignorance."

Many correspondents get little or no preparation time before being dropped into Jerusalem and Ramallah. Once on the ground, they must play catch-up, learning on the job, often from other foreign correspondents.

Media watchdog groups have accused the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and London Times, along with the Washington Post, CNN, Sky News, Reuters, the BBC and other outlets, of editing news stories to minimize Palestinian misdemeanors and emphasize Israeli ones, to shift sympathy away from Israel or to make Israel look like the aggressor.

The media have also been charged with ignoring stories that show the Palestinians in a less than positive light.

But it's not just the other guy's fault. If Israel is losing the crucial second war of media coverage, the woeful inadequacy of its hasbarah, or efforts at explaining its policies, is also to blame. Ironically, in their shoptalk, even staunchly pro-Israel journalists sing the Palestinian Authority's praises.

David Bedein, whose Israel Media Resources agency is commonly associated with the Israeli right, praises the Palestinian Authority's accessibility and openness.

And Matthew Kelman, a correspondent for USAToday, calls the authority "a pleasure to deal with. Their officials offer to help, they're easy to deal with, they give easy access, they're more friendly and warm than the Israelis — and they have better stories."

Nobody says anything like that about Israel's media apparatus. On the contrary — and off the record — reporters who care agree that Israel "couldn't be doing a worse job" of hasbarah. "The spokespeople don't know how to talk to the camera," one reporter says with exasperation, "they have poor English; they often appear in uniform, which makes them seem like part of the problem; and they speak in bombastic, self-righteous terms."

Another calls Israeli media officials "prickly," and complains, "They don't call back; they leak information selectively; and they sometimes don't release information even when they have it."

Reasons for the ineffectiveness of Israel's media relations include budget cuts, bureaucratic infighting, overwork, arrogance and plain incompetence.

Gissin, the prime minister's media chief, admits that Israel's media efforts have suffered from "technical problems," including inadequate spokespeople. But now, he promises, "I am sending people who can deliver."

It may not be enough. While Israel's Government Press Office simply issues each new journalist a press card and lets him fend for himself, says Steven Rosenberg, editor of the Boston Jewish Advocate, the Palestinians will approach him, offering a wide network of help.

Such guidance can also help to shape the reporter's understanding of the events he's writing about. Israel's current foreign minister, Shimon Peres, has been quoted as remarking that a good policy requires no hasbarah while a bad policy can't be helped by hasbarah.

That may be true in a perfect world. So far, as fighting the media war is concerned, Israel doesn't yet seem to realize that it isn't living in a perfect world.