Journalist explains why Israel is losing the media war

“Don’t they just shoot children?”

Questions like that one, asked by people who believe that Israeli soldiers fire indiscriminately upon Palestinian children, prompted Stephanie Gutmann to write “The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy.”

The author spoke recently

to a small lunchtime audience at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation building. Her appearance was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

Gutmann spent a lot of time in Israel as a child and teenager. Her Jewish father had family that had settled in pre-state Israel after fleeing pogroms in Russia, and he continually thought about doing so himself. But her interest in Israel faded, only to be rekindled by the incessant coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when the second intifada began.

Her book resulted from her experience at the time. “I wanted to do a primer about media coverage and how it works,” she said. “I still find people who say ‘it must be true because I

saw it on CNN.’ If people think that’s the absolute truth, there’s still a place to remind them that news is manufactured by people and that people are involved in every step of the way.”

In addition to everyone’s own biases they bring to the subject, Gutmann said, the Middle East conflict is seen as a sort of “proving ground” for many young journalists looking to make a name for themselves.

“You have a lot of 22-year-olds who descend into the region knowing nothing,” she said, later adding, “it’s a quick and dirty way to make your career.”

Additionally, she said, Israel is a magnet of sorts, where journalists can live comfortably and yet cover a war zone. “It’s one of the few places in the world where you can leave Jerusalem in your car, get quotes for the day in a combat zone and be home in time for dinner.”

On the other hand, one reason there is such scant coverage of the atrocities happening in Darfur, Sudan, she said, is because journalists themselves can’t take the conditions.

There are other factors that slant the coverage, too, she said.

One is simply numerical. Jerusalem has as many, if not more, journalists as London, and sometimes people do crazy things just because there are so many cameras to cover it.

The fact that almost all journalists covering the region are based in Israel and not in the Palestinian areas adds to the problem, as it leaves the Israelis exposed to a kind of scrutiny that the Palestinians largely avoid.

“Anyone covered that closely is not going to look good,” she said.

Also, most journalists covering the conflict do not speak Arabic, leaving what’s happening “on the Palestinian street” largely uncovered, she said.

And then finally, there is the problem of being reliant on those known as “fixers,” in the Palestinian areas. Most journalists need these people, who are appointed as such by the Palestinian Authority, to work as escorts for foreign journalists, in many cases serving as their driver and translator.

“Most fixers I know of are quite educated people who have been educated in how to portray the Palestinian line,” she said. Moreover, because Palestinian politics is so factionalized, she said, many fixers are members of certain parties like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or even Hamas, and it’s no secret to whom their allegiances lie.

Noting that she had to use a fixer, too, Gutmann said, “Mine wasn’t a professional; I didn’t choose him from the usual Rolodexes that journalists pass around.”

Finally, she said, the Israelis are still figuring out the importance of good public relations.

“They don’t feel the need to justify themselves.”

“The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy” by Stephanie Gutmann (287 pages, Encounter Books, $25.95).

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."