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January 30, 2015

Highlights from Matti Friedman's Speech on Mideast Media Coverage

Building on his important critique of Middle East media coverage (in Tablet), his short follow-up (also in Tablet), and his more detailed exploration (in The Atlantic), former Associated Press reporter Matti Friedman this week delivered a masterful speech on how and why journalists get the story of Israel and the Palestinians so wrong.

The full text of the lecture, delivered at a Bicom dinner, can be found here. You should read it. Meanwhile, we’ve put together a few highlights from the speech, and a couple of thoughts, below.

In his presentation, Friedman asks, and then sets out to answer,

How have the doings in a country that constitutes 0.01 per cent of the world’s surface become the focus of angst, loathing, and condemnation more than any other?

More than any other? If you’re not sure whether that’s plausible, consider the findings of our recent 6-month study of The New York Times Opinion pages, which notes that that even the overwhelming bloodshed and destruction in what was once Syria was less important to Times opinion editors than Israel and the Palestinians. “While 75 opinion pieces focused on Israel or the Palestinians,” we pointed out, “56 focused on Syria.”

Friedman offers a corrective to those who would think the hundreds of thousands of dead in Syria might put into context the relatively minor conflict across Syria’s south-west border:

One would expect the growing scale and complexity of the conflict in the Middle East over the past decade to have eclipsed the fixation on Israel in the eyes of the press and other observers. Israel is, after all, a sideshow: The death toll in Syria in less than four years far exceeds the toll in the Israel-Arab conflict in a century. The annual death toll in the West Bank and Jerusalem is a morning in Iraq.

And yet it is precisely in these years that the obsession has grown worse.

“Obsession” seems an apt word to describe a media climate in which even t-shirts becomes an international story. Says Friedman,

In early 2009, to give one fairly routine example of an editorial decision of the kind I mean, I was instructed by my superiors to report a second-hand story taken from an Israeli newspaper about offensive t-shirts supposedly worn by Israeli soldiers. We had no confirmation of our own of the story’s veracity, and one doesn’t see much coverage of things US Marines or British infantrymen have tattooed on their chests or arms. And yet t-shirts worn by Israeli soldiers were newsworthy in the eyes of one of the world’s most powerful news organizations. ... Much of the international press corps covered the t-shirt story.

And another example of AP’s obsession:

At around the same time, several Israeli soldiers were quoted anonymously in a school newsletter speaking of abuses they had supposedly witnessed while fighting in Gaza; we wrote no fewer than three separate stories about this, although the use of sources whose identity isn’t known to reporters is banned for good reason by the AP’s own in-house rules.

The anecdotes, by the way, turned out to be little more than hearsay and rumors.

It’s important to note, and Friedman does, that AP is hardly the only organization involved in this obsession. Nor is it the worst. The New York Times actually published four articles about the rumors from the newsletter. At the time, CAMERA pointed out that the first of its stories appeared on the front page of the newspaper, above the fold. We also noted that The Times decided to place more importance on these Israeli rumors than on similar accounts by American servicemen. A large gathering of US soldiers alleging atrocities a year earlier was ignored by the newspaper. And even American confessions to possible war crimes in Iraq were placed far from the front page. CAMERA explained that

when a US sniper testified before a military court in February 2008 that "he had ordered a subordinate to kill an unarmed Iraqi man who wandered into their hiding position near Iskandariya, then planted an AK-47 rifle near the body to support his false report about the shooting," The New York Times buried the story on page 8.

When the newspaper learned in August 2008 that two American soldiers confessed, in a signed statement to army investigators, to executing handcuffed and blindfolded Iraqi prisoners and dumping their bodies into a canal, the story ran on page 11. And when the soldiers were formally charged with murder a month later, it was noted on page 16.

Such is how, as Friedman put it, "Israel’s flaws were dissected and magnified, while the flaws of its enemies were purposely erased." He elaborated:

I saw how a fictional image of Israel and of its enemies was manufactured, polished, and propagated to devastating effect by inflating certain details, ignoring others, and presenting the result as an accurate picture of reality.

That's the "what." Friedman also addresses the "why," describing the flawed coverage as deliberate result of a inclinations by journalists (AP covered Israeli t-shirts because "we sought to hint or say outright that Israeli soldiers were war criminals") or even of a policy of obfuscation ("Our policy … was not to mention the assertion in the Hamas founding charter that Jews were responsible for engineering both world wars and the Russian and French revolutions, despite the obvious insight this provides into the thinking of one of the most influential actors in the conflict").

This, Friedman explains, stems from a fashionable political stance in the world of journalism and beyond:

The international press in Israel had become less an observer of the conflict than a player in it. It had moved away from careful explanation and toward a kind of political character assassination on behalf of the side it identified as being right. It valued a kind of ideological uniformity from which you were not allowed to stray. So having begun with limited criticism of certain editorial decisions, I now found myself with a broad critique of the press.

… The press was playing a key role in an intellectual phenomenon taking root in the West, but it wasn’t the cause, or not the only cause – it was both blown on a certain course by the prevailing ideological winds, and causing those winds to blow with greater force.

And that political stance, in turn, is an extension of an old, bad habit:

What presents itself as political criticism, as analysis, or as journalism, is coming to sound more and more like a new version of a much older complaint – that Jews are troublemakers, a negative force in world events, and that if these people, as a collective, could somehow be made to vanish, we would all be better off. This is, or should be, a cause for alarm, and not only among people sympathetic to Israel or concerned with Jewish affairs. What is in play right now has less to do with the world of politics than with the worlds of psychology and religion, and less to do with Israel than with those condemning Israel.

And he goes on:

The only group of people subject to a systematic boycott at present in the Western world are Jews, appearing now under the convenient euphemism ‘Israelis.’ The only country that has its own ‘apartheid week’ on campuses is the Jewish country. Protesters have interfered with the unloading of Israeli shipping on the West Coast of the United States, and there are regular calls for a boycott of anything produced in the Jewish state. No similar tactics are currently employed against any other ethnic group or nationality, no matter how egregious the human rights violations attributed to that group’s country of origin.

Anyone who questions why this is so will be greeted with shouts of ‘the occupation!’, as if this were explanation enough. It is not. Many who would like to question these phenomena don’t dare, for fear that they will somehow be expressing support for this occupation, which has been inflated from a geopolitical dilemma of modest scope by global standards into the world’s premier violation of human rights.

The human costs of the Middle Eastern adventures of America and Britain in this century have been far higher, and far harder to explain, than anything Israel has ever done. They have involved occupations, and the violence they unleashed continues as I speak here this evening. No one boycotts American or British professors. Turkey is a democracy, and a NATO member, and yet its occupation of northern Cyprus and long conflict with the stateless Kurds – many of whom see themselves as occupied – are viewed with a yawn; there is no ‘Turkish Apartheid Week.’

(Egypt, too, has garnered some yawns, we recently pointed out.)

And he goes deeper:

Observers of Western history understand that at times of confusion and unhappiness, and of great ideological ferment, negative sentiment tends to coagulate around Jews. Discussions of the great topics of the time often end up as discussions about Jews.

The coagulation is visible when we look at the Dreyfus affair, Friedman explains, and at German concern with Jewish bankers in the lead up to Nazism, and at communist concern with Jewish capitalists, and at capitalist concern with Jewish Bolsheviks. And it's visible now.

The West today is preoccupied with a feeling of guilt about the use of power. That’s why the Jews, in their state, are now held up in the press and elsewhere as the prime example of the abuse of power. That’s why for so many the global villain, as portrayed in newspapers and on TV, is none other than the Jewish soldier, or the Jewish settler. This is not because the Jewish settler or soldier is responsible for more harm than anyone else on earth – no sane person would make that claim. It is rather because these are the heirs to the Jewish banker or Jewish commissar of the past. It is because when moral failure raises its head in the Western imagination, the head tends to wear a skullcap.

We summarized only part of Friedman's analysis. There's much more worth reading, including, for the easily depressed among us, an optimistic conclusion. So again, check the speech out in its entirety here, and share it with your friends.

Posted by GI at January 30, 2015 02:37 PM

Comments

Friedman's recent speech on the untrue and pernicious coverage of the State of Israel, and indeed Israelis and all Jews, is one that should be "must-read" for all students of current events. Journalists could benefit greatly from his insights.

Posted by: Frankie at February 5, 2015 05:46 PM

This is an incredible piece.

It's a shame it was only presented to such a limited audience.

What is "Bicom"?

Can I link to this pdf?

Can I download it post the text elsewhere?

Posted by: Naif Mabat at February 6, 2015 07:03 AM

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