Jews in the old Soviet Union used to tell a bitter joke:
One day in the Moscow Zoo, a little boy leaned too far over the railings of the lion enclosure – and fell into the lion’s cage! As the fierce lion circled the terrified child, a passer-by quickly leapt into the enclosure, swatted the lion out of the way, scooped up the boy, and scrambled with him back up to safety, rescuing the child.
A journalist happened to be passing and saw the whole thing. “That was amazing!” he said to the man: “You’re a hero! I have to write about you – what’s your name?” “Mordechai Greenberg” replied the man. “Ah, a Jew,” muttered the journalist as he turned away.
The next morning, Mordechai’s picture was on the front page of the newspaper – under the headline “Zionist steals lunch from hungry Russian lion”!
Unfortunately this joke has gained new relevance. As a spate of terror attacks has rocked Israel, headlines around the world have twisted facts, in many cases making it seem as if Israelis are the evil perpetrators rather than the victims of violence.
When a baby was murdered and eight people wounded (one who died from her injuries four days later) by a terrorist who rammed his car into a crowd of waiting passengers at a busy Jerusalem train station on October 22, 2014, the prestigious AP news issued a bizarre headline focusing on the driver (whom Israeli police shot as he maneuvered his car to try and hit more passengers): “Israeli Police Shoot Man in East Jerusalem”. Millions of people around the world read that headline, receiving a subtle blast of anti-Israeli propaganda instead of learning about the actual facts of the horrific assault.
As more reports leaked out and it became impossible to ignore the heavy toll of victims, news outlets around the world incredibly tried to minimize the violence. Many cast doubt on Israeli reports by employing quotation marks around the word “terror”, introducing seeds of doubt, as if to question whether the attack had really happened as Israeli sources claimed. Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, for instance, reported “A three year old infant died in a ‘terror’ attack” (doubt-inducing quotes included).
Some withheld context: AP reported simply “a car hit a train station in East Jerusalem”, without mentioning it was a terror attack targeting Jews. When a similar terror attack a few weeks later claimed the life of a Druze army, Capt. Jidan Assad, a police officer, on November 5, the BBC inexplicably reported “Driver hits pedestrians in Jerusalem”, as if the attack was no more than a routine traffic accident.
Reporting the Har Nof Massacre
Bias against reporting terror attacks against Jews hit a new low a few weeks later, on November 18, when four Jews immersed in morning prayers in a suburban Jerusalem synagogue were hacked to death – as well as a heroic Druze policeman who came to their aid - by terrorists armed with meat cleavers, knives and guns.
Foreign reporters seemed to have a hard a time grasping that Jews had been attacked at all. CNN initially posted a “breaking news” headline: “Israeli… Police Shot, Killed 2 Palestinians”. Subsequent CNN headlines mistakenly reported the massacre as “Deadly Attack on Jerusalem Mosque” and later blandly toned down the carnage: “4 Israelis, 2 Palestinians Dead in Jerusalem”. Later in the day, CNN still couldn’t get it right, casting aspersions on accounts of the Israeli police and reporting: “4 Israelis, 2 Palestinians, killed in synagogue attack, Israeli police say”.
“There is no reality elsewhere in the world where journalists can report a terror attack in this style… Coverage like this legitimizes the next murder,” protested Yossi Dagan, head of media relations for the Samaria Regional Council in a formal complaint to Israel’s Government Press Office.
While CNN eventually apologized for its initial headline, other outlets headlined the bloody carnage with bizarre wording of their own. The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) stressed the fates of the terrorists (but not their many victims) in its coverage, tweeting: “Jerusalem Police Fatally Shoot 2 After Apparent Synagogue Attack”. An hour after the massacre, when most news services had corrected their most egregious headlines, the prestigious Reuters persisted in casting doubt the entire episode ever happened, insisting on reporting the massacre as a “suspected Palestinian attack”, rather than as an established fact.
Some news outlets tried to introduce the idea that perhaps the synagogue massacre was somehow understandable or even justified. CBS described the suburban synagogue (which is in western Jerusalem, inside the “green line” of Israel’s pre-1967 borders) as “contested religious site”. Fox News reporter Conor Powell described the massacre as “tit for tat violence on both sides”; unable to provide an example of violence directed at Arabs by Jews, he falsely stated that “neither side” was urging calm. (Missing from Fox’s reporting was the background that both Palestinian Authority and Hamas leaders had been escalating tensions in Jerusalem in the weeks leading up to the massacre, urging Muslims to “defend” their holy places: a rallying cry that has resulted in Muslim attacks on Jews in the past.)
Why the Distortion
What causes these distorted headlines? Many news outlets seem to cling to a familiar narrative, where Israel always is the aggressor: events where Jews are harmed go against this received wisdom. Sometimes this means whitewashing terrorists or terrorist groups. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, for instance, both Reuters and the AP news agency forbade reporters from using the word “terrorist” to describe the perpetrators. (Reporters were allowed to say only “terror attacks”.) When it comes to Israel, even the most extreme terrorist groups are routinely white-washed. The BBC, for example, discourages its reporters from assigning the label “terrorist” to anti-Israel groups. Extremism – such as Hamas’ commitment not only to Israel’s destruction, but its exhortation to murder Jews – too often gets a free pass because it doesn’t fit the prevailing wisdom of an aggressive Israel and hapless Palestinians.
“Most reporters in Gaza believe their job is to document violence directed by Israel at Palestinian civilians,” recalls Matti Friedman, a former AP correspondent, in Tablet Magazine. “A gap has opened (in Israel) between the way things are and they way they are described.”
He explains how most international news bureaus assign dozens of reporters to Israel, other international locations receive very few or no international journalists assigned to them full-time. (In the case of the AP, over 40 staff are assigned to report on Israel, more than China, Russian, India, or the all the 50 countries in sub-Saharan Africa combined.) Editors “believe Israel to be the most important story on earth, or very close,” and the result is a disproportionate obsession with the Jewish state.
Worse, almost all of this coverage is one-sided, for while criticizing Israel and Israeli society is considered by editors to be interesting and newsworthy, critical coverage of Palestinian political affairs or society is not. “Corruption, for example, is a pressing concern for many Palestinians under the rule of the Palestinian Authority,” Friedman recalls, “but when I and another reporter once suggested an article on the subject, we were informed by the bureau chief that Palestinian corruption was ‘not the story.’ (Israeli corruption was and we covered it at length.)”
Sometimes, this inability to report on the larger picture is due to intimidation on the ground. Inside Gaza, for example, Hamas tightly controls journalistic access; foreign journalists risk their lives if they try independent reporting. Many, lacking language skills and reporting under tight deadlines, rely on local stringers who are often controlled by Hamas. (On August 11, 2014, the Foreign Press Association formally complained of Hamas’ “blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods…against visiting international journalists in Gaza”.)
But the desire to fit the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to go right to the top of major news organizations, too. During the fighting in Gaza in August, 2014, for instance, the AP Jerusalem’s chief news editor wrote a story about corruption inside Hamas and senior AP editors nixed the story, preventing it from ever being published.
Senior editors seem, inexplicably, committed to making, rather than reporting, the news. The Jerusalem Bureau Chief for the New York Times, Jodi Rudoren, for instance, publicly dismissed the Foreign Press Association complaints that Hamas officials were intimidating journalists as “nonsense,” and allowed her paper to use reporters who proclaimed their political biases, including one reporter in Gaza who used a picture of Yassir Arafat as his picture on Facebook.
Matti Friedman, the former AP reporter, notes the far-reaching effects of such biased coverage. “When the people responsible for explaining the world to the world, journalists, cover the Jews’ war as more worthy of attention than any other, when they portray the Jews of Israel as the party obviously in the wrong, when they omit all possible justifications for the Jews’ actions and obscure the true face of their enemies, what they are saying to their readers—whether they intend to or not—is that Jews are the worst people on earth. The Jews are a symbol of the evils that civilized people are taught from an early age to abhor. International press coverage has become a morality play starring a familiar villain.”
What You Can Do
Here are three ways we each can help counter bias and challenge outrageous headlines.
- Educate yourself. Read Israeli magazines and newspapers; enjoy Israeli books and films. Perhaps even plan a visit to the Jewish state. The more comfortable you are talking about Israel the better equipped you’ll be at challenging biases and misleading reportage.
- Don’t be afraid to speak out. Newspapers and news agencies respond to readers’ comments. When you see an example of bias, take the time to make a call or send an e-mail to say how you feel. Organizations such as www.honestreporting.com and www.camera.org can help you formulate your thoughts and comments so they’ll be heard.
- Cultivate your own pride. There’s not better advocate for the Jewish state than someone who is proud to be Jewish. Reach out to your fellow Jews and Jewish community to gain knowledge and support as you speak out for Israel and against biased reporting.
Graphic credit: LegalInsurrection.com