June 1, 2002

 






 

 

 

 

 


How Israel's foreign press corps rewrote history

by William J. Drummond

They bore names like Mohammed, Waheed, Ibrahim, Salem, Ahmed. These were the September 11 hijackers, all Muslim men. One San Francisco newspaper ran a lead story on Black Tuesday headlined simply, "The Bastards."

The United States was totally unprepared for Muslim Arabs to successfully bring about that kind of sneak attack because for 30 years the media had stereotyped Muslims - Arabs especially - as militarily hapless. This mindset was a holdover from the Six Day War of 1967, when reports were published that Egyptian soldiers fled their positions so fast they left behind their shoes. Later in the Gulf War, Iraq's army was smashed in a matter of days during Desert Storm.

But in September, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon sparked an agonizing reappraisal of American attitudes about Arabs, Islam in general and the complicated political connections that link Afghanistan to Palestine. The aftermath has also rekindled the dispute about media coverage of the Arab world and Israel, where I was Jerusalem bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times starting in 1974. Later, as national security correspondent for National Public Radio, I visited the region several times in the early 1980s, following Anwar Sadat's assassination in Egypt. I returned to Israel in 1992, with the specific intention of profiling the foreign press corps.

The Arabs seen in the media every night are almost all Palestinians. The way we are viewing them and hearing their stories has reflected negatively on Israel. Oddly enough, those images and words are the work mostly of Zionist Jews living in Israel. Should the critics of the coverage want to trace what they consider to be the bias to its source, they should go to the main post office in Jerusalem on Jaffa Road, walk a short ways south, turn left and go down to Hillel Street to Beit Agron. There, at the Israeli Government Press Office, is where the Foreign Press Association members can often be found.

Above, a propaganda poster for the Palestinian Intifada, a book featuring Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the cover, and damaged broadcast equipment are gathered together in a destroyed office within the Voice of Palestine radio station January 20, 2002 in the West Bank town of Ramallah, a day after it was bombed by the Israeli Army. photo by David Silverman/Getty Images

Below, Israeli soldiers look up at the holiest shrine in the Jewish religion in Jerusalem. The spot is the wailing wall, all that remains of King Solomon's Temple. It is in the Jordanian section of the city, which was overrun June 7, 1967 by the Israelis in the Six-Day War. photo by AP/Israeli army

Zionism and Journalism
A look at the Jerusalem press corps' record of reporting on Israel since 1948 reveals that correspondents there have played an important role in shaping attitudes toward the conflict. Before 1967, scrappy little Israel faced the whole Arab world alone. The Israelis were, in media eyes at least, the emotional favorites. Today, led by hard-liner Ariel Sharon, Israel is portrayed as a nation of ideologues persecuting a long-suffering minority.

But what's important to understand is that the very David and Goliath construct (first beneficial to Israel and now detrimental to it) has as its source the same group of reporters: the Jerusalem press corps. Pro-Palestinian partisans might decry Jewish reporters as biased, but in fact reporting by Jews in foreign publications about Israeli actions and policy has frequently been mercilessly critical.

These reports on occasion undermined Israeli government policy and caused prime ministers to rend their garments and gnash their teeth. Jews wrote or broadcast some of the most damning accounts of Israeli excesses against Arabs, both in the Occupied Territories and in Lebanon. Many of these reporters had a demonstrated lifelong commitment to the State of Israel.

The reporting by the Jerusalem press corps is the world's largest body of news about the Arab world over the last 50 years. The work represents a constant personal struggle for the Jewish reporters, who represent close to 95 percent of all reporters filing for overseas organizations. A story critical of Israel under a Jerusalem dateline is most likely the result of painful self-examination by a Jew. The Israeli government and its supporters don't hesitate to play the Jewish guilt card against the reporters perceived as unhelpful, and they do it with effect.

On occasion journalists everywhere find themselves personally conflicted about the subject matter of a report. But for Jews reporting on Arabs, it's the norm, and rife with soul-searching: Do I dare take the bus today? Should I send my family abroad until this bad patch is over? How do I face my friends if I write this story? Considering the pressure, the Jerusalem press corps' overall record is extraordinary. The reporters have shown independence, decency and resilience, not just in reporting a difficult story but in standing up to the extreme social pressures brought to bear on them.

A Media Map of the Middle East
Nothing else in the world of journalism comes close to standing in the plaza of the Western Wall in Jerusalem and looking up at the glistening Dome of the Rock on the plateau just above, one of the holiest sites in Islam. That's how close one is to the collision of religions, cultures and politics. To have served as a correspondent in Israel even for two brief years was to get a taste of being on the spot all the time, walking a tightrope, looking inward, questioning not only my sources, but also, importantly, my own preconceived notions.

Out of that experience of constantly seeking balance, my admiration for my Jewish colleagues was lifted higher. I knew that eventually I would leave for another assignment and would shake the dust from my feet.

But for them Israel had a more permanent dimension. It was the embodiment of Theodore Hertzel's idealism, a Jewish homeland, which the journalist had to reconcile to the reality of what it had become, a state renowned less for its artistic, intellectual and cultural achievements than for its military power. Reconciling Zionism and journalism wasn't easy.

George Gerbner, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, once published a collection of maps depicting the sizes of countries relative to their presence in the US prestige news media. Israel was a watermelon compared to the grape-sized Arab states, despite their larger geography and much larger populations. This was simply visual evidence of what editors have known all along: Israel is a big story, but the news media in the good old USA could care less about Arab countries, individually or as a group, unless they somehow figure into the Israeli security drama. How come?



But Jerusalem, even in "normal" times, has the largest press contingent in the middle east ... with 6 million Jews and 3 million Arabs, Israel is the most intensively reported country on the face of the earth.

It took Thomas Friedman, the celebrated New York Times columnist, to explain this. He says Israel's story is essentially the story of Western civilization. The Jew has a special place in history. Standing in opposition to the Greek view of man having a fixed fate, the Judaeo-Christian ethic proclaims that man has a choice and can be redeemed. Israel of today has inherited the role proclaimed in the Bible as a "light unto the nations."

And if the Israelis behave badly, this eases the consciences of other nations. If the Israelis destroy a Jenin refugee camp, Americans need not worry too much about Wounded Knee. In Friedman's framework, the Gentile states look to Israel so they can reassure themselves, "The Jews are no better than us." The Arabs carry out atrocities, but their actions don't have the same meaning for us. The Arabs have a rich culture and history, says Friedman, but it's not our story. Instead, we see Arabs only in the reflection of Israel's fight for its survival.

Coverage of Palestine was virtually non-existent before 1948. There were no foreign correspondents, and only a few people worked as stringers for British and American papers. With Israel's statehood, many Jewish journalists from all over were attracted to Israel due to the adventure of nation-building. They came from 80 different countries, where Jews often made their presence known in academia, letters and journalism. A ready-made system of stringers was in place for news organizations in virtually every written language on the globe, from Afrikaans to Walloon.

From a modest beginning, the press corps in Israel grew to the present permanent body of around 400 organizations. In times of big events - the trial of Adolf Eichman, the Sadat visit, the Gulf War and now Intifada II - the numbers grow. The greatest number of reporters in Israel before Intifada II was most likely the 1,200 who accompanied the visit of Pope Paul VI Jan. 5-6, 1964. Jerusalem hardly has the largest press corps in the world (that distinction goes to Washington D.C.) But Jerusalem, even in "normal" times, has the largest press contingent in the Middle East. If looked at on a per capita basis, with 6 million Jews and 3 million Arabs, Israel is the most intensively reported country on the face of the earth.

The Rise and Fall of Hasbara
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, spent much of his career coining new words for concepts that did not exist in the days of the last Hebrew commonwealth. He also sought out lost Hebrew words to empower the reborn language. Fortunately, he found the Hebrew word "hasbara," a word whose definition encompasses information as well as propaganda. In the pre-state days, hasbara was Israel's secret weapon.

photo by Courtney Kealy/Getty Images

THE SAUDI REPORT - Journalists grab copies of the final communique from the Arab summit March 28, 2002 in Beirut, Lebanon. Arab leaders agreed on a wide ranging Saudi peace proposal with Israel, offering Israel peace and normal ties for the return of occupied Arab land and an agreement to live alongside a Palestinian state.

For many years after 1948, some prominent news organizations hid the identity of their Jewish reporters in Israel. The Voice of America, the official U.S. broadcast service, for example, relied on Charles Weiss, an American who had lived in Israel since the pre-state days. But The Voice was unwilling to have a Jewish surname report from Jerusalem. Instead, Weiss adopted the nom de plume of Charles Lord. The New York Times struggled with this issue for years. Before Thomas Friedman appeared on the scene in 1984, he was preceded by a succession exclusively of Gentiles going back 40 years. Friedman, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for his Lebanon reporting, was awarded a second Pulitzer in 1988.

Nevertheless, way out of the limelight was a small, unassuming bushy-haired man named Moshe Brilliant, an Israeli Jew living in Tel Aviv, who was the New York Times' unsung stringer for 30 years. Anonymity at the New York Times bit into Brilliant's self-esteem. "I'll tell you, one day I led the paper without a byline, and I was annoyed and I said to myself, the time has come to leave the paper," Brilliant told me ten years ago in an interview in his Tel Aviv apartment. The paper finally amended its policy, and Brilliant's byline appeared.

In the late '60s, a Jewish-American named Michael Elkins, soft-spoken but tough, broke onto the radio scene in Israel where he earned one of broadcast's biggest scoops of the 20th century. At the time, the term 'Palestinian' had not yet even entered the language of common journalism reportage; Israel was seen as a pioneering society, an experiment and very pro-Western. The surrounding countries, in contrast, were seen as hostile Arab states, who, incidentally, were perceived as entirely too friendly to Moscow.

In June 1967, Egypt's Gamal Nasser started the Six Day War by expelling UN observers from Sinai and blockading the Straits of Tiran. Israel struck back, and when the smoke cleared, it had increased fourfold in size. The frontline Arab states - Egypt, Syria, Jordan - were humiliated. It was Michael Elkins who reported that Israel had destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground.

"The Israelis have contrived a formula for instant victory such as the world has never seen," said Elkins in a stirring voice over the radio. His report took uncommon guts - more guts than his bosses had at CBS and the BBC, who both held up the broadcast for several hours. The CBS management sent Elkins a panicky Telex: "No support from any other source. CBS's credibility is on the line with yours. You had better be right." Elkins had the last laugh.

Later in the Black September crisis of 1970 Palestinians hijacked three jetliners, took them to the Jordanian desert and blew them up. Israeli security forces rounded up a number of West Bank Palestinians on suspicion of sabotage activity. But Elkins learned from other sources the Arabs were being held as "counter-hostages" in case harm came to Israelis. Israeli officials were incensed by his broadcast. One of them telephoned him and rebuked Elkins by saying, "When you have an Israeli version, you don't need any other version. You're forgetting your responsibility as a Jew."

Elkins fumed. "I said, 'You son of a bitch, if you were here, I'd knock you on your ass. I never forget my responsibility as a Jew.'" It was not the only time he made the Israeli government unhappy. On Sept. 16, 1982, more than 1,000 Palestinian men, women and children in two Lebanese refugee camps, Sabra and Shatila, were massacred by a Christian Lebanese militia. Elkins was the first to broadcast the details of Israel's complicity in the matter. Though Israelis did not carry out the atrocity, Elkins announced to the world that they did aid and abet it. "I'm a Jew. And it was a terrible thing to decide [to put the broadcast on the air]," Elkins told me. He hunkered down and awaited a knock on the door. "I expected I would be arrested. In fact, there was not one single repercussion." However, Prime Minister Menachem Begin later told him sadly, "Michael, you've made a bad mistake. What you didn't take into account was that in a short time and throughout history, it will be said that the Israelis went in and massacred the people." Elkins, with the benefit of 10 years of hindsight on the affair, conceded that Begin was right. This episode may have been the beginning of the hasbara's undoing.

photo by Darren McCollester/ABC/Getty Images

TELEVISION AND THE MIDDLE EAST Leftt of page: ABC News anchor Ted Koppel (C) listens to and Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (R) make a point May 3, 2002 while Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres looks on during a taping of "Nightline's Town Meeting" at the Church of Notre Dame in Jerusalem.

The Age of Television
The American Colony Hotel is built fortress-style around a splendid inner courtyard, and sitting there one day, I could not help but notice that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times was nearby. He was conducting interviews with West Bank notables. He used a yellow legal pad held with a clipboard - very low-tech. Nearby I saw an Arab television crew conducting an interview on camera with another West Bank notable. It seemed that over the years, the Arabs had learned a thing or two about hasbara.

The Middle East media equation was altered by technology. Satellite transmissions made instant access to any place on the globe possible. Israeli television was carrying the ABC program Nightline. "This means that if there's a debate on Nightline between Israelis and Palestinians, not only is it seen in the United States but it's seen here," said Zeev Chafets, who ran the Government Press Office for Prime Minister Begin and was later editor of the English language news magazine Jerusalem Report when I interviewed him.

He said television's power to influence the story began with Sadat's visit to Jerusalem. "Barbara Walters and Walter Cronkite played such a key role as almost mediators between Begin and Sadat in the first stages," said Chafets. "And it has increased with the ability of the crews to be almost any place." The television coverage was enhanced in an important way by handheld consumer camcorders. For journalism the camcorder is the moral equivalent of the Saturday night special: Cheap, easily concealed and, in terms of impact, a potent equalizer. The television networks began distributing camcorders to Arabs in the territories during the first Intifada. The name Intifada, literally "the shaking off," described street-level uprisings throughout the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem in which young Arabs burned tires and threw rocks at Israeli soldiers, who often responded forcibly with live ammunition. The resulting video has been the underpinning of television coverage in the Occupied Territories ever since.

"That's the way we work. Nothing to hide about it," said Martin Fletcher, a British expatriate and NBC bureau chief. He said NBC decided against hiring professional cameramen in the territories. "We don't because it's such a political thing who you have working for you. Is he PLO? Is he Hamas?" He chose instead amateurs. "Some of them have become quite good cameramen. It's like American home videos, except in the territories."

Fletcher said the viewers were often forewarned about the video's source, "Twice or three times we did stories in which I said 'This story is from the Palestinian viewpoint. It's all shot from Palestinians. This is their view of what is happening.' And we got completely different things, things like Palestinian women sewing the Palestinian flags in their homes, underground education at the time, interesting things that there's no way one of our crews would ever get but showed their view of life. We're proud to have done that."

Meron Medzini, a political scientist at the Hebrew University, was head of the Government Press Office during my tour of duty. He noted that Palestinian news agencies had proliferated after the outbreak of the Intifada. "Whoever is running the Intifada is fully aware of the meaning of foreign press and played it right," said Medzini. "The people who are masterminding the Intifada, some of them journalists, are familiar with the way the foreign press works and knew exactly how to do it, including deadlines. They knew exactly when European news was on, satellite times and so on." As television has overtaken print as the medium dominating the story, Medzini said, it has been excessively hyped and dramatized. "From an Israeli point of view, this is not very beneficial and is harmful because the print is more balanced, has more space. It's not a 20-second situation."

Martin Fletcher argued that he regularly presented political analysis pieces on the air for NBC, but he pointed out the limits of the medium. "TV needs to simplify things. And anything that can be presented in a simplified manner thrives on TV. So of course, Arabs and Jews, kids and soldiers, stones and guns. These are also David and Goliath. It was all true. It wasn't only clichés…Ultimately maybe it didn't serve the real purpose of telling the whole truth, but it was great TV."

When Mike Elkins retired from the BBC, television was already eclipsing print and radio. His report on Sabra and Shatila in 1982 was his swan song. He had lost his pleasure in the chase. "I had this heart attack, and I simply couldn't stand the tension any more, the conflict really," he said. "I couldn't be sure that my automatic sensor would work, that I would be able to hold my Jewishness, my disgust at the government and the other things that were being done, my sense of despair, that I wouldn't be able to keep that out of the broadcast. So I quit."

His departure came at a time when the news from the Middle East was dominated by the spectacle of death, dying and suffering, not reporting and analysis done by somebody with a long-term commitment to the country. By the time Michael Elkins died last year, the page had already turned on an era in Middle East coverage.

William J. Drummond, professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, was Los Angeles Times bureau chief from 1971-74.



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