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
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
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
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
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
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.
by Courtney Kealy/Getty Images
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.
by Darren McCollester/ABC/Getty Images
AND THE MIDDLE EAST Ñ 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
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
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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