As this summer's hostilities between Israel and Hamas came to an end in August, a former Associated Press Jerusalem reporter penned a widely circulated article documenting what he described as the ideological bias that guides much of the media’s Israel-Palestinian coverage.
Now, Matti Friedman is back with a second swing at his former employer, revealing what he says is new evidence of intentional omissions and key details never reported because they didn't fit into the premier news agency’s standard line of coverage depicting Israel as the aggressor to the peace-seeking Palestinians.
Friedman's latest piece, “What the Media Gets Wrong About Israel,” was published in the Atlantic on Sunday and quickly rose to be the site's top story, drawing more than 1,000 comments.
The thesis of the article goes like this: The media are a major player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, regularly ignoring developments that paint Palestinians in a negative light, and fail to report on threats to their staff in Gaza by Hamas.
“[T]he pipeline of information from this place is not just rusty and leaking, which is the usual state of affairs in the media, but intentionally plugged,” Friedman wrote.
Friedman detailed events he said he knew firsthand had been ignored by the AP, including a rally last year at Al-Quds University in east Jerusalem in which masked men saluted the Islamic Jihad terrorist group by holding up their arms in a Nazi-type salute.
“[A] picture like this could help explain why many perfectly rational Israelis fear withdrawing their military from east Jerusalem or the West Bank, even if they loathe the occupation and wish to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbors,” Friedman wrote. He said he personally sent the photos to the AP bureau.
“Jerusalem editors decided that the images, and the rally, were not newsworthy, and the demonstration was only mentioned by the AP weeks later when the organization’s Boston bureau reported that Brandeis University had cut ties with Al-Quds over the incident,” Friedman said. By contrast, “the construction of 100 apartments in a Jewish settlement is always news; the smuggling of 100 rockets into Gaza by Hamas is, with rare exceptions, not news at all."
Friedman said the AP also didn't report the threats against its own staff in Gaza. While Hamas’ use of journalists as human shields was reported by the pro-Israel media during the summer conflict, Friedman said the AP, like other outlets, was co-opted into Hamas’ strategy of gaining favorable media coverage:
The AP staff in Gaza City would witness a rocket launch right beside their office, endangering reporters and other civilians nearby—and the AP wouldn’t report it, not even in AP articles about Israeli claims that Hamas was launching rockets from residential areas. (This happened.) Hamas fighters would burst into the AP’s Gaza bureau and threaten the staff—and the AP wouldn’t report it. (This also happened.) Cameramen waiting outside Shifa Hospital in Gaza City would film the arrival of civilian casualties and then, at a signal from an official, turn off their cameras when wounded and dead fighters came in, helping Hamas maintain the illusion that only civilians were dying. (This too happened; the information comes from multiple sources with firsthand knowledge of these incidents.)
Paul Colford, director of media relations for the Associated Press, confirmed to Friedman that armed militants had entered the AP's Gaza office early in the war to complain about a photo that showed a rocket launch site, though Hamas claimed the men “did not represent the group.”
The AP “does not report many interactions with militias, armies, thugs or governments,” Colford said in a statement to Friedman. “These incidents are part of the challenge of getting out the news—and not themselves news.”
Besides the media’s interaction with Hamas, Friedman criticized what he said were the cozy social and professional relationships between the press corps, non-governmental organizations and United Nations staffers, making critical coverage of the well-funded groups a major challenge.
“In these circles, in my experience, a distaste for Israel has come to be something between an acceptable prejudice and a prerequisite for entry. I don’t mean a critical approach to Israeli policies or to the ham-fisted government currently in charge in this country, but a belief that to some extent the Jews of Israel are a symbol of the world’s ills, particularly those connected to nationalism, militarism, colonialism, and racism—an idea quickly becoming one of the central elements of the ‘progressive’ Western zeitgeist, spreading from the European left to American college campuses and intellectuals, including journalists,” Friedman wrote.
The “Israel story,” thus, turns into “a simple narrative in which there is a bad guy who doesn’t want peace and a good guy who does,” Friedman said.
“[W]hile international organizations are among the most powerful actors in the Israel story, they are almost never reported on. Are they bloated, ineffective, or corrupt? Are they helping, or hurting? We don’t know, because these groups are to be quoted, not covered,” Friedman said, describing a revolving door of employment between media outfits and non-profits critical of Israeli policy.
When he was still with the AP in 2009, Friedman said, he decided to take a look at the role of NGOs, because Human Rights Watch “had just been subject to an unusual public lashing” by its own founder who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times criticizing the disproportionate number of condemnations the group issued against Israel, in contrast with any other country in the region. He said his editors “killed the story.”
After the 2008-2009 Gaza war, the U.N. released the Goldstone Report, which alleged that Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza. Two years later, the author of the report, Richard Goldstone, conceded that Palestinian civilians had not been intentionally targeted. The report relied heavily on local NGOs – the same ones Friedman described as having such a cozy relationship with his press colleagues.
The Israeli research group NGO Monitor was working to counter the war crimes allegations made by the international organizations which fed into the Goldstone Report.
Friedman said that while the group “was very much a pro-Israel outfit and by no means an objective observer, it could have offered some partisan counterpoint in our articles to charges by NGOs that Israel had committed ‘war crimes.’”
“But the [AP Jerusalem] bureau’s explicit orders to reporters were to never quote the group or its director, an American-born professor named Gerald Steinberg,” Friedman wrote. “In my time as an AP writer moving through the local conflict, with its myriad lunatics, bigots, and killers, the only person I ever saw subjected to an interview ban was this professor.”
Steinberg on Monday called the allegation that he had been banned from AP reports “not entirely surprising.”
“[W]e are aware of the intense efforts to maintain the NGO ‘halo effect’ and prevent critical debate. While the AP censorship was explicit, we have experienced similar silencing from other media platforms,” Steinberg posted on NGO Monitor’s website.
Colford, the AP's media relations director, told TheBlaze Monday that Friedman's arguments "have been filled with distortions, half-truths and inaccuracies, both about the recent Gaza war and more distant events."
He said Friedman's suggestion of AP bias against Israel is "false" and that it's “misleading and disingenuous” of Friedman “to selectively pick examples of our work to promote narrow viewpoints.”
“In covering the Gaza war, the AP aimed, as always, to present a fair and accurate picture” and faced “numerous obstacles, including Hamas intimidation, Israeli military censorship, anti-media incitement on both sides of the border, Hamas rocket fire and intense Israeli airstrikes that made it difficult to get around Gaza during the fighting,” Colford said in a statement.
Colford described AP staffers as “courageous,” working in Gaza “often at the risk of great personal harm” and noted that two AP employees were killed covering the Gaza hostilities and that a third was critically wounded.
He said the news agency's coverage “included images and stories about Hamas rocket fire from civilian areas, the suffering of the residents of southern Israel living under the threat of rocket, mortar and tunnel-based attacks, Hamas' field executions of suspected collaborators, the fears of Gazans to criticize the group, Hamas' use of civilian areas for cover and the devastation wreaked on Gazan civilians by Israeli airstrikes and artillery attacks.”
Colford called the allegation that Steinberg had been banned from AP coverage "baseless" and sent TheBlaze nine stories from between 2007 and 2012 where he was quoted. However, in each of those reports — with the exception of one — Steinberg was quoted only in his capacity as a political science professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, on issues including Iranian elections, Pakistani nuclear safety and Hezbollah and Jewish “extremism” — but not citing or addressing his work critiquing NGOs.
The only story the AP provided that quoted Steinberg as the head of NGO Monitor was in 2009, when Human Rights Watch issued a report that said there was "strong evidence" that Hamas had committed war crimes by firing rockets that killed Israeli civilians. But even that story did not address the main focus of NGO Monitor’s work, which is critiquing NGO reports on Israel, not Hamas.
In that article, Steinberg criticized Human Rights Watch’s six-month delay before issuing the report critical of Hamas, even though it had already released two reports critical of Israel.
"The fact that it (Hamas) is only now on their agenda exposes their biased priorities," Steinberg told the AP In 2009.