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Treat News Manipulators As Journalists?

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Should Israel treat pro-Palestinian news manipulators as if they were serious journalists? Should they be given privileges because they belong to supposedly reputable media outlets? Why accommodate the allies of your enemies?

Such questions arise anew after a recent study of anti-Israel bias on the part of Reuters by Henry Silverman of Chicago’s Roosevelt University.

Professor Silverman investigated fifty news-oriented articles by Reuters on the Middle East. His findings about this “objective” news agency were damning. Silverman concluded that coverage of the Middle East conflict “is systematically tainted by propaganda and influences readers to side with the Palestinian and Arab states against the Israelis.”

Silverman analyzed these articles for reporting and ethical failures, such as propaganda devices and logical fallacies. As Reuters has a handbook of rules its reporters are supposed to follow, he also checked the articles against its requirements. Silverman found more than 1,100 instances of reporting failures in these articles. On the average, this amounts to 22 failures per (relatively short) article. Silverman then submitted the articles to students who were neutral about the Middle East conflict. After they had read the biased articles, their views shifted to pro-Palestinian.

Trevor Asserson, a British litigation lawyer now living in Israel, applied a somewhat different methodology to the BBC several years ago. This media outlet is heavily subsidized by the British government and enjoys an important monopoly position. It operates under a government charter which defines 15 legal obligations including fairness, respect for truth, due accuracy, attachment to fundamental democratic principles, not broadcasting opinions on current affairs or public policy, insuring that opposing views are not misrepresented and not letting the audience gauge the reporter’s personal views.

Asserson checked various BBC TV programs on the Middle East against its commitments under the charter. He analyzed all documentaries on the Middle East shown on BBC 1 and 2 from late June 2002 to 2004. Afterward, Asserson said the BBC was conducting “what amounts to something equivalent to a campaign to vilify Israel, broadcasting a documentary critical of Israel every two to three months…. 88% of documentaries on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict paint either a negative impression of Israel or (in two cases) a positive image of Palestinians.” He also found that “there is a systemic problem with the BBC complaints system.”

Asserson concluded: “BBC’s news reports concerning Israel are distorted by omission, by inclusion, by only giving partial facts, by who is interviewed, and by the background information provided, or lack of it. The only way to establish this factually was to do a proper forensic analysis. I prepared my reports in the way in which a judge would expect the evidence to be presented in a court of law.”

Another form of news manipulation is selective publishing of biased op-eds. Recently, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu “respectfully declined” to write an op-ed for The New York Times. His senior adviser Ron Dermer wrote a reply to the newspaper in which he quoted the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan’s admonition that “everyone is entitled to [his] own opinion, but no one is entitled to [his] own facts.”

Dermer pointed out that the Times had published an article by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas containing false historical “facts,” which it could and should have verified quite easily. Dermer also checked op-eds about Israel published within the last three months in The New York Times and in the (Times-owned) International Herald Tribune. Nineteen out of those twenty op-ed pieces were negative.

If such manipulation or propaganda is practiced by three media outlets counted among the profession’s elite, what can one possibly expect from others? To get an idea of how low some have stooped – and not related to Israel – one should follow the inquiry in the United Kingdom carried out by Lord Justice Leveson about the multiple infringements of privacy by the tabloid press.

The now defunct News of the World hacked the voice mails of many individuals. It hired detectives to place people under surveillance and planted a Trojan virus to hack into one target’s computer. It also employed a convicted criminal because of his good relationship with the police.

Other tabloids fabricated stories about people. A particularly disturbing case was that of the Daily Express, which invented defamatory information about the parents of the McCann family whose daughter had disappeared. A former reporter at the Daily Mirror testified that phone hacking was rampant at the paper in the late ‘90s.

There is a pressing need for a major study on the extremely doubtful ethics of present-day journalism. Using Israel as a test case would be a helpful way to accomplish this.

In the meantime, Israel must act. It is time to form a Knesset caucus on media that should tackle this complex issue and hold the government accountable when it accommodates manipulators among the journalists. Freedom of the press is one thing. Being assisted by the government to help the enemy is something radically different. Ministers should be asked why certain journalists (read: Palestinian and Arab propagandists) enjoy privileges. Let them fend for themselves without the rights and privileges press cards offer.

About the Author: Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is a board member and former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (2000-2012). He is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award (2012) of the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism.


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