It began with a “tell-something” tale by a former reporter. But as with so many small tempests, the shrill response of the alleged victim has fanned the winds to tornado strength.
A former AP reporter, Matti Friedman, publicly detailed allegations of biased coverage of the Israel-Arab conflict and claimed that Gerald Steinberg, a non anti-Israel expert, was banned by the AP. Friedman was immediately and with great force contradicted by Paul Colford, AP’s director of media relations.
Colford claimed Friedman’s articles were filled with “distortions, half-truths and inaccuracies.” And he wrote, point blank, there was “no ban on AP’s use of Prof. Gerald Steinberg.”
So, it’s “he said – he said,” right? But as it turns out, we have a tie-breaker. A second former AP reporter explicitly confirmed to The Jewish Press that, despite Colford’s denial, there was indeed a ban in place in AP’s Jerusalem bureau on quoting Steinberg, and that he could state this with confidence. How? Because that ban was explained to him by the AP’s then Jerusalem bureau chief.
The original stories were written by a former Associated Press reporter, Matti Friedman. The first was in the online Tablet magazine, followed by another in The Atlantic.
Friedman provided substantial detail on what close followers of Middle East reporting already understand: the mainstream media has bought the Palestinian Arab story line about the Arab-Israeli conflict: the Palestinian Arabs are the Davids, the Israelis are the Goliath.
While this story is often hard to square with the facts, that only matters when the truth matters. And as Professor Richard Landes eloquently puts it: “you pay a high price for telling the truth about the Palestinian Arabs and no price for telling lies about Israel.”
Friedman’s pieces in the Tablet and The Atlantic offered numerous examples of what he described as AP staff looking the other way when Arabs violated laws of war or when Israel made peace offerings, including submitting to intimidation by Hamas.
In our last pass at this story, readers will recall that The Jewish Press zeroed in on a startling new fact Friedman had in his Atlantic article: that the AP had “banned” interviews with Bar Ilan Professor Gerald Steinberg and the use of materials by the non-governmental organization watchdog which Steinberg founded and heads, NGO-Monitor.
Friedman made this claim on the basis of his experience as a new reporter in AP’s Jerusalem bureau during Operation Cast Lead (December 2008 to January 2009) between Israel and Hamas-controlled Gaza.
In particular, Friedman was struck by the pedestal upon which self-proclaimed human rights organizations were placed by AP, and their claims, particularly condemnations of Israel, accepted without reservation. It was in this context that Friedman learned about the ban on Steinberg.
Friedman stated, without any qualifications, that in a region “with its myriad lunatics, bigots, and killers, the only person I ever saw subjected to an interview ban was this professor.”
The Jewish Press story was published in the early hours of Monday, Dec. 1, Israel time.
Paul Colford, the AP’s media relations director, began contacting The Jewish Press during the early hours of the business day on Monday, U.S. time. The subject line was: “Email address needed by AP.”
Colford informed the New York-based Jewish Press print editor that there were “inaccuracies” in our story and sought contact information for the reporter who wrote it.
It took some time for the New York editor to convey the request to the Jerusalem editor of the JewishPress.com, and then a little longer for the reporter to get the message. In the interim, the New York editor explained to Colford the relationship between the print and online versions of The Jewish Press (the online version is autonomous, although each has permission to run the other’s stories), and asked to know what inaccuracies were in the story.
Colford wasn’t pleased. He wanted contact information right away for the reporter. In his third email to the New York editor of The Jewish Press in as many hours, Colford seemed to lose his cool:
How can I reach Lori Lowenthal Marcus? Who can provide her email address? It is unfair that she can criticize AP on your site, but AP is unable to respond because her email eludes us.
Really? The director of media relations for an international media conglomerate spent hours hunting down a reporter at a (relatively speaking) small news outlet and he is the underdog? And The Jewish Press is being unfair because it isn’t divulging private contact information for one of its reporters just because someone is stamping his foot demanding it?
Hmmm. Where else have we seen the underdog portrayed as the big bully and the well-fed recipient of resources from all over the globe described as the victim?
It gets worse.
By the time this reporter obtained Colford’s contact information and reached out to him, the AP had already posted a statement. Colford sent a link to the statement, explaining that he has “addressed the falsehoods” in Friedman’s Atlantic article, including his “bogus claim about AP and Prof. Gerald Steinberg that you have singled out in your article.”
Colford’s statement on behalf of AP starts out criticizing Friedman, then applauds its reporters for heroic work in a dangerous region (specifically mentioning, not incidentally, that “Hamas intimidation” of reporters is one of the obstacles its reporters have to deal with in covering the Gaza war(s).) He then returns to critiquing Friedman’s AP criticisms, by ticking off several specifics.
The Jewish Press had focused on what it saw as Friedman’s two new and factual assertions in The Atlantic: the ban on Steinberg and NGO-Monitor, and the spiking of a story Friedman wrote which focused on human rights organizations’ outsized ability to condemn Israel and use the media as their messengers.
AP’s Colford stated, unequivocally: “There was no ‘ban’ on using Prof. Gerald Steinberg. He and his NGO Monitor group are cited in at least a half-dozen stories since the 2009 Gaza war.”
Within an hour, Colford sent another email (now we’re at four), asking whether The Jewish Press was going to run his AP statement, noting that “I don’t see it there at present.”
That is because we had some questions for Colford. Imagine that. We did not just run AP’s statement without doing any due diligence. True, he represents the AP, but for the single point from our article which his statement addressed, we were not yet satisfied his response was, well, responsive.
For one, we found it curious that although our story focused on what we understood to be a ban on Steinberg and NGO-Monitor regarding human rights organizations’ criticisms of Israel with respect to the winter ’08-’09 Cast Lead conflict, Colford specifically said the AP has cited them “at least a half-dozen” times since that conflict.
The Cast Lead conflict ended in January, 2009. That a media source with a large Jerusalem bureau which provides enormous coverage of every conflict between Israel and her Arab neighbors could only point to a handful of stories citing Steinberg and NGO-Monitor in the past nearly six years struck us as odd. What’s more, he had not limited his handful of stories to the Jerusalem bureau. That means even fewer relevant stories cited the NGO watchdogs.
Finally, Colford was wrong that our story only mentioned what Friedman referred to as a ban on Steinberg and his group.
Our article also mentioned Friedman’s claim that an AP editor refused to run a story he wrote about the contentious relationship between Israel and human rights organizations critical of the Jewish State. There was no mention of that in Colford’s statement, and he had told Jewish Press editors that there were “inaccuracies” in our article. Was this the basis of another alleged inaccuracy?
So we wrote to Colford, asking him to clarify his response about the alleged ban and about the spiking of a specific article by Friedman.
“PLEASE CLARIFY: Was there a ban by AP on interviewing Steinberg or using NGO-Monitor materials during or immediately following Operation Cast Lead with reference to that conflict?” and “PLEASE CLARIFY: Was such a story written by Friedman and then not run by his AP editors?”
Now it was the AP’s turn not to respond as quickly as desired. After a second nudge, Colford responded. His prior categorical pronouncements were replaced with the modest claim not to know anything about a story Friedman alleged had been killed.
Really, Colford seemed exasperated. How could he know what happened “under an editor who no longer works for AP.”
But if Colford couldn’t know about what had happened under the now-departed editor, then how could he state so unequivocally that there was no ‘ban’ on using” Steinberg or NGO-Monitor at the relevant time? And how could such a claim be the underpinning for his public statement upbraiding Friedman, essentially calling him a liar, if that alleged ban occurred “under an editor who no longer works for AP”?
But that isn’t all.
Colford now backed away from his position that The Jewish Press should simply run, without any questions asked and certainly none answered, his AP rebuttal to Friedman’s article.
“I trust, in fairness, you will link to our statement rebutting Mr. Friedman’s accusations, which have received prominent attention on your site.”
Well, no, not yet. Not until we understand what exactly the AP is claiming was inaccurate about our article.
We next asked Colford to provide us with links to the articles he referred to in his statement that the AP had cited Steinberg “at least half a dozen times” since Operation Cast Lead. “At least half a dozen” is pretty specific, so, presumably, he had a read out of those stories.
We also asked him whether he could “categorically state that there was no ban on interviews with Prof. Gerald Steinberg and/or use of NGO-Monitor materials during and immediately after the 2008-09 Gaza-Israel conflict?”
Finally, as Colford was apparently unwilling to ask anything of a former AP editor, we asked for contact information for Steve Gutkin, the AP Jerusalem bureau chief during the relevant time period.
Colford ignored the request for Gutkin’s contact information. He also ignored the direct request for a categorical denial that there had ever been an AP ban on Steinberg or NGO-Monitor.
As the exchanges took place during several hours on Monday, Dec. 1, we were, at the same time, also seeking to further nail down other points Friedman had made in his articles.
MATTI FRIEDMAN RESPONDS
We caught up with Friedman during the day on Monday and asked: Had we correctly understood Friedman’s claim of a ban limited in time to either during or immediately after Operation Cast Lead, and was it also limited to comments regarding the credibility of either NGOs or of specific statements of NGOs that harshly criticized Israel’s actions during Operation Cast Lead.
Friedman told The Jewish Press, via email, that “I stand by every detail in this essay, and in the last one.” He also reiterated what he wrote in his article, that the ban on using Steinberg was “explicit.”
So, at least we were – according to Friedman – still correct in understanding Friedman’s Atlantic article to mean that Steinberg was off-limits as a source for assessing the credibility of NGOs attacking Israel’s performance during Operation Cast Lead.
AP’s ‘PROOF’ THERE WAS NO BAN ON STEINBERG
What Colford did eventually provide was a printout of articles with AP bylines in which Steinberg had been quoted. In all, there were nine articles (in a subsequent email Colford listed another AP article citing Steinberg. That one, dated 2014 and about the NGO GreenPeace, had nothing to do with Israel.)
Of the nine articles in Colford’s printout, two were published before Operation Cast Lead. Of the remaining seven, two were about Iran, one was about Pakistan, and one was about (yet another) new U.S. Mideast peace effort. Of the remaining three, one was written in 2012 and one was written in 2011. Both of these were harshly critical of Israel, and had nothing to do with Operation Cast Lead.
That leaves one article.
Thus, based upon the due diligence performed by AP’s director of media relations, there was only one AP article quoting Prof. Steinberg somewhat close to the relevant time period and which focused on Israel.
An August 6, 2009 article written from Gaza City by AP journalist Diaa Hidad, appeared in the Toronto Star. This article is all the AP’s Colford could plausibly point to as concrete proof that there was no ban on AP’s use of Steinberg and NGO-Monitor.
But that article, written nearly eight months after the conclusion of Cast Lead, does not focus on allegations of Israel as a human rights violator, nor does it rely upon the NGO watchdogs to provide insight into whether human rights organizations’ criticisms of Israel are valid or credible. The article, instead, is about the NGO Human Rights Watch issuing a report that Hamas may have committed war crimes during Operation Cast Lead.
Steinberg is quoted in that article (in paragraph 20 of a 23 paragraph story) criticizing HRW for waiting until months after the operation to release information critical of Hamas, and only then having done so after already releasing two reports critical of Israel. This is hardly evidentiary proof that there was no ban on using Steinberg during the relevant time period for purposes of critiquing NGO’s attacks on Israel.
We are left with both claimants lacking unequivocal proof of their respective and contradictory contentions.
A SECOND FORMER AP REPORTER EXPERIENCED THE STEINBERG BAN FIRST-HAND
And that’s where Mark Lavie comes in.
Lavie was also an AP reporter who worked in the Jerusalem bureau during and after Operation Cast Lead. In fact, Lavie covered the Middle East as a journalist for more than 40 years. For more than a dozen of those years, Lavie was a reporter in the AP’s Jerusalem bureau. He later moved to the Cairo bureau where he had a front row seat for the “Arab Spring.” That experience was his last as a journalist, but it spawned his new profession as an author.
Lavie wrote “Broken Spring,” describing the failure of the Arab Spring. It also discusses the death of the Egyptian Jewish community. His update includes a chapter on exactly why it is impossible to obtain accurate news reporting from Gaza or just about anywhere else.
The Jewish Press asked Lavie whether he knew if there was an AP ban on quoting Prof. Gerald Steinberg around the time of Operation Cast Lead.
Lavie said he did.
He said he knew there was such a ban because, when he put a quote from Steinberg in one of his articles sometime in 2009, the AP Jerusalem bureau chief made him remove it. That editor then told him that AP reporters “can’t interview Steinberg as an expert because he is identified with the right wing.”
Subsequently it was made clear that NGO Monitor’s reports were not to be quoted, either, because it was pro-Israel or anti-Palestinian or right-wing, however it was put.
It doesn’t get any more unequivocal than that. Steinberg and NGO-Monitor were banned by the AP, at least according to a decades-long AP journalist.
Just to round out the equation, The Jewish Press also looked to see whether former Jerusalem bureau chief Steve Gutkin had made any public comments on the tempest-turned-tornado.
From his new perch in Goa, India, Gutkin writes a “news and entertainment weekly,” Goa Streets.
Gutkin addressed some of Friedman’s accusations in two blog entries. Both were written after the Tablet article, but before the one in the Atlantic, a part of which was the focus of The Jewish Press story.
What does come through in Gutkin’s responses, both explicitly and implicitly, is a hostility to Israel and a deep and abiding hatred of what he sees as the central story of the Arab-Israeli conflict: the “Occupation.”
After all the sturm und drang, readers will have to conclude whether there was an AP ban on using Gerald Steinberg and NGO-Monitor’s materials around the time of Operation Cast Lead, as a means of critiquing NGOs critical of Israel, as Matti Friedman claimed and as AP’s director of media relations denies.
Nothing about any alleged ban was put in writing, at least nothing those who claim the ban existed were able to produce.
But the evidence produced by those who deny the ban doesn’t hold up.Lori Lowenthal Marcus
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the U.S. correspondent for The Jewish Press. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: Lori@JewishPressOnline.com
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