Western reporters rely far too uncritically on NGOs in their coverage of Israel, argues former AP journalist Matti Friedman, in this superb analysis of the media’s blind spots regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many reporters don’t see themselves as neutral observers, and as such, fail to cast a critical eye on international organizations:
Many foreign journalists have come to see themselves as part of [the] world of international organizations, and specifically as the media arm of this world. They have decided not just to describe and explain, which is hard enough, and important enough, but to “help.” And that’s where reporters get into trouble, because “helping” is always a murky, subjective, and political enterprise, made more difficult if you are unfamiliar with the relevant languages and history.Confusion over the role of the press explains one of the strangest aspects of coverage here—namely, that while 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. Journalists cross from places like the BBC to organizations like Oxfam and back. The current spokesman at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, for example, is a former BBC man. A Palestinian woman who participated in protests against Israel and tweeted furiously about Israel a few years ago served at the same time as a spokesperson for a UN office, and was close friends with a few reporters I know. And so forth.
Furthermore, foreign correspondents often arrive in Israel (and elsewhere) with little to no knowledge of the country or its history, and wind up relying on nearby veteran reporters or NGO workers to give them the “real story.” It’s all too easy to stay inside the comfortable bubble of transient Western visitors, and the politics inside that bubble has a definite anti-Israel slant.Just as important, Friedman points out, is reporters’ blindness to the effect their presence has on the conflict they cover. He notes:
Hamas is aided in its manipulation of the media by the old reportorial belief, a kind of reflex, according to which reporters shouldn’t mention the existence of reporters. In a conflict like ours, this ends up requiring considerable exertions: So many photographers cover protests in Israel and the Palestinian territories, for example, that one of the challenges for anyone taking pictures is keeping colleagues out of the frame. That the other photographers are as important to the story as Palestinian protesters or Israeli soldiers—this does not seem to be considered.In Gaza, this goes from being a curious detail of press psychology to a major deficiency. Hamas’s strategy is to provoke a response from Israel by attacking from behind the cover of Palestinian civilians, thus drawing Israeli strikes that kill those civilians, and then to have the casualties filmed by one of the world’s largest press contingents, with the understanding that the resulting outrage abroad will blunt Israel’s response. This is a ruthless strategy, and an effective one. It is predicated on the cooperation of journalists. One of the reasons it works is because of the reflex I mentioned. If you report that Hamas has a strategy based on co-opting the media, this raises several difficult questions, like, What exactly is the relationship between the media and Hamas? And has this relationship corrupted the media? It is easier just to leave the other photographers out of the frame and let the picture tell the story: Here are dead people, and Israel killed them.
Do read the whole thing. It’s an eye-opening look not only at the weaknesses of the Western press’s Israel bureaus, but also the pitfalls in media coverage in general.