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Former AP Bureau Chief Responds to Article About Israel Coverage

Says an ‘honest attempt was made at all times’ to fight bias in their reporting

Stephanie Butnick
September 10, 2014

Two weeks ago Matti Friedman published an article in Tablet explaining how—and why—international media gets Israel so wrong. Friedman, a former Associated Press reporter in Israel, argued that both the number of reporters assigned to cover Israel as well as the volume of stories published about the country are disproportionate, creating the notion that Israel is “the most important story on earth, or very close.” He also argued that newsroom biases craft a specific framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with divergences from that narrative discouraged. “Many of the people deciding what you will read and see from here view their role not as explanatory but as political,” he wrote. “Coverage is a weapon to be placed at the disposal of the side they like.”

The article sparked a great deal of conversation—there have been 987 comments posted to it, and it’s been shared on Facebook more than 75,000 times. One response came from Steven Gutkin, the AP’s bureau chief in Israel from 2004 to 2010, who hired Friedman in 2006. Gutkin, now based in India, took issue with Friedman’s claim that the bureau, under his leadership, stifled stories or angles that didn’t fit within an established narrative.

“It is true the conflict we covered can be framed in various ways: of downtrodden Palestinians facing off against powerful Israel, or of tiny Israel against the surrounding sea of 300 million Arabs,” he wrote on Goa Streets. “Often, I felt that attempting to “frame” it either way was not instructive. It was preferable to simply bear witness to what we saw unfolding before our eyes.”

Here’s a bit more of his response:

As bureau chief, I knew it was one of my key roles to fight bias in our reporting. Was this achieved all the time? I doubt it. But I know an honest attempt was made at all times. I always told our reporters not to deliver “milk toast” and to lay bare the raw passions of each side in all their glory, rather than trying to tone down the arguments. While fairness was of utmost importance, I told them, not every story had to be 50-50 (if you were reporting in 1930s Germany, I asked, would you be compelled to give half the space to the Jewish side and the other half to the Nazis?)

Matti states that the AP’s Jerusalem bureau – like all other major news operations based in Israel and the Palestinian territories – employs too many reporters because of this hostile obsession with the Jews. The truth is the story of Israel is that of a nation rising from the ashes of the worst genocide in human history, being attacked from all sides upon its inception. Depending on your point of view, it’s also a story about the persecuted becoming the persecutors. All of this, of course, is happening to the people of the Bible, the descendants of the Hebrew slaves who were led out of Egypt by Moses and from whose ranks emerged Jesus Christ. It’s as if a new chapter of the Bible is being written in our times. Whether you think the Bible is mythology or the word of God is beside the point. The point is we are all human beings who love a good story, and this one is particularly good.

You can read the rest of Gutkin’s response here.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.