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Ongoing Controversy Around ‘The Most Important Story on Earth’

Responding to critics of my essay about Israel media coverage

Matti Friedman
September 16, 2014
Israeli armored personnel carrier seen moving along the border with Gaza on July 10, 2014 on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)
Israeli armored personnel carrier seen moving along the border with Gaza on July 10, 2014 on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

My essay “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth” touched a nerve far beyond my expectations—I didn’t think that in our times a 4,000-word essay would be shared 750 times on Facebook, let alone 75,000. A second essay will appear here soon.

The article drew a series of interesting responses. Richard Miron, a veteran of both the BBC and the United Nations, published a reflection on his own similar experiences. In Jerusalem the Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg, from the left side of the local political spectrum, called it a “must-read, must think about,” and Rick Santorum endorsed it on Twitter from Pennsylvania. Some accused me of being an apologist for the Israeli right, and worse. A few former colleagues thought practicing journalism on journalists was a kind of betrayal; others were discreetly thrilled. I have made friends and enemies I’m not sure I need.

There has been no serious public response to the piece, however, from inside the system I’m criticizing—no denials of the examples I gave, no explanations for the numbers I cite, no alternative reasons for the problems I describe. This uncomfortable silence is an admission.

Here I would like to reply briefly to the closest thing to an official explanation that has emerged so far. This is a short essay published by Steven Gutkin, the AP’s former bureau chief in Jerusalem, in the paper he currently runs in Goa, India, and highlighted here at Tablet last week. The article is important for reasons I believe its author did not intend.

Steve, who chose to identify himself as one of the editors who appeared anonymously in my account, responds to my concrete examples with generalities, musings about the human condition, anecdotes, and much discussion of his own Judaism. He seems to believe this is about character—he is an experienced journalist, he writes, and is a Jew, albeit one who believes most in “humanity” (as opposed to the ones who, you know, don’t). We should thus believe him when he says my essay is “hogwash,” even if he can’t be bothered to actually disprove anything. I was a junior member of the staff, we are to understand, and spent less time in the international press corps than he, and I am Israeli. Of course all of this is true. But so what? I’m making a case about the coverage. Anyone hoping to dispute what I wrote has to provide, as I do, concrete information about the coverage.

What I want, he thinks, is for Israel to be “left alone,” which is the usual response from people called out for their Israel obsessions. But of course I want no such thing: I want Israel to be covered, as I wrote, “as critically as any other place, and understood in context and in proportion.” Steve wants to believe that my argument is that the press corps is “teeming with anti-Semites,” because that makes me easier to dismiss. In no way is that my argument. What I believe, and wrote, is that old thought patterns centered on Jews are reasserting themselves in the West. I do not think anyone sensitive to events this summer, particularly in Europe, can believe otherwise. I think the press is central in all of this, consciously or subconsciously, and I show how this works using examples.

Steve would like readers to think that my criticism of the media’s failures has something to do with being “blind” to the Palestinians, and wrote (incorrectly) that I had not once referred to the occupation of the West Bank in my article. In fact I had (he later corrected that detail), and I also wrote that the settlements are “destructive” and a “serious moral and strategic error on Israel’s part,” which doesn’t leave much room to err about my politics. The reason I don’t dwell on the occupation is not because I’m unaware of it, but because my essay is about the media, not the occupation. It’s also worth pointing out here that the only serious settlement-related investigation published by the AP’s Jerusalem bureau during Steve’s tenure, an article very critical of Israeli actions, was written by me. I’m proud of it.

Most strikingly, Steve is happy not only to confirm the media’s obsession with Jews but to endorse it. If he thinks there’s any journalistic problem in a news organization covering Israel more than China or the Congo, he doesn’t say so. He thinks, in fact, that Jews—the “people of the Bible,” or perhaps the “persecuted who became persecutors”—are really, really interesting. His piece is, in other words, a confirmation of my argument mistaking itself for a rebuttal.

As for two of the most serious incidents I mentioned, a careful reader will note that Steve concedes them. Both have ramifications beyond the specifics of this story.

1. To the best of my knowledge, no major news organization has publicly admitted censoring its own coverage under pressure from Hamas. A New York Times correspondent recently said this idea was “nonsense.” Responding to an Israeli reporter asking about my essay, the AP said my “assertions challenging the independence of AP’s Mideast news report in recent years are without merit.” But the AP’s former Jerusalem bureau chief just explicitly admitted it. He confirms my report of a key detail removed from a story during the 2008-2009 fighting—that Hamas men were indistinguishable from civilians—because of a threat to our reporter, a Gaza Palestinian.

He goes even further than I did, saying printing the reporter’s original information would have meant “jeopardizing his life.” The censored information in this case is no minor matter, but the explanation behind many of the civilian fatalities for which much of the world (including the AP) blamed Israel. Steve writes that such incidents actually happened “two or three times” during his tenure. It should be clear to a reader that even once is quite enough in order for a reporter living under Hamas rule to fall permanently in line. This means that AP’s Gaza coverage is shaped in large part by Hamas, which is something important that insiders know but readers don’t.

I’m not saying the decision to strike the information was wrong—no information is worth the life of a reporter. But I am saying that the failure to get it out some other way, or to warn readers that their news is being dictated by Hamas, is a major ethical shortcoming with obvious ramifications for the credibility of everyone involved. The AP should address this publicly, and all news organizations working here need to be open about this now.

2. I wrote that in early 2009 the bureau wouldn’t touch an important news story, a report of a peace proposal from the Israeli prime minister to the Palestinian president. This decision was indefensible on journalistic grounds. A careful reader will notice that Steve does not deny this. He can’t, because too many people saw it happen, and a journalist as experienced as Steve might assume, correctly, that at least some of them vetted my account before it was published. He merely quibbles with a marginal detail—the nature of a map that one of the reporters saw. I repeat what I wrote: Two experienced AP reporters had information adding up to a major news story, one with the power to throw the Israeli-Palestinian relationship into a different light. Israelis confirmed it, and Palestinians confirmed it. The information was solid, and indeed later appeared in Newsweek and elsewhere. The AP did not touch this story, and others, in order to maintain its narrative of Israeli extremism and Palestinian moderation.

Failing to report bad things that Hamas does, and good things that Israel does, which is what these examples show, creates the villainous “Israel” of the international press. That these failures mislead news consumers is clear. But they also have a role in generating recent events like a mob attack on a Paris synagogue, for example, or the current 30-year-high in anti-Jewish incidents in Britain. There are several causes behind such phenomena, and editorial decisions like these are among them. But this is one subject about which the AP bureau chief, for all of his Jewish ruminations, has nothing to say. The press corps is obviously not “teeming with anti-Semitism.” But neither is it teeming with responsibility or introspection, and the kind of thinking that has taken hold there should have all of us deeply concerned.

Matti Friedman is a Tablet columnist and the author, most recently, of Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai.

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