Matti Friedman

Journalist Matti Friedman has seen firsthand the way the international press gets the story of Israel wrong. In his Aug. 2014 piece for Tablet, Friedman explains the problems he has seen in his years working as a reporter in Israel and other countries in the Middle East.

Friedman has worked as a reporter in Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt, Moscow and Washington, DC, and has covered conflicts in Israel and the Caucasus. He has lived in Israel since 1995, and has reported on it since 1997. His arguments come from observation.

Friedman first explains what he sees are the “central tropes” the international media depends upon in telling the so-called story of Israel. It’s a story mainstream outlets stick to, even when evidence would point to an entirely different reality.

In short, it’s a story that is “largely fiction,” he says.

The mainstream media has made it clear it sees Israel as an important story by how it staffs bureaus covering Israel and Palestinian territories, he says. While he was at the Associated Press, the AP had more than 40 staffers covering it. It was “significantly more news staff than the AP had in China, Russia, or India, or in all of the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined.”

Furthermore, the AP had one “regime-approved” stringer covering Syria before the outbreak of civil war. Friedman says:

“Staffing levels in Israel have decreased somewhat since the Arab uprisings began, but remain high. And when Israel flares up, as it did this summer, reporters are often moved from deadlier conflicts. Israel still trumps nearly everything else.”

Israel therefore remains the prominent story though, for example, 42 people died in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2013 – a number which Friedman points out is just about the monthly homicide rate in Chicago.

Friedman uses several examples from his own experience to outline the problems that arise with press coverage of Israel. While working as a reporter in Israel, Friedman found corruption to be a major concern for many Palestinians living under the Palestinian Authority. But reporters pitching coverage of the issue were met with the response from an editor that Palestinian corruption was “not the story,” he says.

Supposed Israeli corruption, however, was covered ad nauseum. Friedman counts 27 stories in a seven-week period about problems in Israeli society – far more than his bureau had published in the three years prior on “Palestinian government and society, including the totalitarian Islamists of Hamas.”

Some other major lies Friedman explains:

Palestinians are presented by the media as “passive victims of the party that matters” – that party being Israel. Mainstream coverage includes no analysis of Palestinian society or ideologies, Friedman says. Palestinians aren’t “taken seriously as agents of their own fate.”

He continues:

“The West has decided that Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel, so that opinion is attributed to them as fact, though anyone who has spent time with actual Palestinians understands that things are (understandably, in my opinion) more complicated.”

The mainstream media also fails to report on the fact that the Hamas charter calls for Israel’s destruction and the murder of Jews, and also blames Jews for being the true manipulators of the French and Russian revolutions and both world wars.

Despite Hamas winning a Palestinian national election and becoming “one of the region’s most important players,” the charter was never written about in print while Friedman was at the Associated Press is Israel, he says.

While Hamas attempts to intimidate reporters are real, Friedman says, there are also low-risk ways they could report on Hamas: “under bylines from Israel, under no byline, by citing Israeli sources.”

But they don’t because, as he says, “Most reporters in Gaza believe their job is to document violence directed by Israel at Palestinian civilians. That is the essence of the Israel story.”

Mainstream media consistently portrays Palestinians as moderate, while Israelis are portrayed as “increasingly extreme,” he says. It went unreported in early 2009 that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a “significant” peace offer to the Palestinian Authority, but that the Palestinian Authority had declared it insufficient. The story wouldn’t have fit the ongoing mainstream narrative of the passive Palestinians and aggressive Israelis, so it was ignored, he says.

Friedman says these examples taught him something important about the way Israel is covered by the press:

Many of the people deciding what you will read and see from here view their role not as explanatory but as political. Coverage is a weapon to be placed at the disposal of the side they like.

Here, a few other notable points from Friedman’s piece:

“The Israel story is framed to seem as if it has nothing to do with events nearby because the ‘Israel’ of international journalism does not exist in the same geo-political universe as Iraq, Syria, or Egypt. The Israel story is not a story about current events. It is about something else.”

As Friedman explains, that something else is the way people in other parts of the world continue to treat Jews as a “blank screen” upon which to vent all their frustrations:

“The Jews of Israel are the screen onto which it has become socially acceptable to project the things you hate about yourself and your own country. The tool through which this psychological projection is executed is the international press.”

Read Friedman’s piece in Tablet for his full, nuanced view on the problems plaguing international coverage of Israel. He follows it with a piece from November 2014 for The Atlantic, arguing that reports on Israel tell us more about the reporters than they do about Israel.