Dr. Manfred GerstenfeldThe writer has been a long-term adviser on strategy issues to the boards of several major multinational corporations in Europe and North America.He is board member and former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and recipient of the LIfetime Achievement Award (2012) of the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism.
Media play a major role in the delegitimization and demonization of Israel. Their share in this process cannot be assessed scientifically. Yet over 40% of citizens of the European Union, aged 16 years or older, believe that Israel is a Nazi state, or alternatively, think that Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians. There is no doubt that this demonic image of Israel has been partly caused by many media.
Evidently, there are many other factors besides the media which have led to the proliferation of these abysmal beliefs. The Arab and some Muslim countries’ leadership, politicians, trade unions, NGOs, various church leaders, academics, the Palestinian lobby, and many others play a major role in the demonization process. Contributors to Israel-hatred include the United Nations and some of its associated bodies, such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission.
Over the past decades, anti-Israeli media have made the most of a unique situation. The freedom of the press includes the freedom to cheat, lie, incite, often to extremes, and the liberty to ignore essential facts at will. Media have the power to criticize others, relentlessly and sometimes brutally, and yet there are few ways to take them to task. There are hardly any checks and balances. The work of their staff is only subject to that particular media's rules of self-regulation. Except in extreme cases, journalists are not accountable to anyone outside their profession.
Reporters are free to choose which facts they will mention and which they will omit in their articles. This is done even if such approaches lead to major distortions of their readers' perceptions. Their means of slanting information, if they wish to do so, are almost unlimited. In addition, media rarely criticize each other, even though such criticism would create much greater accountability among journalists.
The battle against big media’s delegitimization of Israel is mainly being fought by a few pro-Israeli media watch organizations. Media watching can be defined as critically examining one or more media on a regular or recurrent basis. It usually results from a conviction that certain media are biased against a cause that the monitoring body or individual supports. Media-watching activities include collecting, analyzing, and publishing data.
Media watchers are fulfilling an important role in exposing the bias of anti-Israeli media. Yet even the best known among them, such as CAMERA and HonestReporting, only reach a limited number of addressees if one compares it to the audience of the media themselves.
As far as the battle against hostile media is concerned, the reality of free speech within democracies dictates that this fight has to be conducted in a more sophisticated matter. Media watchers can publicize errors and bias, and they can attempt to discuss such bias with media editors.
Sometimes media watchers come up with innovative solutions. In January 2014, CAMERA put up a three-story billboard advertisement on a building facing the New York Times’ headquarters. The initial text read, “Would a great newspaper slant the news against Israel? The New York Times does.” The text went on to say, “Misrepresenting facts, omitting key information, skewing headlines and photos.” Under this it said, “Stop the bias. CAMERA.” Since then, CAMERA has continued to put up additional billboards in New York.
There is a limit to what these grass-roots organizations can do. They can expose media, but can only punish them infrequently for their bias. For instance, after complaints it receives from media watchers a company can decide to no longer advertise using a particular media which is known as being biased. The media watch organization often does not have to take care of this directly. If a sufficient number of their volunteers contact the advertiser at their own initiative, saying they will no longer buy their products if they continue to advertise using this biased media, its management may react by pulling the advertisements, saying that they advertise to attract clients and not to lose them.
There are more possibilities to expose media which warrant being explored. For example, media watchers could approach journalists, who have left various media, and ask them to expose the internal machinations behind that media’s bias. In August 2014, Matti Friedman, a former AP journalist, publicly exposed the distorted methods of this international news agency’s Israel office. Friedman later wrote another article in The Atlantic entitled, “What the Media Gets Wrong about Israel.” The article further exposed how the AP intentionally reported stories that cast Israel in a negative light and chose not to report on Palestinians behaving badly.
There are a few other journalists who have already done the same. For instance, Hans Mol, a retired journalist of the Dutch liberal daily, NRC-Handelsblad, published a book about the paper’s anti-Israeli positions. He writes, “In its reporting about Moroccans, about Muslims and about Islam, about Israel and the Middle-East conflict, the paper has increasingly chosen its side: in favor of Hamas and against Israel, in favor of multiculturalists against critics of Islam; for covering up, and against disclosure.” Retired journalists are particularly good targets to be approached for the purpose of exposing media bias, because they have nothing to lose.
Every year, Honest Reporting awards its Dishonest Reporting Awards to those media it deems most deceitful. The main recipients are media, and individual reporters are secondary. In 2014, for instance, the recipient media included The New York Times, CNN, Haaretz, the Guardian and the Sydney Morning Herald, as well as the medical journal, The Lancet. An additional option would be to establish an annual list of the year’s most dishonest reporters, with a detailed description of their bias. It is far easier to destroy the career of an individual cheat than to affect an institution such as a journal. If such a list is created, the detailed damaging exposure of a few journalists may become a warning to others to become more honest.
Much more is required, however. The Israeli government must step in and develop a media strategy. This should be done within the framework of an anti-propaganda agency to be created. The establishment of such an agency is an absolute necessity in fighting the enormous propaganda onslaught against Israel.
This has to be done not by limiting freedom of speech, but on the basis of punishing the publications of lies. Israeli government officials can begin exposing biased media. For example, at the start of press conferences, they can mention the most recent proven bias of one of the media present. Israel can refuse to provide press cards to biased reporters, indicating that these cards are not intended for non-reporters, i.e., frequent liars and anti-Israel inciters.
All this could be but a very primitive beginning for an anti-propaganda agency. The Israeli army and the Israeli intelligence services today are far more sophisticated than when they first began their activities. A similar process would occur with a governmental anti-propaganda agency, once it is established. Its way of operating would greatly advance over time.