What Golda Meir's shocked advisor learned about foreign journalists

No books, no research."I don’t have time for books,” the foreign journalist shouted at Yehuda Avner. Knowledgeable journalists were just one more Middle East mirage.

Robert Harris

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It was mind numbing when Golda’s advisor witnessed how foreign journalists were not well read, did not know languages, arrived in Israel with prejudiced views, and were not even a particularly inquisitive bunch.

This was the horrifying truth Yehuda Avner was confronted by when working as the head of the prime minister’s Foreign Press Bureau for Golda Meir.

Avner’s remarkable career saw him work as a secretary, speechwriter and advisor to five prime ministers: Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, and Shimon Peres, during his short time as prime minister. Later, Avner served as Israel’s ambassador to Great Britain, Ireland and Australia.

At the Foreign Press Bureau, Avner’s first assignment was to work with an American journalist who was in Israel to film a television documentary.

Recalling the assignment in his memoir, “The Prime Ministers,” Avner was to meet the journalist in the bar at the American Colony Hotel, located just inside what had been east Jerusalem. 

“Neutral” was then a codeword for those journalists who did not want to sit in a bar and drink with Jews. It still is.
The American Colony had always been a convenient location for journalists, embassy staff, foreign residents and visiting dignitaries, because it was a “neutral” gathering place, sitting on a border between combatants. 

Of course, “neutral” was then a codeword for those journalists who did not want to sit in a bar and drink with Jews. It still is.

Avner was to meet an American journalist named Buddy Bailey, whose documentary was to focus on Golda and the future of Jerusalem. The journalist requested that Avner help in arranging interviews with officials, as well as provide background material about present-day Jerusalem.

Bailey, who was to broadcast his reporting to millions on television, admitted to Avner that he had no knowledge about Golda, Jerusalem or the Middle East, and had no intention of learning anything before his interviews.

Sitting at a table in the hotel bar, Avner writes that a slightly inebriated Bailey told him:

“I know it sounds crazy,” he owned up, “but I’ve only the vaguest recollection of your Six-Day War, and how you came to be in Arab East Jerusalem in the first place.” 

“Can I recommend a book or two before you start production?” I asked. He sounded shocked. “Me – a book? I don’t have time for books. Guys like me have to rely on guys like you for information.” 

“So how do you hope to produce?” 

“You see those guys over there?” He stopped me, pointing to a group of fellow journalists. “How many of those people do you think ever do real research? Go on, ask them! Ask them how many know anything about the history of Zionism, or how the conflict began, or how you came to be in the West Bank. Go on, ask them.” 

He was growing insolent in defense of his ignorance. “Ask them how many know your language – even those posted here. I bet not a one. All we journalists are slaves to all-news-all-the-time deadlines. We live by them, from one to the next. Who’s got the time to do research? Our bosses want human action, not complicated facts.” 

“So how on earth do you dig up your information?” I asked naively. 

“By poking our noses where your television cameras and newsmen poke theirs, and by picking the brains of guys like you, and by getting tips and gossip from Arab locals, like my cameraman....” 

A similar experience was reported by author and Arutz Sheva columnist Jack Engelhard during the time he spent with foreign journalists, while on a press tour of Israel.

Reports Engelhard: My own eyes were opened when there I was in Israel as part of a group, a group of Grade-A journalists and found them to be so…ORDINARY.

“What are you writing?” they kept asking. I was writing about them. I was not on assignment. So I had time and I wrote it all in a book – about them and their biases and their prejudices. They had their minds made up. Like the 10 (out of 12) false scouts mentioned in the Book of Numbers, they came as spies to curse the land and they left cursing the land.

They wanted only “the plight of the Palestinians” and nothing, zero, about Zionism’s rise from the ashes…a land with liberty for all, including the Arabs within.

Shlomo wept. He was our guide and in private he told me, “They did not come as friends. They came as enemies.”

Engelhard goes on to note, “I keep thinking that these are the same people who take it upon themselves to shape our minds and our politics.”

My own experiences are the same. In 2008 I was acquainted with a journalist working for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation. Once, we met for coffee in Ein Kerem, the very upscale and chic community where many foreign journalists preferred to live, assuring that they would never have to get too close to working class people, who they felt were neither sophisticated or fashionable enough to associate with.

This CBC journalist spent a couple days each week traveling to Gaza to transmit stories about the misery of the residents of the enclave. On each trip to Gaza, she would drive past Sderot, pounded daily by Arab missiles fired from Gaza.

“Have you reported about Sderot? Have you stopped there?” I asked. “No, no. I am too exhausted by this whole conflict,” she whined, on her way to Gaza once again.
“Have you reported about Sderot? Have you stopped there?” I asked.

“No, no…..I am too exhausted by this whole conflict,” she whined.

“But what about reporting the story of Sderot?” I asked. 

She looked away and, remarkably, was neither embarrassed or concerned about her lack of objectivity.

So, what might be questions the Jewish public needs to ask about the current media culture?

-    Are today’s foreign journalists impartial observers of the facts? No, they are driven by the banal agendas ingrained in them on their college campuses and newsrooms.

-    Are today’s foreign journalists properly knowledgeable about what they are reporting about? The answer is largely no.

-   Are today’s foreign journalists seeking to explain the intricacies of the Arab-Israeli dispute? The answer is no. Most are in the entertainment business, churning out pictures of violence that contribute nothing to explain events in the region.

Too much of this fraud occurs because the public happily participate in the mythology about journalists being the keepers of truth and justice….the fourth estate that watches over government to prevent abuses.

But this was always nonsense. And just because journalists knew so little about everything, they were always putty in the hands of governments seeking to manipulate them.

Prior to World War II, journalism was considered a trade, like plumbing, and not a profession. But after college boys began entering newsrooms in the late 1940s, they elevated their status to that of “professionals” and became much, much more self-important.

Interestingly, up until some 75 years ago journalists in America covering stories in small towns found signs in front of hotels and boarding houses stating, “No stage actors or newspaper men allowed.”

Maybe those long-ago small town residents knew something about the world that the rest of us do not.