Written by Frank Lambert
Thursday, 13 December 2007
TORONTO – "Journalists are desperate for attention…. It's our professional oxygen," said Columnist Robert Fulford of The National Post. "Do we manipulate the news? Of course we do."
In an examination of media reporting practices and how it impacts the Middle East, The Speakers Action Group along with the Canadian Jewish Civil Rights Association invited Fulford and Aryeh Green, director of Media Central in Jerusalem to speak at Shaarei Shomayim Congregation.
"Journalists," Fulford said, "have always been in the entertainment business," but the stories that provide that entertainment are generally characterized by conflict, tragedy, disaster and crime. Journalists, columnists and editors make thousands of decisions every day on which facts to ignore, which ones to emphasize and which way to shape a story.
Sometimes, Fulford explained, given the same set of facts, different media outlets respond in different ways.
In what Fulford calls “the distance factor,” he describes the distortions we ascribe to a story simply because we are thousands of miles away and media outlets need to grab our attention. It is always worse on the outside, from a distance, looking in.
Journalists, Fulford said, like to use the expression, “don’t shoot the messenger,” when responding to comments on stories reported, but although that might be a comforting thought to some journalists it simply is not true.
"We shape the version of events we report to you," Fulford said, "so we are not just the messengers and we are fooling ourselves to think so."
On specific reporting distortions coming out of western media outlets in the Middle East today, Fulford reveals his own biases against the Toronto Star and the CBC News.
According to Fulford, these leftist leaning media outlets are contributing to the campaign to delegitimize Israel by championing the cause of the Palestininian refugees. These news outlets call upon Israel to bargain in good faith and solve a problem that has languished for 60 years. Fulford believes that there is no one with whom to debate these issues with the Israelis. Israel is identified as an extension of the West, is hated in the Muslim world because of it, and therefore, should be accorded every benefit of the doubt because it holds western values and is the only democracy in the region.
To chastise Israel, according to Fulford, is to contribute to the campaign to delegitimize the state and is tantamount to antisemitism.
Green makes a far more cogent argument.
There are a number of factors that have contributed to a distortion of the truth in the Middle East, he said, not the least of which is the ignorance of the history of the region and of the origin of the state of Israel. Basic facts about the Balfour Declaration, The UN partition Plan, the reasons for the '67 War are all inconceivably unknown to many international journalists covering the Middle East. We are talking about a recent history, which makes ignorance of it stupefying in any discussion of the current conflict.
Then Green said, "There is the general ineffectiveness in Israelis telling their side." The reasons for this are considerable and varied from ill-advised governments to poor communicators at the highest levels. The bottom line is that there is no good reason why this should be and the situation must change.
Thirdly, Green said, there is more international press in the region than ever before and most are reporting on the conflict and not on the progress and economic prosperity in Israel.
"There is so much untruth reported it is very difficult to respond," he said. It is hard to undo the damage once it is done. One way to keep the media in line, Green continued, is through organizations like Honest Reporting, but it is more important to put mechanisms in place to get the story right in the first instance.
Finally, Green argued, there is an often overlooked but crucial social dynamic that Israelis have neglected but the Muslim and Arab world have used successfully: building effective relationships with the world press.
"Since opening Media Central in Jerusalem we have embraced international journalists."
They now have a place to come, relax and use an effective base camp, with all the amenities of the office, like WiFi service, fax machines, etc. This is an all-inclusive drop in service offering Local tours, translation services, research materials, photography contacts, social activities and a bar.
As incredible as this may sound, there were journalists in Jerusalem who, until Media Central showed them, had not been to some neighbourhoods that would be affected by any division of the city. How could effective reporting of final stage talks take place without an intimate knowledge of the area?
Journalists, Green pointed out, are just people, doing a difficult job in sometimes trying circumstances. Why not try to make their lives a little easier? Israelis are finally waking up to the notion that a little bit of customer service goes a long way to combat questionable reporting. Sometimes you have to sweat the small stuff to win the bigger prize.