The local head of the Foreign Press Association told a Knesset debate on Tuesday that he strongly rejected claims of inherent anti-Israel bias in the international media.
“We go through a very rigorous process whenever news happens, where you have to speak Hebrew in contact with police, the army and many spokespeople and people who are on the ground,” Luke Baker, Reuters’ Israel/Palestine bureau chief, told lawmakers. “This is a pretty rigorous process of reporting and checking facts,” Baker said.
Since the beginning of the current wave of violence, Reuters has published 700 headlines, only one of which turned out to be problematic and was subsequently corrected, he said.
“I clearly don’t think the foreign press is biased,” he added. “I don’t think anyone is denying there have been errors, problems from time to time. Sometimes it’s been harder to correct them than others.” The many news organizations operating in Israel put out a “huge amount of coverage with very few factual errors,” he insisted. “I fail to see the media has something to answer in terms of systemic bias.”
If anybody had expected the session to degenerate into a loud and unruly meeting at which Israeli lawmakers yelled accusations at foreign reporters, nothing could have been further from the case. Rather, the poorly attended session of the subcommittee on legal warfare, which operates under the umbrella of the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, was conducted calmly and focused mostly on ways Israeli spokespeople can most effectively transmit information to the foreign press.
The debate ended with the Israeli politicians demanding that governmental press offices provide journalists with better real-time information about attacks, and the representatives of the news outlets defending their records by arguing that grave errors in coverage are few and far between.
“I don’t start with the premise that everyone is against us and we need to fight with everyone,” MK Tzipi Livni, the head of the subcommittee, said at the beginning of the session. “The question is not who writes what about us, whether it’s critical or not — criticism is certainly, from my point of view, as legitimate as it gets — but rather whether there are cases in which the reality is portrayed in a fashion that is factually incorrect.”
Livni had convened the session, which was attended by only three lawmakers — only one of them from the coalition (Kulanu MK Michael Oren) — after a contentious headline by major American news outlet CBS.
On February 3, after three armed Palestinians attacked border police officers, killing 19-year-old Hadar Cohen, CBS ran the following headline: “3 Palestinians killed as daily violence grinds on.”
After complaints by Israeli officials, the outlet changed the headline to a second problematic version, and only hours later to one that better reflected what had happened.
This, however, was just one example of poor headline writing, Government Press Office head Nitzan Chen said.
“Over the last four months, there were four or five cases in which the headlines published about terror attacks were distorted … (and) average readers in their respective countries read about an event that was exactly the opposite,” he said.
But rather than focusing on ostensible bias in the foreign media, Livni and MK Shelly Yachimovich (Zionist Union) asked what changes could be made to the procedural work of Israeli spokespersons.
“There is no one whose hand is on the wheel,” lamented Oren. He recalled how, when he was confronted with a report critical of Israel during his tenure as ambassador to the US, he contacted a series of officials but only got a clear picture of the situation when he reached the head of the Shin Bet personally. Things have improved since but need further streamlining, he said.
Oren also suggest “shaming” and ridiculing news outlets that conflate attackers and victims in their headlines.
Livni said it was difficult to blame the foreign press for failing to report on Israeli casualties when the army does not release the information about fallen troops before their families have been informed. Oren and Yachimovich agreed with her that it might be time to reconsider this policy; IDF Spokesperson Lt. Col. Peter Lerner seemed disinclined to agree.
Concluding the one-hour session, Livni said she did not want to dictate foreign reporters how to do their jobs and that she was more concerned about Israeli spokespeople getting information out quickly than about critical or biased reporting. Still, while journalists are free to interpret the Middle East conflict however they like, she said, when reporting about a specific incident they must not confuse the aggressor and the victim. “It’s important to me that you mention who is the murdered and who is murdered.”
Anticipating Tuesday’s session and referring to GPO director Chen’s threat, issued last week, to revoke credentials from reporters over inaccurate headlines, the Committee to Protect Journalists Monday expressed concern over “rising pressure” from the Israeli government on the foreign press.
“As a democracy that upholds freedom of expression Israel should not threaten to revoke press credentials of reporters who publish stories or headlines the government may not like,” CPJ deputy director Robert Mahoney stated. “It is virtually impossible to work as a reporter in Israel and the occupied territories without a press card. The threat of withdrawing accreditation is a heavy-handed approach at stifling unwelcome coverage.”