On the heels of this summer's war in Gaza, Jerusalem-based journalist Matti Friedman published an essay in Tablet magazine titled “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth.” Drawing from his experience as a reporter and editor for the AP’s Jerusalem bureau from 2006 to 2011, Matti argues that the western press is far too focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that its framing distorts our perceptions of Israel. New York Times deputy national editor Ethan Bronner, who covered Israel-Palestine in the eighties for Reuters, in the nineties for the Boston Globe, and for the Times as Jerusalem bureau chief from 2008 to 2012, sees the coverage of the conflict in notably different ways. Brooke moderates a debate between Ethan and Matti.
I’m Brooke Gladstone, host of public radio’s On the Media. Here’s a conversation with two journalists who’ve devoted much of their careers to reporting on Israel and Palestine, and who see the coverage of the conflict in notably different ways.
This exchange is prompted by an essay that ran in Tablet magazine at the end of the summer, on the heels of the war in Gaza. Titled “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth,” its an indictment of the Western media’s treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, penned by Jerusalem-based journalist Matti Friedman, drawn largely from his experience as a reporter and editor for the AP’s Jerusalem Bureau from 2006 to 2011. He argues that the Western press is far too focussed on the conflict - and that its framing distorts our perceptions of Israel.
The piece went viral, prompting a slew of raves as well as rebuttals, including two from Matti’s former editor at the AP in Jerusalem, Steven Gutkin. But we didn’t want to focus solely on the AP, so in our search for a reporter to counter his argument, we decided on New York Times deputy national editor Ethan Bronner,who covered Israel-Palestine in the eighties for Reuters, in the nineties for the Boston Globe, and for the Times as Jerusalem bureau chief from 2008 to 2012. I started by asking Ethan whether he thinks there’s a disproportionate focus on Israel in the press. Then you’ll hear Matti.
ETHAN BRONNER: There's a very large coverage of Israel. The question of disproportionate is the more complicated one. One place in which I differ from what Matty wrote in his essay is that I don't think it is something that has been determined by the media. The United States gives 3 billion dollars a year to Israel. My last summer, when I was correspondent there for the Times, 80 members of Congress came to Israel. Some of them newly elected, had never had a passport before, had never been out of the country before. To them, foreign policy meant what do you think about Israel? We, in the media, reflect the interest I don't think we create it.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: I think the question is kind of a chicken and egg question, and the question of whether the media should be following or leading. Reporters do have a role as educated observers of the world in explaining to readers or to viewers, what is important and the idea of reporters should just cover whatever people are interested in isn't one that would really hold up. There's a lot of interest in pornography, but the AP doesn't cover pornography. Educated people need to decide what's important, they need to look at a globe, speak to smart people, and decide which stories are important and how to cover them.
ETHAN BRONNER: I don't think it's a fair analogy to compare it with an interest in pornography. I'm not saying 'people' are interested. I'm saying the United States government has focussed on the Israel-Palestine issue with an extraordinary laser-like focus. And it is a bipartisan phenomenon. Now why- why is the United States so interested? First of all, it is the Holy Land, it's called that for a reason. It is holy to the three great monotheistic religions Ok, that's 2 billion Christians, a billion and a half Muslims and 14 million Jews so that's almost half the world so what happens there matters. It's also an amazing story, right, the near destruction of the Jews in the Holocaust, their rise from the ashes, United States also has a close relationship with Israel. There is a sense that this is a democratic outpost that needs to be preserved, and yet needs to be pushed to do what the Americans consider right with regard to the Palestinians as well.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: As for the America's friendship with Israel, it's undeniable of course. But, for example, America has 30,000 servicemen in South Korea, and those are American citizens who are supposed to die to protect a foreign country from attack and I would argue that is a commitment exponentially more significant than the US commitment to Israel, and yet if there has been obsessive South Korea coverage, I've missed it. I think the friendship argument is true in part but it's not enough to explain the phenomenon. There's certainly a huge amount of interest in this place because of its historical connotations, but the kind of coverage we're seeing here is not massive coverage of Biblical archeology or religion. What we're seeing is extremely critical of the actions of the Israeli government and I would argue that this interest in the Holy Land I think that there's a very thin line between that and the development of a hostile obsession with the moral failings of Jews which as we know is a very deep thought pattern in the West.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have both made a distinction between the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the European press and the American press. Ethan, how would you describe the difference? And then Matty.
ETHAN BRONNER: Broadly speaking, I would say that in the United States, coverage of Israel takes as a given that it is a legitimate country, that it has problems, that it has issues, that relations with its neighbors and Palestinians need to be written about, but the core question of whether Israel is a legitimate country is not asked over and over. I would say that much of European coverage gets to the question of the legitimacy of Israel as a project from the beginning and questions it. I also would say that American media coverage of Israel tends to explore Israeli society not necessarily all in a bad way, and take it seriously as a culture and as a society and that's much less true in Europe.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: I think Ethan's right. I think there's more poisonous press coverage in Europe. But I think that the difference between American and European coverage has eroded, that's been my experience. I think that you have a press corps here and it's a social group, people know each other, people move between the organizations. If we look at the Gaza coverage from the last summer, I don't think you'll see a lot of difference between coverage in the States, in the mainstream media organization and in Europe.
ETHAN BRONNER: The truth is that the coverage I've seen most closely is that of the New York Times, I haven't examined that of others, but I would say, that the New York Times coverage of whether the victims were civilians or fighters quite seriously. The notion that Hamas operates from among civilian buildings and organizations was repeated frequently in the coverage so it may be true that the locals who move between Reuters and AP are not very different, but I do think that the outlook of the organization is different. A colleague of mine from Britain who came through who wanted to write a story of the evolution of the Hebrew language told me that his newspaper said, we have no interest in this at all, you're there to cover the conflict. And that is never something that an editor would tell a reporter in Israel.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: I think the New York Times's coverage of Gaza this summer was one-sided. We saw photographs of Israeli soldiers and Israeli tanks and dead Palestinian civilians. The story that Hamas wants to be told out of Gaza is that there are no Hamas fighters. That there is no Hamas strategy and that all the dead are civilians and that is the story that media organizations including the New York Times told this summer.
ETHAN BRONNER: With regard to pictures of fighters in Gaza, first of all I don't think it's true that Hamas would like the world to think that it doesn't have fighters. I'm certain that that's not the message that they want to get out. What did happen in this war, as happened in '08-'09 and in '12 is that when the war begins, Hamas goes underground, and they're actually impossible to find. When the journalists were crossing the border from Israel, there weren't even Hamas guys to stamp their passports as there typically are. The idea that journalists in Gaza were not taking pictures because they either didn't want to send the message that there were fighters or they were afraid of the fighters I think is a misunderstanding of what happens when you operate underground in Gaza in a conflict.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: I think that would be true if we didn't have examples of reporters who did.
ETHAN BRONNER: We have very few Matty we have like four, four moments because they're rare to find, it's not because everybody else is turning away from it.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: I think one of the most striking images that came out of Gaza this summer was shot by a Indian TV crew and you can find it on YouTube. They saw in the middle of the day, Hamas crew setting up a rocket outside of their hotel. So how did these intrepid Indian journalists get this great footage?
ETHAN BRONNER: They weren't intrepid they were lucky.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: If some of the 700 reporters I think who arrived in Gaza to cover the conflict had their eyes perhaps a bit more open we would've seen more images like that. But of course the reporters in Gaza are there to report a very simple story, they're reporting a story of Israeli aggression against civilians. So they won't show things that contradict the story and they will accept the Hamas death toll and pass it on to their readers as fact, which the New York Times did too.
ETHAN BRONNER: This idea that journalists in Gaza were unwilling to see that someone is shooting a rocket from next to you, would turn away from it, I think is really a terrible thing to say about your colleagues. I have been there in those situations what the Indian guys saw was a very unusual thing in the middle of the day of someone setting up a rocket and shooting it. It didn't happen much. Our guys didn't see it. Believe me they would've taken pictures if they had. One last point I would say is that Israelis had drones all over the place and if you look at the IDF website to find examples of in the daytime rockets that you could take pictures of you'll find one or two but not dozens. It's very hard in the 08-09 conflict they didn't have a single one that they put up on their website. Not one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's address one of your broader points Matty, that journalists there seem to adhere to a particular narrative about the conflict, a kind of master narrative. Can you describe it?
MATTI FRIEDMAN: Sure, I like to think of it as the Israeli story. I think people think that journalists on the ground are like drivers that can drive their car wherever they want, when in fact journalists are more like guys shoveling coals on the locomotive. You know, the track has been laid. And the story is that there's a conflict between a strong side, Israel, and a weak side, the Palestinians, and this is about the creation of a Palestinian state, what's called the two-state solution, which would happen if Israel wanted it to happen, and which is not happening because Israel did not want it to happen. That's the framework for the story and in that story you insert whatever events happen on any particular day. Of course, that involves leaving a lot of stuff out.
ETHAN BRONNER: There is some validity to it that that is the broad story of what's going on. But I never had an editor say to me, let's stick with the program please.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But is it the space that you move in?
ETHAN BRONNER: It seemed to me that my goal was in fact to challenge those strongly held convictions of both sides in this conflict. One side believes the problem is that the Jews are simply never going to be accepted in any kind of state form in the Middle East and the other side, the one that Matty has described, which is that the only problem there is that the Palestinians need a state, and once they got a state there would be peace in the region. My feeling was that because those are such calcified narratives on both sides, that my job was always to challenge those perceptions with stories and details and narrative lines that would force people to say well maybe that's not exactly the case.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: I'd just like to say that of course my essay involves generalizations. There are obviously superb reporters working in Israel. And one of them is on the line with us. I'm talking about a broad, systemic problem that is larger than any individual journalist or organization.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Matty you wrote that if you follow mainstream coverage you'll find nearly no analysis of Palestinian society or ideologies, profiles of armed Palestinian groups or investigations of Palestinian government. Palestinians, you said, are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: You can look at the press coverage over the past decade probably more coming out of this place and you'll see that the only agent here whose actions deserve analysis is Israel of course, there are small exceptions but few. Palestinian society is very interesting, it's very fractured, Hamas is a very important obviously and interesting group and these things are not subjected to anything like the amount of attention that Israeli policy and actions gets from reporters.
ETHAN BRONNER: I think that one of the journalistic missions is to sort of cover the fight against power. The oppression that is inherent in power. So that's true at a local, at a national and international level and so what Matty says that, you know you cover more what's going on in Israel than among Palestinians. It's true. Part of it has to do with this idea that in the West Bank and in Gaza while of course there are rulers in Gaza, the larger power still over the situation is Israel. I wrote several stories about the way Hamas operates its traditional system, its efforts to increase the role of religion in life, I did. But I think that generally, the bigger question of the geopolitical is still the more important one. Now, I agree that more coverage of Palestinian society would be wonderful. One of the problems is that, as a foreign correspondent, you really don't create facts. You basically cream off facts that are produced locally. Israel is a society of enormous self-examination and extraordinarily robust conversation about what's going on. And institutes, and ministries that produce huge reams of data that allow you to report on. That is simply not true in the West Bank and in Gaza so your job is much harder to do in Palestine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Matty isn't it also partly you say because of Hamas intimidation of reporters?
MATTI FRIEDMAN: Reporters understand that there are things they cannot report. I document in the essay, an incident in the 2008-2009 Gaza war in which our excellent Palestinian reporter in Gaza reported a detail in the morning. The detail was that Hamas fighters were wearing civilian clothes and were also being counted as civilians in the death toll. And he called a short time later and had us strike the detail from the story because the reporter's life was in danger. Much of the intimidation is not focused on Western representatives of media organization but rather on the Palestinian staffers who do most of the work of the international media in Gaza. And I think that if reporters are unable to transmit to their readers very important facts about the conflict for example, Hamas strategy, Hamas fighters, Hamas rocket launchers, Hamas use of civilian facilities, the existence of Hamas headquarters underneath Gaza's biggest hospital and you're not telling your readers that you are under threat and are censoring the information you're getting you're committing a major ethical violation.
ETHAN BRONNER: Yes, it's true that your stringer who lives there may be a little more cautious, but you're also saying that the 700 reporters who showed up for this war curbed what they wrote because they too were afraid of being hurt by Hamas officials, and I suspect that that's just not true at all. In the four years I was the bureau chief, I met with Hamas officials whenever I went there and there was never a discussion of coverage. I'm not saying it doesn't exist at all, but I am saying it is a much smaller problem in the way Matty and generally Israelis view it. There are no minders, this is nothing like trying to report in what used to be Syria under Assad or Saddam Hussein's Iraq was an absolutely- a minder with you everywhere you went. Nothing like that.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: Ethan can I ask you when you were in Gaza, and you were taken around presumably by a Palestinian fixer, a New York Times staffer, someone who lives in Gaza?
ETHAN BRONNER: Yes.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: I think this is the way it looks. A foreign correspondent comes into Gaza, and will suggest a story to a Palestinian staff that needs to make the story happen. And the story might not happen, for reasons that are not apparent to the reporter for example, it's possible that the person he wanted to interview is unavailable. Hamas, which is an incredibly sophisticated organization by the way, they understand they have successfully co-opted the Western media press corps already, they don't need to threaten you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about, and we hear this a lot, that there is a sense of lowered expectations for the Palestinian governing authorities than there is for Israeli governing authorities?
ETHAN BRONNER: This is a very delicate and complicated question, but there is no question that the less advanced and developed the society, the sort of lower the expectations of a lack of corruption, of accountability, and so forth. And so, that is reflected in our coverage of Palestinian government yes.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: What that means when you don't cover what Hamas is, when you don't cover its ideology, it's a group like many others in the Middle East, dedicated to the idea that radical Islam must extend its supremacy across the Middle East and confront the West. Its charter includes quotes from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in cases of Jews being behind the French Revolution, being behind the Russian Revolution, being behind both World Wars. And when you don't cover Hamas' ideology, when you don't cover its militant apparatus, when you ignore for the past three years, that Hamas has been building tunnels under civilian neighborhoods, that it has been storing rockets under UN schools and under mosques and under people's homes, when you don't cover that, then something happens like this war this summer. And everyone is blind-sighted. And it looks like an Israeli aggression against innocent people.
ETHAN BRONNER: I mean we have written about the charter in our newspaper, and it is a deeply troubling document, deeply troubling. Those statements are there, they're abhorrent, and Hamas ideology in that sense, the anti-Semitism that you do hear from their mouths is simply unbearable. I'm totally with Matty on that. On the other hand, having spent a lot of time talking to Hamas leaders and followers in my life, interestingly it's not actually what they talk about [interjection not heard] It's sort of a complicated thing... Not to me, you said?
MATTI FRIEDMAN: That's right.
ETHAN BRONNER: I don't think it's about what they say to me, there are whole industries devoted to listening to the horrors of what come out of Palestinian classrooms and broadcast, and you know they're there, but it's not 90% of what comes out, it's 10 percent of what comes out. There is a difference between what Palestinian nationalists, whether they're with Hamas or whether they're with Fatah, what they want from this conflict is not the same thing as what the most radical Islams want in the rest of the region. At least it hasn't been until now.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: I think one of the mistakes that Westerners make is not taking local people in their ideologies seriously. I take Hamas very seriously, I think they mean exactly what they say, and when their charter calls for the murder of Jews, I think they need it. I don't think they're secretly moderates with belligerent rhetoric, I think that radical Islam is very real. I live very close to it.
ETHAN BRONNER: I'm not arguing that don't pay attention to them. I'm only arguing don't only pay attention to their radical anti-Semitic statements.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matty, you make another argument about framing, that the conflict should be more appropriately called Jewish-Arab or Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Muslim as opposed to Israeli-Palestinian and you wrote, "A knowledgeable observer of the Middle East cannot avoid the impression that the region is a volcano and that the lava is radical Islam, an ideology whose various incarnations are now shaping this part of the world. Israel is a tiny village on the slopes of that volcano."
MATTI FRIEDMAN: I think one of the main problems is the lack of context. If you look at the history of this place and this conflict, you will see a conflict that started about a century ago, before the state of Israel exist, before of course Israel occupied the territories of Gaza and the West Bank. So the idea that this is a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is incorrect. And the idea that if the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is solved, there will be peace in the region is incorrect. What the Israeli-Palestinian framing allows people to do, is isolate 0.2 percent of the Arab world, that's the territory of Israel, in which Jews is the majority, and Arabs, Sunni Arabs, who are the vast majority in the Middle East, are a minority. And that's absurd. Jews here are six million people, outnumbered sixty to one by 300 million. That is the basic fact of Israeli existence. It explains some of the ugliness that is legitimately reported. Here are societies that are threatened and at war sometimes behave in ways that are unpleasant and all of that is lost when people pretend this is about Israelis and Palestinians.
ETHAN BRONNER: I think that part of the problem is that what's happened over the last three years, the implosion of the Arab Middle East, has not been happening for the last 70 years. I have never argued that if the Israel-Palestine conflict could be somehow solved that the rest of the region would radiate peace and well-being. Never have I suggested that, and I would say that what's happened over the last three years puts that idea out of the mind of many, but I can tell you that American governments have certainly believed that it is the key to stability in the region. There's no question that this administration came into office believing it.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: What I'm saying is linked to that which is that this country has to be covered in context. It's not a morality play. If I left my house in Jerusalem early in the morning I could be in Aleppo by lunchtime and I'd be in Baghdad by dinnertime. I think that the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is not unconnected from the rise of Hamas and Gaza and I think once we understand that Israel exists in a region and is dealing with the same things that other states are dealing with, that'll go a long way toward solving the problem I'm discussing.
ETHAN BRONNER: One issue with that perspective is that it does absolve Israel of almost any responsibility for the forces that are arising among Palestinians, of frustration and anger and do you want to do that?
MATTI FRIEDMAN: Absolutely not. As a journalist here, I see it as one of my most important jobs to criticize the government and its policies and I do that a lot. However, the idea that Israel is facing a clear moral choice and is making the wrong choice and that's an idea that underlies much of the press coverage is completely wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After any of these discussions I always feel so serene. How about you guys?
MATTI FRIEDMAN: I thought that was pretty serene.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matty Friedman is a Jerusalem-based journalist and former correspondent for the AP. His recent piece in Tablet is called An Insider's Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth. Matty thank you very much.
MATTI FRIEDMAN: Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ethan Bronner is a former Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times now currently deputy national editor for the paper. Ethan thank you so much.
ETHAN BRONNER: Thank you Brooke.