Associated Press Lays Down Smokescreen

Matti Friedman, former reporter and editor for the Jerusalem Bureau of the Associated Press, has written two articles detailing anti-Israel bias on the part of journalists who cover the Arab-Israeli conflict.

His most recent piece appeared in The Atlantic on November 30, 2014. In the article, Friedman levels a number of criticisms at the AP’s Jerusalem Bureau. One of the most disturbing charges is that staffers at the AP’s Jerusalem office were given explicit instructions not to quote Gerald Steinberg, executive director of NGO-Monitor, an organization that highlights the manner in which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) assail the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

Friedman writes that during the three-week long war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip that took place during the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 his superiors at AP killed a story about Human Rights Watch, an NGO, after it had been condemned for anti-Israel bias by one of its founders, Robert Bernstein. Friedman continues:

Around this time, a Jerusalem-based group called NGO Monitor was battling the international organizations condemning Israel after the Gaza conflict, and though the group was very much a pro-Israel outfit and by no means an objective observer, it could have offered some partisan counterpoint in our articles to charges by NGOs that Israel had committed “war crimes.” But the bureau’s explicit orders to reporters were to never quote the group or its director, an American-raised professor named Gerald Steinberg. […]In my time as an AP writer moving through the local conflict, with its myriad lunatics, bigots, and killers, the only person I ever saw subjected to an interview ban was this professor.

This allegation, which has since been repeated by another former AP reporter, Mark Lavie, is a very serious one. Friedman indicates that the Associated Press’ Jerusalem Bureau effectively excluded a prominent participant from the debate over how NGOs frame the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Given the reliance of the Associated Press and other news outlets on groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for commentary about human rights abuses and war crimes in the Middle East, it is reasonable to conclude that if AP’s Jerusalem Bureau did decide to keep Steinberg and his group, NGO Monitor, out of its stories that it was intentionally stacking the deck in favor of Israel’s critics.

In other words, it was propagandizing in a manner that blatantly contradicts the “Statement of Ethical Principles” adopted by Associated Press Managing Editors in 1994. (This organization now calls itself Associated Press Media Editors.) The APME’s statement calls on journalists to avoid “practices that would conflict with the ability to report and present news in a fair, accurate and unbiased manner.”

Such behavior would also contradict the AP’s “Statement of News Values and Principles” which calls on journalists to “avoid behavior or activists that create a conflict of interest and compromise our ability to report the news fairly and accurately, uninfluenced by any person or action.”

By placing a cone of silence around Gerald Steinberg and NGO Monitor, the AP is giving NGOs such as HRW and Amnesty International – groups that have a huge influence on how people interpret the Arab-Israeli conflict – a pass. By censoring NGO Monitor, the Associated Press is protecting one side of the debate over human rights and war crimes in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In response to Friedman’s charge, the Associated Press has issued a statement over the signature of Paul Colford, the organization’s director of media relations. In reference to the allegation regarding NGO Monitor, Colford states “There was no ‘ban’ on using Prof. Gerald Steinberg. He and his NGO Monitor group are cited in at least a half-dozen stories since the 2009 war.”

At first glance, this seems like a damning refutation of Friedman’s allegation.

A search of the archives does not sustain Colford’s claim. Yes, AP has published approximately 12 articles quoting Gerald Steinberg since the beginning of December 2008, but the majority of these articles were published with datelines other than Jerusalem. They have datelines of Tehran, London, Islamabad and Amsterdam. This is important because Friedman’s allegation was directed at the AP’s Jerusalem Bureau, not the entire organization. The AP’s Jerusalem Bureau has a huge role to play in how the organization covers Israel, which is what Friedman’s article was about.

AP’s Jerusalem Datelines

Searching the Nexis database, CAMERA was able to find four articles published after the 2008-2009 Gaza War that quoted Steinberg with the dateline of Jerusalem or Gaza City.

Two of these articles, published on August 21, 2012 (“Attacks on Palestinians kindle debate on values”) and December 15, 2012 (“Jewish radicals get off the hook in Israel”) both deal with Jewish attacks on Palestinians and in these articles Steinberg is called on to defend or place these attacks in context. Both of these stories put Steinberg on the defensive, and did not provide opportunities for him to express his opinion about the role NGOs have played in framing the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Another article (“Israeli watchdog sues EU over NGO funding”), published on Jan. 20, 2010, was based on an NGO Monitor press release – not a serious act of journalism. It’s not as if the AP investigated any of the allegations that NGO Monitor has leveled at human rights groups.

A fourth article, published on Aug. 6, 2009, (“Rights group: Hamas may have committed war crimes,”) with a Gaza City dateline is the one article in which AP’s Jerusalem bureau gave Steinberg a chance to address the issues he works with at NGO Monitor.

We are still left with a basic question: Did the people who run AP’s Jerusalem Bureau issue explicit orders to not quote NGO Monitor and its director, Gerald Steinberg?

Yes or no?

As stated above, another former AP reporter, Mark Lavie, says yes they did.

Speaking with Lori Lowenthal Marcus from the Jewish Press, Lavie stated that he included a Steinberg quo
te in one of his stories in 2009 but that it was deleted and was told that Steinberg should not be quoted because he was “right wing.” He also told Lowenthal Marcus that “Subsequently it was made clear that NGO Monitor’s reports were not to be quoted, either, because it was pro-Israel or anti-Palestinian or right-wing, however it was put.”

As Lowenthal Marcus states, “It doesn’t get any more unequivocal than that.”

So what we have is two former AP reporters stating explicitly that there was a ban on quoting Gerald Steinberg from NGO Monitor at the organization’s Jerusalem Bureau.

Paul Colford, the AP’s chief flack has issued a denial and has backed it up with smoke and mirrors that we would normally expect from politicians.

This isn’t the type of self-reflection and criticism that is called for on the part of practicing journalists.

Press Relationship to NGOs

Another troubling aspect about Colford’s response is that it does not address one of Friedman’s main points: that by associating with the NGO community in Jerusalem, overseas reporters, including those from the Associated Press, affiliate themselves with a community that encourages them to cover the conflict with an anti-Israel slant.

Friedman writes that in the circles created by the affiliations, “a distate for Israel has come to be something between an acceptable prejudice and a prerequisite for entry.” He adds that “In this social group, this sentiment is translated into editorial decisions made by individual reporters and editors covering Israel, and this, in turn, gives such thinking the means of self-replication.” In one particularly damning passage Friedman writes:

The best insight into one of the key phenomena at play here comes not from a local reporter but from the journalist and author Philip Gourevitch. In Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa, Gourevitch wrote in 2010, he was struck by the ethical gray zone of ties between reporters and NGOs. “Too often the press represents humanitarians with unquestioning admiration,” he observed in The New Yorker. “Why not seek to keep them honest? Why should our coverage of them look so much like their own self-representation in fund-raising appeals? Why should we (as many photojournalists and print reporters do) work for humanitarian agencies between journalism jobs, helping them with their official reports and institutional appeals, in a way that we would never consider doing for corporations, political parties, or government agencies?”

Not a New problem

Friedman isn’t writing anything new here. NGOs have exerted undue influence on journalism for a long time. A too cozy relation between NGOs and journalists had a huge impact on how the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s was covered. NGOs pressured reporters not to cover the role the Mengistu regime played in creating the famine they were covering because to do so would undermine people’s willingness to contribute to famine relief efforts.

Michael Buerk, one of the journalists responsible for drawing the world’s attention to the Ethiopian famine in 1984, admitted to one journalist that he withheld information from his readers so as not to interfere with aid efforts. British Journalist Daniel Wolf recounts that when Buerk’s watershed report was aired by BBC in October 1984, “the idea took hold that this was a natural disaster ‘a biblical famine’, in Buerk’s words which could be alleviated by massive food aid.”

What was left out of much of the coverage was that the Mengistu regime was fighting two civil wars against insurgent groups in Ethiopia and that the government had embraced policies that created the famine so as to starve its enemies.

Mengistu also used food aid to relocate Ethiopians away from rebel-held areas. NGOs did not want this information to get back to their donors in the West because it would provoke undermine their confidence that their donations were doing any good. Journalists went along with this strategy, at least for a while, because they didn’t want to harm the fund raising efforts of the humanitarian groups. Wolf writes:

When I spoke to Michael Buerk in the late 1990s, he still held the view that the wars had “complicated matters”, but he did agree that self-censorship had played a role in his own and others’ reportage at the time: “You’ve got to make the decision, is this side story of any real significance? And also at the back of your mind, is: if I overemphasize a negative angle to this, I am going to be responsible for … inhibiting people from coughing up their money.” (The Spectator, October 23, 2004.)

Eventually, the relationship between NGOs and journalism and the impact it had on coverage of the Ethiopian famine came to light in a number of articles and books published in the years after the famine.

It’s time for a similar examination to take place in the Middle East.

Paul Colford’s attempt to short-circuit this examination demonstrates just how badly it needs to happen.

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