Over the years, this site has often been sharply critical of biased reporting by the mainstream U.S. media from Israel/Palestine. The New York Times has just sent a new correspondent, Ian Fisher, to Jerusalem, and we will scrutinize him just as vigorously as his predecessors.
At the same time, we recognize that the Israeli government’s propaganda apparatus will make his job in some ways harder than anywhere else in the world. Only if his newspaper stands behind him, from his editors on up to top management, will he be able to report honestly and fairly. For instance, the Times must be prepared to forgo inside scoops and one-on-one interviews with Israeli leaders that would require Fisher to compromise his coverage.
Back in 2010, a Dutch journalist named Joris Luyendijk provided valuable insights into how Israel manipulates journalists, in his book People Like Us; Representing the Middle East. We summarized Luyendijk’s valuable work then, but he bears repeating as Fisher takes up his new post. Luyendijk was astonished at his first visit to a plush Israeli government press center, in a 5-star hotel in Jerusalem: “Young Israeli men and women walked around in olive-green army uniforms handing out sheets of great quotes.”
“A complete alphabet of ‘optimistic stories’ had been cooked up for the correspondents: Jewish, Christian and Islamic children together in one school; olive branches from Israelis and Palestinians; joint musical performances. You had only to telephone the Palestinian or Israeli organizers of these hopeful projects. . . and the great quotes, checkable information and striking visual details would be served to you on a plate.”
All was not carrots. Luyendijk watched the international Israel lobby in action. A Jewish-American businessman boasted in the Israeli media that “he’d managed to get rid of the critical correspondent of the Miami Herald by threatening to withdraw advertisements from it.” Luyendijk went on: “Israeli ambassadors and lobbyists also visited leading editors and producers at television networks, cable news television, and the main daily and weekly newspapers in many Western countries.”
Petty competitiveness in the U.S. mainstream media also helps the Israeli propaganda machine. Luyendijk does not look into this angle, but clearly an American reporter who is a day late with a big story, or misses out on an exclusive interview with Prime Minister Netanyahu, is going to be sorely tempted to write a pro-Israel puff piece to get back in the loop. One of the mistakes of Jodi Rudoren, Fisher’s predecessor at the Times, was her transparent campaign to get an interview with Netanyahu. The effort surely affected her reporting, and an exclusive with the rightwing leader would not have been worth it anyway.
What’s more, the event-driven nature of mainstream reporting makes Hasbara Central’s job easier. As Luyendijk explained, it was hard to report on the Israeli occupation; “the occupation itself was never news, but each new [Palestinian] attack was.” He added that the occupation was particularly hard to show on television: “it didn’t get any further than shots of tanks, soldiers checking papers, and long queues of civilians. How could correspondents portray the misery, repression and injustice behind such scenes?”
If Ian Fisher downplays the occupation and writes pro-Israel puffs pieces instead, he may not be entirely to blame. It could mean that his newspaper is not backing him up.