And the truth about bias

My Life As An AP Bureau Chief In Israel

by Steven Gutkin

The wall separating Israel from the West Bank

And the truth about bias

When I led coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the world’s largest news organization between 2004 and 2010, my colleagues and I knew we were writing about the globe’s most scrutinized story. But we tried to take it in stride. As long as we angered each side equally, we surmised, we were doing something right.

So when we were falsely accused of “erasing” a video of a young Palestinian boy getting shot by an Israeli soldier, we decided not to give it credence by responding. And when these past few days, a former colleague stated, again falsely, that we buried key stories that made Israel look good, among other transgressions, my initial reaction was the same. Just let it go.

But there was something different about this accusation. For one, it came from a reporter whom I hired personally in 2006 in the middle of a war. And from a person who I thought then and still think now is a good writer.

Matti Friedman’s allegations, in a story in the Jewish publication Tablet, have gone viral, with more than 70,000 Facebook shares as of this writing. Eloquently written, it has the air of a ‘tell-all’ piece from a former insider. The article has struck a chord among Jews, despite its dubious central theme: that anti-Semitism thrives, even among non-Muslim communities in the West and especially among journalists.

With Israel’s public image reeling from the recent war in Gaza – and Israel supporters everywhere eager to counter the widespread criticism of Israel – the story’s timing was perfect.

Unfortunately, the story was little more than well-written hogwash.

Matti’s message was that Jews today – like their oppressed ancestors – have once again become “the pool into which the world spits.” Criticism of Israel, he argued, is the latest manifestation of old-style anti-Semitism, which has focused attention on Israel rather than the world’s true villains. The key to understanding this “hostile obsession with the Jews,” he wrote, “is to be found first among the educated and respectable people who populate the international news industry; decent people, many of them, and some of them my former colleagues.”

Matti didn’t mention names, but he was talking about me, and other leaders of the Associated Press bureau in Jerusalem. I’m no longer in that crowd. I left the AP nearly three years ago (to start the publication you’re reading now), which gives me something in common with Matti, who resigned around the same time I did. Both he and I can say whatever we want about those momentous years, without having to consult the AP or anyone else.

Matti’s article was essentially about bias – what he said was our bias against the Jewish state. If we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that bias, especially unconscious bias, is an inescapable part of the human condition. (The Nobel-prize winning Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman explained it elegantly in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, writing, “We are blind, and we are blind to our blindness.”)

It is true the conflict we covered can be framed in various ways: of downtrodden Palestinians facing off against powerful Israel, or of tiny Israel against the surrounding sea of 300 million Arabs. Often, I felt that attempting to “frame” it either way was not instructive. It was preferable to simply bear witness to what we saw unfolding before our eyes.

During my six-year tenure in Israel and the Palestinian territories, our staff was made up mostly of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims, with a smaller number of foreigners who belonged to neither or those two communities. Matti provided valuable, fair-minded input during those years, a voice that often helped ensure the Israeli viewpoint got a fair shake without belittling the other side. I was grateful for that, and for the other voices in the bureau who did the same for the Palestinians.

As bureau chief, I knew it was one of my key roles to fight bias in our reporting. Was this achieved all the time? I doubt it. But I know an honest attempt was made at all times. I always told our reporters not to deliver “milk toast” and to lay bare the raw passions of each side in all their glory, rather than trying to tone down the arguments. While fairness was of utmost importance, I told them, not every story had to be 50-50 (if you were reporting in 1930s Germany, I asked, would you be compelled to give half the space to the Jewish side and the other half to the Nazis?)

Matti states that the AP’s Jerusalem bureau – like all other major news operations based in Israel and the Palestinian territories – employs too many reporters because of this hostile obsession with the Jews. The truth is the story of Israel is that of a nation rising from the ashes of the worst genocide in human history, being attacked from all sides upon its inception. Depending on your point of view, it’s also a story about the persecuted becoming the persecutors. All of this, of course, is happening to the people of the Bible, the descendants of the Hebrew slaves who were led out of Egypt by Moses and from whose ranks emerged Jesus Christ. It’s as if a new chapter of the Bible is being written in our times. Whether you think the Bible is mythology or the word of God is beside the point. The point is we are all human beings who love a good story, and this one is particularly good.

In his article, Matti states that I personally suppressed stories that did not fit my narrative of Israel being bad, implying that I was a part of this worldwide media conspiracy against the Jews. It’s a large statement, and of course could only be true if I hated myself. The truth is I am not a self-hating Jew or any kind of Jew other than just a regular one.

There was a time years ago when the large media outlets avoided appointing Jewish people to lead news operations in Israel. Wouldn’t such a person be prone to taking the Israeli side? Or perhaps over-compensate by being too pro-Palestinian? Experience has shown those concerns were largely unfounded, and that Jewish bureau chiefs in Israel have been pretty much the same as anyone else. In my case, I have no doubt that my Jewishness gave me a keener appreciation of the Israeli cause. I also know that my intense feelings about Jewish persecution – and the fact that much of my own family was murdered in the Holocaust – made me even more sensitive to the plight of the weak, no matter who they were.

I was present in Pakistan when another Jew, Daniel Pearl, was murdered. I was chasing after an interview with the same militants who brutally ended his life, and at first I thought he was “lucky” when he beat me to them. I knew his fate could have been mine. I did not know Steven Sotloff, the Jewish journalist recently beheaded in Syria, but his personal story, too, was not unlike mine.

Yes, I have a strong Jewish identity. But what I believe in most is humanity.

One of my favourite memories of my time in Afghanistan is of a local AP colleague, a devout Muslim, driving around Taliban-ruled Kabul singing the Hebrew hymn “Shalom Aleichem.” I had taught it to him. In the morning, my children and I drink from ceramic mugs that were gifted to me by a Palestinian colleague in Gaza grateful that I secured him a hospital bed in Jerusalem when he suffered a medical crisis. The AP staff in Gaza and the West Bank all knew I was Jewish, and were all fiercely protective of me whenever I visited. Not unlike my colleague in Peshawar, Pakistan who helped me escape the clutches of the ISI when they detained me at the Afghan border, getting beat up for it in the process. One of my favourite Facebook messages is the one I receive every year from a former colleague in Gaza – no matter the situation on the ground – wishing me a Happy Passover.

I do not believe in suppressing good stories, and would never do so. Nor do I think Israel is bad.

If an article didn’t appear that Matti thought should have, it was not because it didn’t fit a pre-ordained narrative or because we had it in for Israel. Deciding which stories to pursue involves news judgment, and rare events are more newsworthy than common ones. Reporters do not write about all the houses that DON’T catch fire, and corruption in Sweden is more noteworthy than it is in Nigeria. (Though it must be stated that Matti’s assertion that the AP ignores Palestinian corruption and other aspects of Palestinian existence is untrue).

Matti stated that a female reporter in our bureau had access to maps showing the contours of a generous Israeli offer of a Palestinian state, but that the bureau’s leadership refused to run the story. The map he’s talking about was indeed shown by a Palestinian official to one of our reporters. It affirmed a longstanding Palestinian proposal for a land swap that had been part of the Geneva Initiative, and was old news.

During my years with the AP and other news organizations, I reported from some two dozen countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Colombia, Cuba and Israel. I have been threatened, shot at and shelled, and I have been present when colleagues were injured and killed. Were there times when we decided not to report a given fact because we thought it would endanger one of our reporters? Yes there were, and one of these incidents occurred when Matti was on the editing desk. But these events were extremely rare – perhaps only two or three times during my entire six-year stint in Israel/Palestine – and we withheld the information only after concluding that it would necessarily be traced to the reporter in question, thus jeopardizing his life.

Matti and I were in Israel at the same time covering the same news. I am grateful for the acknowledgment he gave me in The Aleppo Codex, the wonderful book he wrote on the stunning fate of one of history’s most important Hebrew manuscripts.

Of course I do question Matti’s belief that the international media is teeming with anti-Semitism. And I do wonder how a person with his intelligence and compassion can fail so completely to see the other side.

Except for one reference to an Israeli transportation service in the “occupied” West Bank, Matti’s 4,000-word story in Tablet did not mention the word “occupation.” That a sizeable percentage of the population making up the Holy Land live under Israeli military rule against their will did not merit a mention tells us something about the prevalence of bias.

No, media coverage of Israel is not the new face of global anti-Semitism. In every society I covered in my decades as a foreign correspondent, whistle blowers were dubbed traitors and defenders of the status quo were considered patriots. Matti seems to argue that Israel should be left alone because it’s not as bad as Bashar Assad or the Taliban. I believe there’s nothing wrong with giving voice to all those who believe the Jewish state can and should do better.

And I feel the same way about the Palestinians.

Matti writes, “If you follow mainstream coverage, you will find nearly no real analysis of Palestinian society or ideologies, profiles of armed Palestinian groups, or investigation of Palestinian government. Palestinians are not taken seriously as agents of their own fate.”

During my time in the region, I worked hard to ensure the strength of AP’s coverage of the entire story, both in Israel and the territories. We upgraded our offices in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza City, and appointed a full-time senior staffer to oversee coverage of the Palestinian territories. Those moves continue to pay dividends, providing highly nuanced, well-researched insights into these areas (in recent weeks alone, the news agency ran stories on Palestinian nepotism, dissenting voices in Gaza, Hamas corruption and the arrest of a top Hamas official for financial misdeeds).

There’s no such thing as perfect balance and a complete lack of bias. Not when you’re dealing with human beings. But there is something called good faith, and I’m proud to say we had lots of it in Israel and Palestine. I say that in the spirit of fighting bias – not as a Jew, but as a journalist.

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For a more detailed rebuttal of Matti Friedman’s two articles in Tablet, see here.

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Steven Gutkin runs Goa Streets along with his wife Marisha Dutt

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  1. Jeff Abel

    Matti states that two AP journalists received information that then PM Ehud Olmert had made the Palestinian Authority a significant peace offer but the PA turned it down. He also says that the reporters obtained confirmation from both sides. You respond that one reporter showed you an old map originating from the Palestinian side and it was old news. So was there an offer by Olmert or not? If so what was that offer and if it was turned down why was it turned down.

  2. Richard C. Gross

    I was in Israel for seven years over two tours of duty for United Press International, your onetime major competitor, first as a staffer from 1972-1975 and again as bureau chief from 1977-1980. I am sorry that your rebuttal to Matti Friedman’s piece didn’t go into more detail rather than dismissing it as “hogwash.” I considered his commentary an echo of complaints about the foreign press by Israeli governments, past and present. It’s really a very old story.

  3. OM

    Mr. Gutkin, unfortunately, you have confirmed what Matti Friedman said so clear and loud. The media is against Israel since the Palestinians are the underdogs. Especially in liberal America , patronizing the victims-Palestinians is the call of the day and making them a perpetuated victims is the goals. Otherwise, you would have asked them for accountability and responsibility. You would have asked your friend from Gaza why they voted for Hamas and why they let them build a terrorist infrastructure with the money that they received for schools and hospitals. You might have published the fact that Israel have waited for days until there was no choice but to put boots on the ground and while the Israelis near Gaza had 14 seconds to run to a shelter, “knock on the door” method that the IDF used to let the residents of a building know that the IDF is about to bomb the building allowed 10-15 minutes.
    But you seem to be another “token Jew” that was sent to Jerusalem so nobody could say that AP is against Israel because they knew that like many “humanistic” American Jews, you will do the job right because you are full with guilt and don’t see the facts.
    I say it with true sadness as I belong to “your” side and my “home station” is NPR but, I had to turn them off too many times lately. Every newsflash started with the number of dead Palestinians in Gaza. Why not the number of rockets that have been shot to Israel in the last 14 years?
    Furthermore, CNN and NPR (National Palestinian Radio) and the AP makes Fox the “small voice that could”….what a shame!
    Matti Friedman filled the void and said loud and clear that Anti Israel and Antisemitism is the same thing. I, too , am guilty of thinking otherwise but years of living in the states and listening to NPR have shown me differently. As Ari Shavit said in “The Land of Milk and Honey”, there is plenty to support in Israel and if you are against the settlements, don’t support them but it’s not a reason to support BDS. Like others, you try so hard to be politically correct but at the end , you “slipped”….Israel is a state but Palestine, not yet as it’s people don’t assume the responsibility to be a state and don’t recognize Israel as one and it’s right to exist.

  4. Amy Rosenbaum

    Mr. Gutkin’s response to Matti Friedman serves to reinforce rather than rebut Friedman’s assertions. I am sympathetic to Gutkin’s tragic loss of family in the Holocaust, but like his self-described “strong Jewish identity,” that is neither a credential nor relevant to the essential problem identified by Friedman and others, which is the pronounced bias against Israel in the mainstream media. Gutkin writes of his “honest attempt” to fight bias, but one is forced to question both his credibility and competence as a journalist when he refers to “Israel/Palestine,” apparently unaware that no such place exists. Gutkin dismisses Friedman’s article as “hogwash” despite the overwhelming evidence of media bias against Israel available to any fair-minded reader of the AP, Reuters, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and other mainstream news sources. (For a methodical analysis of this phenomenon, Gutkin might want to read Richard Behar’s article in Forbes: “The Media Intifada: Bad Math, Ugly Truths About News York Times in Israel-Hamas War.”) Certainly, we all have our biases but, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan eloquently stated, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” What Gutkin fails to understand is the profound failure of most journalists and editors to differentiate between facts and opinions in their coverage of Israel.

  5. Charles Weiss

    I, too, served as a bureau chief in Jerusalem (for Voice of America from 1976-1980 and 1987-1991). His experience has a very familiar ring to it, even down to the office space we shared with the AP in Rehov Hasoreg. In fact, for the professional journalist in these kinds of situations, bias is very much in the eye of the beholder — and you cannot escape it.

  6. Richard Alan Buckberg

    If you cannot see the profound and fundamental anti-Israel, and now clearly anti-Semitic, bias in nearly all world media, then you have lost any and all fair perspective you might have had. While your response MAY defend YOUR work, it does not change the fact that Israel is nearly always displayed as the imperialistic aggressor. That is not an accident or a representation of the facts on the ground. Rather, it is by design.

  7. John Richmond

    When one reviews the activities of the BDS movement and the recent press coverage of Gaza, it is unsurprising that some regard both as anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel.

    The constant refrain that the Palestinians are somehow victims of Israeli aggression overlooks the many attempts, since the First Aliyah and in the run up to WW1 that Zionists made to establish cordial relations with the inhabitants of what was then Southern Syria. These included, Zionists standing for the Ottoman Parliament, Zionists providing free education and health care to Arabs. Yet, none bore fruit partly because, which is unchanging, the view of the Jews as dhimmi and therefore a people to be subjugated.

    If only the media would explain the background properly, it would resolve many of the misunderstandings as well as reveal the extent that today’s conflict has is rooted in the Great Powers strategy during WW1.

  8. Bhupinder S. Liddar

    What a insightful and refreshing read! Glad you responded rather than duck Matti’s allegations.
    Keep up the good work and as a humanist keep up the good work for justice and regard for human beings.

  9. Marvin Katzen

    If all of what you say is true, why do we not see Hamas terrorists setting up and shooting off rockets from schools and hospitals? Why do we not hear about Iran sending military equipment to arm the poor Palestinians? Why is so little effort put into crafting stories about what the Israelis have done to appease the Palestinians? Why are all the victims of Israeli military response innocent civilians? Where are the terrorists? Somebody has to be shooting rockets, building terror tunnels, planning raids into Israel. It’s as if they don’t exist! So, who is shoveling the bullshit?

  10. Max Neiman

    I sympathize, but you’ve not addressed Matti’s direct claims. You dismiss them. Moreover, Matti made it clear that he opposes and objects to Israeli settler and occupation policy, but that it wasn’t his central point. I too believe Israel’s occupation and settler policies are illegal, immoral and corrosive. I also believe that the world’s obsession with Israel’s conduct and the “disproportionate” response in part has contributed to Israel’s hardening views and to the destruction of Israel’s left.

    Respectfully,

    Max

  11. Art Hister

    But what you don’t address, and what is so central to the charges against the media, is the unbelievable focus on Israel and what it does, when much worse atrocities are committed elsewhere every minute.
    Just consider the number of stories in AP (and other new outlets) on and from Syria versus how many have run on Israel, when the number of refugees and deaths in the former is so much greater than and about Syria where the number of atrocities (civilian deaths, summary executions, refugees) dwarfs anything that has ever occurred in Palestine.
    Where are the daily reports and regular updates about civilian deaths in Syria?
    As a liberal Jewish son of Holocaust survivors who could never never accept this until recently and who fervently wishes it weren’t so, there is a (huge) disproportionate amount of negative attention on Israel, and there can be only one reason why

  12. marvin steiner

    Reconciling differences between Gutkin and Friedman is like trying to find a pony in a pile of horse manure.From each of their perches they both try to shed light.

    I don’t question Gutkins motives,but I believe he failed as I believe most of the main stream press fails to present balanced coverage.My view is conditioned by reading mainstream press since 1938.In all those years I have become amazed at how little I know.The more I read,seemingly the less I know. That’s true of the press also, the more they write the less they know worse yet the less they understand.All exacerbated by prior influences and conditioning.

    For the 12th time maybe the 20th time I finished Joseph Roth’s Wandering Jew.The cultural acceptance of the Jew as the other is so universally accepted it’s almost in our DNA.Roth is correct when he describes anti-sematism among Jews.He speaks not of self loathing,but of the shoena Yiden’s view of themselves.Goitein and others describe the “dhimmi” status of the Jew in the Muslim world.Together Roth and Gotein present a Jew who is in the minds of those we lived and today live among as some one less then they,who have not reached their level of attainment.

    Despite evidence to the contrary Jews have reached their level and in so many cases have exceeded their level.How then do those who see us as less explain Israels accomplishments?.Alternatly the US gave them everything because of AIPAC,others claim Israel stole everything from the US and on it goes.The Jew,grasping and greedy in their historic view,a client of a super power,bullies and takes from the guiltless poor and down trodden.How else can these despised inferiors win war?It’s a hang over shared by the world,even some Jews.

    Maybe Nietzsche looked in the wrong place for his”superman”.
    .