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.

____

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

____

Steven Gutkin runs Goa Streets along with his wife Marisha Dutt

We are quite active on the site and quick to respond to your comments