Few things so consistently irk the pro-Israel community as the coverage of Israel by the mainstream news media. Proud Zionists constantly bemoan the Jewish State's poor performance in this behind-the-scenes struggle that shapes popular perceptions of the Middle East.
Israel and its allies can not afford to take the modern media lightly. The average North American is woefully uninformed on domestic political issues, and even more so in the realm of foreign affairs. Between work, family and fun, Westerners simply lack the time and energy to cultivate informed opinions vis à vis Israel and the wider region. Instead, they unblinkingly rely upon reports from major news networks, rarely if ever questioning the reliability of the information which is fed to them. A thirty-second video clip can plausibly shape an individual's lifelong perception of an entire country.
Unfortunately, mass media displays a number of features that seriously undermine its credibility on Middle Eastern issues, usually to Israel's detriment. At the same, the Jewish State and its supporters are learning from past mistakes, pioneering innovative tactics to tell Israel's side of the story to the broader public.
For starters, the high cost and expertise required for overseas reporting has led media empires to cut corners wherever possible, producing lazy, complacent journalism. News items are laden with clichés that are rarely explained and almost never challenged, such as the Palestinian demand that Israel accept the “1967 borders” as the basis for all statehood negotiations. Of course, the media is actually referring to the 1949 Armistice Lines separating the warring forces of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria. These lines merely represented the final military positions in Israel's War of Independence, and were never meant to be the basis for any state's final borders.
Even when media sources purport to contextualize regional events, they often make simple mistakes that mislead countless viewers. For example, quick summaries of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often claim that the PLO was established to “free the Occupied Territories from Israeli rule”. In fact, the PLO was founded in 1964, before Israel gained the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. Moreover, its charter did not initially call for Palestinian statehood, instead urging the wholesale destruction of Israel and its partition among Arab League states.
Aside from relying on stale reports cannibalized from other sources, modern media compensates for its weakness on the ground through a heavy reliance on “local experts”. Most foreign correspondents are unfamiliar with their new work environment, and usually do not speak the local language. Therefore, reporters are at the mercy of local authorities, translators, photographers and sources.
As a democracy, Israel strives to protect freedom of the press even during wartime. It allows hostile foreign media outlets to operate on its territory and does not prevent correspondents from filing reports that are bound to be critical of the Jewish State. Even Al Jazeera, an influential Arab media network despised by many Israelis, has historically been
allowed free reign in the country, although it faced temporary restrictions after one of its employees was charged with aiding the terrorist group Hamas.
By contrast, Hamas and Hezbollah repeatedly manipulate the media, limiting their access to places and people of interest and instead taking them on special “guided tours” of combat zones to encourage reports of Israeli atrocities. Even the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority briefly banned Al Jazeera from the West Bank in 2009 not for security reasons, but because it tarnished the name of PA President Mahmoud Abbas by hinting that he may have been behind the death of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. The current cooperation between Abbas, Al Jazeera and Suha Arafat in alleging that the Palestinian arch-terrorist fell victim to polonium planted by Israeli agents should be seen as a way to smooth over these previous tensions by smearing Israel instead.
On other occasions, international media corporations rely upon local freelance journalists who intentionally blur the line between neutral, objective reporting and political activism. This problem is especially apparent with news-wire agencies such as Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, which collect live updates from conflict zones and relay them to more extensive broadcasters such as CNN, the CBC and the BBC.
For example, Reuters emerged with egg on its face after publishing photos of the aftermath of an Israeli airstrike on Beirut in 2006 that had been falsified and manipulated by a local Lebanese photographer, Adnan Hajj. Reuters has also implemented a policy of never using the word “terrorist” in its reporting, unless it is placed within quotation marks to highlight its uncertain usage. Thus, in the name of supposed journalistic objectivity, the news agency refuses to accurately report events, even when no reasonable person would doubt that a terrorist attack has indeed taken place.
The power of images, and especially video clips that combine sound with a visual element, can not be overstated. By creating a visceral, life-like narrative, video clips connect the viewer to events on the ground, if only for a few seconds.
The alleged murder of Palestinian youngster Muhammad al-Durrah by IDF troops in 2000 understandably enraged Arabs and Muslims worldwide and engendered sympathy from international viewers. However, it soon became unclear whether al-Durrah had actually been killed by Israelis, or, indeed, if he had perished on that day at all. It later emerged that France 2, which first carried the story of his demise, had been cynically misled by Talal Abu Rahma, its freelance Palestinian cameraman. Although a number of high-profile French court cases later demolished the official France 2 narrative, these victories came too late to exonerate Israel in the court of public opinion, with the iconic image of al-Durrah cowering behind his father now featured prominently among the pantheon of saintly Palestinian shaheeds.
In the interests of creating an engrossing story and furthering their own careers, foreign correspondents and media bureaucrats too often act as willing accomplices in anti-Israel lies and manipulation, to say nothing of casual bias. But Israel's defenders are increasingly hitting back, refusing to cede the media battleground to the enemy.
To prevent similar missteps from undermining Israel's global image in the future, the Jewish State revamped the IDF Spokesman's Unit, and later opened the world's first International School for Combat Journalism and Photography. Other IDF units were more frequently
furnished with video cameras and other recording equipment.
These changes came just in time for the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010, when Israeli naval commandos boarded a Turkish vessel attempting to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip and its belligerent Hamas administration. While critics continue to scrutinize the political decision to seize the Mavi Marmara in the first place, there can be no doubt that a savvy media offensive by the IDF Spokesman's Unit, notably its online presence, helped to dull the edge of a potent anti-Israel media attack.
Within hours of the altercation, the Spokesman's Unit had posted raw video on YouTube depicting the assault faced by the soldiers as they landed on deck. This was later supplemented by footage shot by the flotilla activists themselves, which was confiscated by the IDF upon their arrest. The Foreign Ministry also drew attention to the hard-core jihadist ideology of the passengers killed during the struggle, and discredited participants such as Israeli MK Haneen Zoabi by waiting for her to make false claims, and then immediately releasing footage that refuted her statements.
Although the Mavi Marmara boarding initially stoked worldwide anger toward Israel, the fact that it was largely forgotten by the mainstream media within a few months, and its conspicuous absence as a rallying cry for anti-Israel activists can be traced to the Jewish State's swift efforts to influence the media conversation surrounding the incident.
While Jewish comedians have long been known for their unique brand of self-deprecating humor, Israel's supporters have pioneered the use of jokes to mock Israel's opponents and anti-Israel bias in the global media. Latma TV, the online brainchild of Israel advocate Caroline Glick, has garnered over 12 million views worldwide as it pokes fun at the weekly news.
In a similar vein, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon's short YouTube primers on “The Truth About the Refugees” and other hot topics have used straightforward, fact-based messaging and a touch of one-line humor to outflank the distortions of the mainstream media, reaching millions of Internet viewers through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites.
Finally, third-party media watchdogs such as CAMERA, MEMRI and Honest Reporting provide breaking updates and databases of anti-Israel media bias and antisemitic incitement in the Arab media, challenging the simplistic narratives favored by most media conglomerates.
As an embattled democratic state locked in a bitter struggle against dedicated opponents, some would describe media relations as Israel's natural Achilles' heel. But while structural challenges affecting media coverage of Israel are unlikely to go away, the Jewish State and its backers are gradually formulating an effective news strategy that will offer a more nuanced view of Israel's situation. It's about time.