Thursday, February 7, 2008

Reporting the (bad) news
Posted on Fri, Oct. 05, 2007
Reporting the (bad) news

JERUSALEM -- Who can blame Europeans for hating Israel? In Britain, the University and College Union has just announced it has to cancel plans to boycott all Israeli academics and promote Palestinian views because the boycott, surprise of surprises, would break anti-discrimination laws.

The British government, as well as academics around the world, criticized as immoral, inappropriate and counter-productive the one-sided approach to the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But who can blame Europeans for trying, really? After all, when you look at the news, it is clear that Israel is a country run by vicious and malevolent thugs.

Placid Netherlands?

News coverage from Israel in the European press is often little more than a parody of honest journalism. Israelis have complained about this for decades, but more evidence of what you might call atrocities against journalism surface every day in European court rooms and in the work of scholars.

To highlight at least one of the techniques used by European -- and some American -- news organizations, one Israeli has launched his own news parody. ''Bad News from the Netherlands,'' run by Manfred Gerstenfeld, reports on the Netherlands focusing exclusively on negative news. By the time you run through the clippings -- all real news stories -- the usually placid Netherlands sounds like the abode of the devil himself: Dutch soldiers suspected of torturing prisoners and killing civilians; soldiers beating an immigrant to death; Dutch politicians guilty of incitement against foreigners. The list goes on, with items pouring into Gerstenfeld inbox every day from his fans in the Netherlands and from the Dutch newspapers he reads.

His point? You can make any country look bad by the way you report about it. Focusing on the negative is one way to do this, failing to show context and willingly distorting facts or falling for hoaxes from one side of a conflict is another.

Staged killing

In Paris, a court has given television network France 2 until next month to release the raw footage of an incident that shows Israelis as brutal killers and appears to have been staged. The September 2000 killing of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura in Gaza has been cited by terrorists, including Osama bin Laden and the killers of Daniel Pearl, and it has been immortalized with the help of commemorative postage stamps and countless memorials. Al-Dura's killing was shown around the world in a one-minute edited video by France 2, a heart-breaking montage that shows him cowering behind his father, both caught in a cross-fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen.

The edited video shows Israelis killing him, but those who have seen the uncut material say it was filled with scenes obviously staged for the cameras and shows the boy was killed by Palestinian bullets. Several investigations have shown it would have been physically impossible for Israeli fire to hit Al Dura.

France 2 for years refused to release the video, but a judge now says it must.

Last April, the BBC -- already embattled for other violations of journalistic standards -- won a hard-fought battle to suppress a report on its Middle East coverage. The Balen Report is believed to detail the British news organization's systematic anti-Israel bias. The BBC spent hundreds of thousands of pounds to prevent its release, which Jewish groups and others had eagerly sought.

''The American media are not as bad as the Europeans,'' says Gerstenfeld, adding it is not always free of bias. One organization he notes is my former employer, CNN, whose recent documentary, God's Warriors, angered Israelis as distorted and unfair. Israeli newspapers have carried articles from people interviewed by CNN, telling how their words were manipulated. According to Gerstenfeld, ``CNN placed the actions of a tiny minority of Israelis -- many of whom have expressed regret for what they did -- on a par with the extreme violence [of large numbers of Muslim extremists].''

Harsh spotlight

Journalists here insist they do the best they can to explain a complicated situation. But often you see the bias without having to look very far. A few weeks ago, Israeli forces uncovered a plot to send a suicide bomber to kill civilians in Tel Aviv during the Yom Kippur holiday. On satellite television I saw all about the incursions into Palestinian territory. Lost in the images of mayhem and devastation was the fact that a real plot to murder Israelis was, in fact, stopped. The suicide belt was found in an apartment only a few miles from my hotel.

Many times Israel does deserve a harsh spotlight. The country and its leaders make grave mistakes for which they should be held accountable. But, like anyone else, anywhere else, they deserve the full story be told before the guilty party is declared. Without that, how are passionate European activists supposed to know which side they should boycott?

Frida Ghitis writes on global affairs.
© 2007 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

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