Thursday, September 18, 2014

18-Sep-14: An inside look at AP and how lethal journalism can be

AP's mission, from a current AP marketing video [Source]
It doesn't happen often, which is why recent and ongoing public exchanges between two Mainstream News Media insiders are so interesting and potentially valuable. Consumers of news ought to be asking what their mutual revelations and denials tell us about the objectivity of news reporting and the impact on democratic values.

Three weeks ago, a first-person analysis was published by Tablet under the not-so-modest title "An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth". The writer, Matti Friedman, used to be with Associated Press ("the most trusted source of independent news and information in the world. Founded in 1846, the AP is a not-for-profit cooperative of news organizations... The AP is independent and objective...") His work as a reporter took him to Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt, Moscow, and Washington, DC. Between 2006 and the end of 2011, he was a reporter and editor in AP 's Jerusalem bureau. What he learned makes him an interesting source of analysis on some weighty matters.
A reporter working in the international press corps here understands quickly that what is important in the Israel-Palestinian story is Israel. 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. The West has decided that Palestinians should want a state alongside Israel, so that opinion is attributed to them as fact, though anyone who has spent time with actual Palestinians understands that things are (understandably, in my opinion) more complicated. Who they are and what they want is not important: The story mandates that they exist as passive victims of the party that matters. Corruption, for example, is a pressing concern for many Palestinians under the rule of the Palestinian Authority, but when I and another reporter once suggested an article on the subject, we were informed by the bureau chief that Palestinian corruption was “not the story.” (Israeli corruption was, and we covered it at length.) ["Insider Guide", Tablet, August 26, 2014]
But if critics imagine that journalists are clamoring to cover Hamas and are stymied by thugs and threats, it is generally not so. There are many low-risk ways to report Hamas actions, if the will is there: under bylines from Israel, under no byline, by citing Israeli sources. Reporters are resourceful when they want to be. The fact is that Hamas intimidation is largely beside the point because the actions of Palestinians are beside the point: Most reporters in Gaza believe their job is to document violence directed by Israel at Palestinian civilians. That is the essence of the Israel story. ["Insider Guide", Tablet, August 26, 2014]
He has a special vantage point, and expresses convincingly informed views on how news reporting in the Israel/Arab conflict is done that are shocking in the non-sensational, literal sense of that overused word. It's an essay that anyone wanting to understand the very serious shortcomings of Big News ("On any given day, more than half the world’s population sees content from AP") ought to read.

Yesterday, again via Tablet, he followed it up [here] with some well-crafted and disturbing disclosures about the storm the earlier piece kicked up - and did not:
There has been no serious public response to the piece, however, from inside the system I’m criticizing—no denials of the examples I gave, no explanations for the numbers I cite, no alternative reasons for the problems I describe. This uncomfortable silence is an admission... ["Ongoing Controversy About Insider Guide", Tablet, September 16, 2014]
He illustrates how that works via two incidents. First, about the intimidation of reporters and how this shapes the news:
"...No major news organization has publicly admitted censoring its own coverage under pressure from Hamas. A New York Times correspondent recently said this idea was “nonsense.” [See our post about this here]... But the AP’s former Jerusalem bureau chief just explicitly admitted it. He confirms my report of a key detail removed from a story during the 2008-2009 fighting—that Hamas men were indistinguishable from civilians—because of a threat to our reporter, a Gaza Palestinian. He goes even further than I did, saying printing the reporter’s original information would have meant “jeopardizing his life.” The censored information in this case is no minor matter, but the explanation behind many of the civilian fatalities for which much of the world (including the AP) blamed Israel. Steve writes that such incidents actually happened “two or three times” during his tenure. It should be clear to a reader that even once is quite enough in order for a reporter living under Hamas rule to fall permanently in line. This means that AP’s Gaza coverage is shaped in large part by Hamas, which is something important that insiders know but readers don’t. ["Ongoing Controversy About Insider Guide", Tablet, September 16, 2014]
And then about how an over-riding narrative - or in simpler terms, an agenda - spins the facts of the news so as to change the way people perceive the events being characterized in the reports:
I wrote that in early 2009 the bureau wouldn’t touch an important news story, a report of a peace proposal from the Israeli prime minister to the Palestinian president. This decision was indefensible on journalistic grounds. A careful reader will notice that Steve does not deny this. He can’t, because too many people saw it happen... I repeat what I wrote: Two experienced AP reporters had information adding up to a major news story, one with the power to throw the Israeli-Palestinian relationship into a different light. Israelis confirmed it, and Palestinians confirmed it. The information was solid, and indeed later appeared in Newsweek and elsewhere. The AP did not touch this story, and others, in order to maintain its narrative of Israeli extremism and Palestinian moderation.
Failing to report bad things that Hamas does, and good things that Israel does, which is what these examples show, creates the villainous “Israel” of the international press. That these failures mislead news consumers is clear. ["Ongoing Controversy About Insider Guide", Tablet, September 16, 2014]
"Information is Ammunition": Powerful image from an unrelated Canadian Journalists for Free Expression campaign [Image Source]
But they do more than that, and here he touches on what we would have called Lethal Journalism:
But they also have a role in generating recent events like a mob attack on a Paris synagogue, for example, or the current 30-year-high in anti-Jewish incidents in Britain...
(Muhammad Al Durah could have been added to the list.) This happens, as he observed in his earlier piece, because
Many of the people deciding what you will read and see from here view their role not as explanatory but as political. Coverage is a weapon to be placed at the disposal of the side they like. ["Insider Guide", Tablet, August 26, 2014]
The ramifications are many, and they're all dangerous. It would be good to think that schools of journalism and the news reporting industry will see this as a time for opening up and re-examining the values (like these) on which their work is done. We'll keep watching for that.

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