NEW YORK, Oct. 31 (JTA) – Despite repeated warnings not to, people tend to believe what they hear and see.
And what audiences too often forget especially those closely following the Middle East conflict is that journalists have their foibles, too.
They dive into the melee, not as a blank slate, but with their own “baggage” of preconceived notions, prejudices and stereotypes.
Some have had good or bad prior relationships with Arabs or Jews.
Some may be lazy in their research and careless with the facts and their words. Some may not always be immune to seduction by, say, a charming Palestinian spokesman or repulsion by, for example, a boorish Israeli government flak.
Just ask Linda Scherzer.
Scherzer was a CNN correspondent in Jerusalem from 1988 to 1993, and is perhaps best known for interviewing then-Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the Gulf War while wearing a gas mask. From her experience reporting the first Palestinian intifada, which erupted in 1987, she recognized that the power of pictures far outstripped that of the spoken or written word.
“I often felt that I could be reading the Yellow Pages as narration, and regardless of what I said, the pictures were so compelling, so dramatic, they would create the impression Israel was the aggressor,” said Scherzer, who today wears the hat of media adviser to both the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Ronald Lauder Foundation.
Then, as now, many Jewish viewers perceive an anti-Israel bias in CNN’s coverage.
Scherzer, herself a Jew, was accused of overcompensating for her Jewishness by being soft on the Arab side.
“There was no deliberate anti-Israel bias within CNN that I ever noted, no hand guiding my thoughts, nobody telling me what story to tell,” she said.
“Reporters are trusted to call it as they see it, to use their eyes and ears to tell a very complex story, one that takes years to understand.”
Some of the finest journalists in the world have been or are in Israel, she noted, as it is considered one of the most prestigious foreign postings.
But most news outlets don’t have “years” to invest. So they rely on “parachute journalism,” where they drop reporters into global hotspots.
In Israel, for example, the media contingent covering the conflict has reportedly swelled to more than 1,000, double its normal size. Some may be based regionally in, say, Cairo or Amman.
But it’s likely that hundreds of journalists have landed with little or no prior knowledge of the history of the region or conflict, or of the main players now at its core.
These newcomers may come armed with a history book or two.
They may be there to relieve a colleague for a few days or a week.
But within hours, many must begin reporting on the conflict with some appearance of authority.
“Each place has its unique history and different logic,” said Scherzer. “There are so many components to this story, it’s a real challenge to cover it well.”
The less known of the background, the more vulnerable a journalist may be to a propaganda assault by a seemingly trustworthy source.
And the lack of a long-view perspective coupled with a journalist’s liberal tendencies the Palestinian plight may be seen has having all the trappings of a David-versus-Goliath story line.
The coverage at CNN becomes shoddy when colleagues pitch in from stateside, in interviews with American advocates for the two sides.
“The news anchors based in Atlanta don’t always understand the story in the way the reporter out in the field does,” Scherzer said. “They often don’t challenge people in interviews, and let them get away with much more. A seasoned reporter who understands the complexities of the situation would call them on it.”
Having switched gears from neutral journalist to Jewish professional, Scherzer today sees coverage of the conflict from a new perspective.
“Looking at it through a different prism, in general I do find the media falling short,” she said. “But I’m going to ask people to do now what I asked them to do then: don’t paint all journalists with the same brush. Some are good, some are bad.”