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Israelis Debate Whether Tv is Distorting the Unrest

March 8, 1988
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In what is becoming a weekly ritual, more than 30 English speakers gathered in a classroom here last Monday to watch videotapes of American and Canadian television news reports from the previous week.

In silence, they saw tapes of young Palestinians heaving stones at Israeli troops, clouds of tear gas billowing along the streets of Kalkilya and Nablus and green-clad soldiers advancing with guns and clubs.

Again and again, they watched CBS footage of a quartet of Israeli soldiers beating two Palestinian men.

When it ended, the viewers talked.

“Why don’t (the networks) talk with people who live on the West Bank?” said Toby Klein Greenwald, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat. “Rocks are lethal weapons. They are intended to kill, maim and destroy.”

“The question is not whether the networks are doing a fair or unfair job,” a young man responded. “The problem is, you don’t see our leaders talking about the issues. You see them talking about their image.”

Another woman snorted, “We should make these reporters do their homework. Freedom has to be handled with responsibility.”

Raymond Dolphin, an Irishman who taught English at the University in Hebron, had another view.

“I’ve been to the hospitals — the wards are full of Palestinians with broken limbs. I think there is a bias the other way and we’re seeing only a fraction of what’s being filmed,” he said.

Monday night’s discussion at Beit Agron, the Jerusalem press center, was being filmed by a crew from ABC-TV’s “Nightline” program; it was American television watching current and former Americans watching American television.

WIDESPREAD DISCUSSION

But wherever Israelis and visitors share opinions — in kitchens, restaurants, newspaper columns and the Knesset — there are spontaneous versions of the same debate:

What is to be done about television coverage of the three-month-old unrest in the administered territories?

The discussions touch on the fairness of reports, the objectivity of reporters and their free access to the territories, and, most often, a perceived lack of perspective in what is being printed and broadcast.

For many, including those who esteem Israel’s democratic nature, the answer is a total ban on television coverage, as the Israel Defense Force tried last Friday throughout the West Bank.

Earlier in the week, Premier Yitzhak Shamir said he was considering a blanket prohibition of TV cameras in the territories, a statement he repeated before visiting delegates of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Even former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is said to have told eight American Jewish leaders in February that “Israel should bar the media from entry into the territories involved in the present demonstrations, accept the short-term criticism of the world press for such conduct and put down the insurrection as quickly as possible.”

When the Conference of Presidents met here last week for its annual mission to Israel, the topic of television coverage was never far from the top of the agenda.

Howard Squadron, a former conference chairman, said at a forum on Israel’s image that he would not like to see a general media ban.

But if cameras provoke an incident, he said, “then maybe there is reason in that particular volatile sector, in that particular time, to take the cameras out.”

Martin Fletcher, a correspondent for NBC News based in Jerusalem, acknowledged that incidents do develop when television crews arrive.

“But was there an incident before the cameras arrived?” he asked rhetorically. “Sometimes all is quiet until the army patrol came, and then the kids went crazy. During the Shultz visit, all hell broke loose. So maybe you should ban visiting politicians seeking peace.”

Continued Fletcher, “We have to be careful about making the problem worse when we arrive, and we do make the problem worse. But very often, we don’t film those incidents.”

Concerning fairness, Fletcher said, “I’ve never known as much about a story as this one… I know as much as anybody else what the truth is in this particular story, and it’s not the truth that the Israeli public is told and is certainly not the truth that apparently (Americans) have been getting.”

Los Angeles Times correspondent Dan Fisher echoed Fletcher’s comments. “If anything, we have probably failed to communicate how widespread what’s going on really is,” said Fisher.

But, he said, “there is fairness. And I think the American Jewish community has done a superb job on its part of holding the media to very high levels and standards of fairness. The Times’ managing editor reads every line of Mideast copy before it goes in” the newspaper.

For Kenneth Bialkin, also a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents, the problem is not the reporters on the front lines, but the editors at home.

“Israel is not the favorite of the liberal media, the editorial writers, the people who think for some reason that Israel is wrong and the Palestinians are right,” he said. He called their presentation of the news a “subliminal effort to influence world opinion.”

MANY BLAME ISRAEL’S ‘HASBARAH’

Whether the blame is on the hundreds of reporters covering Israel or their editors, there is general agreement here that the Israeli government is failing to provide proper “hasbarah,” a word whose meaning falls somewhere between information and propaganda.

For reporters, that means a frustrating delay before the army releases official accounts of incidents. And for supporters of Israel, that means a failure of the government to successfully communicate Israel’s side of the story.

According to Yossi Goell of The Jerusalem Post, “We have been doing some horrible things (in the territories).” However, he said, “We have not been able to put across an Israeli side to the entire thing . . . because we’re split in our politics.”

Dan Pattir, chairman of the Jeane Kirkpatrick Institute in Israel and a former press adviser to Premiers Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, said that “Israel has never actually looked at hasbarah as an integral part of policy-making.”

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