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New Israeli Pr Effort is Aimed at Reporters

February 26, 2004
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One year ago, Mark Bianu stood in a Haifa cemetery reserved for terror victims.

As a reporter for a local cable TV show, “News of the Day,” Bianu, 29, already had covered three terrorist attacks. He remarked to a colleague at the rapidly growing cemetery, “Who knows — maybe tomorrow you or I could be buried under this mound,” his mother, Florence, recalled in a recent telephone interview.

Last October, Bianu and his wife Naomi were having Shabbat lunch at Haifa’s Maxim restaurant when a Palestinian woman from Jenin blew herself up nearby, killing the couple and 19 others.

Now Bianu and his wife are buried in that Haifa cemetery.

“I am trying to carry on his work,” Florence Bianu said of her son. “People may be tired of looking at the news, but we are living here and we are suffering. To lose a son, the pain is almost impossible,” she said.

Nowadays Bianu is part of a new effort to make the case for Israel’s security barrier in painfully human terms, by telling stories of ordinary Israelis to Americans and media opinion leaders.

The move by the Israel Project, a nonprofit firm that advocates for Israel, joins several new campaigns to inform the U.S. media, and by extension public perceptions, about Israeli life behind the headlines.

Donna Rosenthal, an award-winning former Israel Radio and TV correspondent, said she wrote her new book, “The Israelis,” an in-depth look at the many faces of Israeli society during the Palestinian intifada, as a “bible for journalists.” It is meant to be used as a kind of desk reference about the Jewish state.

While touring to promote “The Israelis,” Rosenthal says she is “shocked” by how deep illiteracy about Israel runs among many U.S. broadcast journalists, including some Jews at major network and cable news stations.

“There is enormous curiosity” about Israel “and enormous ignorance” in the media, Rosenthal said.

The book updates the last similar nonfiction view from Israel’s street, the 1986 “Heroes, Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men” by Zev Chafets, which offered rarely seen colorful slices of Israeli life.

Whether portraying Russians working in high-tech firms, gays in Tel Aviv or Christian Arabs who publish a “Cosmopolitan”-style magazine, Rosenthal said, “I am trying to smash stereotypes.”

At the same time, Linda Scherzer, a former CNN correspondent in Israel, now is consulting for a new Internet venture to give newspaper editorial writers access to analysis and opinion pieces about Israel from some 400 news outlets worldwide.

Launched by Los Angeles TV producer Merv Adelson, Access Middle East, at, “has been a good way to advance the story” about Israel to editorial writers from Minneapolis to Sacramento to Wichita, Scherzer said.

Already the site is increasing its audience and influencing coverage, Scherzer said. Recent conference calls with Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, produced a New York Times editorial, and a call with a human-rights lawyer led to pieces in the Dallas Morning News and the New York Sun, she said.

Yet all of these efforts face some serious challenges, and their proponents don’t expect to change overnight the face of news coverage of Israel.

In part that’s because TV news long has been governed not by any anti-Israel bias, as some press watchdog groups maintain, but by the “if it bleeds, it leads” newscast mentality, said Samuel Freedman, an author and professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

“If a network newscast gives something 45 seconds, that’s a tremendous amount of time, which hardly allows for nuance,” Freedman said.

Indeed, Rosenthal said, many TV producers told her they would love to feature her book but wonder where the controversy lies.

Meanwhile, the mothers of suicide-bombing victims found that telling their tales required a hard sell.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the Israel Project, said she attempted to contact more than 100 print and TV figures, but most turned them down.

“They were here five days, and 80 reporters couldn’t find 10 minutes to meet with them?” Laszlo Mizrahi asked.

So last week, the Israel Project launched a media campaign with ads on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC outlets in Washington featuring Bianu and other mothers of terror victims.

The ads hit the airwaves just before the International Court of Justice at The Hague convened its hearings on Israel’s fence. The campaign aimed to reinforce what the Israel Project says is overall public support for the barrier.

A survey of 800 registered U.S. voters Jan. 21-22 by pollster Neil Newhouse found that 74 percent of Americans support the fence as a barrier to terrorists.

Yet few may be aware of a small fact that one of the mothers, Lea Zur, whose son Assaf, 17, was among 17 killed in a suicide bus bombing in Haifa, disclosed in a letter of regret to journalists who could not meet her.

Zur noted that the security barrier, which is a chain-link fence for most of its proposed 450-mile route, succeeded two months ago in blocking a suicide bomber from reaching a local high school where her nephew is a student.

“We are trying to reach out to reporters before they write their stories,” Laszlo Mizrahi said.

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