AP rebuts Matti Friedman claims about Israel coverage

The former Jerusalem Bureau staffer alleges the wire service has biased news judgement

CAIRO—The Associated Press dismissed claims this week by a former staff member from its Jerusalem Bureau who alleges that the newswire’s coverage is slanted in a way that portrays the state of Israel as a villain.

Former AP staffer Matti Friedman argues in recent essays in Tablet and The Atlantic that the AP, and the Jerusalem press corps in general, produce reporting that amounts to “a grossly oversimplified story—a kind of modern morality play in which the Jews of Israel are displayed more than any other people on earth as examples of moral failure.”

In the two pieces, Friedman cites a wide range of specific incidents that he argues form a larger pattern of using the work of international organizations (the United Nations, Human Rights groups, and others) to credulously report claims of Israeli wrongdoing while ignoring Palestinian wrongs.

The AP responded to these claims in a sharply-worded press release on Monday. “His arguments have been filled with distortions, half-truths and inaccuracies, both about the recent Gaza war and more distant events. His suggestion of AP bias against Israel is false,” AP says. “There’s no ‘narrative’ that says it is Israel that doesn’t want peace; the story of this century-long conflict is more complicated than that.”

When it comes to some of the specific claims, the AP’s release clears up questions raised by Friedman’s essays. For example, in response to his claim his that the AP and other organizations altered their coverage of last summer’s war under pressure from Hamas authorities in Gaza, the AP address the issue directly:

In the early days of the war, armed militants entered the AP’s offices in Gaza to complain about a photo showing the location of a specific rocket launch. The AP immediately contacted Hamas, which insisted the men did not represent the group. The photo was not withdrawn and the men were never heard from again. Subsequent videos similarly showed rocket launches from within the urban area. Such intimidation is common in trouble spots. The AP does not report many interactions with militias, armies, thugs or governments. These incidents are part of the challenge of getting out the news—and generally not themselves news.

Friedman alleges that international reporters acquiesced to Hamas pressure, turning a blind eye to claims that Palestinian combatants used the civilian population as human shield. Here, his assertions echo those of the Israeli government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said they expected more coverage of this issue, including direct reporting and images of Palestinian fighters.

In my reporting for a piece in CJR’s November-December print issue, I interviewed 10 journalists who covered the war in Gaza for international outlets, and all told me a variation of the same thing: that they would have loved to report on Hamas activity, but they simply had no access to Palestinian armed groups, who were either in hiding or engaged in combat and therefore unavailable for interviews. As for the question of the alleged use of human shields, the AP again has a direct response: They paired two reporters to conduct a thorough investigation of those claims.

Friedman does not allege inaccuracies in the AP’s reports. Rather, his argument has to do with choices made about what constitutes news. The former reporter’s assertion is that the AP and the international media at large decide to look at some things and not others. The same could also be said of Friedman’s analysis.

One example from Friedman’s essays has drawn its share of attention: his claim that his AP bosses imposed a “ban” on quoting an organization called NGO Monitor and its leader Gerald Steinberg after his group pushed back on international organizations’ investigations into allegations of war crimes in Gaza in 2009. To begin with, the AP denies the existence of a ban on quoting NGO Monitor, an organization dedicated to undermining the work of rights groups, humanitarian groups, and the UN in Israel and the Palestinian territories. “He and his NGO Monitor group are cited in at least a half-dozen stories since the 2009 Gaza war,” the organization said.

As a post in by conservative Washington Post blogger David Bernstein demonstrated, any detailed parsing of this apparent disagreement on facts can quickly turn into a secondary discussion that veers far from from real-world events. The piece dives deeper into the alleged “ban” on citing NGO Monitor, mentioning the group’s criticisms of Human Rights Watch, rather than focusing on the context of those barbs: the aftermath of Israel’s 2008-09 offensive on Gaza.

The deaths of 14 Israelis and an estimated 1,400 Palestinians in three weeks of that operation fits the definition of news. The accounts of people who say they witnessed war crimes ought to be reported, and the claims of those accused should also be recorded and evaluated. Whether the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups broke the laws of war is a serious question that deserves careful reporting. The investigations of those claims by the United Nations, respected human rights groups, and journalists deserve to be considered seriously, just as they should in other conflict zones like Syria, Iraq, central Africa, and Sri Lanka. This assessment of realities, not the sifting of spin after the fact, is the primary work of reporters.

Friedman does make one or two valid points. He argues, justly, that Israel-Palestine receives a disproportionate share of media attention relative to other places. He says international journalists spend too much time hanging out in Jerusalem’s hotels and restaurants rather than doing the hard legwork of seeking stories outside that bubble. Few journalists would argue with him. He raises a key point in saying the international humanitarian groups should be held accountable through journalistic scrutiny.

At points in Friedman’s Atlantic essay, he also makes claims not directed specifically toward the AP that do not hold up to scrutiny. At the end of the piece, he refers to Hamas as the “local franchise” of “radical Islam,” making a connection between the Palestinian group and the forces of the so-called Islamic State. He mentions no evidence for this claim, which ignores research and reporting showing that Hamas has been at odds with Al Qaeda and ISIS’ ideological cousins in Gaza for years.

Friedman erases this distinction, asserting that the media have become “amplifier for the propaganda” of an ideology that he lumps with ISIS. He makes this assertion in an age when journalists, including AP staff, are dying both the hands of ISIS and while reporting the news from Gaza.

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Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in Cairo