Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – News coverage of Israel is distorted both by the lopsided amount of attention it gets from world media and from a “herd mentality” that embraces and promotes a narrow, simplistic view of “what the story is,” according to an author and former Associated Press reporter in Israel.
Israel accounts for 0.01 percent of the world’s territory and has roughly the population of New York City, but when Matti Friedman joined the AP in 2006, he recalled in Jerusalem this week, the wire service had 40 fulltime staff in the country.
That was more than the number of AP staff covering China or India (with populations of 1.3 billion and 1.1. billion respectively), more than the number covering all of sub-Saharan Africa, and more than the number covering all of the countries where the so-called “Arab spring” erupted, combined.
The entire AP presence in Syria in 2006, he said, comprised a single, part-time stringer.
To the extent that the Western world’s interest in Syria can be reflected in AP staffing figures, Friedman told visiting Christian media representatives, “no-one cared about Syria before the civil war started, and as soon as it goes away they’ll go back to not caring about Syria.”
He said the heavy media focus on Israel is explained by the existence of “a terrible conflict here.”
Other conflicts may for a time eclipse the Israel story, but while interest in most of them peak and fade, “this story is always there.”
Friedman, a Canadian-born Israeli who describes himself as left-leaning, noted that foreign journalists working in Israel avoid citing numbers of fatalities in the conflict.
“In part because it’s crass – and I accept that – but in part, because if you talk about how many people have actually been killed in this conflict it ends up pulling the rug out from under your story, and no reporter will ever do that …”
In 2016, there were about 110 fatalities in the entire conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, one-sixth of the number of homicides in Los Angeles County – “and no-one thinks there’s a war in Los Angeles County.”
“If the claim is the scope of interest in this place is because of the violence, the level of bloodshed here, that is not a tenable argument.”
Israeli-Palestinian dispute part of broader, deeper conflict
The second element that characterizes malfunctioning media coverage of Israel, Friedman said, is the content.
Journalists are inclined to agree “what the story is”: There was an occupation in 1967; reverse the occupation and there will be peace.
Friedman attributed the nature of much foreign media coverage to a lack of knowledge and the fact journalists tend to “cling to the simple story” that they hear from colleagues, diplomats and NGOs
What isn’t generally reported, is that the conflict in Israel is not a stand-alone one but part of a much broader regional conflict, he said.
(As an example, Friedman said no-one speaks about the American-Italian war of 1944, because U.S. fighting in Italy that year is understood to be part of the broader and much more complex conflict known as World War II.)
The broad fissure lines in the Middle East have nothing to do with Israel, but with Sunni-Shi’ite differences, military regimes that have repressed their people for decades, poverty, economics, extremism, and other factors.
If Israel signed a peace deal with the Palestinians today, or if Israel disappeared from the map today, “I think the regional picture would be largely unaffected.”
Friedman said “the occupation” – Israel’s control of territory captured from Jordan in 1967 and claimed by the Palestinians – is a symptom of a conflict that began much earlier, not the cause.
He pointed to the widely-held view, reflected in media coverage, that Israel’s withdrawal from that territory will bring peace..
Israelis view it differently.
“When there’s a vacuum in the Middle East it isn’t filled by something good,” he said. “It’s filled with the guys with black masks and black flags and very different ideas about what the future holds.”
Israel’s withdrawal, under the Oslo peace process, from territory claimed by the Palestinians resulted in the worst spate of terrorist violence in Israel’s history, he recalled. Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon and the vacuum was filled by Hezbollah; Israel pulled out of Gaza and Hamas took over.