A Matter of Trust

One story from Gaza and what it says about the coverage of Israel
May 23, 2009

On Thursday morning, March 19, Israelis woke to find a story on the front pages of two leading daily newspapers that either rattled their self-image as citizens of a decent, ethical, Jewish state—or gave aid and comfort to the state’s enemies, depending on your point of view. The story was about a group of combat soldiers who, at a gathering a month earlier, had described Israeli army abuses during the just-ended Gaza incursion. Israel had been fighting nonstop accusations of atrocities in Gaza since the shooting ceased January 19. The publication of the soldiers’ accounts promised to be a huge embarrassment.

Because the story was so radioactive from Israel’s point of view, examining its progress as it made its way into the international media can serve as a sort of case study—it shows in real time how America’s media differ from other countries’ in their portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it helps illuminate the frequent charge that the American press is biased in Israel’s favor. Or against it, again, depending on your point of view.

The soldiers had told their stories during a February 13 visit to the Yitzhak Rabin Pre-Military Academy, one of seventeen army-certified institutes that offer students a gap year for study, community service, and early military training before their mandatory military service. The visitors, all Rabin alumni, had been asked to talk with students about their experiences. In the course of a freewheeling presentation, according to the news accounts, one soldier after another began to relate painful memories from the Gaza combat.

The Israeli news reports quoted two infantry squad leaders describing incidents in which rooftop snipers killed obviously harmless Palestinian civilians—an elderly woman and a mother with two children—because they had wandered into closed security zones. Others spoke of wanton vandalism in Palestinian homes that had been commandeered, or of orders to shoot and kill anyone found in a house after civilians had been ordered out. One squad leader described arguing with his commander to tighten the orders of engagement—rules on when to open fire—only to hear his own troops complain that they “should kill everyone there. Everyone there is a terrorist.”

The Rabin academy’s director, a deputy battalion commander in the Israeli army reserves named Danny Zamir, transcribed the discussion and sent it to Israel’s military central command, asking for an investigation. Treated dismissively, he published the transcript in the academy’s newsletter. On March 18, copies of the newsletter were obtained by the military correspondents at two of Israel’s three main dailies, Amos Harel of the left-leaning broadsheet Haaretz, and Ofer Shelah of the larger, right-leaning tabloid Maariv. They filed their stories that evening, Harel on his newspaper’s Web site and Shelah on Israel’s Channel 10 television, where he also works. The next morning their stories appeared on their newspapers’ front pages.

It’s important to note that Israel’s largest-circulation daily, the liberal tabloid Yediot Ahronot, reported the allegations only as a next-day follow-up, deep inside the paper. Yediot’s authoritative military editor, Alex Fishman, told me the soldiers’ stories sounded to him like pure hearsay. Still, as much as Yediot dominates the Israeli newspaper market, it was Haaretz that mattered, because Haaretz dominates the world’s view of Israel.

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Haaretz is sometimes called The New York Times of Israel—a high-minded, uncompromising, liberal-leaning broadsheet. Its circulation is surprisingly small given its reputation; it’s read mainly by Israel’s business and intellectual elite. Its biggest impact these days is through its English-language Web site, which features abridged translations of the paper’s daily reporting and reaches huge international audiences. Maariv has a Web site, too, but it’s largely independent of the scrappy print tabloid and it misses key stories. And none of it is in English.

Haaretz also publishes an English-language print edition that lands every morning on the doorsteps of most diplomats, tourists, and foreign correspondents, and this is the correspondents’ first window into Israel each day.

The Haaretz connection is important to understand for another reason. Because of the paper’s leftist reputation at home (not entirely deserved—its economic views are closer to those of The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages), foreign reporting that relies on Haaretz’s framing of issues is commonly dismissed by hardline, pro-Israel activists as leftist propaganda. That proved to be a key angle of counterattack against the soldiers’ stories after they were reported in the West.

Thanks to Haaretz, the soldiers’ allegations traveled around the world almost as soon as they appeared in Israel. The Associated Press correspondent Amy Teibel had her story on the wire just after 1 p.m. Israel time on Thursday, or 6 a.m. Eastern time in the U.S. The Washington Post put the AP story on its Web site before noon. The New York Times waited a few hours more to get a staff report from its Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner. In London, the left-leaning daily Guardian and the right-leaning Times also waited for staff-reported pieces.

The result was two different ways of telling the same story. The Guardian and the London Times both offered straightforward accounts that cut right to the heart of the matter. “Striking testimony has emerged from Israeli soldiers involved in the recent Gaza war,” Guardian correspondent Rory McCarthy began, “in which they describe shooting unarmed civilians, sometimes under orders from their officers.”

The London Times was harsher: “The Israeli army has been forced to open an investigation into the conduct of its troops in Gaza,” correspondent James Hider wrote, “after damning testimony from its own frontline soldiers revealed the killing of civilians and rules of engagement so lax that one combatant said that they amounted on occasion to ‘cold-blooded murder.’”

The New York Times took a far more circuitous route. “In the two months since Israel ended its military assault on Gaza,” Bronner began, “Palestinians and international rights groups have accused it of excessive force and wanton killing in that operation, but the Israeli military has said it followed high ethical standards and took great care to avoid civilian casualties. Now testimony is emerging from within the ranks of soldiers and officers alleging a permissive attitude toward the killing of civilians and reckless destruction of property that is sure to inflame the domestic and international debate.”

Bronner proceeded to detail the same allegations that the others had described. But he told a good deal more. He quoted two Israeli professors, one Orthodox and one secular, explaining why the alleged acts deviated from Israeli norms. He quoted a soldier who described acts of kindness by fellow soldiers. Unnamed military experts were brought in to point out that women, though seemingly harmless, might draw a soldier’s suspicions because women have served as suicide bombers in the past. And Bronner cited experts, again unnamed, who claimed that the soldiers’ behavior was partly a reaction to the experiences of the 2006 Lebanon war. “In that war,” Bronner wrote, “when Israeli soldiers took over a house, they sometimes found themselves shot at from a house next door. The result was that in Gaza, many houses next to those commandeered by troops were destroyed to avoid that risk.”

Bronner plainly worked hard to produce a deeper, more thorough story than his colleagues. He went beyond the allegations themselves to show his readers why they might have occurred, what might have been going through the soldiers’ minds, how such acts match up against the standards of a Jewish society, and how they fit within the context of recent Israeli military history. It was, in its way, a tour de force of spot-news reporting.

At the same time, it’s hard not to sense a bit of anxiety in Bronner’s writing, as though he had put the story together with one eye on the events and the other on the reactions he might get from readers back home. The story’s very thoroughness might even be seen cynically as a protective coating to ensure the harsh news goes down gently. Unlike the British reports, Bronner’s doesn’t lead with the soldiers’ allegations, but with a reminder that Israel is beset, yet it does its best. The allegations themselves, which are the point of the story—indeed, the whole story as other reporters told it—are met with just about every possible rebuttal and mitigating circumstance.

That might be reading too much into Bronner’s article. Bronner himself, in an interview shortly before the soldiers’ story broke, said he isn’t concerned about pressure from outside the paper—and he’s never felt any pressure from inside. “Readers write to complain,” he said. “Mostly I hear from people who click on my name on the Web site. I get it fairly equally from both sides, although Jews probably write to me a lot. There are a lot of Jewish readers.”

The question, Bronner said, “ is whether you as a journalist view that as pressure.

As much as journalists deny feeling pressure, though, many observers aren’t convinced. On the one hand, the argument goes, pro-Israel activists—Jewish organizations, prominent journalists, ordinary citizens—have protested repeatedly over the years against coverage of Israel that they considered unfair or unflattering. On the other hand, coverage of Israel in the American news media often seems far more sympathetic than elsewhere. Critics say the two facts can hardly be unrelated.

To some extent, of course, media messages are simply a reflection of the attitudes of the surrounding culture. Journalists are products of the society in which they live, and part of their job is to answer the questions that the public wants answered. “There is a bias in American culture, a deep bias,” said James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute. “It’s the water we swim in. We grow up in a culture shaped by books and movies like Leon Uris’s Exodus, where Israelis are people like us facing the forces of the wilderness. The inclination is to understand the people who are like us. And the press stories are colored by that.”

In a sense, pro-Israel activists pushing for more sympathy for Israel are pushing on an open door. But they push anyway, in a variety of ways. The most common form of pro-Israel pressure is reader mail accusing writers, often in vitriolic, personal terms, of maligning Israel. Advocacy organizations sometimes weigh in, publishing specific media critiques that are circulated to sympathizers, generating more public protest.

Less common but more dramatic are boycotts of particular news organizations. The New York Times was targeted in 2002 for a ten-day subscription boycott, called by a rabbi who objected to the paper’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian fighting that was raging at the time. The paper didn’t divulge the losses, but they were “enough to notice,” former New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr. told me at the time. The following spring, coordinated boycotts were launched against the Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Chicago Tribune, with thousands of subscribers participating. At the same time, pro-Israel hardliners launched a donors’ boycott of Boston’s public radio station, WBUR, to protest National Public Radio’s Middle East coverage. It cost the station more than $1 million in pledged gifts, according to news reports.

Even if the news organizations don’t crack down on their journalists, the outside pressure can lead, often unconsciously, to self-censorship. “If you’re an up-and-coming journalist, there is no reason whatsoever why you would want to get the pro-Israel community mad at you—absolutely none,” said M. J. Rosenberg, policy director of the liberal-leaning Israel Policy Forum. “The pro-Israel community is strategically located and is associated with powerful people.”

It’s almost a cliché these days to suggest that the presence of a well-organized Jewish community in America has a lot to do with the way Israel is treated by government and the media. It’s a mistake, though, to note the community’s ability to threaten and overlook its role as a leavening force in the larger culture. Jewish sensibilities help shape America’s sense of humor, U.S. attitudes toward civil rights, and much more. It would be astonishing if American Jews didn’t also influence America’s view of Israel—much as Irish Americans have helped mold attitudes toward Ireland.

That’s a key difference between American and British coverage of the Middle East. The British Jewish community is well rooted, but it’s smaller—barely one-tenth the size of, say, the British Muslim community.

Whatever conscious or unconscious motivations might have been at work at The New York Times Jerusalem bureau on March 19, they were contagious. The next American reporter to get the story out that day, Martin Fletcher of NBC News, framed it in the same indirect way that Bronner did. Comparing Fletcher’s first-day report with the story filed by his colleague at BBC, Paul Wood, offers a virtual Rorschach test of the way the Middle East is treated on the two sides of the Atlantic.

The contrast is apparent the moment the tape starts to roll. The BBC report led with Wood asking, “Did the Israeli army commit war crimes in Gaza? The Palestinians say that’s evident from the shelling of a UN school full of refugees or the use of incendiary white phosphorus.” On screen as he spoke were images of victims at the school and jets emitting trails of white vapor. “But now,” Wood continued, “testimony has emerged from Israeli soldiers about the deliberate killing of civilians.”

NBC eased into its story more gently. “Israel,” anchor David Gregory began, “has always said that its attack on Gaza was an act of self-defense, a response to missile attacks against Israeli civilians. But now Israel has been shaken by charges from some of the soldiers themselves that the Israeli military acted far more brutally than previously thought.”

Gregory then handed off to correspondent Martin Fletcher, who showed film of Israeli tanks that “flattened Palestinian homes”—in order, he said immediately, “to keep their own soldiers safe” by avoiding main roads.

Both the BBC and NBC went on to relate the two soldiers’ accounts of snipers shooting women. Both showed footage of an Israeli military spokeswoman promising an investigation. To balance her, NBC showed a Hamas spokesman saying that the “confessions confirm the criminal and terrorist mentality of the Israelis.” BBC, by contrast, brought in an Israeli human-rights activist with a more measured and hence more credible response. She said the reports didn’t represent “a few bad seeds” but rather “norms of behavior” communicated by “mid-level or high-level officers.”

BBC’s Wood then sharpened the allegation. “The claim then is that the Israeli army’s rules of engagement allowed soldiers to kill with impunity,” he said. “That charge is unproven. For an Israeli army that prides itself on purity of arms, these allegations are a challenge.”

Fletcher’s conclusion was far more cautious: “It isn’t clear how widespread these acts were.”

Here’s the scorecard: both television reports gave the same basic background about the soldiers’ visit to the academy. Both related the same two accounts of snipers shooting women and children. The difference was that BBC opened with the prosecution’s charges, while NBC opened with the defense. BBC made no mention of the Hamas rocket attacks that preceded the Israeli invasion. NBC didn’t mention any claims of permissive rules of engagement coming down from the higher-ups.

Missing bits of information like those can go a long way, intentionally or not, in tilting a story to one side or the other. Omitting mention of the rockets allowed viewers to conclude, as many observers around the world have concluded, that the Israeli onslaught was a senseless display of cruelty meant to humiliate Palestinians. It turned Israelis into stick figures, cardboard Nazis. In so doing, it tarnished the credibility of peace negotiations.

On the other hand, failure to note the substantial evidence that the army’s rules of engagement had been loosened had the effect of weakening the soldiers’ credibility. If there were no evidence that the abuses had been ordered from above, then the entire case would rest on the soldiers’ testimony. The public could then conclude that the misdeeds represented only a few bad apples—or never happened at all.

That theme—that the evidence was flimsy—was sounded repeatedly by conservative columnists and bloggers as they began to counterattack in the days after the first reports. “There is no evidence,” [emphasis in the original] conservative British columnist Melanie Phillips wrote in a Sunday posting on the Spectator Web site, tellingly titled the Haaretz blood libel. “Not one single verifiable actual incident of intentional killing of civilians.”

Back in Israel, a virtuoso summation of the stories’ purported flimsiness was presented by conservative columnist Caroline Glick, a longtime fixture at the venerable, rightist Jerusalem Post. Glick termed the entire process of eliciting and publicizing the soldiers’ testimonies a “major media assault on the IDF,” or Israel Defense Forces, and “a coproduction of a far-left political activist”—that would be Rabin academy director Danny Zamir—“and far-left reporters.”

At Zamir’s institute, she wrote, students are “subjected to post-Zionist political philosophy that according to sources familiar with the institution indoctrinates them to believe that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state.” Actually, the school is a prime source of elite Israeli fighters, and Zamir remains a trusted officer.

More important, there was substantial evidence for the charge about changed rules. Ofer Shelah wrote, in his second-day report in the Maariv weekend supplement, that the military had drafted new rules of engagement in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon war. “Changing the rules was a General Staff decision,” Shelah told me in a phone interview. The army had concluded after Lebanon that its rules on protecting civilians left troops vulnerable to ambushes and booby traps. This time, it would protect its soldiers first. One of the senior commanders in Gaza, artillery chief Colonel Tzvi Fogel, had described the rules to him in an on-air interview on Channel 10. The army was instructed to target an area of suspected Hamas activity with artillery fire, then drop leaflets warning residents to clear out. Anyone who was still around after that was to be considered a suspected terrorist and fair game.

But you had to read it in Maariv (or see it in Shelah’s report on Channel 10). Most of the foreign correspondents don’t read Hebrew, and most educated Israelis they talk to don’t read the right-wing tabloid. Naturally, most overseas readers—and columnists—didn’t hear about it. Mostly they heard what was in Haaretz. And so one commentator after another complained about lack of evidence—and about Haaretz’s “leftist” motives in publishing.

On march 30, eleven days after the stories first appeared, the army published the report of its investigation. It said the squad leaders who described the two killings admitted they had not witnessed them directly, but were reporting hearsay. Therefore, the case was considered closed.

Amos Harel of Haaretz treated the probe’s findings sarcastically. A year earlier, investigators had completed a probe of an officer accused of letting his teenage son take a joy ride on a military ATV. That investigation took eighteen months. “One would be hard-pressed not to express astonishment at the speed and efficiency” shown by the army’s legal team this time, he wrote. Still, he wondered, why were the investigators so certain “the soldiers were truthful during the investigations,” as the army report put it, but lied when talking among themselves? Why were the soldiers now forbidden to speak to the press? What about the soldiers’ other accounts—of vandalism, bullying and the like? And why hadn’t the army sought testimony from Palestinians in Gaza, some of whom had told the AP stories that matched the soldiers’ accounts?

The foreign press—British and American alike—was less eager to dissect the findings. Both The Guardian and The New York Times offered straightforward accounts of the army’s report; each paper devoted a few lines in its story to noting that Israeli human-rights groups were calling for an independent investigation. In the days before and after, however, The Guardian trained a major spotlight on mounting international charges of Israeli war crimes, including two full-scale roundups of the furor plus an account of its own investigation into Israel’s actions. The major contribution of The New York Times during that period was a major report on Israelis’ mounting fears of international isolation. It folded the international uproar into its report on the army’s findings.

Was the Times being properly judicious, or just timid? As I noted at the outset, that depends on your point of view. One could just as easily ask whether The Guardian’s coverage of Israel’s actions was penetrating or just obsessive. In fact, the Times was being American and The Guardian was being British. If one views Israel as the injured party, the Times got it right. If Israel is basically a bully, then The Guardian got it right.

American coverage of the Middle East was profoundly affected by its traumatic experience after the battle at Jenin in 2002. During the eight-day Israeli incursion into a crowded refugee camp, Palestinian officials issued widely quoted reports of deaths numbering in the hundreds, perhaps thousands. The Israeli army said it was in the dozens. When the dust had settled, a United Nations investigation found that the army was right. That was the event that triggered the yearlong wave of media boycotts I mentioned earlier.

The Jenin experience was evident in American coverage of the recent Gaza war from the outset. When Israel barred reporters from entering Gaza, CNN’s cameras showed the fighting as tiny puffs of smoke, seen from a distant hilltop, while its reporters repeatedly noted that they couldn’t get inside to verify the facts. The BBC, by contrast, hired Palestinian camera crews and covered the devastation live. Only midway through the twenty-two day war, once the evidence of massive destruction was inescapable, did CNN start airing extensive footage from Palestinian crews.

Whom you turn to first is a function of whom you trust more. And that depends on your point of view. 

In addition to this piece, the Columbia Journalism Review is offering two additional perspectives on the coverage of the fighting in Gaza. From Gaza itself, Taghreed El-Khodary, a correspondent for The New York Times, writes a Reporter’s Notebook piece on the war. Both articles are in the May/June 2009 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. And Lisa Goldman, writing from Israel, explains how the fighting was covered in that country, and how the militant mood of the Israeli press matched and fed the mood of the people there. All three pieces in this special package were supported by a grant from the Open Society Institute, for which we are deeply grateful.

Jacob Goldberg is a journalist based in Myanmar. Follow him on Twitter @yayqe.