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Jewish World Review May 16, 2003 / 14 Iyar, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Credibility on the Line

Lack of trust for journalists didnít grow out of a vacuum | After 33 months of the latest Palestinian terror war, many, if not most, Israelis are utterly exhausted.

And who could blame them?

The start of the latest attempt at peace talks has been met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by the Israeli on the street, who will believe the U.S. "road map" will transform the klepto-terrorist Palestinian Authority into a peace partner when they see it.

At the same time, back here in the states, there's another kind of fatigue. A year ago, American Jews were reacting to the Palestinian terror onslaught and the general bashing Israel received in the world media with anger.

There was a noticeable upsurge in Jewish activism in this country. Fundraising for Israel emergency funds to help the victims of Arab terror was enthusiastically supported. And false media tales of Israeli "massacres" of innocents were answered by amateur media monitors.

Talking back to the media
Some poorly planned boycotts of newspapers that were rightly perceived as providing slanted and sloppy reporting of the Middle East predictably failed. But the general effort to talk back to the media was a healthy process for both the protesters and - whether they liked it or not - the media itself.

But maintaining this sort of effort at the same fever pitch over a long period of time is impossible. Along with everyone else, the Jewish public became caught up in the debate over the possibility of war with Iraq, and then its successful execution.

The end of that war and the start of a new American effort to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians has again put American Jews on notice that it's time to refocus on Israel.

Are we ready to pick up where we left off? Ready or not, the challenge to Israel rising out of the media has not diminished. Moreover, the need for readers, to respond as educated news consumers has been more than amply illustrated.

Much has already been written about scandal that brought down New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, who fabricated sources and stories for the great gray lady of journalism.

The Times responded with a mammoth mea culpa that told the full truth about Blair, but left unanswered questions about why editors who were warned about his unreliability failed to act to stop him. Much of the debate seems to center on whether the Times promoted Blair because he was a 27-year-old African-American who could make their staff more "diverse."

Perhaps, but I'm more interested in another angle: Why didn't the many readers and subjects of his stories who could have easily contradicted Blair's obvious lies come forward?

Are people so intimidated by the Times? Maybe. But I think it has just as much to do with an indifference bred by cynicism that has caused many of us to tune out journalism. Even when we see an obvious mistake, a lot of us figure that it isn't worth it to point it out to an editor.

When I speak to audiences about how the media works, the most resistance I get is not over questions of policy, but on my insistence that most journalists really do listen to feedback.

So no wonder that despite years of fibs and faking, Blair was undone not by a reader, but by a another newspaper. Only when the San Antonio Express-News realized that the prestigious New York Times (in the form of Blair) had stolen one of its stories and threatened to sue did the Times' bureaucracy take action.

This cautionary tale makes it all the more apparent that the only effective check on journalistic malfeasance is an educated and active audience.

Though many journalists acknowledge the need for their readers to keep them honest, most don't like it. One local journalist wrote to me last year to complain that I was feeding into the culture of cynicism by harping on the media's shortcomings. She worried about the impact of the criticism on the ability of the press to maintain its necessary role in our democracy.

I worry about that too, and am equally concerned about over-the-top ad hominem attacks on journalists that are no substitute for reasoned critiques. But given that most of the media still does such a poor job on Israel, what can we do but persevere, and hope to educate them?

After all, it's not as if it could be said that some of the most obvious targets of protest have learned their lesson.

Take, for example, National Public Radio, which has earned its reputation as the major American media outlet that is most biased against Israel. Faced with a threat to its fundraising by its heavily Jewish audience, NPR responded last fall with a major series on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict that it hoped would calm the critics.

Instead, the series only gave them more ammunition. It was a showcase for post- and anti-Zionist historians, who supplied listeners with revisionist views on Israel's founding. It was thoroughly slanted against mainstream Israeli views, and nourished myths about Zionism being the original sin from which all conflict followed.

And just this week came yet another example of slanted coverage from the Knight-Ridder News Service that services The Philadelphia Inquirer.

No room for context

On May 12, the Inqy published a story by San Josť Mercury News reporter Aaron Davis, who took his life into his hands to attend a secret meeting with members of the terrorist Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade in Tulkarm.

While my hat is off to Davis for his guts, the story titled "Why putting stop to violence is such a tough task for Abbas" managed to depict the current war entirely from the terrorist's point of view.

The story adopted its frame of reference as it spoke of Israeli soldiers killing a Palestinian child as the motive for a campaign of anti-Israel terror, which was itself barely a footnote to the story.

This lack of context is behind much of the trouble with Mideast reporting. The question is, who will answer the Inquirer, or the countless other newspapers and broadcasters who will make similar mistakes this week, this month and this year?

Is it to be only fellow journalists or professional media monitors, such as the CAMERA group, which has pestered NPR so ably and relentlessly?

If so, then that will be a tragedy not so much for the pro-Israel community as it is for journalism itself. If journalism is to play that vital role in our democracy that my colleague spoke of, it requires an active and, at times, aroused readership.

So, wake up. The responsibility for a better press is yours.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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