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May. 26, 2002

Journalism's jihad against Israel BY SHARON TZUR

With the dangerous escalation of what is being termed "the new anti-Semitism" infecting so many institutions worldwide, many in the Jewish community are asking themselves if the fourth estate has not also become a victim of this contagious condition. Judging from the recent media coverage of the Israel Defense Forces incursion into the Palestinian territories, one must conclude that something more than shoddy reporting and a reckless pursuit of scoops is responsible for the distorted portrayal of Middle East events. Yet, the source of journalism's current jihad against Israel is not necessarily found in the revitalized racism which has plagued the Jewish people throughout the ages, but rather in the dismal state of journalistic ethics.

As one who professionally monitors the media's coverage of Israel, I believe that I have identified some of the more egregious causes of the Jewish state receiving such skewed and negative coverage. It cannot be denied that the Palestinians have mastered the art of public relations and spinning news stories. Taking their nod from Israel in its pioneer days, they have convinced the international media that they are the tiny, beleaguered David fighting the towering IDF Goliath. It is obvious that this fictitious drama of the underdog Palestinians armed with inferior weapons fighting Israeli tanks, airplanes, and missiles sells more papers. The seemingly endless photo opportunities of Arab youths hurling rocks at IDF tanks has also proven irresistible.

Moreover, the Palestinians have learned to capitalize on the inability of many media organizations to check facts during fast news cycles.

Correspondents who arrive in the region to cover stories often have no background of the history of the conflict or understanding of the real issues. Thus, they become easy prey for Palestinian spokespersons and sources who blatantly lie to na ve journalists. The net result is that many of the most emotionally charged phrases and accusations being bantered about in the media are the result of deliberate Palestinian misinformation efforts.

In addition, the fact that the Palestinians have so few official sources and that they repeatedly issue inaccurate facts, creates a dangerous snowball effect. One journalist on deadline will report a baseless item simply because he couldn't secure his own interview, and just heard another correspondent discussing it on television, creating a dangerous form of journalistic group think and reckless pool reporting. Israel cannot possibly respond to and refute each wild allegation before it is broadcast and published by the international media. As the old saying goes, a lie is half way around the world before the truth has a chance to catch up.

Tragically, the Palestinian Auth-ority has benefited by creating an environment that is hostile to honest and accurate reporting. The Pales-tinians are not above intimidating journalists who report stories critical of their regime. Reporters working in the PA understand the fragile footing they are on and are afraid to run afoul of the security services and militias that rule the streets.

By now, everyone has heard stories of members of the press locked inside Palestinian hotels under guard, video tape and film being confiscated, reporters being threatened, and certain members of the press being entry into the PA. Furthermore, because of the perilous nature of the PA, most foreign beat reporters cannot venture out into Palestinian cities and villages unescorted, and this greatly hinders the stories they write. As such, 95 percent of the photographers working in the PA are Palestinian freelancers who make no efforts to hide their political sentiments.

Finally, many of the real stories behind the news just never get reported. These are the investigations deemed not "sexy" enough for the media to report. Accordingly, stories of the Palestinians murdering suspected collaborators without trials, reports of massive corruption by PA officials, religious motivated violence being perpetrated against Palestinian women, and human rights abuses by the PA police are never filed. In the increasingly sensationalized culture of international news reporting, these mundane stories cannot compete with tales of alleged massacres, war crimes, and secret mass graves.

While Israel's vibrant democracy breeds an atmosphere of full disclosure, accountability, and journalistic investigation, the PA capitalizes on the closed and intimidating nature of its violent regime. No matter how true this might be, it cannot be an excuse for journalists and their news organizations to continue to hide behind. The media must be held to the minimum level of journalistic ethics in all its dealings with Israel. Palestinian officials who repeatedly lie to reporters should understand the consequences and not be interviewed again.

The writer is director of Media Watch International.