Matti Friedman at the 2018 Jewish Media Summit (photo credit: Chaviva Gordon-Bennett)
You have to admire Matti Friedman. He bucked the entrenched wisdom to expose the unfairness (hereand here) of the media’s excessive focus on Israel by, for instance, the Associated Press. And he did so as a liberal when being liberal, for the most part, means being down on Israel. In other words, Friedman doesn’t allow his political beliefs to color the truth—something that’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when one has a journalist’s platform to use or abuse.
Today I discovered that Friedman’s not only a great writer whose morals remain intact, he’s also a rousing speaker, personable, witty, and fun. You can listen to him rapt, for as long as he’s willing to give of his time, and still be left wishing for more. The former AP columnist held forth on the subject of How to Report the Middle East from the Middle East at the Jewish Media Summit in Jerusalem, and even gave the audience a chance to ask questions, which he answered with long, thoughtful responses.
Friedman, an Israeli Canadian journalist, began by describing the how small Israel is within the world at large, the infinitesimal space taken up by its land mass. Even within the Middle East, Israel takes up just one small sliver of land and has a population of less than 8 million people, out of the 411 million people, overwhelmingly Arab, who populate the Middle East as a whole. Despite this, when Friedman worked there, the AP had more correspondents covering Israel than they had covering the very large country known as China. There were more correspondents in the AP’s Israel bureau than they had covering all the combined countries of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Israel, moreover, is being covered as a “conflict story,” says Friedman. This despite the violence and recent horrific death toll a short distance away in Syria, or the bloodshed in Iraq. Compared to what is happening in other Middle Eastern countries, Israel is a very safe place, indeed. And when Friedman goes on to compare the number of Jerusalem fatalities (27) to that of other cities in the year 2017, the contrast is even starker. During the same time period, the number of fatalities in Indianapolis, for example, was 175. In Jacksonville, Florida, 133.
Friedman says that there is a lot of framing going on when it comes to reporting the news. He gave an example of how this works: your editor sends you to cover a pro-Trump protest. You get there and while there’s a lot of police, there are actually only two protesters.
As a journalist, you’re faced with two choices. You call your editor and say, “There’s no story.”
But, as Friedman says, editors hate that, and if a writer does this too often, he puts his job on the line. The other alternative is to frame the story: “A small, but vocal protest . . . “
In framing the story, the journalist isn’t lying. He hasn’t said anything untrue, but he’s giving the readers what they want, rather than the real story. So it is with framing the Israel story as a conflict story or a moral story in which Israel is always in the wrong. This, although Israel is much safer than many other Middle Eastern countries, it’s major cities safer than many major American cities. This, although the IDF goes to extreme lengths to avoid loss of life of civilians in, for instance, Gaza.
Friedman also talked about how journalists can zoom in or out of a story to give a certain impression or picture. The example he gave was highlighting the suppression of the English language in Montreal, where English speakers are a minority, in favor of the French-speaking majority. English lettering on signs, for instance, is regulated for size. Seen from this perspective, this is oppression of a minority, something that is accepted as immoral by the world as a whole.
But if you zoom out of the picture, you see that actually, this regulation of the English language is a response to the fact that North America, for instance, the United States, is overwhelmingly English-speaking. Montreal’s French-speaking community, is the real minority, which hopes to protect its language and culture by regulating the use of the English language in that city.
Zooming in gives you one narrow picture. Zooming out, then, gives you the bigger picture. Journalists covering Israel, says Friedman, are unfortunately “zooming in really tight” to highlight Arab oppression.
Friedman spoke of the “brilliant branding’ in creating the concept of the Two-State Solution. (Don’t like the Two-State Solution? You’re against a solution.) He also spoke about the accepted notion that the root of the conflict is the occupation of Israel in 1967 and that only with the end of the occupation will there be peace. But clearly, said Friedman, this is incorrect. Friedman reminds us that the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization was formed in 1964, before Israel took over Judea and Samaria in 1967. What then, were they planning to “liberate?”
Friedman also spoke of the shortsightedness of journalists in expecting that Israel could just vacate the territories. “The vacuum Israel is being asked to create, is not Nevada. The vacuum created in the West Bank would more likely be filled with guys in black masks.”
During the question and answer period, I asked Friedman for his thoughts on how words and terms are used and abused by journalists to paint a certain picture, how the evolution of inaccurate terms takes place so that they become part of our accepted lexicon for Israel. I gave the example of Professor Ruth Wisse of Harvard who says that the word “conflict” in regard to Israel, is a misnomer, that in reality, it’s “the Arab war against the Jews.”
(At this, Friedman gave a start, shocked.)
I gave a second example. The term “West Bank,” describes the territory in question as if one were standing in Jordan. As if it were the actual bank of a river, which it is not. This territory is not, in fact, within sight of any body of water. I mentioned that the correct, most accurate geographical description of the territory is “Judea and Samaria.”
“West Bank” has, nonetheless, become the accepted nomenclature for the territory. I wanted to know Friedman’s thoughts about journalists (like me) insisting on using the correct terms, if doing so is effective and if it can be done without making the writer look slightly insane or rabidly political. I want to be taken seriously. But I also don’t like to use what I see as propagandistic words and terms in my writing. It gets my back up.
While Friedman obviously didn’t agree with Prof. Wisse about the word “conflict,” he thought of another excellent example of the issue I raised. The word “refugee” means something different when applied to Arab refugees. The standard is different.
But in terms of language use, Friedman said we should ask ourselves, “Does this piece explain what’s going on to the people of Poughkeepsie?”
That sounded to me like a pretty good litmus test.
Friedman was thoughtful as he wound up his response to my question. “Maybe someone should take a closer look at this question of words and terms,” he said.
I didn’t tell him that someone already had. That someone would be me. I wrote a piece called Israel is Engaged in a War of Wordsin 2014, the very same year Friedman exposed the double journalism standards applied to Israel.
It was my first piece for the Algemeiner and I had been pleased with how it turned out. But I didn’t want to toot my own horn on Friedman’s turf, so I kept quiet.
I still wrestle with the awkwardness of not using words like “Palestinian” or “West Bank.” And of course, I refuse to call it a “conflict.” It’s caused me a lot of trouble during my blogging career. Some find my insistent use of these terms insulting and iconoclastic, while the worst of my detractors think my refusal to use accepted terms and words an actual symptom of mental illness.
It takes a thick skin to be in the blogging world. Refusing to use terms one sees as sly propaganda for the other side takes not a little courage because of the inevitable abuse it brings. It is my dearest hope that other bloggers who take the side of Israel, will join me in using only accurate language to describe Israel and its challenges.
Matti Friedman is a reasonable and honest journalist. I hope he will think over the issue I raised and maybe even write about it someday. I’d like to think that we might even find a place of agreement and comfort.
We have lots of ideas, but we need more resources to be even more effective. Please donate today to help get the message out and to help defend Israel.