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"No clue about what's going on":
Judy Balint on "Truth in the Media"

By B. Harris
First published in Jewish Voice and Opinion, June 2002

Tenafly, NJ - Judy Lash Balint, US-born journalist and Israel resident for over five years, has one basic message when she speaks to American audiences: Foreign reporters don't have a clue about what's going on Israel. They come to the region uninformed about history and rely heavily on other media people for their sources of information.

A few reporters actually told her that they gather their information "from other journalists." That's when she realized they don't do their own research about the Middle East situation. For example, Georges Malbrunot of the French newspaper, Le Matin, calls the BBC his "Bible."

Speaking at the JCC on the Palisades this past spring, Ms. Balint said that the BBC is "ten times worse than CNN." Thus, she concluded, the media situation regarding Middle East coverage is "quite frightening." Ms. Balint is the author of Jerusalem Diaries, a compilation of first-person accounts of life in Israel during the current unrest.

Media Ignorance

To illustrate just how far media ignorance reaches, Ms. Balint cited an article in the February issue of Vogue, a magazine known more for fashion than for political statement. In this particular issue, however, writer Emma Williams - married to an Arab in Ramallah - reported how she heard Israeli tanks firing on Beit Jala.

"The Arabs in Beit Jala fired on us," Ms. Balint said, explaining that Ms. Williams' fabrication is not unusual. The practice of slipped-in, veiled political opinion pieces is ubiquitous. Seemingly innocent magazines like Business Week and Vanity Fair frequently feature political articles, often with unfounded, Israel-besmirching content.

According to Ms. Balint, journalists are not encouraged to research Israeli news thoroughly. Reporters covering Israel events in the Jewish state are hosted at the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem, and hang around the inn waiting for one of 400 Arab "fixers" (media machers accredited by the Israeli government!) to give them stories or take them to "happening" sites.

These sites are usually in Area A (under Palestinian control)to which Israelis are forbidden entrance.

Man Bites Dog

Journalists who break out of the "pack" and proffer authentic news are generally not accepted. An example of such "out of the box" reporting has been accomplished by Ms. Fiamma Nirenstein, who writes for an Italian daily.

According to Ms. Balint, Ms. Nirenstein dares to tell the truth about the Middle East - a phenomenon so unusual that it earned her four pages of coverage in the non-leftist Israeli weekly, Makor Rishon. Ms. Balint tackled the issue of why journalists generally prefer Arab-manipulated reports. Often, she said, reporters assigned to the region come to their job believing that Israel is the oppressor of the Palestinians.

A second reason, she said, is that reporters suffer from striking ignorance. She recalled that when CBS's Dan Rather recently wanted to use the top of Yeshivat Aish Hatorah for a scene on the Temple Mount, "he didn't know the first thing about Har Habayit." According to Ms. Balint, he simply trusted what his aide related to him based on what an Aish Hatorah representative had told her. Mr. Rather believed this version, not bothering to check if his aide had understood or was relaying the information accurately, lamented Ms. Balint.

Arab Journalists

In addition to ignorance and lack of research or verification of facts, a third reason for media distortion is that the widely disseminated Associated Press and Reuters pieces are often written by Arab journalists. Their bylines are openly attached to the articles, which are often the only sources of Middle East news for American papers lacking their own Israel correspondents.

To demonstrate just how slanted the Associated Press and Reuters can be, Ms. Balint pointed out that they are written by journalists with the same opinions as those on Al Jezira TV - the Arab version of CNN - with 24-hour a day coverage. Al Jezira's audience: 21 Arab countries - dictatorships lacking anything resembling a free press. In May, Al Jezira featured a photo insert lauding the 19 Arabs who had perpetrated the September 11 attacks.

At the end of May, the Israeli army arrested a Reuters photographer in Gaza for what military sources said were his links to terror activities. Suhaib Jadallah Salem, 22, who was intercepted while traveling in a Reuters vehicle to Rafiah at the southern end of the strip, was in possession of a hand grenade when he was seized. Israeli still holds in detention five Palestinian journalists from a variety of news agencies, including Reuters, Agence-France Presse, Al-Roa TV, Al Quds Educational TV, and Al Quds newspaper.


According to Ms. Balint, some foreign reporters actually do interview Israelis directly, but they usually choose extremists or those with minority views. Sensationalism, the news-people believe, sells. Thus, Ms. Balint recalled a Seattle talk show host wanted to hear from the Women in Black and other such left-wing groups who, Ms. Balint said, "represent no-one." Why not interview a more majority voice? Because, the media personnel told Ms. Balint, mainstreamers don't draw an audience.

However, Ms. Balint believed there was some good news regarding the way foreign secular and even Jewish media portray Israelis. Since September 11, Americans have been very focused on foreign policy, and Ms. Balint does not see that changing in the near future. Thus, according to recent polls, almost despite the media, U.S. public opinion is still overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel.

Israeli PR

And where is the Israeli PR machine in all this? The official Israeli response to media inaccuracy? Ms. Balint explained that the news department of the Israeli government press office is staffed by all of two employees, who must handle 1600 permanent correspondents based in Israel and more than 1000 visiting journalists. To make matters more complicated, this office understandably closes on Jewish holidays.

Fortunately, Ms. Balint considers the Israeli government's website (mfa.gov.il) "very good." Just recently, Daniel Seaman, director of the Israeli government's press office, recently issued a directive forbidding illegal Arab "fixers" to work in Israel, a move that caused the foreign press to go, in Ms. Balint's words, "ballistic." The Israeli government just became aware that many of these newsmakers are affiliated with terror organizations.

Mr. Seaman has expelled reporter from Abu Dhabi TV, and censured CNN and NBC for violating a closed military zone by encouraging reporters to enter Ramallah during a recent incursion, sidestepping a government measure taken to protect the lives of journalists. After the heaviest fighting was over, the Israeli government offered to provide armed escorts for foreign journalists who wished to enter Jenin. According to Ms. Balint, many foreign reporters "automatically disregard" official Israeli press releases as "propaganda," preferring to believe Arab inventions.

Arab Propaganda

These inventions, she noted, are real propaganda. The Arabs, she said, stage poses for photographs, and women wail on cue. When caught red-handed with explosives wedged beneath an alleged "patient" in an ambulance, the Palestinian Red Crescent denied that explosives had been placed there. At the beginning of May, the IDF surreptitiously filmed a Palestinian man walking to a stretcher and lying down in it. He was then wrapped in a shroud and carried by Palestinians in a "funeral procession." The problem was that several times the "dead body" fell off the stretcher, got up on his own, and climbed back on. The IDF is certain that the "funeral" was being staged for the benefit of foreign reporters.

When confronted with the damning film, the Palestinian human rights group, LAW, tried to claim the "funeral" was actually part of a Palestinian movie.

Wen that was not accepted (the Wall Street Journal commented: "Hooray for Rammalywood"), LAW said the IDF footage actually showed "a group of children playing 'funeral' near the cemetery in Jenin.

"It is not uncommon in the occupied Palestinian territories to witness Palestinian children playing a game where thy pretend they have been killed.

It is part of a phenomenon raising fears among child experts that a generation in ten Palestinian territories has suffered serious psychological damage from Israeli violence directed against the Palestinian civilian population," LAW said. "They just can't seem to tell the truth, even when it can't be denied," said Ms. Balint.

The Offensive

To counter these blatant lies, Ms. Balint suggested that Israel's supporters go on the offensive. "Now is the time," she urged. "The U.S. Congress is overwhelmingly pro-Israel, as is American public opinion."

For Ms. Balint, the fly in the ointment is that far left-wing Shimon Peres is in charge of the foreign ministry which oversees Israel's Information Division. Far removed from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "Israel is ours" position, Mr. Peres is remembered for disbanding Israel's public relations arm entirely in 1993. There are still repercussions from that decision in the form of poor PR, she said.

Ms. Balint advised Americans who are concerned about anti-Israel media bias to recognize it and complain to their representatives about US tax dollars used to promote Arab prevarication. She presented two booklets, both produced with US tax dollars, that teach media communication tactics to Arabs. However, she suggested that when confronting less-than-friendly reporters, Israel's supporters should refrain from the temptation to bash them. "Rather, tell them in a nice way what you feel is true. They'll be more receptive that way."

Greenberg and Schmeman

Asked for her opinion of specific reporters, Ms. Balint singled out the New York Times' Joel Greenberg who, she said, lives in Israel, but is not supportive of Israeli policies; and Serge Schmeman, who she said is well versed, but opposed to Israel Like many of his peers, he relies on "major social relationships" with Arabs.

Asked if, in the midst of all this "blood-pressure-raising" information there might be some good news, Ms. Balint pointed to the new-found unity in Israel.

"The whole country is coming together to help one another," she said. She pointed out that 5000 men over age 45, the age when reserve-duty usually ends, volunteered for Operation Defensive Shield. Civilians throughout the country spontaneously deliver food and beverages to the soldiers. "Israelis finally seem to realize that no matter what concessions we make, the other side won't be satiated," she said.

haGalil onLine 19-07-2002


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