"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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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