Speaking in New Brunswick, a long-time Middle East reporter for NPR defended her employer and The New York Times against charges of anti-Israel bias, saying she and her colleagues “try very hard to get it right.”
However, said Linda Gradstein, the inhospitable attitude of the Israeli government and military toward the press contributes to the perception by some members of the Jewish community that the media is biased against Israel.
Gradstein, who was the Israel correspondent for National Public Radio from 1999 to 2009, spoke Dec. 19 at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple.
“I honestly believe the vast majority of journalists try very hard to get it right,” she said, but are hampered by stumbling blocks such as the inability to gain access and lack of cooperation when trying to report human interest pieces that would enhance Israel’s image.
Gradstein is the director of the Jerusalem-based Middle East News Institute and reports for Public Radio International’s The World program, AOL News, and Slate. She is also visiting professor at Georgetown University and the College of Charleston in South Carolina, teaching courses in covering conflict and radio reporting.
“I read The New York Times and I don’t see bias, personally or professionally,” she said. “I don’t think The New York Times is biased and I don’t think NPR is.”
Gradstein said the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz “is far more critical of Israel than any U.S. media outlet.”
Moreover, at times, the Jewish community’s perception of bias is colored by expectations causing it to see slights that aren’t there.
“Israel can be very hostile to journalists,” said Gradstein. “Every American journalist coming to Israel has been cleared by Israeli intelligence. So why are they harassed at the airport?”
Gradstein, who is Jewish and fluent in Hebrew, said she is spared such treatment, but said other journalists have had computers taken from them and been subject to strip searches.
“This is not the way to welcome journalists,” she said. “They should give them a cup of Jaffa orange juice — or better, a glass of Yarden wine, and say, ‘Welcome to Israel. We hope you enjoy your stay.’”
Perhaps Israel’s most serious public relations misstep, she said, is the military’s practice of denying press access under the mistaken belief that “if we keep the media out they won’t report on it.”
For example, she said, Gaza has been pretty much off-limits, forcing journalists to either sneak in or rely on Palestinian freelancers for information, steps that at times has resulted in skewed information.
One of the most notorious examples was last year’s alleged shelling of a United Nations school by the Israel Defense Forces during Operation Cast Lead, Gradstein said. Forty-three civilians were reported killed. Israel was made the villain even as additional information came out in the ensuing days that no one had died in the school and that it wasn’t the target.
“We all know the problem with retractions is that no one reads them or hears about them,” said Gradstein.
Journalists also struggle to convey the nuances of a sometimes complex story in 800 words or less or a several-minute sound bite.
Using Hebron in the West Bank as an example, Gradstein outlined its significance as a holy city to both Jews and Muslims and the historical events that have caused both to have an emotional attachment to the city.
“Which of these two pictures I’ve described is Hebron?” she asked. “The answer is they both are. When you do a story, how do you manage to get both in? It took me 10 minutes and that was without all the nuances.”
Gradstein also described Israel as being “over-covered” and welcomed the recent decline in interest as “not being a bad thing for Israel.”
“When something is over-covered I think by nature it gets a little bit distorted,” she explained. “Now I think there’s been a little bit of a correction.”
However, she advised those who genuinely believe a news story contains bias not to send a form letter, which will be ignored, but rather “reasoned criticism,” which “will be listened to by our bosses.”
“They are looked at and you will get a response,” said Gradstein.