Ha'aretz, 29 December 2003
MEDIA COMMENT: MEA CULPA FROM "HA'ARETZ"?
By Eli Pollak and Yisrael Medad
Perhaps the most influential Hebrew newspaper is Ha'aretz. It thinks of itself as the Israeli equivalent to the New York Times or the Swiss Neue Zuericher Zeitung. It sells itself as the "newspaper for thinking people."
More than once, its headlines have directly influenced government activities. Only recently, Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had to retract UN Ambassador Yehuda Lankry's declaration to the United Nations that Israel recognizes the need for a two-state solution in the Middle East.
But during the past year, Ha'aretz's image was tarnished. A study by Ran Farhi, Tomer Tidhar and Eli Pollak of Israel's Media Watch, on the coverage of populations afflicted by the "terror war" in Ha'aretz's weekly supplement during October 2000 through December 2001, uncovered a severe professional failing of the magazine's reporters and editors. The coverage of events in the Ha'aretz supplement was biased. The supplement ignored the difficulties of the Jewish settlers in Judea, Samaria and Gaza and gave exhaustive treatment to the troubles of the Palestinian population (92 percent of the articles deal with the Palestinian population, most of them written by Gideon Levy).
During the 15-month period covered by the study, only five articles were published on the terror and war victims on the Israeli side. Considerable attention was given to the issue of refusal to serve in the army (three articles) and to the Left side of the political spectrum (six articles), but no coverage of the right-wing perspective.
Levy's articles, taken separately, did not meet certain basic professional requirements. In many instances the right of response was denied from those accused of perpetrating "acts of violence" against Palestinians. A thorough attempt at verifying the facts was not undertaken. Levy did not follow up on his cases. His articles were "single-track," employing horror pictures that were often unrelated to the topic itself, confusing news and opinions. Jewish settlers and IDF soldiers were presented anonymously, use of biased terms was abundant, including associations with Nazis, and the killing of Jewish settlers was legitimized.
The study, which received broad coverage in the wake of author Irit Linur's scathing critique of Ha'aretz, led to a significant number of cancellations of Ha'aretz subscriptions. The newspaper had to defend itself publicly, and even broadcast a radio advertisement telling us that "Ha'aretz is not really what you thought it is."
Tomer Tidhar and Eli Pollak of Israel's Media Watch undertook a second study of Ha'aretz, for an additional period of eight months, January to August this year. Four months were during the period preceding the publication of the first report, the second four months were post publication.
The new study reveals that Ha'aretz took to heart some of the criticism leveled at it. The first four months were a repeat of the previous 15 months, including parallels between the IDF and the Nazis. On May 4, Gideon Levy wrote "Now the village has turned into a real jail. Habla, Azun, Jit and Punduk, roadside villages, are closed with the new iron gates. The keys are in the hands of the jailer, the IDF. Is the distance between these iron gates and the gates of the concentration camps so large that no one wants to draw the parallel?"
The second four months were different. All of Levy's articles included a response from the IDF.
His style became somewhat less tendentious. Harsh terms aimed against the IDF and the settlers were limited. All the pictures that appeared with his articles were relevant, although there was an abundance of cynical pictures of children.
Instead of presenting his own views, he lets others talk. For example, on May 31 he reports a story by Abed al Ahmar, who upon entering the Israeli detention camp "Ofer" was told by the officer in charge: "Welcome to our concentration camp. What the Germans did to us, we will do to you." Levy then brings the IDF's vehement denial of the story.
There was a greater balance between Left and Right. Three articles described life in the West Bank and Gaza. In some cases, there was clear empathy with the Jewish residents. For example, on June 14, Sarah Lebovitz-Dar reported on the visit of actor Haim Topol to the isolated village of Netzarim in the Gaza strip. Topol came to identify with the residents and donate a monument in memory of slain minister Rehavam Ze'evi. A picture showed Topol with the children of Netzarim.
Four articles dealt with cultural aspects of the right-wing camp. These included an article on Michael Karsh, publisher of the weekly Makor Rishon, a piece about a Jerusalem club "The song of the land" whose theme is the Right wing's sharp criticism of events in Israel and even a review of a book God's Soldier by Micki Sheinfeld - which describes a yeshiva student who serves in the IDF's crack Golani brigade.
This doesn't imply that the magazine ceased dealing with left-wing interests. For example, on June 28, in an article entitled "Searching for B'tselem," Aviva Lurie presented a review of the history of the group, which has consistently championed Palestinian rights. But the article also includes critical questions regarding the veracity of the group's reports, bringing to light conflicting opinions in a balanced way.
The moral of the story is that public media criticism sometimes works. The publishers of Ha'aretz demonstrated a rare sensitivity to the public. Is it too much to ask of other media organs in Israel to show similar trends?