November 6, 2003
Just the Facts
Web site planned to combat unflattering media coverage of Israel.
Turn on the television. Open the newspaper. Flip on the radio. The message, according to many Jews, is depressingly similar: Israel is bad; the West Bank and Gaza are good. Israel embodies the bully Goliath; Palestinians, the heroic David. Israel behaves like apartheid-era South Africa; Palestinians are the equivalent of modern-day black South Africans, subject to discrimination, humiliation or worse.
To combat those unflattering media portrayals, a group of prominent Jews has banded together to create Access|Middle East, a nonprofit that will soon launch a news-rich Web site designed to be a one-stop information source for foreign correspondents and editorial writers.
The brainchild of former Time Warner vice chairman Merv Adelson, the nearly $2 million site will allow reporters to read articles from 415 newspapers from around the world, peruse think-tank reports and to view video footage of prominent Israeli military, political and economic leaders. Access|Middle East will also soon be able to translate articles from publications like France's Le Monde and Lebanon's Dar Al Hayat into English with the click of a mouse.
"We're not in the business of propaganda. We're not in the business of hasbarah," Adelson said. "We're in the business of providing accurate and timely information to journalists and Jewish organizations quicker and better than ever. My feeling is the truth will always, in the long-run, benefit Israel. You don't have to spin the truth."
That said, some of Access|Middle East's supporters and board members are major machers in the Jewish community. Mortimer Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, serves on the steering committee, so does Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Former U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross, now director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has made himself available as a media source to reporters.
The appearance of Access|Middle East comes at a time when several Jewish organizations have sprung up to blunt press attacks on Israel. Three-year-old HonestReporting.com scrutinizes the media for bias and mobilizes supporters to complain when they encounter it. The Middle East Media Research Institute, or MEMRI, translates the Arab press into English and other languages. Los Angeles-based StandWithUs monitors the media, among other initiatives.
"No other nation is subjected to the one-sided criticism that Israel is," said Andrea Levin, executive director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). "I'm not just speaking of the media but also [of] the U.N. and hundreds of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that fault it. Italy doesn't have to face this barrage."
Not everyone thinks the American press takes an anti-Israeli slant. Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Parks, director of the School of Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, said press coverage is largely fair, although some articles occasionally go too far. He also noted that many Israel-based foreign correspondents are Jews.
If Middle East coverage seems more negative now than just a few years back, the change reflects the dashed hopes of the Oslo peace accord and the "realities on the ground," said Parks, who reported from Jerusalem for the Times from 1992 to 1995.
"Members of the American Jewish community, my impression, is that they feel that stories critical of Israel are anti-Semitic," Parks said. "I think that's an oversimplification. If Israel does things that merit criticism, it doesn't mean the American-Jewish community is under threat. It doesn't mean Israel is under threat."
Aly Colón, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said coverage of the Middle East has become more comprehensive and sophisticated as journalists have increasingly sought new information sources, including Arab television channel Al Jazeera.
A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in June, 2002, found that a majority of Americans think the media has no pro-Israel slant. Nearly half of those surveyed found Middle Eastern reporting balanced, 27 percent thought it favored Israel, while only 8 percent considered it the pro-Palestinian.
Even if a bias exists, some pundits question the potential effectiveness of Access |Middle East to influence opinions.
"There are such a number of Web sites out there that it seems hard to imagine that any one could move journalists," said former New York Times reporter Susan Rasky, now a senior lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
Still, many in the Jewish community think it's worth trying.
Giving reporters tools to write more balanced articles is a laudable endeavor, said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. That's because a barrage of anti-Israeli stories could, over time, fuel anti-Semitism and delegitimize the Jewish state in the eyes of many, said Fishel, whose organization has directed donors to Access|Middle East.
With a total of 20 employees in the United States and Israel, Access|Middle East has operated mostly under the radar screen. That's changing. The group provided Armstrong Williams, a conservative, African American journalist, with a television production team during his recent visit to Israel to help him put together TV segments on Israel's security fence and the human toll of terrorism.
Access|Middle East also plans to hold regular telephone briefings with American reporters, said Andrew Adelson, Access|Middle East's interim chief executive.
"We believe that with knowledge comes understanding and with understanding comes wisdom," he said.