Panelists at The Media Line's Press & Policy Breakfast (L to R): Dr. Ayad Dajani; Haisam Hassanein; Minister Tzachi Hanegbi; and Deputy Knesset Speaker Hilik Bar. Discussion was moderated by TML Exec. Ed. Michael Friedson.

In Distorting U.S. Ambassador Friedman’s Message, The Media Proves His Point

After lengthy address on press freedom, headlines focus uniquely on seemingly self-evident admonition that journalists should “shut their mouths” until getting the facts right

“U.S. Ambassador To Israel David Friedman Tells Media To Shut Up” was the prevailing message propagated by journalists and exclaimed in the headlines of numerous news outlets following his greetings to The Media Line’s Press & Policy breakfast held in Jerusalem this week. Those not in attendance could not be faulted for imagining that an enraged Friedman stormed onto the stage to chew out the press for its coverage of the recent deadly clashes along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip when in reality the American envoy’s remarks were oft-personal and wide-ranging. Much, but not all, covered issues relating to journalism.

While the ambassador did, indeed, impart the seemingly self-evident admonition that reporters should “keep their mouths shut” until they uncover the facts, although not the takeaway message of his address, it still became headline news, providing for easy click-bait material.

Almost entirely overlooked was the fact that Friedman made clear that he actually appreciates media criticism when founded, as it is “more important to understand how people think who don’t necessarily agree with [him], than people who do.”

Also relegated to the back-pages, if recounted at all, were statements such as: “The Founding Fathers of [the United States], among all the other displays of brilliance that they showed in the constitution, that they chose as the first amendment to protect the free press is simply a prophetic and incredibly significant recognition.”

Moreover, attendees were privy to a rare instance of a high-ranking public official opening up to the media, as Friedman did when he related his experience dealing with the fall-out of a false story published just hours before the U.S. Embassy was inaugurated last month in Jerusalem. The ambassador was accused of contributing to a charity allegedly listed as a terrorist organization.

Only after further review, and only following the piece’s publication, it was discovered (fact-checking after-the-fact) that the alleged organization was confused with another very legal one because their names are phonetically similar.

While Friedman stressed that he had not heard from the author of the article or the outlet that disseminated it, he nevertheless used this negative experience to highlight that journalistic integrity, albeit increasingly rare, still exists by conveying that the editor-in-chief of one Israeli newspaper that only briefly re-posted the “fake news” on its website had made a point of publicly apologizing for the mishap.

In this respect, the central theme of Friedman’s speech was, in opposition to the prevailing perception, the unique role journalism plays in shaping public opinion and, as an extension, the formulation of government policy. This is why he challenged reporters to “get it right,” which arguably should not have been construed as an insult or an attack on any particular publication but, rather, a much-needed reminder that the self-defined “gatekeepers of democracy” are not unaccountable and must therefore constantly strive to abide by rigorously high standards.

The exploration of this issue by diverse leaders in an increasingly polarized media arena was the purpose of the conference, as envisioned by The Media Line CEO Felice Friedson. The great irony is that in cherry-picking the element it did, much of the media ended up distorting Friedman’s message, as it was detached from the greater context of his speech, thereby in effect proving the point he was trying to make.

In the scheme of things, one might argue, this has little relevance in the “big picture.” Indeed, it is certainly not equivalent to accusing the Israeli army of massacring peaceful Palestinian protesters in the Gaza Strip, the vast majority of whom were later confirmed to be Hamas operatives using the general population as a collective “human shield” while setting fire to thousands of burning tires; flying flaming “terror kites” across the frontier; throwing Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers; and attempting to breach the security fence in order to infiltrate Jewish communities with a view to perpetrating real massacres. However, the dynamics that result in biased reporting on important issues—whether attributable to political or ideological motivations; to doing a half-job in order to meet the on-demand deadlines of today’s non-ending news cycle; or to pure laziness—have seemingly entered journalism’s bloodstream.

The changing journalistic landscape was further evidenced by what the media seemingly deems entirely non-newsworthy. In a prior time, especially in Israel, journalists might have been expected to place a primary emphasis on the fact that one of the event’s panels featured Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi engaging in conversation on the future of the Jewish state’s relations with its Arab neighbors with Egyptian-born Haisam Hassanein, who sacrificed relationships with most of his family members and friends by choosing to pursue his education at Tel Aviv University. This, as Deputy Knesset Speaker Hilik Bar discussed the imperative of renewing, at the very least, dialogue, if not a formal peace process, with the Palestinian Authority. The final panelist, East Jerusalem-born Dr. Ayad Dajani, a Palestinian who has dedicated his life to promoting co-existence and who currently works at the Germany-based Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies, agreed.

Given the ongoing prevalence of the #MeToo movement, coupled with a growing societal awareness of the need to uphold minority rights, one might have thought that some of the media attention garnered would focus on the panel on female empowerment, featuring, among others, Israel’s second-youngest parliamentarian and former combat soldier Sharren Haskel and Israel’s first-ever non-Jewish woman to anchor the evening news, Druze television personality Gadeer Mreeh who is almost single-handedly redefining gender roles in her community.

Instead, the average newsreader walked away with nothing more than “David Friedman Tells Journos to Shove It.”

The question thus begs: Does the media, trust in which is hovering around all-time lows, want to maintain the mantle of “defender of democracy” or continue devolving into a purveyor of sensationalist captions? On the micro level, do we, as journalists, want to make a difference by conveying facts or by contentiously distorting them with a view to manipulating public opinion to serve our own ends?

This, at its core, is what the American ambassador was getting at when he stated, “The risk now is that the barrier of entry to being a journalist is so low, and the distribution mechanisms of any journalist is so high, that somebody could do a lot of damage to the profession with inaccurate reporting. And when there’s no accountability, it does lead, as with any profession that is not self-regulated, to sloppiness.… Ultimately, we all have a problem, not just the journalism community, but everybody has a problem if people don’t believe the news.”

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