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Press Intersects With Policy At ‘The Media Line’ Event

Conference explores the press-to-policy nexus through the experiences of Israeli, Palestinian, Druze and Egyptian panelists

A day after inaugurating its new state-of-the-art news bureau, The Media Line, the American news agency covering the Middle East, on Monday hosted its inaugural Press-and-Policy breakfast at Jerusalem’s David Citadel Hotel.

Under the title, “The Power of Press; the Magic of Policy,” more than 150 guests in attendance heard two expert panels explore the “press-to-policy nexus”—namely, the media’s role in shaping [read: influencing] policy makers. One emerging theme cited frequently was the influence wielded by an increasingly activist public boosted by new multipliers such as social media and activist demands from an increasingly fast-paced and ever-changing society.

Felice Friedson, President and CEO of The Media Line, opened the event by stressing the importance of classical journalism’s continued impact on policy-making and the need for reporters to comprehend “what journalism is supposed to be.”

Friedson, who in 2005 created the Mideast Press Club in order to facilitate communication between Israeli and Palestinian journalists when interaction dried up in the course of the Second Intifada, and to provide continued education for the region’s journalists, admonished the gathering that, “The task of the journalist is not that of PR or propaganda or advocacy; it’s the job of the journalist to listen, to report, to tell.”

Media coverage of the program was effectively overwhelmed by the preoccupation of news organizations with comments offered by Ambassador of the United States David M. Friedman, who said reporters should be more concerned with accuracy than speed. Friedman said that he believes the “industry needs to self-regulate. Journalists say [they] are operating under a constant tension between getting it fast and getting it right. I will tell you flat out that I simply reject that as an excuse,” he asserted, adding that he admires The Media Line’s commitment to being accurate rather than rushing to be first. His suggestion that newsmen and women “keep their mouths shut” until they get the facts provided fodder for most of the news outlets who covered the event.

As an example of not getting it right, Friedman cited the coverage of the recent violence along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip but was not without a suggested alternative. “With all the criticism Israel has gotten, nobody has identified the less lethal means by which Israel could have defended itself over the last four weeks.… If what happened isn’t right, what [course of action] is right?”

The conference’s first panel, “The Essential of Accurate, Fact-based News in Generating Sound Policy,” included Israeli Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi; Israeli Deputy Parliament Speaker Hilik Bar; Egyptian-born doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University Haisam Hassanein; and Dr. Ayad Dajani, a Palestinian currently working at the Germany-based Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies.

Michael Friedson, Executive Editor of The Media Line and the panel’s moderator, explained that “we are [living] in different times.… Technology has made things too easy in some cases and not easy enough in others. Something can be set off that is viral by somebody who really isn’t part of the [media] industry, someone who doesn’t feel any constraint or any obligation to play by the rules.”

In response, Hanegbi related that when he began working in the Israeli parliament three decades ago, he was advised to ignore how the media portrayed the government. “We did try to adopt [that] suggestion [and] follow our hearts, our beliefs—but it’s not easy. It becomes much more frustrating and much more irritating the more the media becomes viral, [as] the ability to spin reality is so powerful. The only bottom line,” he contended, “is to stick to your policies, stick to your conscience and hope for the best.”

Denying that the rift within Israeli society is as wide as believed, Hanegbi claimed that “the media is exaggerating in making those emotions of ‘right’ and ‘left’ much more significant than they are,” adding that most Israelis are pro-peace and understand that making concessions will be part of the process of resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.

In fact, the panelists discussed at length the manner in which the press contributes to shaping the contours of public discourse related to the Israeli-Arab conflict and what can be done to combat against negative impressions with a view to fostering co-existence.

In this respect, Bar recounted his experience of taking 300 Israeli students to the Muqata, the seat of the Palestinian Authority presidency in Ramallah, as he viewed it as imperative that “Israeli society [be exposed] at least a little bit to the Palestinian narrative.

“If we want to create policy, we need to know each other,” he emphasized, before qualifying that we mustn’t “adore each other’s narrative, but rather know [it].”

Nevertheless, there was an “800 pound gorilla in the room,” as Friedson referred to it, a reference to the empty tables expected to be filled by Palestinian colleagues and officials. Even those who had attended numerous previous events organized by The Media Line, Palestinian after Palestinian declined invitations to the latest occasion, generally citing as a reason the prevailing political and security tensions. In particular, many who canceled said it was simply imprudent to be at an event sponsored by an American organization, especially with the US ambassador present.

Dr. Dajani was the exception to the apparent new rule, resisting pressure from Palestinians who demanded to know “who do you represent” when he insisted on participating in the panel. “Part of being in reconciliation is to be here, and part of reconciliation is to be seen being here,” he proclaimed. “Boycotting any events with Palestinians and Israelis, in my point of view, is not part of reconciliation.”

Dajani expressed the belief that the media has a big role to play in bridging the Israeli-Palestinian divide, given its duty to convey, without bias, the positions of both sides, which effectively educates the two peoples. “Reconciliation does not mean to forget and to forgive,” he said. “It means to recognize the past and still be willing to build ourselves to live in a better place.”

Hassanein, who faced tremendous backlash for his decision to study in Israel including calls to revoke his Egyptian citizenship, noted that media in the Arab world were becoming less hostile to the Jewish state, citing, in particular, the relatively reserved response to the relocation in May of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. He attributed this, in part, to the fact that more Israeli news outlets were publishing content in Arabic—“talking to Arab audiences in their own language”—which has helped foster engagement and promote a more positive image of Israelis.

“It just started a few years ago,” Hassanein, who was participating in his first panel, expounded. “Now imagine ten or fifteen years from now, how it will be shaping views about Israel. Hopefully, the level of trust that is built and the investment from the two sides will [prevent] ever going back to the low level of relations.”

The second panel, moderated by The Media Line’s President Felice Friedson, focused on the growing influence of women on policy-making. Panelists included Israeli parliamentarian and former army combat soldier Sharren Haskel; Gadeer Mreeh, Israel’s first-ever non-Jewish (Druze) female television news anchor; and Talia Medina, Executive Assistant to the Vice President of CBS News in New York—a former TML intern.

“It’s always exciting for me to be on a women’s panel,” Haskel affirmed. “I think it brings a completely different perspective on how things work today, especially in many industries that may be male-dominated, like politics or news.”

Haskel, who at thirty-four years old is the youngest member of the governing coalition, recalled nominating herself for the primaries of her Likud political party after realizing, if not her, then who?

Just three months ago, she spearheaded the passage of legislation reducing regulation in the broadcast industry, something she said is essential in a country that claims to value freedom of speech and the press. “I believe that will completely change the communication and journalism here in Israel,” Haskel asserted.

Mreeh focused primarily on her effort to change traditional views about gender roles in her conservative community. When she was just starting out in broadcast news, she recounted, a religious neighbor told her parents that it was inappropriate for Mreeh to be working in the media industry. Thereafter, she almost quit but instead decided to prove her detractors wrong.

“I understood from a very young age the huge power of the media. We can [produce] change, we can set the agenda, we can influence.”

In fact, when Mreeh assumed her anchor position, she received thousands of calls and messages of support, including a blessing from the Druze spiritual leader in Israel who described her as a perfect example of a woman’s ability to achieve professional success while remaining true to Druze values. The Media Line event was Mreeh’s first participation in a panel.

Medina, who interned at The Media Line for six months in 2015, revealed that she always has her eyes open for the next big issue. “I want to look back at my career and have some story that I find, that I uncover, that I report on that has a massive impact on a global scale,” she said.

“You really have to fight for what you want.… It’s important for women to have a seat at the table. And if there’s no table, to create their own.”

(Terrance Mintner contributed to this report)