Thursday, March 16, 2006

In Iraq and Israel, The Fix Is In

One of the things that Iraq and Israel have in common is a sizeable group that charges that there is a consistent bias in the way events are being reported in the media. Another thing that Iraq and Israel have in common--which may in part explain the first--are stringers.

In Myths of Iraq, retired US army officer Ralph Peters writes about what he sees as one of the reasons for the media bias in their reporting on Iraq regarding claims of civil war, Iraqi disunity, expanding terrorism, and hatred of the US military:

The dangerous nature of journalism in Iraq has created a new phenomenon, the all-powerful local stringer. Unwilling to stray too far from secure facilities and their bodyguards, reporters rely heavily on Iraqi assistance in gathering news. And Iraqi stringers, some of whom have their own political agendas, long ago figured out that Americans prefer bad news to good news. The Iraqi leg-men earn blood money for unbalanced, often-hysterical claims, while the Journalism 101 rule of seeking confirmation from a second source has been discarded in the pathetic race for headlines.

Peters does not go into detail about the background of these stringers, but Richard Miniter, author of Disinformation, Shadow War, and Losing Bin Laden, does--in an interview with Roger Simon for Pajama Media. (available in Quicktime or Windows Media) Mudville Gazette has a transcript of a piece of the interview, in which Miniter points to stringers, whom he refers to as fixers, as a reason behind the slant in the reporting on Iraq:

Who does CNN have working for them now covering the Iraq war?

The same people, the same Iraqi fixers.

So lets see, it's 1946, it's Germany, I need to understand German. Why don't I hire some Nazis to interview some Jewish survivors and explain post-war Germany by hiring Nazis?

They're hiring Ba'athist Sunnis, that's why the coverage is so bad. They went from imbedded with the US troops and just reporting what they saw, and the effect was marvelous. It was accurate, it was up to date, it was interesting, it changed all the time.

And now it's formulaic and idealogical.


Because their fixers, their intermediaries between their safe little lives in the Palestine or al Rashid Hotels and the outside world are former members of
the regime.

Peters sums up the problem of the reporters' reliance on the fixers:
Dependence on the unverified reports of local hires has become the dirty secret of semi-celebrity journalism in Iraq as Western journalists succumb to a version of Stockholm Syndrome in which they convince themselves that their Iraqi sources and stringers are exceptions to every failing and foible in the Middle East. The mindset resembles the old colonialist conviction that, while other "boys" might lie and steal, our house-boy's a faithful servant.
The information for which the reporters rely on their Iraqi fixers to provide is both biased and unreliable--a claim made about the reporters reliance on similarly biased fixers in Israel. In Israel's Media Problem, Hillel Halkin refers to the new book, The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Struggle for Media Supremacy by Stephanie Gutmann. He writes about the fixer, who in contrast to the institutionalized bureaucracy of the Israeli government is

a person, generally young, educated, and with a good command of English, who accompanies correspondents in the territories, informs them of interesting subjects and possible scoops, arranges appointments and interviews for them, translates for them from the Arabic, explains to them nuances of scenes or conversations that they may have missed, knows the back roads and streets that will get them around military checkpoints, and acts as a guarantor of their safety, assuring local residents that they are not Israeli secret agents and negotiating their way into and out of potentially difficult situations. "Fixers" are not cheap, but a good one is an indispensable asset, and just about all foreign correspondents in Israel have their regular or regulars on whom they depend.

Just like in Iraq, it is not hard to see where simple reliance becomes complete dependency--and empathy.

Since one's "fixer" is generally an intelligent and articulate expounder of the Palestinian point of view, this puts Israel at a disadvantage—all the more so because, whereas the correspondent's dealings with Israelis take place mostly in offices, at press conferences, and at army roadblocks, the "fixer" often brings him to Palestinian homes, where he is introduced to families, treated graciously, and told the stories of the people he meets and their complaints against the Israeli occupation. He is thus far more likely to encounter Palestinians who have suffered from Israeli military action than Israelis who have suffered from Palestinian terror—and if he does get to know Israeli families, they are likely to live in his own upper-class neighborhood and belong to the socio-economic group that least frequently rides the buses, shops in the markets, or resides in the places where terror commonly strikes, and that is also the most liberal, dovish, and pro-Palestinian of any in Israel.

It is not surprising, then, that even if they do not take up their posts with a
bias against Israel, many journalists develop one during their stay there.

Unfortunately, in the case of reporters stationed in Israel, this reliance often sinks into absurd intellectual and professional laziness. As is the case in Iraq, the Palestinian fixers have their own agenda, and as Honest Reporting notes, the extent of the biased reliance on fixers just widens and deepens:

the Jerusalem Post reported that two of the largest wire services ― Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Associated Press (AP) ― have employed journalists with inappropriately close ties to the Palestinian Authority. Majida al-Batsh was a Palestinian affairs correspondent for AFP for many years, while simultaneously being on the payroll of the Palestinian Authority as a reporter for the PA's official organ, Al-Ayyam.

If this is not evidence enough of impropriety at AFP, last year Batsh announced she would actually run for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority. The Post reports:

Her colleagues claim that shortly before she joined the race [for PA president], Batsh resigned from the news agency, saying she wanted to devote her time to the election campaign. However, they add, this did not prevent her from seeking the agency's help in her campaign.

"One day she showed up and asked to use the fax machine to send some documents," reports one coworker. "The agency did not object."
Batsh isn't the only AFP reporter receiving a PA salary on the side:
One of the agency's correspondents in the Gaza Strip is Adel Zanoun, who also happens to be the chief reporter in the area for the PA's Voice of Palestine radio station.

The AFP bureau chief in Jerusalem, Patrick Anidjar, refuses to discuss the issue, saying, "I don't understand why you have to have the name of our correspondents." Pressed to give a specific answer, he says: "I don't want our correspondents' names to go into print. I don't want to answer the question. What is this, a police investigation?"
Meanwhile, Muhammad Daraghmeh ― who turns out near-daily reports from Ramallah or Jerusalem for the Associated Press ― also works for the PA's Al-Ayyam, according to the Jerusalem Post (and a pro-Palestinian site).
The claim has often been made that Israel has failed abominably in hasbarah and in properly presenting its side and seeing that it is covered by the media. The same might be said of President and the White House in failing to see to it that its version of the situation in Iraq is presented in the media--both at home and abroad. Both the US and Israel find themselves isolated among the West, a situation intensified by a persistant media bias based on a constant stream of unreliable information. Both need to realize the extent and source of the media bias--and if it's 'fixed', break it.

Crossposted at Israpundit

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