Thursday, March 28, 2013

Mideast Media Sampler 3/27/2013: Media Analysis of Obama's Trip To Israel Remains Superficial

by David Gerstman

1) All that glitters
Politico published an analysis of President Obama's recent trip to the Middle East by Josh Gerstein, Obama in Israel: 5 takeaways (h/t The Israel Link). While the article isn't awful, it suffers from a lack of substance. The five takeaways are:
  • Bibi and Barack patch it up
  • Obama’s new peace strategy: Hug Israel
  • Surprise substance: Obama defrosts Israel-Turkey ties
  • Urgency of Iran raid decision dialed back
  • Obama fears being drawn in on Syria
The first two items are about what is often referred to as "optics."
The substance of the third item has quickly faded as Prime Minister Erdogan has backtracked from his apparently assurance that he had accepted Netanyahu's apology. The last two seem to based on what people said or didn't say publicly. the last item could just have been gleaned from paying attention to the administration's actions over the past two years. One needn't have been a political reporter from a major online news site to write the article. It required no specialized knowledge of the Middle East or even much of American politics. A passing familiarity of headlines over the past four years would have provided enough background for a reasonably talented writer to come up with those five takeaways. Barry Rubin summed up the trip in about five paragraphs that had a lot more substance than Gerstein's article:
It is not that Obama was nice toward Israel all along; it is that there is a new policy based on his realizing there wasn’t going to be a breakthrough to a comprehensive peace agreement.
There are, however, still two problem areas. First, the president expresses sympathy but not agreement with Israel. His view is: 
I understand why you act as you do but you are wrong. You can obtain lasting peace fast if only you aren’t stubborn and suspicious. 
This, however, doesn’t matter very much. The second problem is critical. How can you be so nice to a country when you help its enemies? How can you help populate Israel’s borders and neighborhood with those who openly proclaim their goal of committing genocide on its people? 
If one asks: Has Obama helped or hurt Israel’s strategic situation the answer is that he has quite definitely hurt it overall. If one asks: Has Obama helped or hurt Israel's ability to deal with that strategic situation the answer is that he has been about as good--but certainly not better--as several predecessors by merely continuing past U.S. aid and other policies.
Whereas Gerstein portrays Obama's outreach to Israel as a new strategy, it likely was more a realization that the old strategy failed. Gerstein has no mention of the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood. Finally, he never acknowledge that good intentions are not enough. The "five takeaways" suffered from what a lot of reporting suffers from nowadays, the elevation of trivia over substance and the boosting of image above all else. There is one point that Gerstein makes that's alluded to Professor Rubin too.
Obama’s second-term strategy became clear during the trip: express such unqualified, heartfelt love and affection for Israelis and the state of Israel that they trust him to have Israel’s back in future peace talks, then coax Palestinians back to the table despite the improbability that Israel will halt settlement construction outside the context of some kind of peace deal.
In the media support for Israel is portrayed as emotional; support for a more "balanced" approach in the Middle East is portrayed as sophisticated. This is an attitude that President Obama seems to believe. The problem with the "balanced" approach is that it takes every charge against Israel at face value and subjects nearly every claim in Israel's favor to critical scrutiny.

2) Still a mystery

The first report on Prisoner X to appear in the New York Times was Australian Report on Israel’s ‘Prisoner X’ Suggests Melbourne Man Was Mossad Agent by Robert Mackey at The Lede. Drawing exclusively on left wing sources, one paragraph expresses Mackey's theme.
Concerns about censorship, and the reported secret detention of an Israeli citizen who somehow managed to hang himself in a high-security prison, prompted a stream of questions for Israel’s justice minister on Tuesday in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, Haaretz reported.
followup article by the Jodi Rudoren, the paper's main Israeli correspondent helped foment the paranoia:
Two of Mr. Shai’s colleagues, meanwhile, called for the formation of a parliamentary committee to investigate the case. And many Israelis joined social-media campaigns that are demanding more information. 
“No Israeli citizen will be able to sleep comfortably in a country in which an affair such as Prisoner X can take place,” wrote Uri Misgav, a blogger for the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz, in a lengthy post. “The Israeli public deserves to know whether the Israeli prisons are holding on to Prisoner Y and Prisoner Z,” he wrote. “The Israeli public deserves to be told how all of the monitoring mechanics failed and how such a systematic failure will not be repeated.” 
But Mr. Netanyahu seemed untroubled by the affair. “I rely completely on the security forces,” he told the cabinet. “I also completely rely on the legal authorities.”
Early reports that Prisoner X, Ben Zygier, had been jailed without informing anyone proved to be false as his family was aware of his imprisonment and he had met with lawyers shortly before his suicide. Now more details are emerging about the case. Or are they?

Der Spiegel and the Sydney Morning Herald have launched a joint investigation into Zygier's story. According to this version, Zygier after an unsuccessful stint in the field was assigned a desk job. Before taking a leave of absence from the Mossad, he made contact with a source with connections to Hezbollah in Europe and unintentionally fed him information that compromised two Israeli spies in Lebanon. There are problems with this story. There are a lot of details that would seem to be classified. Does the reporter know these to be true or did he speculate? Though a number of sources are quoted, the significant ones are never named. In other words as Isabel Kershner reported:
Most of the details of Mr. Zygier’s case remain subject to a strict, court-ordered blackout in Israel, and the story could not be independently verified.
One detail about the story also rings false.
Homsi, says General Ashraf Rifi, the head of Lebanese intelligence, was one of the most important catches his agency had ever made. Homsi was later sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor.
If Homsi was such an important "catch" why was he only sentenced to 15 years in prison? The Der Spiegel/Sydney Morning Herald would explain the harsh treatment accorded Zygier, but it stretches credulity. On the other hand it could be the basis of an exciting new spy novel. Michael Ross, a former Mossad agent who previously wrote about the case is skeptical.
+ 1 K RT “@tcgriffin: Not sure the latest version of the Ben Zygier story adds up.…compare:…
— Michael Ross (@mrossletters) March 25, 2013
Ross, in a followup article adds an important caution:
I encourage readers of articles on intelligence matters—and especially concerning the Mossad—to remember that journalists can only write what they are told, not what they are able to find out.
One final question: given that the Spiegel/Herald story could not be verified, why did the New York Times report about it?

3) Priorities

Last week the New York Times published an inflammatory cover story in its magazine written by Ben Ehrenreich. I wrote an e-mail to the paper's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, that read, in part:
This is how the magazine identified Ehrenreich: 
Ben Ehrenreich won a 2011 National Magazine Award in feature writing. His most recent novel is “Ether,” published by City Lights Books. 
Chemi Shalev of Ha'aretz noted something else about Ehrenreich. 
In 2009, Ehrenreich published a direct attack on Zionism in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Zionism is the Problem”. In the article, Ehrenreich castigates not only the “deplorable conditions in which Palestinians live and die in Gaza and the West Bank” but “the Zionist tenets on which the state was founded “as well. 
“The problem is functional”, Ehrenreich writes. “Founding a modern state on a single ethnic or religious identity in a territory that is ethnically and religiously diverse leads inexorably either to politics of exclusion or to wholesale ethnic cleansing. Put simply, the problem is Zionism.” 
(Here's a link to that article.) 
In other words, Ehrenreich is hostile to the existence of the Jewish state. The New York Times had an obligation to inform its audience that its reporter had significant baggage and leave it to its readers to decide if he is telling the complete story; or just selecting those parts that advance his own views.
Sullivan, in her latest, mentioned a previous issue with Middle East coverage.
Twitter and Facebook can be dangerous places for journalists. I wrote about two cases in which problems arose: a sexist Twitter message from the Times magazine freelancer Andrew Goldman to the author Jennifer Weiner, and eyebrow-raising Facebook and Twitter messages by Jodi Rudoren as she began her new post as the Jerusalem bureau chief. 
The Times dealt with the situations in quite different ways: by suspending Mr. Goldman from his column for a few weeks and by assigning an editor to work with Ms. Rudoren on her social media efforts. A deputy foreign editor, Michael Slackman, told me that Ms. Rudoren’s social media presence eventually fell off as she dug into her new beat and that she uses it now “primarily to cover the news and far less as a public journal.” When she does post on Facebook and Twitter now, the messages are no longer vetted by an editor, according to the foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, but are “monitored,” as are those of other reporters.
What was important to the New York Times is whether its Israel correspondent might have tweeted something that was deemed insensitive to Palestinians even if it had no impact on her reporting. That was something that the paper dealt with. But to acknowledge that an anti-Zionist wrote a major story is apparently beyond the scope of the paper's responsibility to its readers.

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