Press bias of the standard, Left-wing, blame-your-own-country-first type doesn’t exist in France, but it isn’t just an Anglo-American thing either. It’s big in Israel too. Americans complain, rightly, about the blame-America-first bias of blatant offenders like ABC, PBS, Reuters, and the New York and Los Angeles Times, but we also have good alternatives — Fox News, talk radio, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, the New York Post, etc. Brits have a harder time escaping from the anti-British British. The BBC, ubiquitous by law, is so far left it makes Arab News seem pro-Israel; and CNN Europe is much more biased than the sanitized version we get in the U.S. Sky News isn’t as bad, but when I last watched it in London in January and February, it was no Fox News. On the newspaper front, the London Times is sometimes fair and the Telegraph reliably so, but the Independent and the Guardian are more extreme than anything here at home. British tabloids are wilder too, but those on the left have no monopoly; the Mirror slugs it out with the Sun. At every level, Brits and Americans have alternatives.
Until recently, it was different in Israel. The average Israeli, like the average Brit or American, is basically monolingual. Because his one language is Hebrew, he can’t access any of the news sources above. Even when he is bi- or trilingual, his other languages are most often Arabic or Russian, and media bias in those languages is worse. Thus, most Israelis have no choice: They must rely on the Israeli press. For decades, it provided three daily national newspapers, two (now three) TV channels, and three radio stations — but no real choices. For decades, Ha’aretz, Israel’s prestige paper, pounded home the same blame-Israel-first message our own leftist papers pump out, routinely savaging Israeli conservatives as corrupt, know-nothing brutes, routinely embracing Oslo illusions with as much fervor as the worst of the Anglo-American bad boys. Ha’aretz’s two larger rivals, Yediot Aharonot and Maariv, did the same thing, tabloid-style. Israel’s government-controlled TV and radio stations echoed them. Israel’s left-wing elite thus had a monopoly on Israel’s national media, as well as near-monopolies on its universities, much of its permanent government, and its judiciary. It was that same leftist Israeli elite that bought the Oslo illusions, and sold them to the world. The world — but not the average Israeli. Jews who remember life in Arab or Communist lands, especially, are mostly realists. Their press was univocal; their experience was not.
“Wait,” you say. “That’s not fair. What about the Jerusalem Post?” And indeed, since about 1989 the JP has been one of the world’s best centrist papers. Part of the Hollinger chain that owns the Telegraph and the Chicago Sun-Times, it’s an excellent source for accurate news about the Middle East. Its legendary ex-editor, the pianist David Bar Illan, set the standard: passionate advocacy on the editorial pages, scrupulous objectivity on the news pages. New editor Bret Stephens, late of the Wall Street Journal Europe, is maintaining it, and calls Rich Lowry “the old guy,” because he was a few months younger when he got the top job last year. JP boasts the most honest, well-informed Arab reporter in the Middle East, Abu Khaled Toameh, plus a consistently interesting lineup of columnists. Stephens is an eloquent voice, as is occasional NRO contributor Saul Singer. JP’s other striking voices include Caroline B. Glick, who writes JP’s “Column One” (when she’s not embedded with the Third Army’s 2-7 mechanized infantry battalion in Iraq, as she is now); Evelyn Gordon, the only settler on the staff, from Eli — Princeton East; and Michael Freund, ex-prime-minister Netanyahu’s deputy director of communications. But there are many more to choose from, including a range of leftist voices. The JP is nothing if not balanced, but it has one huge flaw. It has a big English edition and a small French one, but no Hebrew edition, either in paper or online.
English-speaking news hounds get three other nice bonuses from Israel. No time to read multiple articles or thoughtful opinion pieces? Looking for a quick, accurate, 1- to 2-pp. summary of the most important new developments in the Middle East? Try the news service of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. Don’t be misled by the 2-line biblical quotation at the start of each issue: ICEJ’s editor, David Parsons, is as professional about the news as he is sincere in his Christian faith. He and his associates display a concern for factual and contextual accuracy that puts most Western journalists to shame. They daily check and cross-check the main English language wire services, JP, Ha’aretz, the English-language Arab press, major newspapers in the U.K. and the U.S., and relevant government sources, sorting out truth from rumor, fantasy, and propaganda. Parsons, a 43-year-old North Carolina lawyer who spent his first years in Israel living and working with Arab families, pens occasional editorials too — printed separately, and bylined. But, once again, there is no Hebrew version of this news source — nor of IMRA, Israel’s Media Review Analysis, a remarkable one-man news, document, and poll-results roundup founded by Joseph Lerner (no relation) and run by his son, Aaron. IMRA covers Hebrew and Arabic as well as English sources but, unlike MEMRI (the invaluable translation service available at www.memri.org), it’s available only in English.
What’s a poor, Hebrew-only Israeli to do? Weizmann Institute physicist Eli Pollak and his colleagues at Israel’s Media Watch (IMW) are working hard to reform the Israeli media by changing the laws that created a univocal left-wing Hebrew press monopoly. But it’s a slow, uphill battle, even with a more conservative, free-market-friendly government in power. In the meantime, conservative Israelis created their own alternative, starting in Hebrew in 1988, and now available in English, Russian, and French too. This is INN — Israel National News, www.inn.org.il, the Internet print division of Israel’s “pirate” radio station, Arutz Sheva (Hebrew for Station 7). If you’re a regular NRO reader, you already know INN’s opinion editor, Nissan Ratzlav-Katz, a frequent NRO contributor. Nissan and his coworkers are “pirates” in the news business much as George W. Bush is a “cowboy” in the international diplomacy business: Both refused to wait, endlessly, for hopelessly biased organizations to do what needed to be done. Arutz-7 chose a perfectly legal alternative: broadcasting to every part of the country from a foreign registry ship in international waters off Israel’s coast. The fact that they were breaking no Israeli laws didn’t stop leftist communications minister Shulamit Aloni from ordering police to storm the ship and confiscate their broadcasting equipment in 1995. That was a bit much, even for Israel’s Left-wing establishment, and there were no repeat attacks — but the equipment was never returned either. Arutz-7 raised the money to replace it and continued to broadcast, on air and online, to a growing audience. When I interviewed Nissan in Jerusalem in January, Arutz-7 had over a million listeners a day, and INN was getting over six million hits a month. Not bad, for a country of six million.
Makor Rishon is another independent Israeli voice. It’s a weekly news magazine, available only in Hebrew, and one of its features is “Against the Wind,” a column by Amnon Lord, an Israeli journalist who stood up against an Israeli gale. Amnon was born into Israel’s left-wing establishment elite. He’s a sabra — a native Israeli — who grew up on a well-connected socialist kibbutz and was happily ensconced as the film critic at Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Aharonot — and, of course, he was a peace-now man, like all his peers. But as soon as the Palestinians responded to Oslo by unleashing a violent intifada, Amnon saw that he had been mistaken, and said so, fast and straight: “I was wrong. My peers were wrong. Our mistakes have endangered the nation.” That won him an award from IMW; it also got him fired from his dream job at Yediot.
All the Israeli journalists I interviewed agreed that Israel’s Hebrew press was lock-step left in the past, but some argue that it’s more balanced now. I saw some positive changes at Ha’aretz, the only Hebrew daily with an English edition, and was half-inclined to go along. Uneasy because my Hebrew isn’t good enough to let me judge Yediot and Maariv for myself, I asked Amnon what he thought. Here’s his answer: “After Yediot’s unrepentant old opinion editor died and a new man took over, I began to do occasional pieces for them again. A few weeks ago, the paper launched a witch hunt against Israel’s new military chief of staff, General Moshe Ya’alon, accusing him of politicizing his office because he testified, truthfully, that in his military opinion, the intifada was the biggest existential threat to Israel since 1948. I called the new editor and told him I wanted to do a piece defending Ya’alon. He said my piece would be redundant, because he’d already written one himself. When it wasn’t in the paper next day, I called him. In a broken voice, he told me that his superiors at Yediot refused to run it.”
Some things do change for the better, though — Israel’s new government press chief, Daniel Seaman, being a prime example. The son of a U.S. airman, Danny moved frequently enough as a boy to learn to stand up to peer pressure early. Past holders of his job had mostly acquiesced to the foreign press, no matter how many dishonest, “Jenin massacre”-type stories they reported, or how flagrantly they abused Israeli hospitality — for instance, by handing out Israeli press passes to their Arab friends like party favors, passes terrorists find useful. ABC’s Gillian Findlay, the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg, and the Washington Post’s Lee Hockstader were among the worst offenders. Danny refused to work with them, and they went home. If only he could toss out a few Israeli journalists — Ha’aretz’s Amira Hess and Gideon Levy, for starters — the long-suffering Israeli public might finally begin to get the press it deserves, first at home and, who knows, maybe someday in the Anglo-American media too. It wouldn’t be the first time the foreign press was heavily influenced by the Israeli press.
— Freelance writer Barbara Lerner conducted a series of interviews with Israeli politicians, journalists, religious figures, and ordinary citizens between January 27 and February 17, 2003.