How Canadian journalists cover Israel

Accusing the news media of bias against Israel is a staple of Jewish conversation. Some would go, and have gone, further, saying that the media are sometimes even anti-Semitic in their coverage of Israel, as when they blast the Jewish state for things that go virtually unnoticed or are excused elsewhere.

Charges of double standards and implying moral equivalence when it comes to retaliatory violence; insufficient balance or distortions; downplaying or ignoring the Israeli perspective when it comes to security, civilian deaths, and the settlements; and cozying up to – even reciting – the Palestinian and Arab narratives have long been lobbed by Jewish news consumers when it comes to reporting on Israel by the mainstream press.

But bias cuts both ways. While the news media betray it in everything they do, whether in placement, tone, headline or even choosing whether to cover a story, readers and viewers in turn bring their own predilections to the table, often simply seeking whatever they agree with.

What of Canadian journalists who cover the Middle East, or have done so? Are they aware of the visceral effect their reporting has? Or do they go about their task coolly collecting facts, interviewing both sides and presenting the results, damn the torpedoes?

Are they and their editors out to “get” Israel?

“Partisans will be partisans regardless of what side they’re on,” pronounced Mitch Potter of the Toronto Star, who covered the Middle East, based in Israel, from mid-2002 to the end of 2007, a time that coincided with the second intifadah and super-charged sensitivities over bias. “It’s pretty routine that people will try to shoot the messenger.”

Mitch Potter
Mitch Potter

Perhaps more than any other Canadian news outlet, the Star, with its unabashed liberal bent, has been a lightning rod for the Jewish community’s anger when it comes to coverage of Israel. Seething social media posts and cancelled subscriptions speak to a popular view that the Star has it in for Israel.

The Star, feeling the economic pinch like every “legacy” media outlet, closed its Middle East bureau in 2009. The paper’s only remaining foreign bureau is in Washington, D.C., where Potter works.

Asked about preparing for the Mideast job, Potter recalled two senior editors querying him carefully for bias of any kind – “and me reciprocating.”

A foreign posting “is a partnership between the reporter in the field and his or her supervising editors,” said Potter. “That involves a great deal of trust. And that trust begins with mutual certainty that neither the writer not the editors will allow outside influence to distort or compromise their collective efforts.”

In his work from Israel, “there were times where my email inbox overflowed with anger,” Potter recalled. “And also many times where I lost sleep, rewriting stories in my head hours after deadline, agonizing over whether I could have told it better.”

He told it well enough to win a National Newspaper Award for his reporting. It was “probably the best work I did in my life,” Potter allowed. The posting was an “intense, all-consuming endeavour.”

In reporting from his Mideast perch, Potter said he strove for fairness, but “I don’t think fairness necessarily falls in the 50-50 mark. The recipe for really poor, milquetoast, meaningless writing is to try to strive for that so-called fair and balanced line in every single paragraph. It becomes wallpaper and dull, and not very communicative to the reader.

“So whenever people challenged me on one article being too biased in favour of Israel or Palestinians, I challenged people back to read a month, or two or three months of coverage and [not to] judge me on six paragraphs. Judge me on 60 stories. If you detect a pattern of bias, I’m happy to address it and talk about it.”

Some of the same themes were sounded by Patrick Martin, who reported from the Middle East for the Globe and Mail from 1991 to 1995 and again from 2008 to 2012, and is now the paper’s global affairs writer.

He, too, has been the target of readers’ ire and attacks from media watchdogs. His first advice to someone starting out in the post would be, “Don’t pay much attention to critics. Whatever you do, they’ll find some reason to criticize you. You just have to let it roll off your back.”

Citing a lesson he said he learned from Michael Bell, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel, Martin said reporting from the region is “not a matter of being balanced. It’s a matter of being fair-minded. And that’s the key. I stick to that. Sometimes you’re not writing opinion, but you obviously make choices on what you cover and how you cover it.”

For example, “when 1,300 Palestinians are killed and only 13 Israelis [in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09], that’s worth drawing attention to.”

While that statement might set some Jewish readers’ teeth on edge, Martin offered several instances in which he upended Palestinian narratives.

In the autumn of 2008, he decided to check out reports, circulated mainly by international aid agencies and pro-Palestinian activists, that residents of the Gaza Strip were starving. “I honestly thought these reports were accurate,” he conceded.

Instead, Martin encountered “heaps” of locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables, and people shopping in markets. He also witnessed, and reported, that Gazans were receiving shipments from aid agencies of staples – flour, rice, sugar – and selling them to local merchants, who re-sold them at a markup.

It was a page 1 story in the Globe and Mail, and while Palestinians were defensive, the “most” outrage came from the aid agencies, Martin recalled.

“Was I fair-minded?” he asked. “Yes. Was I balanced? Absolutely not. It was an extremely one-sided point of view.”

Later, in the 2014 Gaza incursion, Martin said he reported that Hamas fighters were firing rockets into Israel from inside populated centres, including a school that housed refugees, and that some fighters were sneaking out of Gaza disguised as women.

He said he was then lambasted by a media-monitoring group for not adequately covering the launching of rockets into Israel.

Martin said that, generally, “a lot” of information that came from the Israeli side was accurate, if one discounted the political spin, but he found there was “tremendous exaggeration” by Israel of the damage rockets can do.

“There are extremists and moderates on both sides,” he said, adding that during his tenure, he found the “bulk” of Hamas officials wanted to deal with Israel, and many said so.

Asked how he handled such a passionate and emotionally charged job, perhaps one that’s unique in journalism, he said, “I tread very carefully and I stick to the facts.”

Potter said that when the background noise of Israeli hasbarah and Palestinian propaganda got especially deafening, his approach “was to imagine a reader like me, someone in Canada with no horse in the race, yet someone curious enough to want to understand what was happening. How would I explain it to them? That was the anchor I kept reaching for to help me unclutter my thinking.”

Reporters await a press conference held at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem

While he wasn’t posted to the region, Jeffrey Dvorkin took a lot of grief over coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by National Public Radio in the United States when he was the network’s Washington, D.C.-based ombudsman from 2000 to 2006.

In Jewish circles, recalled Dvorkin, now the director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto, NPR’s coverage was seen as being so biased against Israel that the network earned the moniker “National Palestinian Radio.”

Dvorkin even got death threats from Jewish listeners and regular hammerings from the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, which is known by the acronym CAMERA.

The question he had for them was about their expectations of journalism.

“It seemed to me,” Dvorkin told The CJN, “that their expectations were that journalism should support Israel pretty much 100 per cent of the time.”

In discussions with other media outlets, Dvorkin found that in the years after the 9/11 attacks, accusations of anti-Israel bias got so intense that they had the effect of shutting down any discussion of whether the media were fair when it came to Israel and the Palestinians, and actually “intimidated” some outlets, which simply stopped covering the story, Dvorkin said.

NPR then tried to do longer, more contextualized stories on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some going back to cite the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

“It didn’t matter,” Dvorkin said. “Whatever NPR did was insufficient.”

One station in Boston lost $1 million in pledges in one year, he noted.

Still, Dvorkin feels journalists on the beat should provide a sense of historical context.

“It’s critical. Israeli concerns about security just didn’t come out of a general sense of cultural anxiety. They come from a sense of real historical loss. That has to be communicated.”

But in every story?

“That becomes a problem. In radio and television, you have a limited amount of time. How far back do you go to contextualize and put the story in proper proportion? You assume, maybe incorrectly, that your audience has a certain knowledge base and you don’t need to remind the audience each and every time how far back the story has evolved from. But for critics of the media, from the Israeli point of view, you can never go back too far.”

Dvorkin worries that today, “there is less intellectual headspace for journalists to do a proper job of contextualizing than ever before. This kind of plays into the criticism of the advocacy groups [who say] the media are biased.”

It’s not news that mainstream media are losing consumers and revenue by the ton to the online world, which may have less rigorous journalistic standards and are too often seduced by how many clicks and eyeballs get driven to advertisers.

Dvorkin believes old-school news media are “maybe not so much biased as [they are] terribly pressured.”

Both and he and Martin had strong criticism of media monitoring groups, with Dvorkin calling them “a kind of new McCarthyism.”

Derek Stoffel, the CBC’s current Middle East correspondent, declined to be interviewed for this story. “I’ve always stayed away from point-of-view stories on this subject,” he wrote.

Asked about the biggest frustration she had reporting from Jerusalem from 2003 to 2006, CBC News’ Adrienne Arsenault said, “It’s always agonizing reporting in places where there is anger and hate and violence. Horrible things happening on sky-blue perfect days also always kind of derails you emotionally a bit. And when the stakes are so high and so personal for people, there is a lot of digging in on their own interpretation of right and wrong.”

Adrienne Arsenault
Adrienne Arsenault

Did complaints about the CBC’s coverage lead to self-examination for bias or self-censorship?

“There always have been and always will be complaints about all kinds of reporting,” Arsenault replied in an email. “It’s true that the intensity of scrutiny for stories coming out of that region feels much higher, because of the engagement level of our viewers. But to ask if I became careful to check myself for bias is to suggest that would be something new, or particular to that bureau.

“The thing is, when you do this work, from anywhere, you always find yourself gauging perspectives and ensuring, to the best of your ability, that you are being fair. That’s what matters. And that is the lens I tried to look through constantly. As for the viewer engagement, we need and appreciate it.”

If the Star’s Potter had a bias, “it would be towards humanity. I make no apologies for that. I want to see human beings triumph, and it’s pretty hard when you see bodies torn to pieces on both sides to hang on to that ideal. And I’ve seen a lot of bodies torn to pieces on both sides.

“I take responsibility personally for everything that goes under my byline,” he said. “We [are] human beings who make mistakes. I’m one of them.”