(Lori Lowenthal Marcus)
A journalist for more than 40 years, Mark Lavie was based in Jerusalem for most of them and then in Cairo for two – during the “Egyptian Revolution.”
Lavie is no longer a journalist.
But he didn’t leave the profession, “it left me,” Lavie says.
Now Lavie is speaking out in as many fora as possible. He seeks to alert the public about the dramatic difference between what journalism used to be – and still pretends to be – and what it actually is.
Lavie’s conclusions shouldn’t surprise many readers of The Jewish Press. But those conclusions, and the detail Lavie provides as someone who lived for so long within the belly of the beast, provides a stunning rebuke – especially to the Associated Press, where Lavie worked for fifteen years. AP has long been criticized as biased against Israel. Lavie provides eye-witness testimony that:
A recent account by another former AP reporter, Matti Friedman, indicting AP editor Steve Gutkin for killing a story about a 2008 peace proposal advanced by Israel, drew a sharp and categorical denial by the AP director of press relations and the now ex-editor Gutkin. They asserted flatly that Friedman was wrong and that what he said happened didn’t happen. But now Lavie weighs in: “I was there,” he told The Jewish Press. “Gutkin said to can” that article.
More broadly and more deeply, Lavie is profoundly pessimistic about the quality of the work put out by AP and most sources of mainstream journalism today. Driven as they are by the Internet’s insatiable appetite for the latest flash, people who call themselves reporters are interested, he says, primarily if not exclusively in speed, not substance.
Perhaps even worse, Lavie provides direct testimony that journalists no longer even pretend that their job is to report facts. Instead, he’s been told by former colleagues, the job of the media is to advocate for those actors on the world stage that the journalists feel deserve support – to “speak truth to power.”
“But that isn’t the job journalists are supposed to do!” Lavie cries. “The job of journalists is to take a significant story and make it interesting, by explaining it and putting it in context.”
Lavie had a front row seat to the seismic changes in the Middle East, including every major outbreak of fighting, terrorist attack and peace negotiation efforts over the past nearly half a century. He also was ringside in Cairo when the “Arab Spring” was revealed to him as a “Broken Spring,” instead. That is also the name of his recently updated book and his blog.
Lavie severed his relationship with AP and, in the past few months, has been sharing some inconvenient truths about how journalism has changed including at AP, and especially in the Middle East.
Outsiders have long believed that the mainstream media is consistently and intentionally biased against Israel. Lavie confirms that view, and he does so with the credentials garnered by enduring a long-term sojourn in the belly of the beast. Lavie is also center-left, a supporter of the Geneva Initiative, a committed Two-Stater.
Given Lavie’s experience, his politics and his ringside seat, his message deserves as broad an audience as possible. That message is: virtually all reporting about the Middle East is sifted so that only one side comes out. And some critical information never even makes it into the sifter at all.
First, Lavie has a lot to say about the general state of journalism throughout the world and how the social media revolution has led to catastrophic consequences.
The rise of social media as a delivery service for news is the equivalent of the bubonic plague. The consequences are many and nearly all destructive. The reduction in reportorial and editorial budgets has meant that fewer reporters are in the field, and those fewer are required not just to get there and get it out first, but also to tweet and to blog while reporting and to “own” each breaking story. The frenzied pace leaves little time or energy for fact-checking or deep-sourcing.
Added to the exponentially-expanding workload of the journalists are the online competitors for the latest and the most widely-spread news. Those computer jockeys race quickly with little or no oversight or accountability, giving the few real journalists more than a run for their money. Being a journalist in the 21st century brings to mind the title of a book from a few decades ago: “I’m dancing as fast as I can.”
The Internet thus propels the news cycles into warp speed, with the concomitant loss of care, facts and professionalism.
Lavie recalls with pride that his position used to be, and it was one accepted by all of his earlier employers: “I may not be first, but I will be right.” For Lavie, accuracy and completeness were paramount. Those two qualities are now held in far lower esteem.
The seminal moment for Lavie came while listening to an AP “Town Hall” in 2004. Lavie told The Jewish Press, the person speaking – he thinks it was Tom Curley, and the timing is right, Curley was president of the AP in 2004 – said: “speed matters more than heft.”
Lavie knew then it was the beginning of the end.
But the focus for The Jewish Press is Lavie’s take on how, as he put it in an August article he wrote for The Israel Project’s publication, The Tower: “Why Everything Reported From Gaza is Crazy Twisted.”
REPORTING FROM GAZA IS ‘CRAZY, TWISTED’
David Hazony, the editor of The Israel Project’s publication The Tower, ran into Lavie in Tel Aviv this past summer. The two discussed the media coverage of the then-ongoing war in Gaza, focusing in particular on the intimidation by Hamas of reporters and the way that was, and has long been, impacting coverage. Lavie decided he would write up his thoughts, based on his personal experiences. That was how his article appeared in The Tower. It was written while Operation Protective Edge was taking place, a time when no one covering the conflict would dare write such an account.
Lavie’s account is an important one, and should be read in full. He gives half a dozen concrete examples of events which were either mis-reported or not reported as the direct result of intimidation. He provides specifics, quite a few of which people will recall.
The crazy, twisted reporting can be traced to two factors: ideology and intimidation. Most reporters want to identify with the underdog, which is how the Palestinian Arabs have been indelibly branded. In addition, the stringers upon whom the non-Arabic speaking foreign journalists must rely, all largely identify with the unquestioned position that the “Occupation” is the cause of all Arab suffering. Plus, most reporters and stringers alike prefer they and their families remain breathing, something much less likely if one reports anything negative about the Palestinian Arabs.
As a result of these two factors, even beyond the broader changes in journalism wrought by cutbacks and social media competition, nearly all the coverage of the Middle East sanitizes or ignores virtually any wrongdoing by the Palestinian Arabs, and, correspondingly, maximizes or fabricates wrongdoing by Israel.
After his article came out in The Tower, Lavie completed an update to the second edition of his book The Broken Spring. This edition addresses the distorted coverage of the Middle East by the foreign media.
And then, you can really feel his frustration level rising in this blog post of his from Oct. 22, 2014:
Yahoo News and AP ran a headline that read, “Israeli police shoot E. Jerusalem man.” This man is the one who rammed his vehicle into a light rail station, killing a baby. Soon the two culprit agencies changed their headlines (Yahoo just copies AP), but it’s time to expose this whole fraud of Western news coverage of israel. I know all about it. I worked in Western media in the Mideast for 40 years. Now I don’t.
Lavie is laser-focused on the Arab-Israel conflict, but he warns listeners that the twin demons of modern journalism, ideology and intimidation, are found not only with Palestinian Arabs, but for any totalitarian government, dictatorships or Third World leaders.
Lavie points out how much focus has been placed on “gender segregation on private buses in the Israeli haredi community, while women are not even allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. The same can be said for so little coverage of the shockingly high percentages of Egyptian women who have been sexually harassed, let alone undergone female genital mutilation, but it is Israel that is held up for censure on gender discrimination grounds.
But repeatedly, Lavie comments on the way flash in the pan news has taken over serious reporting.
“Now we’re told to drop articles we’re researching, critical stories, and instead respond to what’s ‘trending on Yahoo!’,” Lavie says with incredulity. “For heaven’s sake, we’re taking news off Twitter!”
And then Lavie circles back to the deep-sixing of the article about the 2008 peace plan offered by Israel.
The refusal of the AP to run that story “was the biggest journalistic fiasco I’ve ever been involved in, and my career stretches back to 1963.”
Both former AP writers now turned critics, Friedman and Lavie, are Jewish Israelis. When asked point blank, Lavie responded, “yes, non-Jews also noticed the slanting of the coverage.”
“But,” he says, his voice rising slightly, “I was not sensitive to it because I am Jewish, I was sensitive to it because I’m a journalist.”
Lavie elaborates: “throughout my career I’ve been a proud Israeli and a foreign correspondent. At times it’s been unpleasant reporting on what Israel has done – Sabra and Shatilla comes to mind – but that’s okay because the bottom line is that the sum total of the story about Israel was complex, but balanced. The advances in science, in medicine, the social aspects, the economy, all of that used to get covered. But it no longer does.
“Now the rules have changed. ‘The Media’s’ response to Israel does not tolerate the truth if it is good. Everything is now critical in the extreme.”
So, what can readers do to find out what is really happening in the Middle East if all of the media is infected by the triple whammy of cutbacks, ideology and intimidation?
Surprisingly, Lavie did not seem prepared for the question. And then he provided the reason why he was not prepared. “I don’t know if there is an answer.
“Every day I read at least three Egyptian papers, several Israel news sites and several American news sites every day. But I could still be missing a lot. So much of the coverage is borrowed from each other – you can read four different accounts of one particular event, but they might all be based on the same original report.”
“It’s true, I’m pretty pessimistic,” Lavie admitted. “In fact, I will be on two speaking tours in the States, one in January and one in May. People have suggested I speak at journalism schools,” Lavie says. “But I told them no because I’d have to tell the audience they should all quit before they even get their degree.”