Israel Today speaker offers insider’s view of a “malfunctioning” international press—and how to determine truth

April 22, 2016

What’s Happening

Matti Freidman (photo: Sebastian Scheiner).

Matti Freidman (photo: Sebastian Scheiner).

Wednesday, May 11, 7:30 pm, Reba and Sam Sandler Family Campus

The Community Relations Council of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater and community partners wrap up the 2015–2016 Israel Today series with another distinct, compelling and of-the-moment speaker.

Award-winning author and former Associated Press reporter Matti Friedman will speak at a free community presentation moderated by Kim Simon Fink.

Friedman will discuss his unique perspective of the international press coverage coming out of Israel and explain why he “outed” the media industry for its uneven and often distorted reporting. The Canadian-Israeli says the news from and concerning Israel that the world sees and reads often comes with a storyline that doesn’t mirror reality.

Friedman isn’t just an observer; from 2006 through 2011, he was a correspondent with the AP’s Jerusalem bureau. He has been published in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and writes regularly for Tablet Magazine—in which his 2014 article about the malfunctioning media earned him the title, whistleblower.

Born in Toronto, Friedman moved to Israel as a teenager and spent three years in an infantry unit followed by 15 years in the reserves. His reporting has taken him from Israel to Lebanon, Morocco, Cairo, Moscow, Washington, D.C., and the Caucasus.

Friedman published his first book in 2012, The Aleppo Codex, which won the Sami Rohr Prize and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal.

His newest book, Pumpkinfowers: A Soldier’s Story, will be released on May 3, and is already receiving glowing reviews, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly and the Jewish News’ Hal Sacks. Copies will be available for purchase on May 11 at Israel Today; Friedman will sign books after the event.

The Jewish News recently spoke with Friedman from his home in Israel.

JN: What will be the main points of your discussion when you speak to the Tidewater Jewish community?

I’ll be discussing the perception gap between what people think is going on here and what is really going on here. Part of that is explaining why that gap exists: why and how the media here has malfunctioned, and why it’s telling a story that is so distant from the actual truth. Why the significance of this place has been so inflated, and why the content of this story is so warped. Explaining and pointing out not just why this story is wrong, but pointing out what the right story is.

When I discuss Israel, when I discuss the subject of my new book—which is about a military outpost in Lebanon in the 1990s—the main point I’m trying to make is that you can’t understand Israel unless you understand what is going on in the Middle East, and how Israel is connected to the Middle Eastern story.

Why is it important that the community hear what you have to say?

To understand the picture that what you see when you turn on the TV or that is described when you open a newspaper—you really have to understand what the press is and how it works.

I like to help people understand what they’re seeing, understand the information that they’re consuming, and understand why it’s problematic, because people are reaching mistaken conclusions based on bad information.

There is no conspiracy. It’s not a group of malevolent people who are out to be evil. But it is an industry that’s malfunctioned, one which I think any consumer of news—which is basically everyone—needs to understand.

The stories that I wrote for the AP very much matched the information that I was getting from higher up. It wasn’t like I could write whatever I wanted to write, or describe reality exactly as I saw it. I conformed to the very particular narrative that the foreign press is telling from this place, and not just the AP.

I learned a lot, but I couldn’t do it after five and a half years—the reality that I could see with my very own eyes was different from the story that we were writing. I didn’t see any real point of churning out the story. I was wasting too much time fighting about the coverage of the Bureau, and wasting energy that could have been spent writing accurate stories about Israel.

Has anything changed since you were with the AP?

I left the AP in December 2011. No. Basically nothing has changed.

The press corps—which is itself part of the western zeitgeist—it’s very difficult to budge it, very difficult to change common wisdom.

It’s kind of like an aircraft carrier—a bit of naval metaphor for people from Virginia Beach. It just doesn’t turn very easily. I’m kind of like a guy in a rowboat whacking the side of the aircraft carrier, but the aircraft carrier is not impressed.

I think my critique [in Tablet, 2014] has been widely read in the media world because I’ve received a lot of responses—both positive and negative. I know there are people on the inside who to some extent agree with what I wrote, but it’s very difficult to change things.

The same story has been told for so long — the story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That the Israelis are strong and the Palestinians are weak, and the problem with the occupation, and that there could be a two state solution if Israel wanted such a solution. That story is so engrained in people’s minds and it’s so resonant for so many people, that it’s very difficult to change. It will take dramatic intervention by people very high up in the industry to bring coverage in line with reality.

If you really look at the Middle East and can understand the depth of the catastrophe that’s happened over the past five years, you’ll see that Israel’s situation is a bit more complicated than the traditional news story from here would suggest, and that Israel’s predicament is actually very different than the way it’s described.

It’s my hope that understanding the reality would force a shift in the story.

Final thoughts?

The positions on this country are often reduced to a caricature. You’re anti-Israel or you’re pro-Israel. Things are kind of binary in discussions about this place, which is unfortunate.

I’m hoping that this book [Pumpkinflowers] and the essays I wrote about the media are more complicated than a pro-Israel position.

I’m an Israeli and I love this country and I feel very deeply connected to it, and I feel very strongly about it. But it’s complicated.

Understanding that there’s a problem with the way this story’s being told is not a conservative position, it’s not even an ideological position. You don’t have to be right-wing to be upset. I think it’s just something people need to think about. People need to be critical consumers of information that’s reaching them, not just about Israel, but about everything.

The term “media bias” limits conversation, so I talk about the “perception gap” or the “media malfunction.” It allows the discussion to be a bit more intelligent for both the people who reject the idea that the media is biased and also for people for whom it’s obvious that the media is biased.

Call 757-965-6107 or visit www.JewishVA.org/CRCIsraelToday for more information and to RSVP for this free and open to the community Israel Today event in partnership with all synagogues, Jewish agencies and organizations, generous donors, and the Simon Family JCC as a part of their annual Celebrate Israel series.

by Laine Mednick Rutherford

Click here to read Matti Friedman Israel Today – Sifting through the media spin

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