Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey held another in its series of FEDTalks events on Monday evening, May 6, featuring Tal Heinrich. The focus was on whether international media news coverage of Israel is biased or balanced. Judging by the strong attendance, the topic clearly resonates. Heinrich certainly has the experience to offer an informed opinion. She is currently a 6 p.m. anchor for i24 News, an international news channel based in Tel Aviv, New York; Washington, D.C.; and Paris. Previously, she was a CNN International contributor and producer for the Middle East. She is also fluent in four languages: Hebrew, English, German and Arabic.

Although she shared clear examples of bias, Heinrich took a more nuanced approach as she delved into the behind-the-scenes editorial process and the challenges faced by reporters. She began with the importance of headlines, not only because they lead the story but also because some people never get past them and form opinions based on those few words. As an example, she referred to a bloody 2014 attack at a Jerusalem synagogue in which two Arabs entered with pistols, knives and an ax, murdering four worshippers and wounding over a dozen others. They were eventually killed. CNN International ran a headline: “Four Israelis, Two Palestinians Dead in Israel.” An outrageous headline from one European newspaper read: “Israeli Police Shoot two Palestinians.” Michael Orin, who was Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., equated these headline choices to describing the 9/11 terror attack as “3,000 Americans and 19 Arabs killed in World Trade Center.” Local Israeli media identified the attack for what it was, a terrorist massacre that took place in a synagogue. Heinrich did note that these days, international media is quicker to correct blatantly misleading headlines when called out.

Heinrich spoke of how international coverage of Israel has evolved over the years. She explained that in the decades of the 1990s and early 2000s, which saw the Oslo Accords and a spate of high-profile bus bombings, Israel received extensive world media coverage. Large crews of 20+ were sent by Sky News, CNN, Fox, ABC and others. More recently, with peace talks on hold and the absence of dramatic terror attacks, international coverage has shrunk. Another factor has been changes in communications technology. A job that used to require an entire crew has been replaced by one individual with a live iPhone feed.

The downside, and here’s where the nuances come in, is that when there is an escalation, reporters flown in from far-off locales may not be well-versed in the conflict. “They may be tired after a long flight and must do live hits immediately,” she explained, adding that “while high-profile anchors like Anderson Cooper are very well oriented and know the players and the questions to ask, many others are lost.” She continued: “It is in these situations where local media in Israel can shape discourse in the world.” Unfortunately, when a foreign reporter needs to get information quickly, the #1 outlet in Israel in English is Haaretz, which she said “is very left wing.” With few other options available in English, outsiders will take their cues from them. As an aside, she noted that “While the English-language version of Haaretz is extreme left, in Hebrew the newspaper leans moderate left.”

Heinrich stressed that larger players, like CNN International and the BBC, will work a little slower to confirm all aspects of a story. For instance, they will contact Israeli police or the IDF for confirmation. They won’t sacrifice accuracy for being first. While local Israeli media will release the story quicker, “they won’t verify as much and sometimes make mistakes as a result.”

Heinrich spoke of the different terminology used to describe the same situation, which is often a source of consternation for those in the pro-Israel camp. For example, the Israeli press will use the term “Judea and Samaria,” which are considered to be unbiased locally. The descriptor of choice internationally is the West Bank. Additionally, “settlements” won’t be used in Israel, but is standard terminology in the U.S. and Europe. Heinrich also noted that the Trump administration has dropped the word “occupied” when referring to the Golan Heights.

How an incident is defined is nuanced as well. As an example, when a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli guard, the media in Israel called it a terror attack, but that term was not applied by the international press. Much of it is context. Heinrich spoke of a Palestinian truck-ramming incident caught on video. A group of Israeli soldiers were at a ceremony when a large truck suddenly appeared and slammed into them. As a result, four were killed. Although the targets and victims were exclusively soldiers, in this case every international outlet identified it as a terrorist attack. “The reason,” she explained, “was that it occurred very soon after the truck-ramming attack in Nice, France, so they viewed it as a potential ISIS attack.” In fact, in response to an audience-member question afterward about anti-Semitism in the media, Heinrich explained that while ISIS is seen as possessing an evil ideology and is covered accordingly, many in the international press view the violent actions taken by Palestinians as a response to oppression they face.

In a disturbing example, Heinrich revisited the 2014 synagogue attack and spoke of an interview conducted by ZDF Germany, which she described as a large, mainstream network outlet. In a sympathetic piece, the family of one of the two terrorists responsible for the bloodshed was interviewed, with the perpetrators presented as the victims. The reporter spoke of Israel’s “retaliatory act” of demolishing the family’s home, but visuals of a blood-stained synagogue and four Jews brutally murdered while praying were nowhere to be found. Afterward, Heinrich spoke with the woman assigned to the story, who admitted she had been given guidelines that “the story should come from the Palestinian side.” She stated that she wasn’t happy about doing it, “but that was my mission.”

Heinrich said there is a delicate balance between bias and non-bias, but media outlets have to report the truth and in the right order, meaning they are accountable to properly present cause and effect. Also on the positive side, she spoke of improvements in responses by Israeli spokespeople to negative slants. “Israel is becoming well-versed in Twitter and other social media platforms and in learning how to effectively reply.” They have also learned the importance of releasing statements in English immediately, before major damage is done.

Heinrich stressed that what Nikki Haley did during her time at the U.N. really changed the discourse and has made media outlets more aware of Israel’s point of view. In a final comment, she noted that Danny Danon, Israel’s representative at the U.N., has spoken of “the public U.N. and the non-public U.N.” She recalled his remark: “When walking down the U.N. corridors, the whispers I hear from European countries are different from their public statements.”

By Robert Isler

Robert Isler is a freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected]