Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dear HonestReporting Subscriber,

Will the media never learn?

In March 2009, Ha'aretz published a story alleging "war crimes" and serious ethical failures on the part of the IDF in Gaza. Predictably, many international media outlets repeated the allegations without bothering to do any rudimentary checks.

Subsequently, it was revealed that the soldiers' testimonies were based on nothing more than rumors and hearsay, causing acute embarrassment to Ha'aretz and serving up a salutary lesson for those media outlets that reproduced such shoddy journalism.

Now, Israeli non-governmental organization Breaking the Silence has published a new report reliant upon testimonials from soldiers who served in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Once again, allegations of "war crimes" and misdemeanors are based on second-hand evidence and hearsay. Once again, international media outlets rushed to publish a story from another flawed source.

While the BBC gleefully pushed the story to the top of its agenda, The Independent produced a two-page center spread with a screaming headline "Israeli soldiers reveal the brutal truth of Gaza attack". Others also covered the story, including CNN, The Guardian, Associated Press, Reuters, AFP, Financial Times, Times of London, Daily Telegraph, NPR, Toronto Star and the Globe & Mail.

The G & M's Orly Halpern even wrote on her personal Twitter page: "I'm reading a really moving report which I will be writing about for the Globe and Mail. It makes me sick to my stomach." Can an objective and balanced story emerge when emotions rather than facts are the driving force?

Defending the IDF operation against charges including the use of human shields, Golani Brigade commander Col. Avi Peled stated that one of the soldiers who testified in the report was not even in the field at the time: "He told his commander about a week [during] which he wasn't even in the field. He reported about what he heard happened."

NGO Monitor's Dan Kosky points to the Breaking the Silence report's central problems - flawed methodology and absence of any reasonable research standards:

By Breaking the Silence's own admission, the allegations are comprised of "the testimony of around 30 combatants" – a fraction of the thousands of Israeli combat troops deployed during the Gaza conflict. This extremely narrow and presumably hand-picked sample is an absurd basis on which to pass judgment, and even these limited testimonies were entirely unverifiable.
All statements are anonymous, and so-called "evidence" is further compromised by the absence of any details of where and when alleged incidents occurred. Consequently, were the report intended to prompt the IDF to investigate individual allegations, Breaking the Silence has made this impossible.

The IDF has issued an intial response to Breaking the Silence that can be viewed here.
As for Breaking the Silence's motivations, The Jerusalem Post's Amir Mizroch offers an insider's insight on his personal blog on how the group attempted to give Ha'aretz exclusive rights to the story. The paper, in light of its previous embarrassment, did not take the bait and sent the report to the IDF for response. Meanwhile, Breaking the Silence attempted to get the JPost's military correspondent off the story, fearing that the paper would take a critical look at their report. According to Mizroch:

Several days before all this, Breaking The Silence gave out their report to a wide array of foreign media, and not to the IDF to probe into itself, with the caveat that they observe the embargo until after Ha'aretz published the report first. All of which shows their original intent was to get as much uncritical worldwide publicity for their report. Legitimate, sure. Fair? Not so sure.
Breaking the Silence has succeeded in gaining the international publicity that it sought. Many media outlets have also demonstrated their propensity to uncritically publish unverifiable accounts from non-governmental organizations that feed their own unquestioning narrative of Israel and the IDF.

The media and NGOs maintain a symbiotic relationship that feeds stories such as the one above. David Bernstein of the Wall St Journal, however, has exposed the politicized agenda and hypocrisy behind NGO superpower Human Rights Watch, a regular source of anti-Israel reports.

He writes about how HRW's Sarah Leah Whitson tried to fundraise from wealthy Saudis by highlighting battles with "pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations":

The point of my post, though, is not that HRW is pro-Saudi, but that it is maniacally anti-Israel. The most recent manifestation is that its officers see nothing unseemly about raising funds among the elite of one of the most totalitarian nations on earth, with a pitch about how the money is needed to fight "pro-Israel forces," without the felt need to discuss any of the Saudis' manifold human rights violations, and without apparent concern that becoming dependent on funds emanating from a brutal dictatorship leaves you vulnerable to that brutal dictatorship later cutting off the flow of funds, if you don't "behave."

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg engaged in a e-mail exchange with HRW executive director Ken Roth on the issue. Roth responded:

We report on Israel. Its supporters fight back with lies and deception. It wasn't a pitch against the Israel lobby per se. Our standard spiel is to describe our work in the region. Telling the Israel story--part of that pitch--is in part telling about the lies and obfuscation that are inevitably thrown our way.

As Goldberg puts it:
In other words, yes, the director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division is attempting to raise funds from Saudis, including a member of the Shura Council (which oversees, on behalf of the Saudi monarchy, the imposition in the Kingdom of the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law) in part by highlighting her organization's investigations of Israel, and its war with Israel's "supporters," who are liars and deceivers. It appears as if Human Rights Watch, in the pursuit of dollars, has compromised its integrity.

HonestReporting. com

Click here for Backspin to comment on this communique and the articles above.

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