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About those incredible rumors

We should hold ourselves to the same standards we demand of others -- and check the facts before crying wolf on anti-Semitism

We all love to read about the incredible. But what happens when the incredible just isn’t credible?

The Internet is an incredible tool for spreading information across the global superhighway. Yet, there is a darker side. Israel has been the victim of countless smears and big lies propagated by enemies intent on delegitimizing and demonizing the Jewish state.

Only in the last week, one of these big lies has reentered the news a whole decade since it caused immeasurable damage to Israel’s image. The Mohammed al-Dura incident sparked a wave of violence and terror. The image of a Palestinian boy crouching next to his father caught in the crossfire became the icon of the so-called Second Intifada.

The passage of time and a trove of new evidence in Israel’s favor have done little to mitigate the al-Dura myth, which continues to live on thanks to the accumulated repository of anti-Israel material that is stored online. Dr. Yehuda David has just been acquitted of libel in a French court after publicly exposing the lies of al-Dura’s father, who falsely claimed old injuries were inflicted by Israel during that fateful Gaza firefight.

David’s challenge to the false yet widely accepted narrative should give us all encouragement to double our efforts to defend Israel’s credibility.

Sometimes, however, Israel’s friends fail to differentiate between the credible and the incredible. How many times have we forwarded a chain email based only on an empty promise of wealth and winnings for doing so? Most likely, if it’s that incredible, it isn’t credible.

And so it goes for some incredible stories that Israel’s advocates have pounced on. Who couldn’t but feel intense anger when reading the story of how the UK’s Department of Education had removed the Holocaust from the National Curriculum? Yet, this false story continues to circulate among concerned Jews and has even spawned a US variant of the same tale — this time set in Kentucky University.

And whose hearts didn’t melt when they received and forwarded photos purportedly portraying IDF soldiers stroking cute kittens, helping old ladies and laughing with Arab children? Except that you didn’t have to be an expert on military paraphernalia to see that those IDF soldiers were, in fact, US military personnel, most likely stationed in Iraq.

We at HonestReporting demand due diligence from the media and others before they publish and spread stories that may be damaging to Israel. But in our rush to grab hold of the incredible, shouldn’t we be abiding by the same standards that we ask of others?

Such is a recent case involving CNN, a news network that, for some of Israel’s supporters, became the epitome of biased reporting, mentioned in the same breath as the New York Times, BBC or Guardian.

A story emerged that CNN had fired all of its Jewish employees from its Jerusalem bureau, leaving only Arabs responsible for all aspects of news gathering. Some Israel advocates leapt on this allegation and it wasn’t long before charges of anti-Semitism against CNN were making the rounds online.

But if it seems incredible, is it credible?

The same way we are programmed to accept at face value, images of IDF soldiers stroking cuddly animals, we all too often accept charges of journalistic and ethical failure as part of our instinctive need to defend Israel. And so it was with CNN. While the Jerusalem bureau had been downsized, a few phone calls from HonestReporting to people in the know on the ground were all it took to discover the reality: Financial cost-cutting was the driving factor behind CNN’s cull.

While the loss of some Jewish employees does introduce the potential for future imbalance, that is a far cry from the screams of anti-Semitism leveled at CNN on this issue. We’ll judge CNNs coverage as closely as ever — that’s a given. What is not a given, is that CNN cleared its bureau of Jews. It simply wasn’t true. In fact, Jewish employees remained in senior positions and, unlike the original online accusation, the (non-Jewish) incumbent, who is not an Arab, remained bureau chief.

Of course — and HonestReporting is a prime example — there is a vital role to be played by organizations and individuals aggressively taking on Israel’s detractors, holding them to account and ensuring the real story gets out. Few could believe that a media watchdog would NOT jump on this gift of an invitation to do battle. However, a grown up NGO understands that its power is measured only by its ability to wield control over it.

We should hold ourselves to the same principles of insight, integrity and contextual evaluation that we demand of the media. Being serious about improving the quality of journalism focused on Israel means looking deeper than a surface excuse to do battle. For that reason, our Media Central operation in Jerusalem was established to assist, engage and support resident correspondents in their difficult task of getting the story right. We must be as ready to engage and deliver credible media services as we are to call those same news outlets on failures and shortcomings.

No one gets a free pass, but everyone deserves fair evaluation before judgment. Our judgment, and call to action, becomes all the more credible for taking that road, even if it takes a moment longer to process and evaluate — sometimes more than the pace of the news cycle allows. We are allowed. We demand the short time often needed to verify and certify. Accuracy is our right of fair defense. For that same reason we must afford the same to others. Accuracy is Israel’s best ally.

About the Author
Joe Hyams is CEO of HonestReporting.com, the USA and Israel based non-profit organization dedicated to fair and accurate media coverage for Israel. Joe is London born and educated, with a background in Media & Marketing Communications. He is a former Strategic Planner for Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising in Tel Aviv serving international clients including Ford, Ikea and Proctor & Gamble. Connecting his media know-how to a desire to improve Israel’s image abroad, Joe made Aliyah, joining HonestReporting in 2005. He trains Israel supporters the world over in the identification of media bias and effective responses in the digital age and directs the organization’s growth and operations from Jerusalem. He is a regular guest speaker for Israel Mission delegations, student groups and community leadership seminars. He has lectured to Jewish Federations, AIPAC National Policy Conference, the Annual Herzliya Conference, as well as school and community events across the USA, South America, Australia, Hong Kong as well as from home base – the Jerusalem Headquarters of HonestReporting. Joe holds a Masters degree and an MBA in non-profit management from the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program & The Heller School of Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.