HonestReporting has monitored the news for bias for nearly two decades. Since its inception, the media, Israel and the Palestinian conflict have changed. This week I visited their offices in the center of Jerusalem to meet with their new Executive Director, Daniel Pomerantz. The podcast interview found that Honest Reporting is still providing a vital service to the fair reporting of Israel. Here is an abridged transcript.
Neil Lazarus: So let’s go back a bit. How did Honest Reporting start all those years ago?
Daniel Pomerantz: It started (if ) you remember, during the Intifada, the Second Intifada. There was a young man’s picture in the New York Times and it said an Israeli policeman (was) beating a Palestinian. It turned out it wasn’t on the Temple Mount. And it was not Even a Palestinian boy. It was a Jewish boy studying (in)Yeshiva and his name was Tuvia Grossman.
Neil Lazarus: But hold up, that was 18 years ago. Let’s cut to the chase…Is Honest Reporting still relevant or has it passed its time?
Daniel Pomerantz: Sadly, we are, it’s one of the few professions where I’m always sad to say we have more than enough business. We see bias in the press all the time. Sometimes it’s just naive journalists believing in a narrative and they don’t know any better. Sometimes it’s intentional bias because they have a specific story they want to tell. Sometimes it really is anti-Semitism such a thing exists to, and we see a tremendous amount of this.
Just about a year and a half ago, we had what they called the knife Intifada. And we saw frequently headlines that would say, Israeli policeman, and shoots Palestinian man to death. And then at the end of the article, they might mention, oh, yeah, and the man who got shot was stabbing someone at the time. That’s sort of the most obvious form of bias.
Neil Lazarus: Hold up, Honest Reporting really just a bunch of moaning Jews. In other words, your cherry picking. Give me hard facts, give me hard numbers of research that have been done, academic research
Daniel Pomerantz: You mean in terms of how much bias versus how much, not bias?
Neil Lazarus: Right.
Daniel Pomerantz: You know, it’s very difficult to do that accurately. We put together a project only to realize that even within our own staff, much less out in the outside world. Everybody’s understanding of what constitutes bias versus what constitutes fair is slightly different.
Neil Lazarus: So hold on. What is bias? How honest is Honest Reporting?
Daniel Pomerantz: What we’re saying is, first of all, our job is to keep the reporters honest.
Neil Lazarus: So what is honesty for you?
Daniel Pomerantz: For us, honesty is a certain kind of professionalism. You know, how when you hear about doctors, they brag that (they) treat all patients the same. (It) doesn’t matter if it’s a terrorist or a victim or a criminal….
Neil Lazarus: You’re losing me on the analogy. .. when is Honest Reporting not cherry-picking?
Daniel Pomerantz: So the point of the analogy is that that’s what journalists are supposed to do too. And these days you see a lot of journalists saying, why did you go into journalism? They say to make a difference in the world. Wrong, we do not go into journalism to make a difference in the world. You want to make a difference. You want to be an activist, join an activist group. There’s plenty of room for it. It’s a wonderful thing to do.
A journalist is like a doctor, they should treat everybody the same. Get the story out.
Neil Lazarus: But I disagree.
Daniel Pomerantz: How do you disagree?
Neil Lazarus: For example, someone like CNN, you would watch CNN because it’s a much more liberal news outlet, you watch Fox for its neo-conservatism? In other words, today, journalism is selling to a niche market, that niche market is increasingly anti-Israel.
Daniel Pomerantz: Yeah, but let me ask you this, what is Fox News’ tagline, what is their logo? Fair and balanced, right…. Journalism is supposed to be what journalists say they are, balanced, fair, accurate.
Neil Lazarus: Honest and fair and balanced are something that is relative to what you see.
Daniel Pomerantz: No, no, it’s not like (that)
Neil Lazarus: Give me five rules of what you would say fair and balanced is?
Daniel Pomerantz: Well, first of all, you have to, you have to fact check. What we see a lot in the news these days is, well, one side said this, and the other side said this, but what if one of the sides is a liar?
We said that people fact check President Trump all the time as they should, But Mahmoud Abbas and the Ayatollah are the worst human rights offenders in the world. They just put in their quote, and maybe put in a quote from the other side and give those quotes equal way even though one of them could easily be fact-checked and shown to be false. So number one, fact check.
Number two, there should be a balance. Balance is not the same thing as accuracy, but there should also be balanced.
For example, we saw an article about a year ago in the Washington Post, talking about how horrible it is for Palestinians to go through a checkpoint and it’s humiliating and it takes a long time and interferes with their life. They’re not wrong. Some of those things are the case, they didn’t speak to a single family that had been a victim of terrorism, to explain why those checkpoints are there and what they prevent.
Frst of all fact-checking. Second of all balance. The third is transparency.
If you got your information from a fixer, a person on the ground who’s helping you get somewhere and that fixer is working for the Palestinian government, or that fixer is somebody who lives in Gaza, and will die if Hamas sees them put out the wrong story, or if your journalist is someone who will lose access to Gaza and to their sources, if Hamas, which is a terror group sees that they put out a story they don’t like, those are things that public has to know.
So what do we say? Balance, fact-checking and transparency, and there are a lot of examples of where those come into play.
Neil Lazarus: But facts on the ground would disagree with you. For example, a recent report which came out, which was called 50 years of Occupation, disagrees with some of the things you’re saying….. In other words, without the academic research saying, look, we can give you the numbers. You don’t stand to convince anyone other than your own supporters.
Daniel Pomerantz: Well, we’re not trying to convince, first of all, I don’t know their methodology.
We don’t take a political position and we don’t take a right wing or left wing position and you shouldn’t have to. Balance and accuracy, fact-checking and transparency are not right or left issues and they shouldn’t be.
Neil Lazarus: For someone who’s critical say, of settlements within Israel, there’s (a place for legitimate) criticism..
Daniel Pomerantz: We don’t take a position on settlements. It’s contentious within Israel, it’s contentious outside of Israel. We do take the position that if somebody says this person was killed by a terrorist attack because they’re a settler, or a settler was killed instead of a child was killed or an Israeli was killed.
We take the position that you have to treat settlers as human beings. But if somebody wants to take a position about whether settlements are right or wrong, we don’t get into that. First of all, it’s an opinion. So journalists shouldn’t be getting into that level of opinion unless it’s an Op-ed. If someone does write an op-ed, we don’t take a position on that question.
If someone does insert their opinion, into a story that’s supposed to be hard facts, we will critique that.
Neil Lazarus: …The reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu. How did the media cover it?
Daniel Pomerantz: We have our Media Central program that works with us. They, take journalists to the stories, give him press conferences, press trips, and they were Israeli foreign press office, trusted them to arrange access to a lot of the events and they had a number of events for journalists throughout the weeks around election time. And I have to say thanks to them.
The coverage this year was much better than I’ve ever seen in the past. It was straightforward. It was balanced. It gave an accurate picture. When there were problems. They were usually problems that focused on the idea that Israelis clearly don’t want peace because they elected Netanyahu or Netanyahu was elected and he doesn’t represent the Israeli people, even though he’s just elected by the Israeli people.
Neil Lazarus: But I think the media in many ways has changed since you started. How much is Honest Reporting changing? When you started people worried about what was written in the New York Times in a photo. Today, everyone is on social media. My podcast has seen something like 30,000 downloads, and that’s just me.
How has social media changed media, and how does it change what you do?
Daniel Pomerantz: Well, social media has brought a lot more voices in, it’s lowered the barrier to entry. Sometimes it’s a good thing because people like you can speak. Sometimes it’s a bad thing because people who have agendas can speak and they’re not constrained by any professional ethical duties.
We’re very active on Twitter. We’re very active on Facebook, we found that a lot of the information that people speak about originates still with mainstream media, like this story came out on CNN and I’m going to tell you what I think about it. So mainstream media still plays an important role. It’s just that you get a lot more commentary on social media.
Neil Lazarus: But it goes the other way. In other words, the mainstream media is now dependent on social media, which is different.
Daniel Pomerantz: To some extent to get their message out it makes their audience larger.
Neil Lazarus: No, but they’re tracking social media. In other words, journalists are also tracking what’s going on Twitter to pick up their stories. So stories have been generated also within social media. It’s now a two-way thing.
Daniel Pomerantz: Some stories are but for example, if there’s a terrorist attack in Israel, the press here, the first place they’re going is to all of the relevant government offices, to the police, the fire, to the Palestinian Authority government, the Israeli government, to the scene where it actually happened. I mean, they’re not going to Twitter unless it’s just to find out that something happened but even then-
Neil Lazarus: But now you ignoring really how people get their news today has changed from when honest reporting started. Honest reporting started with, yeah, we get our newspaper we watching four or five stations and flicks, so on and so forth. Today most people get their news from the phone.
Daniel Pomerantz: I’m not saying that nothing has changed. But all I was saying was as a preamble that the mainstream press is still relevant. But you’re right. In addition to that, we have a YouTube channel and we’ve got a video out right now I’m discussing Ilana Omar that just has slightly over a million views, and it’s still going, we have videos-
We’ve got a really exciting program going on. I just mentioned Media Central They have a program where they’re bringing bloggers, now, for anyone doesn’t know what a blogger is.
Neil Lazarus: Welcome to our planet.
Daniel Pomerantz: Welcome to our planet. Bloggers and vloggers, which is a video blog, there writing essays online. And people look to them, young people form their worldview based on these bloggers and bloggers have audiences in the millions.
..So they put together this project, they got these bloggers, they’re bringing them on an all-expense paid trip to Israel. A lot of them are going to be bloggers in the area of travel. You might say why travel or why food, or why something else? Because young people are very suspicious of political commentators. And yet they will give carte blanche and believe anything they hear from someone who isn’t in politics and isn’t even a journalist, which is in itself, not really the most astute way to listen to the news because anybody could be biased or ignorant or whatever. But this is how young people get their news.
It’s how they formed their worldview. So we bring them here to see Israel for themselves. To bring them on a professional level press tours, no one else can do that.
There are other organizations that bring foodies and travel or whatever, but they can’t bring them any professional press tour like we do. So we are just a few thousand dollars short of the budget that we need to bring these bloggers. So if anyone’s listening, you can go to honestreporting.com/donate, and you can help us make this bloggers program happen. And if you specifically want to donate for this, you can just write in the comments field. This is for the blogger’s project
Neil Lazarus: My question to you is this, what it used to write a letter to the editor. Now I’m very cynical. I think that only people who read the letters to the editor are the people who wrote them because they want to see if they got printed. What should someone really do, they see what they consider bias, or unfair or as you put it inaccurate, or not factual. What should people do?
Daniel Pomerantz: Well, you know, there’s one thing that every journalist cares about because it’s the only thing they have. That’s their reputation. Why people watch CNN at all because they have the name CNN and to people that mean something credible, it’s all reputation.
You don’t have a license to practice law or a license to practice medicine. You hopefully have a degree, but maybe you don’t have that. So when a journalist sees a ton of comments on Twitter, so you can respond to them on Twitter saying that they really screwed up and links to our honest reporting article, because we do all the research for you.
If you can say to a journalist on Twitter, here’s an article. Here’s the facts, you screwed up, and we have the facts to prove it, or letters to the editor matter, too, because journalists report to their editors, when an editor gets 1000 emails, which they very well might, if it’s in response to one of our articles, even if a small percentage of our followers write in, it could be hundreds or even thousands of emails, then the editor turns around to the journalist and says, “You’re ruining the reputation of our organization, what are you doing?”
So that kind of pressure makes a difference in two possible ways. One, they might change it or attract it, and we get that a lot. The other is they might hold their ground and act like they’re all tough, like, oh, nobody can tell me what to do. But then you see in the future, they’re suddenly getting more careful because they know that we’re out there and that we’re watching. They don’t want that to happen to them again. Nobody likes to be critiqued. Especially if you can do it with facts that show you’ve got it right that you’re not just a troll.
Neil Lazarus: Thank you for your time. Give me your one-line pitch of what you would hope journalism would represent for Israel.
Daniel Pomerantz: .. Journalism should represent a good solid source of information that intelligent, thoughtful people can use to make up their own minds about the world on any issue