Josef Olmert
Josef Olmert

IDF spokesman and the foreign press: On standards and double standards

It is arguably the case, that the media war, the battle over images and narratives is almost as important as the actual battlefield, particularly in the era of social media, that of the global village. It is also the case, that Israel is a perennial loser in this war, and this is a reality which can be explained by many factors, but this is not the focus of this particular piece. This time there is a specific point of controversy which accompanies the campaign in Gaza, and this is the charge by large sections of the foreign media, that they were intentionally deceived by the IDF spokesman to believe that there is a ground invasion into Gaza, an invasion which was not. So here is a story which can be dealt with ONLY on the merits of what exactly happened with ONE specific communique of the spokesman, or can also be analyzed from the perspective of a larger background, which is the attitude of large sections of the foreign media towards the coverage of Israel.

The first point has to do with standards, the second with double standards. The standard SHOULD be for an official spokesman never to intentionally lie to the media. You do it once, and then you are facing the risk of losing your credibility completely. Did the IDF spokesman lie to the media? No, he did not, as what he said was, that ground forces participated in an attack on Gaza. This was simply true, because the hectic aerial activity was just one, though a decisive element in the attack. The IDF artillery and tanks participated, though they did not cross the border, and the IDF spokesman did not say they did. Purely from a textual standpoint therefore, the statement was correct. Let us be honest here, and state the obvious. The statement WAS couched DELIBERATELY in a way that should lead the press to believe that this was the beginning of a ground invasion. With this in mind, we can clearly assert, that the basic standards/ethics of proper work with the media were NOT violated, but it was not also the most innocuous statement either. Conclusion-borderline case, not something that the IDF spokesman will repeat too often or at all in the future. That said, we talk here about a war, we talk here about winning a war, and IF as seems very likely, the deliberate vagueness of the IDF spokesman statement helped achieve a legitimate and highly justified goal, then so be it. So, here we deal with standards that are basic so far as contact between government agencies and the media are concerned.

What then about double standards? Here we touch on the painful problem of how large sections of the foreign media coverage of Israel and the relevance to the specific issue at stake, is that those who criticize the IDF spokesman should come with clean hands. Many of them do not. To start with here is a point, that somehow was not mentioned by those who criticize the IDF spokesman. Many of them usually do not accept at face value many, if not most of the IDF announcements, especially if they are concerned with the Palestinians. They in many cases make sure that their audience gets the sense, that the Israelis were on the wrong. Did they believe the IDF this time, because they decided suddenly to trust the IDF? Sorry, but I do not buy that. The fact is, that almost instantly they started criticizing the so-called ground invasion, referring to it in terms which were obviously intended to blame Israel with ”escalation”, ”disproportionate reaction” and other such critical references.

I am emboldened with this impression by the fact, that even hours after it was clear, that there was NO ground invasion, many news outlets continued to report, that there was and did it in the context of describing how the conflict is getting worse and much more dangerous-clearly putting the onus on Israel. But there is much more that needs to be described and analyzed. Let us dwell on the name used by the media to describe Hamas. The word MILITANTS is used. Really? Why not TERRORISTS?

People who fire missiles intended only to kill innocent civilians as Hamas does are, by definition, terrorists, nothing else. No room here for any misunderstanding. But the media does not do that, and the reason for that is mostly having to do with the fear from Hamas. You report in Gaza,that Hamas are terrorists and you are out, if not killed , but you have no fear when you report it from Israel. Nothing can and will happen to you. The problem here is not just about Hamas, it is about reporting from other Middle Eastern countries. Those who remember the case of Lara Logan, CBS and the reporting of the rape she experienced in Tahrir Square in 2011 know exactly what I mean. The argument, that you have to take care of the foreign journalists when they report from countries like that is, of course, hypocritical. Journalistic standards have to be strictly maintained everywhere, and if they cannot be maintained in Gaza, for example, then it is the DUTY of the news outlet to make sure, that the audience realizes that the report cannot be accepted at face value. This is what double standards are-one standard for the Palestinians-another for the Israelis.

Let us refer to the controversy in Shimon Hazadik [Sheikh Jarrah in Arabic]. The key claim of the Arab side is, that a conflict involving four families is a case of ethnic cleansing. Well, the media can quote Palestinian speakers argue that, but IF there is no clarification by the reporter that this is totally wrong, because in Jerusalem there were 44,000 Arabs in 1948, as opposed to 300,000 now, it means that the claim is a total fabrication. The fact is, that when Israeli speakers refer to the REAL ethnic cleansing which took place in Jerusalem, that of the Jews after 1948, they are not quoted by most of the media.

I can go on and on, as there are so many examples.

In an atmosphere of an HONEST dialogue about the foreign press and Israel coverage, the current incident could be the opportunity for a dialogue based on facts, on the importance of maintaining standards as well as evading double standards. This dialogue is long overdue, but should start sometime. I believe NOW is the time.

The writer was the Director of the Israeli government press office between 1989-1992.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina
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