What happens if you collect all the bad news about the Netherlands for a week, without placing matters in their context, and without mentioning also the positive news? Manfred Gerstenfeld from the Israeli think tank JCPA
did this experiment, and it turned out that employees and students reading his articles or being present at his presentations, afterward held a more negative view of the Netherlands, even though they had been told beforehand that positive news had been omitted to 'expose media techniques against Israel'.
Last year we witnessed the impact that negative news can have abroad on the image of the Netherlands, especially if it is derived of its context and the facts are handled loosely. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a prime example of a well integrated immigrant and a perfect success story, lost her passport because of a strict and inhumane asylum policy. The link with the murder of politician Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who were both very critical of Islam, was quickly made. Little remained of the tolerant Dutch image. Immigration minister Verdonk's decision regarding Hirsi Ali's passport was blown up to huge proportions, and was characterized as typical for the new Netherlands.
The storm of criticism Verdonk received in the Netherlands, the fact that Hirsi Ali could ultimately retain her Dutch nationality, the causes for the increased polarization and tensions concerning immigrants and particularly Arab immigrants, were all neglected. To be clear: I don't want to defend Verdonk's decision in any way, and it is true that the immigration policy has become very strict, but from the foreign press an image emerged of a cruel country that strips its best citizens of their rights and that has completely gone mad.
In neoconservative circles in the USA, it is claimed that in the Netherlands pregnant women may abort their pregnancy for trivial reasons and that unborn babies are killed when they are found to have a deviation that the parents find too cumbersome. Dutch euthanasia law has even been compared to Nazi practices. And all Dutch would be smoking, shooting and swallowing drugs, according to conservatively slanted media, because that stuff can all be bought in the shops over here.
The Netherlands, and most countries, get negative news coverage from time to time. They then complain that they are not understood properly and facts have been twisted, and then go on doing their business, while the international press turns its attention to a new scandal elsewhere. Israel, however, is always in the picture, and all decisions taken by the government or discussions in the Knesset or statements of a politician in an Israeli newspaper, all bizarre regulations or customs, all scandals, are spotted and may make headlines in the New York Times, the Guardian or Le Monde the next day. To make it worse, Israelis are not terribly diplomatic or sensitive, and sometimes speak before they think.
Add to this the fact that Israel is a young state with very diverse inhabitants with different traditions, customs and habits, and different views on what the state should look like. A state with people who came from all over the world and fled pogroms or were Holocaust survivors or were otherwise persecuted. It is a country where people came to build a new future in an unstable region that did not welcome them. It is no wonder that under those circumstances sometimes something goes wrong, even apart from the conflict with the Arabs and the Palestinians. Maybe it is a miracle that not a lot more goes wrong. Yet it is not difficult to fill a newspaper a day with all kinds of negative news regarding Israel, and to present it as hell on earth. Most news coverage of Israel is not *that* bad, and I even think that many European journalists are not out to blacken Israel, but there is a constant focus on Israel, and because journalists are especially interested in problems the focus is automatically on what goes wrong there.
Dutch RTL TV correspondent Conny Mus disagrees with Gerstenfeld, and thinks that Dutch media are balanced, and that they are better than Israeli media, that, according to him, close their eyes to reality. In a brief recent radio discussion, Mus labeled both Gerstenfeld and the Jerusalem Post, in which he had presented his experiment, as extreme rightwing.
Gerstenfeld certainly is not a leftist, and I have read a couple of not so nice things about him, but that has little to do with this discussion. Defending Israel is being tied to rightwing positions this way, something that I strongly object to. I don't know whether Mus is on the left or on the right, but he certainly is not neutral. A couple of weeks before I spoke with him in Jerusalem last May, he had interviewed Hamas leader Haniyeh, and he was very impressed by this man. Mus said Haniyeh would do everything possible to get his journalist friend Alan Johnston released. He also thought Hamas was not out to 'liberate' all of Palestine, because when Mus had asked Haniyeh what Hamas would do if Israel were to hand over all 1967 occupied territories to the Palestinians and the refugees would be allowed to return, Haniyeh had answered: "We will see then...". That sounds like the Hamas proposal for a 10 or 20 year truce in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal, and it is in fact worse. Mus, however, considered Haniyeh's answer a hopeful signal and saw it as a sign of moderation. Haniyeh is a charmer, and it appears that he succeeded in winning over Mus. In the radio discussion Gerstenfeld criticized Mus for not having asked Haniyeh the 'million dollar question' about the notoriously anti-Semitic Hamas charter
Mus's remarks about Gerstenfeld and the Jerusalem Post confirm the impression I had after my conversation with him, that he is a biased journalist. The Jerusalem Post is center-right and it features a couple of very rightwing columnists such as Caroline Glick, next to other, more moderate columnists and commentators. From time to time it also publishes leftwing articles with a critical view concerning Israel's role in the conflict such as op-eds by the IPCRI
peace center. The JP frequently emphasizes the bond of the Jewish people with "Judea" and "Samaria", and unlike most foreign media it does not tend to stigmatize settlers and religious Zionists as extremists and Arab haters. The Jerusalem Post used to be the newspaper of the leftwing establishment in the past, and after a rightwing period of some 25-odd years, in 2004 it got a chief editor (David Horovitz) who is left of center.
Haaretz, the other Israeli quality newspaper with an English-language edition, is clearly left of center. Some people call Haaretz extreme left. These are generally people with rather rightwing views, who think the opinion that Israel must leave the occupied areas, and the assertion that these areas are occupied in the first place, are dangerous leftwing incitement. Haaretz features some very leftwing journalists such as Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, next to more moderate columnists and commentators. It regularly publishes articles with a critical view of the Palestinians and Arabs. It does not stigmatize peace activists, as is common in conservative circles, as self hating Jews and traitors. Haaretz emphasizes the need to make peace and wants Israel to make far-reaching concessions.
I consider both to be reliable newspapers, and think that the dominant views they present are both partially true.
I hope that Gerstenfeld continues his study of the influence of the media on our perceptions of Israel and the conflict. An actual study into which items make it into the news, and which do not, and how the news is presented by different newspapers or other media, will give a more precise answer to the question to what extent what media indeed are biased.Ratna Pelle
For an analysis of the role of the media in the Second Lebanon War see The Media as a Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict
More on Conny Mus in my next article
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