When I was working as a reporter in Israel in the 1990s, my colleagues and I used to joke that the country got a bad rap in the media because on Friday nights, while Foreign Ministry workers were at home with their families, Palestinians were wining and dining the foreign press at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, making friends and setting up the next day’s stories.
It wasn’t a very funny joke. Yet, says Aryeh Green, it was more than partially true.
“It may not have been Shabbat, but Palestinian ‘fixers’ were the ones who, for a generation, have been meeting foreign journalists at the American Colony saying, ‘What do you need?’ ” Green told me in a phone conversation this week. “And we, the Jewish community, have not been there.”
That’s what Green set out to correct. Raised in San Francisco and Menlo Park, he got his bachelor’s degree in psychology from U.C. Berkeley before immigrating to Israel in 1984. After 25 years in strategic communications, including a job advising former MK Natan Sharansky, Green five years ago created Media Central, a project of HonestReporting in Jerusalem, to provide support services for foreign journalists based in or visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories.
I heard Green talk about his project last week at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. His message surprised the crowd.
“The media is not anti-Semitic,” he said. “They are not ‘anti-Israel.’” Journalists covering the Israel-Palestinian issue rarely have all the facts, he told us. And if they did, the stories they produce would not be as damning.
What Media Central offers is pretty simple. Experts to interview. Back-ground information. Free tours of hot zones like the Golan and Sderot. A nice place to work in downtown Jerusalem.
As I listened to him, I thought about the times I’d shown up in a foreign country and was expected to file stories that were not only accurate, but also showed some understanding of local culture and politics. Oh, and I had to find the right people to interview — quickly — or find a phone that worked. (Yes, there was such a time, not that long ago.)
I flashed back to a night 10 years ago in Birobidzhan, the so-called Jewish autonomous zone in the Russian Far East. I had to file a story on the city’s 75th anniversary, and the only Internet connection in town was in a dark, blue-lit basement room filled with teenage gamers. I had to elbow one drunken lad off a monitor and wipe the vodka and spittle off his keyboard, and I only got half the story sent before he was back — with friends.
I could have used Media Central then.
You might think, so what if NPR or your local newspaper publishes stories about Israel that reflect badly on the Jewish state — even stories that you know are wrong, or slanted. What’s the real damage?
It could be significant. Three years ago at a conference in Aspen, Green told us, former CIA chief Jim Woolsey told him that “90 percent” of the information on which the foreign policy decisions of the United States are made comes from public sources — i.e., the media. Now that’s scary.
So is Green helping reporters get the facts, or is he doing hasbara, pro-Israel advocacy?
Green says nothing can help the nation he believes in so strongly more than reporting the truth. Not glossing over the bad, but taking the time to get the whole story, and get it right.
The reporters he takes on guided tours “are surprised by the normalcy of life” in West Bank settlements, he told me. They’re surprised to meet Bedouin sheiks who say their relatives in Jordan and Egypt have the same land-use squabbles with the authorities that they have in Israel. They’re surprised to see refugees from the Syrian conflict being treated for free at Israeli hospitals.
A reporter with Al Jazeera (Arabic) went on a Media Central tour of the West Bank and sent an email thanking Green for his help.
“It was interesting to meet settlers,” the reporter wrote. “It’s a challenge for us to meet Jewish residents and activists. It’s important to meet them, including the mayor of Ariel.
“And we never could have gotten the Arab workers to talk on camera … without Media Central.”
For more about Media Central, visit www.m-central.org.
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. and can be reached at email@example.com.