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December 4, 2014 8:24 am

AP’s Weak Pushback Against Former Reporter’s Criticism

avatar by Steven Emerson

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The APTN Building in London. Photo: Benjamin Holler.

The Associated Press is firing back at a former reporter who claims the global news agency helps set a narrative for “the Israel story” that underplays or ignores Palestinian incitement and violence, while trumpeting criticism of Israel.

In a statement, the AP rejected the allegations Matti Friedman made in a November 30 article published by The Atlantic. “There’s no ‘narrative’ that says it is Israel that doesn’t want peace; the story of this century-long conflict is more complicated than that,” wrote media relations director Paul Colford.

The rapid response indicates that Friedman landed some punches. But Colford’s statement doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, Lori Lowenthal Marcus writes in The Jewish Press. For starters, it pits the claims of a reporter who was there against an AP flack who was not.

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Marcus details Colford’s aggressive push to get The Jewish Press to run the full AP statement. She then shows how one point Colford unequivocally challenged actually has more proof behind it than Friedman provided. In his Atlantic piece, Friedman described the AP’s blacklisting of Bar Ilan University Professor Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, a fact-checking organization that seeks to “publicize distortions of human rights issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict and provide information and context” for the public.

The AP Jerusalem bureau gave “explicit orders to reporters … to never quote” Steinberg or his organization, Friedman wrote. That never happened, Colford’s statement said. AP cited quotes “in at least a half-dozen stories since the 2009 Gaza war.”

But Marcus found that the comment wasn’t really responsive to what Friedman wrote. Friedman’s reference covered Operation Cast Lead, a 2008-09 round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Two of the articles Colford cites preceded that conflict. The others dealt with unrelated issues.

Meanwhile, a former colleague of Friedman’s told Marcus about an incident in which that AP’s bureau chief in 2009 cut a quote from Steinberg from his story. The editor told reporter Mark Lavie that “AP reporters ‘can’t interview Steinberg as an expert because he is identified with the right wing,'” Marcus writes.

Some sources might merit blacklisting by a news organization. But that action should be reserved for extraordinary circumstances, such as a source who provided false information in the past or who might incite violence. Deliberately withholding an opposing point of view from readers, especially in an issue as hotly debated as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seems to fly in the face of responsible reporting.

And that goes to what we think is Friedman’s core point. He’s not saying journalists should be passive observers. They just shouldn’t appoint themselves to be referees.

Friedman posted his own rebuttal on Facebook, saying he doesn’t want the Steinberg blacklisting to “obscure the broader argument” about how Israel is covered by foreign media. The AP’s statement, he added, harkens back to “the Philip Morris Handbook for Amoral Corporate Damage Control – charge ‘distortions and half-truths’ to obscure the fact that you actually have to acknowledge serious errors, throw out some vague numbers to make it all sound scientific, and smear the critic as a publicity hound.”

Read Marcus’ account here and Friedman’s Atlantic article here.

Steven Emerson is the Executive Director the Investigative Project on Terrorism (www.investigativeproject.org) where this article first appeared.

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