‘An Oasis in the Wasteland’ of Investigative Middle East Journalism
JNS.org – What to do about bias on Israel and the Middle East in the mainstream media? Watchdog organizations have been on the case for years, but seasoned investigative journalists Richard Behar and Gary Weiss believe they can tackle the problem from the inside.
Behar and Weiss have teamed up to launch a new online publication, The Mideast Reporter (mideastreporter.com), which according to its tagline strives to become “an oasis in the wasteland.” The Mideast Reporter prompts readers to “imagine a first-class investigative news operation that gets it right about Israel and the most important issues of our time.” Its website currently features substantial long-form articles and, pending funding, will evolve to include extensive multimedia and multilingual reporting. A target audience is young readers who haven’t yet made up their minds about issues affecting the region and who seek the most informed and multifaceted perspectives.
The non-profit news operation’s founders explain that a vicious propaganda war is underway in the Middle East, and that modern journalism standards have succumbed to lazy and prejudiced practices. Media outlets are spreading misinformation on the Middle East with dire consequences, say Behar and Weiss.
“The watchdogs are asleep. The Middle East is the third rail of journalism,” Behar tells JNS.org.
Behar and Weiss describe a scene in which reporters from different news agencies “stay at the same hotels” and “engage in pack journalism, [using] the same fixers, stringers, [and] the same agenda-pushing, inaccurate sources.” Above all, Behar and Weiss charge that there is “widespread ignorance of the background of the [Arab-Israeli] conflict, and routine failure to perform rudimentary fact-checking.”
They say that a true investigative news desk, guided by the journalism profession’s most time-honored ethics, is necessary to hold correspondents accountable and to pursue truthful reporting. Otherwise, the public digests news in what Weiss labels an “echo chamber.” In this stagnant and polarized environment, each news brand presents superficial reports in agreement with their viewers’ preconceptions. Consequently, “the media is a tool of the combatants,” Weiss says.
“This might be the first modern conflict that is simultaneously a PR war, fought for the public opinion of the Western world as much as it is a war of knives and guns and suicide bombers,” Weiss suggests, reflecting on the reporting that characterized the 2014 Gaza conflict. “Associated Mess,” an article co-authored by Behar and Weiss, exposes how the Associated Press misled the public through its probe of civilian deaths in the Israel-Hamas war. Citing “posed photographs, intentionally inaccurate categorizations, buried corrections, one-sided sourcing and cherry-picked quotes,” the pair systematically dissect a piece of otherwise-acclaimed reporting, proving that the Associated Press posted a “just-plain-wrong conclusion about most Gaza casualties being civilians.”
The Mideast Reporter evokes a “back to the basics” reporter’s instinct, Behar says.
“The only way to change the industry is from within,” he says. The new publication will serve as a monitor of the establishment press, keeping a vigilant eye on every report coming out of the Middle East and exposing harmful propaganda or simply false accounts before they can influence public discourse.
“We’re hoping at the get-go that our reputations will mean we can be trusted,” Behar says. The award-winning journalist brings three decades of experience to The Mideast Reporter. He has covered everything from murderous Russian corruption to Chinese economic aggression in Africa, serving as a staff writer for Forbes, Time, and Fortune Magazine, and contributing significant content to the BBC, CNN and Fox News.
Weiss, likewise, has a two-decade-long distinguished career behind him. In particular, his stories for Businessweek reflect his trained eye for discovering business fraud and foul play.
Behar and Weiss do not view their move to establish a new forum as a defection from the established publications they previously served. Behar laments the slow decline of long-form investigative journalism in most papers, but he refrains from criticizing his former employers. On the contrary, the two men believe they have identified a niche market sorely in need of their brand of reporting.
“Nobody else is doing this,” Weiss says. “We want to be the Politico of the Middle East.”
Beyond sounding the alarm when news sources err, Behar and Weiss are eager to provide groundbreaking coverage in realms consistently overlooked by the mainstream press.
“There are really fascinating tech companies and start-ups in the Palestinian territories, the West Bank, as well as in Jordan…and there is a lot of trade going on between Israel and the Arab world that’s just under the surface,” Behar says.
“Trade is great, trade is probably the best hope for the region, so we’re going to focus a lot on that,” he adds.
“The Western media just doesn’t have the personnel in Israel and the Palestinian territories to cover that kind of story,” echoes Weiss, referencing the limitations created when correspondents chase the same sensational stories and lack the language skills necessary to explore Middle Eastern cultures with real depth and authenticity.
Weiss is optimistic that The Mideast Reporter can break through.
“We’ve found quite a bit of interest in business journalism out of that area, reporting on start-ups and new ventures — journalism that appeals to investors,” he says.
In addition to increasing coverage in the Middle East, Behar and Weiss plan to train a new generation of young reporters through a comprehensive fellowship program.
“We’re very ambitious,” Behar says.
Both men acknowledge that a better-funded venture would likely forgo launching with such a simple platform. Indeed, The Mideast Reporter lacks the glitz of major networks, whose pop-up content and embedded multimedia dazzle viewers. But Behar and Weiss sense an urgency and are eager to begin. Therefore, they are building content organically and publicly — a clear indication of their confidence in their new, modern journalistic product. Indeed, Behar is eager for visitors to mideastreporter.com to find non-biased journalism developed by a team of professionals “with the chops to go out there and expose our colleagues.”