Olivia noticed something strange about the map accompanying an article on the NPR News site. In the place where Israel should have been listed, it said “Palestine.”
Rather than just contacting NPR to complain, she contacted HonestReporting, an organization which monitors anti-Israel bias in the news and alerted them to the map.
Shortly after Olivia submitted her alert, HonestReporting publicized the error on its web page, and media outlets such as The Times of Israel and the Jerusalem Post picked it up. Suddenly, NPR found itself the object of unwanted publicity… and the recipient of multiple complaints.
They removed the offending map and added an editor’s note saying that citing “Palestine” instead of Israel was a mistake. They offered an explanation, made an apology – and cited HonestReporting’s role in bringing it to the editor’s attention. This highlights the need for organizations like HonestReporting, which is among a small handful of Jewish “media watchdogs” monitoring the news.
One of the greatest challenges facing the Jewish world today is an ever-present anti-Israel bias in the “news” – in the information pumped out every day to millions and millions of people through the mainstream news outlets. Evidence for this bias is so overwhelming that it is no exaggeration to say that, when it comes to Israel, more often than not most people today are not reading the “news” so much as the “views” – of journalists and editors with a penchant for slanting the news about Israel in an unfair and decidedly negative light (whether by accident, by design or by default).
HonestReporting (HR) was born from Jewish outrage at relentless Israel-bashing and bias of the media the beginning of the “Second Intifada” (around the year 2000). Rav Noah Weinberg, founder of Aish HaTorah, had always taught that when a crisis confronts the Jewish people it is no time to just sit around, twiddle your thumbs and say, “How terrible.” Don’t say: What can I do about it? I’m just one little person. His ongoing motto was: Don’t wait for someone else to take responsibility. Ask, “What can I do about it?” If you don’t know what to do, sit down with friends and brainstorm. Come up with ten plans. If the cause is just God will help you and anything is possible.
At the height of this media assault, rabbis and students in the Aish HaTorah branch of England, where the media response was particularly fierce and anti-Israel, got together and brainstormed several ideas. One idea was to create a group that would take turns monitoring the media, and when they said something particularly outrageous, unfair, unprofessional and inaccurate against Israel this group would send an email to the others on the list with the contact info for the offending media outlet. Instead of CNN or BBC getting 20 emails they would get 1000.
Within days they linked up with 10,000 people. Afterward, the group spread to North America and beyond. It became so big so fast that, at a certain point, it was too big. It was too much for busy volunteer-students. It had to be turned into a professional organization.
The original group turned to Reb Noah and Aish for help, which assigned a rabbi to run it. He ran it for a year and then Rabbi Ephraim Shore took over. “It was our job to do the fundraising and hire the staff,” he said. “It very quickly it grew to 100,000 people. We brought in a full-time editor and full-time media monitors.”
Many of the original donors of HonestReporting, as they called themselves, were Aish HaTorah donors. “At a certain point,” Rabbi Shore explains, “we decided that if we wanted to continue growing and be taken more seriously as an organization, we would spin it off and make it independent, which we’ve done to several organizations.”
Meet Simon Plosker
Today, HR’s managing editor is Simon Plosker, who made aliyah from London shortly after 9/11. In Israel, he worked for nonprofits and spent some time as the IDF’s spokesperson, until he was offered a job at HonestReporting.
With its 140,000 email subscribers from diverse backgrounds and with articles that influence reporting by the world’s major news organizations, it is surprising to discover that HR operates primarily out of a small Jerusalem office.
“In terms of size,” Plosker says, “we’re not a huge organization; we’re pretty small.”
Every morning their team gets together and trawls the news from around the world for content. If the HR staff finds an article that displays real bias or factual errors, they write an analysis and send it out to their 140,000-strong mailing list and publish it on their website. This will often result in readers sending letters to the editor to complain about the bias or error.
HR also gets “alerts” from readers such as Olivia who discovered the distorted map at NPR. A similar alert was sent to HonestReporting in November 2015, when CNN published an article that included a map excluding Israel and labeling the region “Palestina.” Plosker explains that since the article was on CNN Money, not their news page, “HR staff would not normally have looked there. But one of our subscribers actually saw it and alerted us to it.”
Subscriber-viewer participation extends HR’s reach considerably and plays a vital role in their success. They do not have to tell subscribers or viewers what to write. They merely inform them. At that point, indignation takes over and people of their own accord construct emails they send off to editors of the offending media outlet.
Anti-Israel Equals Anti-Semitic?
I asked Plosker if he thought the anti-Israel bias was anti-Semitic. He responded:
I think it’s unsophisticated to blame all the bias we see on anti-Semitism. A lot of times it’s ignorance. Journalists come here without any understanding of the history of the region, or anything else for that matter, and they are taken in by the prevailing narrative, which, for a few decades now, has been one of Israeli occupation and Palestinian victimhood…. That is ignorance.
On the other hand, we see that certain newspapers allow articles to be published which are incredibly anti-Israel and filled with libels against the country. Then you start to wonder what’s going on behind the scenes….
Nevertheless, Plosker is very careful not to jump to conclusions about possible anti-Semitic motivations underlying the news in general.
You never know the motivation behind what someone is writing. It might be that a certain journalist decided they simply don’t want to know anything from the Israeli side and they will only quote so-called Palestinian eyewitnesses and take it at face value.
However, even though I can’t prove necessarily that that journalist is an anti-Semite, I can prove that he or she is not a very professional journalist. One thing we make clear is that we hold the journalists up to journalistic standards. It’s not just about whether we feel that something is right or wrong, whether we agree or disagree with it. There are certain categories [of actions that constitute a violation of journalistic standards]. It can be things like distorted facts, lack of context or a biased headline. Things like that.
Whether out of ignorance, journalistic sloppiness or an intentional, not-so-hidden agenda to demonize Israel and Jews, the public consciousness of the average person is assaulted daily with a stream of disinformation. These valuable media watchdogs have their work cut out for them.