Israeli Life: Less News Is Not Good News
Increasingly, the United States media is trimming its presence in the Jewish state, andthat means a dearth of nuanced reporting that appeals to American audiences.
One day in 2001, Charles Sennott was in Ramallah. It was early in the second intifada, and Sennott—then Jerusalem correspondent for The Boston Globe-was watching the daily confrontation between Palestinian kids and Israeli troops on a main traffic junction.
As usual, the teens burned tires and hurled stones; the troops responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. The kids, Sennott noticed, liked to take time-outs at a nearby sandwich shop where they could wash soot off their faces and grab a bite. Sennott, looking for a quirky view to a repetitive story, went to the shop and asked his translator to help him speak with the owner.
The translator didn’t get a chance. “Whaddaya want, buddy?” the man behind the counter said in a thick Boston accent, adding, “I’m from Somerville, Massachusetts. What about those Sox?”
Sennott discovered that the shop owner, Joey Solomon, was an American-born Palestinian. In 1996, when it looked like peace was imminent, Solomon had returned to his father’s native town to throw his lot in with a Palestinian state-to-be. In Ramallah, he opened a sub shop like the one his father once ran in Somerville. Now, Solomon was acting out conflicted feelings: serving submarine sandwiches for free to intifada kids who could not pay—and trying to talk them into studying instead of throwing rocks. A conversation that Sennott had expected to provide a paragraph of reportage turned into a front-page feature that connected his Boston readers to what was happening in the West Bank, to the generation gap among Palestinians and to Solomon’s effort to maintain hopes for peace.
That wasn’t the only time Sennott found a hometown connection. A few weeks earlier, he wrote a feature on the Bostoner rebbe, Levi Yitzchok Horowitz, who splits his time between Brookline and the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Nofor perhaps “Haw Nawf,” as Sennott imitates the rabbi’s Boston-accented Hebrew. That story, on Horowitz’s success at building a community in Israel, remindedGlobe readers that there’s more to the country than the conflict with Palestinians.
The current Globe correspondent won’t be filing any such stories—because The Boston Globe no longer has a correspondent in Jerusalem. Last year, the paper closed its last three foreign bureaus, including the Jerusalem office. It was, alas, only part of a trend. More recently, The Baltimore Sun shut its Jerusalem bureau.The Philadelphia Inquirer has done the same, as have other big-city American papers. Other media operations, including network television bureaus, have trimmed their operations in Israel, according to Danny Seaman, head of Israel’s Government Press Office.
The cutbacks aren’t aimed at Israel as such. Rather, the United States media, and especially the press, is cutting overseas coverage in general. Americans are getting less information about the world. For those with a particular interest in Israel, less news is definitely not good news.
The reason for shrinking coverage is straightforward: finances. Increasingly, newspapers must compete with the Internet for both readers and advertising income. Young people in particular are more likely to give up on news printed on “dead trees.” Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin recalls asking a class of sophomores recently if they had seen a specific story on the front page of The New York Times. Out of more than 20 students, only 1 had seen the story. Classified ads have also moved from paper to the Internet. And the economic downturn is cutting into big display advertisements, slashing newspaper income further, Gitlin notes.
Meanwhile, corporate owners are trying to keep profit margins high by lowering costs. One method has been to shrink newspapers’ size. Papers that still print on big broadsheets have actually made the sheet narrower. On less paper, they print less news. They also employ fewer people to write and edit. Layoffs are constant.
And one of the most tempting places to cut is the network of overseas bureaus. The costs of a foreign bureau normally include an office and local support staff, and even English-language schooling for correspondents’ children.
“They took good care of the correspondents and their families,” says Sennott. When the Globe announced it was closing its last three foreign bureaus, editor Martin Baron said that the move allowed the paper to avoid eliminating a “dozen or so” newsroom jobs.
Not everyone has gone home, of course. Large newspapers like The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post still have Jerusalem bureaus. Their stories are syndicated to other newspapers. The Associated Press and Reuters continue to pump news copy out of Israel and the territories daily. Indeed, the AP’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Steven Gutkin, notes that the agency has made a deliberate decision to buck the trend and to expand international coverage. If demand is down from newspapers, AP will provide more multimedia material that can reach a new audience via the Internet, or even via cell phones.
The fact that there are fewer newspaper correspondents definitely has a price. “There’s a free market of ideas and impressions,” with each correspondent adding a unique product, says New York Timescorrespondent Steven Erlanger. While Erlanger naturally takes pride in his own paper’s coverage, he stresses that “there are fewer eyes on the world for American citizens and voters, and for readers around the world on the Net, and…it’s impoverishing.”
Backing that up, Sennott recalls covering the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah in October 2001. In the street in the roiling city, he spotted many colleagues. “The number of correspondents on the street…created many more angles of coverage,” he says, ultimately providing a richer picture of the terrifying event. “We all step up the game with greater competition.” Sennott, who had a strong interest in Palestinian Christians, noticed the irony that the violence took place next to the Friends School, a century-old institution teaching the Quaker message of nonviolence. The lynching “will teach the Jews not to come to our land,” said a ninth grader from the school who had not absorbed the educational message.
Since news agencies’ daily reports cover the breaking news items—political crises, terror attacks, border skirmishes—correspondents for individual papers try to look for something extra. That can mean the angle that pulls in readers not normally interested in foreign news (a Somerville sub shop owner in Ramallah). It can mean features on culture, society or religion that let readers know there is more to Israeli life than the endless conflict.
News agencies depend heavily on local staffers. A foreign correspondent, suggests Erlanger, may have greater independence, especially in a tense place like Gaza. His example: In 2005, a television soundman with French citizenship was kidnapped in Gaza, and then released. Erlanger was able to report that a prominent Gaza clan kidnapped the man and that French President Jacques Chirac had pressed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to do everything to free him. Ignoring advisers, Abbas freed six jailed members of the clan, including convicted murderers, to win the hostage’s release. The clan’s role highlighted the chaos in Gaza; the resolution of the affair made Abbas look weak. The story, Erlanger says, may have been “too controversial” for agency journalists, or perhaps the agencies did not see it with the same eyes.
There’s a flip side to that argument. Newspapers that no longer have bureaus, says Gitlin, might get coverage from local stringers—freelancers with whom they work regularly. The stringers may actually be “freer of the conformities” of full-time correspondents concerned that they must cover every story their colleagues have. (A “herd mentality” can work against the impulse to be original, to get a unique angle, Gitlin notes.)
In Israel, the stringers are often immigrants from English-speaking countries, here for the long term and more familiar with local life than a correspondent on a three-year assignment. But realizing those advantages depends on whether editors seek out stringers, encourage quirky coverage and squeeze foreign news into papers that have gone on a diet.
True, if you are motivated, you can still get plenty of Israel news. Magazines provide features and analysis for the high-interest audience. Online, readers can check the Web sites of the major papers that still have correspondents. They can also read Israeli papers—Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post—in English. But the Israeli papers are written primarily for Israelis. Their reports often lack the political context and the explanation of cultural concepts that a journalist writing for overseas should provide.
“One of the rewards of newspapers,” says Gitlin, “has been that in getting from Point A to Point C…you graze by Point B, something that you wouldn’t have gone looking for.” In print, rich coverage from a correspondent thinking of the home audience can grab someone who had no intention of reading about what it’s like to live in the southern Israeli town of Sderot under missile fire from Gaza, or for that matter about life in Gaza.
“You get the stratification of society according to knowledge,” Gitlin says. The gap between those who know the most and those who know the least grows; the information middle class gets smaller. And the people who know the least are most impressionable, most likely to be influenced by slogans and simplistic arguments.
None of this was imaginable a decade ago, when newspapers were flush, the Internet was new, and foreign correspondents were tripping over each other in Israel. No one knows whether the next decade will see the extinction of foreign bureaus along with the vanishing of newspapers—or new business models that will revive both.
In the meantime, you may have to look harder for nuanced, complex coverage of Israel. Your local paper, even in a big city, is less likely to have it. If it still does, you might want to let the editor know you want it to stay, before it vanishes in the next cutback.
The days are past when you could count on news from Israel in your hometown accent.