The example he gave was recent coverage of the ongoing conflict along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.
If journalists can’t list alternatives that Israel can use to better counter the threats from Gaza, he said, “keep your mouths shut.”
“With all the criticism Israel has gotten, nobody has identified the less lethal means by which Israel could have defended itself over the last 4 weeks… If what happened isn’t right – what is right? It seems to me that in this journalistic environment nine out of 10 articles that are written about the Gaza conflict are critical of Israel,” said Friedman at The Media Line’s Press and Policy Conference, which took place at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem.
Friedman said that criticism of Israel could be legitimate but that journalists were not fairly reporting on the reality along the border with Gaza.
“The conflict in Gaza has dominated the headlines in the last three to four weeks. Lots and lots criticism of Israel. Some of it even legitimate… I think even the State of Israel itself hasn’t completed its own internal inquiries as to what happened. Maybe there are some things they could have done better. I’m sure there’s always things you can do better,” he said.
Over 100 guests attended the event marking the 18th anniversary of The Media Line, an American news and feature agency headquartered in Jerusalem.
Since becoming ambassador, Friedman has had a constant relationship with the press, and acknowledged that while he does not enjoy criticism, he does appreciate it because it is helpful in enabling him to understand people who don’t agree with him. “But it’s important to know that there is a critical mass that does agree with me,” he added.
A lawyer by profession, Friedman said that every responsible industry needs to self-regulate, but he hasn’t seen that happening in journalism, part of the reason being the impact of social media.
He warned that the barrier for entry to journalism is so low, that there is a frequent danger of inaccuracy and damage.
For all that, as an American raised in a country in which “a free press is the cornerstone of democracy,” Friedman championed that principle but underscored its legal limits, such as respecting the privacy of people who are not public figures.
Alluding to the importance of reporting the story without insinuating the personal views of the journalist, Friedman said that nobody knew until after Walter Cronkite (who has long been regarded as a paragon of American journalism) retired, that he was on the far-Left and vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War on which he reported, without anyone being aware of how he felt about it.
About today’s journalism, Friedman said: “There’s tension between getting it out fast, and getting it right.”
He gave credit to The Media Line founders Felice and Michael Friedson, whose priority, he noted, is to get the story right.
That didn’t mean that he agreed with everything they publish, he clarified. “No one in the media should have to be an echo chamber,” but they should aim for accuracy.
Even though he had points of disagreement with the press, he said he admires it. “It’s a thankless, difficult job. People do it for the right reasons – because they care.”
In a panel discussion that included Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, Deputy Knesset Speaker Hilik Bar, Egyptian academic Haisam Hassanein, who is studying for a PhD at Tel Aviv University, and Palestinian academic Iyad Muhsen al-Dajani, who is studying for a PhD at the Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany, there was a consensus that the only way in which to bring about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was for the two sides to learn each other’s history, culture and suffering because only through mutual understanding and networking could they begin to know each other as neighbors instead of as enemies.
Al-Dajani had resisted Palestinian pressure that tried to dissuade him from attending a conference at which Friedman would be a speaker. Hassanein, who had previously been a student at Tel Aviv University and had given the valedictorian address, was met with animosity in his home country.
When he was a young firebrand youth leader, Hanegbi had been one of the key opponents to a peace agreement with Egypt. “I thank God that I failed,” he said on Monday.
He also said that when Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister following the May 1996 elections, only six months after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, there was still a lot of bitter feeling in the country.
The media had been very hostile to Netanyahu, and his people did not know exactly how to deal with the situation. Netanyahu had told them that they had come into office with a big deficit, and they had to prove themselves, stick to their policies, follow their conscience and ignore the media. To stress that no matter what they did the media would be against them, Netanyahu had said that if he would emulate Jesus and walk on water, the headline in the media the next day would read “Netanyahu can’t swim.”