jewin' the fat

Say it don’t spray it
July 29, 2009, 3:26 PM
Filed under: Comment, Israel, media | Tags: , , ,

In the spider-web of facts, many a truth is strangled –Paul Eldridge

It’s funny how the media works in Australia. Newsworthiness (which sounds like a made up word, but is describing the distinct power of the story to sell papers) is a fluid concept, and entirely dependent on your geographic, socio-economic, ethno-religious, or football-code preference/affiliation. Goes a long way to understanding why there are so damn many commercial, speciality and ethnic newspapers, radio news broadcasts, television current affairs programs, and analysts employed to break it all down and tell us what it all really means.

So when we begin to unpack the quality of reporting on an issue, we are privy to a variety of components, which all add (or subtract) value from the facts (or fictions) being presented, including the allegiances of the editor, photographer, journalist and reader alike.

But do not be fooled – though seemingly self-effacing, the media ego is ever-expanding, and fed as much by the praise as it is the controversy it engenders. As such, some of the greatest journalists are also amongst the most hated and least trusted people, not least for their ability to place the target on their back as they deliver the message.

Anne Barker, a Middle East correspondent and reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) was in Jerusalem, covering one of the variety of protests that are held in the city every week. Mothers Against the Occupation, Students for Council,  Protect the Environment – with so many different denominations represented in such a small place, people are bound to get angry, and taking to the streets in the name of ones cause is common.

In this case, ultra Orthodox men are out in force, protesting the Municipality decision to open a car park on the Jewish Sabbath, thereby enabling Jews and non-Jews alike to drive, which is against the laws of the day of rest. But coupled with protests against the handling of the arrest of an ultra Orthodox woman, these protests are not just about a car park, but about the respect of the Jerusalem Municipality for their extremely religious residents.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew is carried away by Israeli police officers during a Jerusalem protest (Getty Images: Darren Whiteside)

An ultra-Orthodox Jew is carried away by Israeli police officers during a Jerusalem protest (Getty Images: Darren Whiteside)

Barker admits here, to her own mistake, saying “I was mindful I would need to dress conservatively and keep out of harm’s way. But I made my mistake when I parked the car and started walking towards the protest, not fully sure which street was which.”

Now it is clear from the images we have seen of these protests that these are angry people, demonstrating their right to assemble, with unfortunate consequences for Barker, as she continues.

“I was aware that earlier protests had erupted into violence on previous weekends – Orthodox Jews throwing rocks at police, or setting rubbish bins alight, even throwing dirty nappies or rotting rubbish at anyone they perceive to be desecrating the Shabbat.

I suddenly found myself in the thick of the protest – in the midst of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in their long coats and sable-fur hats. As the protest became noisier and the crowd began yelling, I took my recorder and microphone out of my bag to record the sound. Suddenly the crowd turned on me…”

Now let’s call this what it is – A far from naive foreign correspondant, who by her own admission has covered far more dangerous situations around the world, walks straight into the middle of a protest by an ultra religious group which, again, as she says, she didn’t even understand.

Anne Barker, ABC Reporter (ABC)

Anne Barker, ABC Reporter (ABC)

“I wasn’t even sure why the mob was angry with me. Was it because I was a journalist? Or a woman? Because I wasn’t Jewish in an Orthodox area? Was I not dressed conservatively enough? In fact, I was later told, it was because using a tape-recorder is itself a desecration of the Shabbat even though I’m not Jewish and don’t observe the Sabbath.”

Barker’s conclusion that the crowd should have been “charitable or benevolent”, because they were “supremely religious” is far beyond the scope of this analysis, and is a thoughtless and green deduction. Nonetheless, it goes to the reason she is surprised to be surrounded by hundreds of men, spat on, and allegedly hit from behind. She retreats behind the line of Israeli police keeping the protesters at bay.

No matter you opinion of Jews, or religious Jews, or journalists, no body deserves to feel “humiliated and degraded” for just doing their job. And apparently, other people agreed. Within hours of her personal account posting online, the story spread halfway around the world, and an op-Ed by Joseph Wakim was posted on on ABC Unleashed.

So that pesky ‘newsworthiness’ thing. Huffington Post specialises in picking up news from all over the world, and they deemed this story big enough to include in their wrap up. There is a dedicated Jewish weekly newspaper – The Australian Jewish News – which should have been very interested in the issue. More broadly, Barker, as an Australian citizen, should have been all over the national Australian newspapers as a shining example of the courage and fortitude of the intrepid reporter.

So the question must be raised, how commercial and mainstream news media simply didn’t pick up on the story. After all, it was only reported on one media web site – the rest didn’t want to touch it. Was it the poor professionalism, the crazed nature of the protest, or simply a matter of ‘wrong place, wrong time, stupid journalist’?

Why was this story not deemed newsworthy?


2 Comments so far
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I do not condone the style of demonstrations being seen in Jerusalem recently. And I condemn the alleged assault committed against this ABC reporter.
However, in any situation it takes two to tango and this reporter could have avoided a spin on the dance floor had she taken some pre-emptive steps.
How long had she been based in Jerusalem? Had she made any efforts to get to know her new city of residence (which, coincidentally, happens to be one of the most newsworthy places on the planet)?
How long has she been in Israel? And how much notice had the ABC given her of being posted to Israel? How much effort had she put during that time to learning about the culture, history, politics and religion of her host country? And what form did any such study take?
It seems to me that too many journalists go to Israel with little or no knowledge of, or understanding of, the country and its peoples. Some go with undisguised prejudices. Take for example one of Anne Barker’s predecessors at the ABC bureau. I won’t name him – not because of any fear of libel because I have shorthand notes of what he said but because he seems to thrill at the attention he gets. When I worked for the AJN I interviewed him and found him to be affable and cooperative. In fact, I couldn’t shut him up! There he was, with a big grin on his face, gushing about how he didn’t want to be posted to Israel but to another country. How the Temple Mount (ie the Jewish artefacts remaining there) was just a pile of stones and rubble. An interesting flip in the changing politics of the country – I, at that time, was again the building of the security barrier. He, with a Peace Now map of settlements on the office wall, was for it. (Now I greatly appreciate the benefits of the security barrier; I imagine he would now be with those who describe it as an apartheid wall.) In my naivite I was shocked not only by he clear bias against Israel and in favour of the Arabs (I did some searching on the Internet and found a message from him posted on a thread in which he greeted a co-contributor from, I think, Kuwait with “Greetings from Al-Quds!”) What was also clear was that he knew nothing beyond the utterly superficial and stereotypical about Jews, Judaism, Zionism etc.
Another example: the BBC had a reporter outside the hospital were Ariel Sharon was being treated straight after his collapse. The reporter pointed at some Haredi Jews in a cluster davening and remarked that they were praying outside Sharon’s window for his well being. It was motzei Shabbat and the Jews were making kiddush levanah. What was, of course, far worse than the reporter’s ignorance (why would Haredi Jews be davening outside Sharon’s window?!) was that he ASSUMED what they were doing. He didn’t bother to check.
Whether they are under-informed, biased, or a combination of the two, what is clear from the media coverage of Israel is that many journalists are not as professional as they think they are.

Comment by Stefan

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