Published on February 9th, 2011 | by Ledger Online0
Q & A with… Gary Kenzer
This is the photo that launched a worldwide movement 10 years ago. The AP image depicts a man in military or police riot gear, wielding a stick, mouth open as if shouting. Behind him are a gas-station sign and two parked cars. In front of him sits a dark-haired young man in a white t-shirt, blood streaming from his head. The photo was picked up by media outlets around the world. The New York Times ran the caption: “An Israeli policeman and a Palestinian on the Temple Mount.”
It turned out that the true story behind the photo was much different. The discrepancy so outraged a group of British college students at the time that they founded a grassroots organization to monitor Israel’s portrayal in the press. With a small staff of seven in the U.S., Canada, and Israel, and thousands of volunteers throughout the world, HonestReporting works to ensure that Israel is represented fairly and accurately in the media.
Through its educational programs, HonestReporting gives tools both to journalists and to those wishing to become Israel advocates. On Thursday, Feb. 17, U.S. executive director Gary Kenzer will lead a workshop at the Stamford JCC, as part of the United Jewish Federation’s series of adult-education classes on Israel.
A social worker by training, Kenzer came to the position almost five years ago, after working with American Friends of Magen David Adom, the Red Cross equivalent in Israel. He is the only professional HonestReporting staff-member in the U.S., based in Skokie, Ill. There are two professional staff-members in Canada and four in Israel.
He spoke with the Ledger on how an understanding of how news is reported is essential for effective Israel advocacy.
How did you come to be involved in HonestReporting?
A: I wanted to do something that really helped Israel in its weakest link. The country can be praised for a lot – technology, fighting power, intellect, etc. – but what’s not so great is its ability to manage media relations, for whatever reason. This is one of Israel’s areas of future growth.
I am the point-person for HonestReporting, its arms and ears and legs that help make this issue come to life. If I ask the average person, “What do you remember about the last 10 years in this current round of Intifada?” – and by the way, I don’t like using the term “Intifada,” which means “a spontaneous uprising,” because it’s a political term. But that said, what do people remember from 10 years ago? The photo of a man shielding a crying boy behind a concrete block in Gaza. People remember it like it was yesterday, but do they remember the aftermath? Photos, which are so important to stories, can be so misleading because you don’t get their context.
What is HonestReporting’s current focus?
A: Today, we’re really focusing on the viral aspect of the news, which travels very fast throughout the world. You put something in a printed paper and it stays in print until the next edition. With virtual tools, things can change by the minute. So it’s very important that we educate people to take apart that viral aspect.
In the recent demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, a lot of organizing took place through Facebook and Twitter, which are so powerful that some governments shut down the Internet. I teach how important it is for us to not be afraid of this phenomenon, but be a part of responding to articles, to understand how they’re written and how photos are taken.
People ask, why doesn’t Israel do a better job? It’s not because the government censors information. We could sit and discuss various theories, but HonestReporting is just going to do what we need to do: We want to make sure that Israel is treated no differently from any other country in the world, in other words, innocent until proven guilty. And we want people to understand that Israel isn’t perfect, that “perfection” isn’t a prerequisite for being treated fairly by international media and governments. No country is perfect.
A lot of people will point to a news source they don’t agree with and say that they stopped reading it or listening to it. We say that you have to read or listen. The Chinese general Sun-tzu said, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” You can’t insulate yourself by only reading things you agree with. You have to know your side of the story, and you have to know and be able to explain in detail the other side of the story. That’s effective Israel advocacy.
If you’re a real staunch Israel advocate, hearing about stuff like Anti-Israel Apartheid Week can be quite daunting. You have to learn how to be very knowledgeable about both sides of the issue, which makes it less emotional. There’s not one right or wrong answer to many of these issues, but having knowledge is better than not knowing the other side.
Many would agree that Israel has difficulty promoting itself positively in the arena of public opinion. Do you work with the government on this issue?
A: We have a good relationship with the government’s press office, especially through MediaCentral, a program we created after the disaster of Israel losing the media war in 2000, after the war against Hizbollah in Lebanon.
We partner with media to gain access to information and material; we’re trying to mirror the kind of partnering with media that Israel can and should do. Our MediaCentral office is in downtown Jerusalem, and has become fabulously successful. It’s a place for people in the media – Israeli and foreign – to come and get information and education, get information translated, and be taken to locations throughout the country. The office has free WiFi and news-feed access. Every other week, staff holds “Thank Goodness It’s Thursday” educational programs with speakers on timely topics; some meetings have video links accessible on the website [www.m-central.org]. The Israeli government, specifically the ministry of foreign affairs and deputy foreign minister Danny Ayelon, are starting to look at our models very seriously. Since the 2000 war with Hizbollah, a lot of things have happened. The Israeli Defense Forces has its own YouTube channel, with footage shot by a videographer who accompanies the soldiers. This is a huge accomplishment.
Everything we did up to 2006 was to catch a journalist doing something wrong. With MediaCentral, we’re being proactive rather than reactive. We’re catching a journalist doing something right. We’re trying to get out the other side of story, something that perhaps Israel as a country hasn’t been effective at. The idea is, let’s get it right to begin with, instead of blasting a journalist for doing something wrong.
How have the recent developments in Egypt affected HonestReporting’s work?
A: The situation brings to light how important the viral aspect of advocacy and the news is for us. It’s an amazing opportunity to show people why we need to be connected virtually to Israel. People in Egypt were mobilized through Twitter and Facebook, so much so that the government shut down the Internet.
Last summer, CNN senior Middle East editor Octavia Nasr tweeted in favor of a Hizbollah terrorist who had died. Within a short time period, we had so many advocates writing to CNN that she was canned, even though she wrote a 4,000 digit-long explanation. But it was her 99-digit tweet that did her in. How did we find the tweet? By people all over the world being on the CNN Twitter site. That allowed us to take a news article and have people forward it through Facebook, creating this wave of information going out to the world. So that’s not the future; it’s now.
At the Feb. 17 session, what do you hope people will come away with?
A: I want people to understand what goes into the taking of photographs, learn how to look at photos – not with our judgment, but by seeing what we see, because we all automatically make judgments. I want people to get critical in understanding what goes into making the photo. What’s left out of the frame?
We will analyze news stories. In an article, the most important part is the headline, which is not generally connected with the person who writes the article. But that’s what draws us in; it’s the first impression we get of the story and the last thing you’re left with. So I want people to learn how important it is to understand the dichotomy between the headline and story.
I hope they will leave with some concrete things they can do. The workshop really speaks to the issue of why we need to be a part of the viral aspect of the news in support of Israel. Many people know how to use the Internet, and there are many who want to be advocates for Israel, but we don’t always know how to connect the two. We want to develop great Israel advocates online.
We want people to be on our email list, but we also recommend that they set up Google alerts in order to get the stories about how Israel is portrayedin the world, both positively and negatively. This helps illustrate why others don’t cheer for Israel. We tend to cheer for the underdog, and you have a country that excels in so many areas, whose economy was the last to collapse in the current economic crisis and the first to come back, so you’re hard-pressed to cheer for Israel as the underdog.
We talk about context a lot, because if you understand the context of a photo or a story, you can better react to it rather than just have an emotional response. You can understand the issue intellectually and from both sides.
Gary Kenzer will teach “Honest Reporting on Israel and Media Bias” on Thursday, Feb. 17 from 7-9 p.m. at the Stamford JCC, 1035 Newfield Ave. Registration is required. To register or for more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org, (203) 321-1373, ext. 114. For more information on HonestReporting visit www.honestreporting.com
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