Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

The decline of foreign correspondence in Israel

As Israel's economic and political prowess grows, its appetite for overseas news appears to be diminishing.

Foreign correspondence is essential to every democratic country. This applies to Israel in particular because of its symbiotic relationship with the Jewish communities dispersed throughout the world. Within a few years after gaining independence in 1948, the fledgling Jewish state could boast of a highly competent corps of foreign correspondents based in all of the world’s major capitals. Their colleagues in Israel always were on call to cover unexpected foreign stories.

In fact, by 1955 Maariv, a Tel Aviv-based daily, was rated by the Missouri School of Journalism as one of the world’s 10 best newspapers. The reason: its excellent foreign coverage.

This tradition has faded in recent years.

Israel’s TV channels, which still provide a lesser degree of international coverage, have developed or invented unusual alternatives to staff coverage. According to one of the Israeli news media’s leading experts in international news, Yitzhak Noy, the executives in charge of the public broadcasting system simply do not have or do not want to spend the money necessary to field competent correspondents.

Among the alternatives: All of the channels that broadcast news have in-house “foreign affairs reporters” who come up with Hebrew language reports about events abroad that they did not witness. They get their information from foreign networks whose broadcasts can be picked up by satellite. Another gimmick is to have a “foreign news editor” who simply rewrites overseas coverage provided by foreign nationals. One of the leading news programs has an energetic young journalist who holds this title speaking on camera every day about events that transpired during the preceding 24 hours without ever setting foot outside Israel’s borders.

These synthetic forms of journalism as practiced in contemporary Israel have other unique features. For example, there are so-called “monitors” or “listeners” who follow the Middle East’s Arabic-language radio broadcasts and newspapers around the clock.

They have a built-in rationale: The lack of peace treaties with the various Arab states (except Egypt and Jordan) with which Israel does have peace treaties). Therefore, Israeli journalists cannot enter those countries unless they use non-Israeli passports, if by chance they have them. Many of them have taken this risk apparently without considering the repercussions that could occur in the unwitting host countries.

On the other hand, the fact that Cairo and Amman have been accessible for the past 32 years and 17 years respectively has not prompted Israel’s news media to open bureaus in these two cities or to send correspondents there consistently.

This may seem to be unwarranted criticism. However, this is not the case. The citizens of democratic countries need objective, independent and impartial coverage to be able to judge the wisdom of their respective governments’ foreign policies.

This historic fact is borne out by such precedents as William L. Shirer’s critical coverage of Nazi Germany during the 1930’s, when the US government’s policymakers preferred to look the other way and Edgar Snow’s reporting from China during the pre-1949 struggle for power between the ruling nationalists and the rebellious communists — a struggle that also evoked little interest at the official level.

A more recent example of the value foreign correspondence has in the formulation of foreign policy occurred in Iran during the waning years of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi’s reign. When the Islamic revolutionaries first emerged on the Iranian scene, few if any American foreign correspondents were on hand. Indeed, there was a substantial American journalistic presence in Iran only when the Shah’s regime was on the verge of collapse. However, even then, the consensus among the correspondents was that replacement of the monarchy by a republic — even if it would be Islam-oriented — would be preferable to the status quo.

The few unseen journalists in Teheran who predicted catastrophe if the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers came to power (including the author of these lines) were virtually blackballed by their colleagues.

Noy, who airs an hourlong review of the coverage of news by the international world believes that “murderous competition” in Israel’s local newspapers, radio and TV has deteriorated into “yellow journalism.”

Shlomo Aronson who served from 1961 to 1966 as Israel radio’s first correspondent in (West) Germany arrived in Bonn four years before diplomatic relations were established between the two countries. He went there as a graduate student and pursued an academic career afterward. Today, he is a professor emeritus of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

“My main advantage was the fact that the Nazi issue was high up on Israel’s agenda,” he said, referring to the fact that the trial of Nazi mass murderer Adolf Eichmann coincided with his assignment. Now, Aronson went on, local issues and stories predominate. Foreign stories are of little interest to most Israelis, he contended.

Several colleagues followed in Aronson’s wake, each of them returning to Israel and becoming key local reporters. For the past decade or more, there has been no Israeli staff correspondent reporting from Germany on a regular basis despite the fact that the two countries maintain close relations in the economic and political fields.

By Jay Bushinsky. 

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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