Deconstructing media bias

Deconstructing media bias

Honest Reporting’s CEO to speak for JNF in Rockleigh

Joe Hyams talks about media bias.
Joe Hyams talks about media bias.

The news media should be accurate and unbiased; opinion should not masquerade as fact, and gut instinct should not replace clear-eyed reporting.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it?

But in our brave new world, where fabricated reporting on the one hand, and unsubstantiated — often unsubstantiable because untrue —charges of fake news on the other have made many people wary about believing anything — particularly if it challenges their long-held beliefs — it often is hard to get accurate and unbiased reporting.

Now combine that with the virus of anti-Semitism, which nothing yet devised by humankind has eradicated, although at some times and in some places it hides deep underground.

Honest Reporting was created in early 2001, in response to a photograph of a young man, face and body streaked thickly with dark red blood, and an Israeli soldier standing over him brandishing a baton. The photograph, which was sent out by the AP and was printed in the New York Times, among many other outlets, was captioned as showing a Palestinian who had been beaten by the Israeli soldier on the Temple Mount; in fact, it was the picture of a young American Jewish student, Tuvia Grossman, who had been beaten by Arabs who pulled him and two friends from a taxi in Jerusalem. The caption eventually was corrected, but the correction was grudging and of course far less widely seen than the original photo, which genuinely was shocking.

“That caused a few students to engineer an email chain,” Joe Hyams said. Mr. Hyams is Honest Reporting’s CEO; he’ll be speaking for the Jewish National Fund on May 7. (See box for details.)

“That was before broadband,” he continued; it was all the technology allowed at the time. But it was a way of going public. “The whole concept was that one person might not make a difference — but a thousand people might.”

Honest Reporting chugged along, doing what it could, until about 2005, when Mr. Hyams joined it. He’s a London-born Jew, who strongly identified as a Jew — he went to a Jewish day school, belonged to a traditional Orthodox shul, and taught Sunday school there —but still he “had nothing to do with the Jewish professional world at all,” he said. He was an advertising executive at Saatchi and Saatchi; in 2000, he was posted to Tel Aviv for two years.

That had not been Mr. Hyams’ first trip to Israel, but it strengthened his resolve to return. “When I got to Israel professionally, I saw that Israel had a bit of a communications problem,” he said with British understatement. “For all the brilliance that it had, there was no idea of how to express or articulate it to the world, which was full of people looking for evidence that Jews are bad.

“I saw the disdain with which other people looked at Israel. It was a thorn in the world’s side.”

Mr. Hyams went back to London and continued his work in advertising, but in 2005, he was invited to run Honest Reporting, and so he and his wife, Sharon, made aliyah, and he began his work, interrupting it for a few-year stint in Boston as he earned an MBA in Jewish nonprofit work at Brandeis. (Joe and Sharon Hyams, a piano teacher, have six children; two born in London, two in Jerusalem, and two in Boston. “Go figure!” he said.)

Israelis in general, and the Israelis who started Honest Reporting in particular, “were all so smart, but sort of geeky and helpless,” Mr. Hyams said. “I want to bring my communications know-how to a product that was already genius. They should know how it would look from the outside, how it could be played by our enemies. Israel was giving comments like, ‘There’s an internal investigation going on and we can’t comment on it.’

“Understanding the role of the media and war and conflict isn’t a luxury. It’s central to having the world understand our motivations and our aspirations.”

The Hyams family made aliyah in 2005.
The Hyams family made aliyah in 2005.

If only it were that simple, of course. Part of Honest Reporting’s job is countering false reports. It does that, at least in part, by teaching people — including high school students — how to discover media bias. It does not do so by pretending that there are no fissures in the Jewish community, that all Jews see Israel in one way, or that Israel is perfect. But Honest Reporting has built a high school curriculum that teaches about media bias, which it defines as, among other things, failing to provide appropriate context, quoting sources on one side but not on the other (usually, of course, on the anti-Israel side), and subjecting Israel to scrutiny that is far harsher and less forgiving than it uses toward any other country.

When they apply analytic standards to news reports, “sometimes we can take the passion and the heat out of the Jewish community,” Mr. Hyams said. “We ask how we can stay so broken and divided if we understand information and misinformation.” That’s where his advertising background comes in. “When people understand how the media can be used to sell stuff, to pitch stuff, it can help the community feel more empowered as consumers.” Selling a car is not so different from selling an idea, he suggested. It’s fairly easy to help people see something — a place, an object, an idea — through a reporter’s lens, particularly if it’s something they’ve never seen, a place they’d never been, an idea they’d never considered themselves.

Take, for example, Brazil. “Some parts of Brazil are a dump,” Mr. Hyams said; it’s dirty, dangerous, and a political minefield. “But we see it through someone else’s lens.” We see it as colorful, exotic, exciting, full of great music and wonderful vivid colors. It’s an advertiser’s job to sell a potential consumer on a trip, but “the media’s job is to bring me what I can’t see firsthand, with as little tint as possible,” he said. “Our job,” and Honest Reporting, is to notice the tint, “and to tag it. To point out that there is a human being behind that story, coloring it.

“We try to tell our own story.”

There are a few reasons why there are so many stories about Israel, Mr. Hyams said. One is because “there are about 600 journalists here,” a disproportionate number, and journalists, by definition, need stories. They are stationed in Israel because it’s safe; they can set up headquarters there and report on the rest of the Middle East. When there are no other stories they can cover — it’s hard to get news from inside autocracies or failed states, and it’s even harder to cover it — they can look around them and find much to report. “It’s comfortable and safe for them,” Mr. Hyams said. “We are a free and open democracy. They can meet the prime minister, criticize him, and not feel threatened.”

Honest Reporting provides those reporters with stories showcasing Israel’s successes, and by exposing them to real life in Israel. Of course, some of the good news involves the country’s flourishing high-tech sector, but Honest Reporting does more. “We bring reporters to a clinic that JNF has, on the border with Syria, that treats wounded Syrian children,” Mr. Hyams said. “They see a Syrian mother kissing an IDF soldier. You don’t need spin. These are good stories, that sell themselves. We think that all we have to do is get the media in front of the true story.

“And on the flip side, a few of our successes have been in exposing BDS activists” — that’s the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement — “who use press credentials to get into Israel and write anti-Israel stories.” He pointed to Anthony Lowenstein, who “verbally attacked Yair Lapid,” the leader of Israel’s Yesh Atid party, using the trope, popular among BDSers, that compares Israel’s policy to South African apartheid. Honest Reporting “did some background investigation, and we found that the Guardian, which he claimed to be working for, said that he’s not its correspondent of record, and now there’s a big question mark over his ability to report from the area.”

It seems clear that despite Honest Reporting’s hard work, it’s not changed the world. The world’s bilious view of Israel “is not going away,” Mr. Hyams said. ““People ask me why I do this — they say that it’s not working, and that I must be so depressed, because it’s like Whack-a-Mole.” You bat one down, and another one pops up.

“But I say that our motivation stays high.”

He compares Honest Reporting’s work to “being the head of a police force. You know that your goal isn’t to eradicate crime, but to keep people safe. In the media context, we see that people are checking in with us, that they are being more careful, that they are trying hard to research complex stories.

“People come to Israel expecting to find a certain story,” he said. But now, “it’s much harder to find media bias. The media won’t fall any more for stories like the murders in Jenin.” That was the 2002 story that alleged that the Israel Defense Forces had committed a massacre in Jenin. The story was untrue and it was debunked — it was clearly false, as anyone who looked closely at it was able to see — but it did a great deal of harm.

“The media has learned that we are not monsters with horns,” Mr. Hyams said. “Our doctors treat the kids of our enemies. And we find that even when the New York Times gives Marwan Barghouti an op ed, right away the public editor apologizes.”

(On April 16, the Times published Mr. Barghouti’s piece, wherein he accused Israel of torturing him and other prisoners. He was identified as “a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” Israeli leaders on all sides of the political divide said that the accusations were untrue; moreover, Mr. Barghouti was misidentified, as the paper’s public editor, Liz Spayd, agreed. In fact, he has been, as the Times amended the column to say, convicted “of five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization. Mr. Barghouti declined to offer a defense at his trial and refused to recognize the Israeli court’s jurisdiction and legitimacy.”

“The problem isn’t going to go away, but the world would be a worse place if we weren’t here,” Mr. Hyams said.

Who: Joe Hyams of Honest Reporting

What: Will be the speaker at the first northern New Jersey “Breakfast for Israel,” sponsored by the Jewish National Fund

When: On Sunday, May 7; registration at 9:30 a.m., and program at 10

Where: At the Rockleigh, 26 Paris Avenue, Rockleigh

For information or reservations: Call the JNF’s Jocelyn Inglis at (973) 593-0095, ext. 823, or email her at

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