The Volokh Conspiracy

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Blacklisting of pro-Israel watchdog organization NGO Monitor by the Associated Press


Former AP journalist Matti Friedman wrote an article this past Summer about how the media frames the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians for an online magazine called Tablet. To his surprise, it went viral, with almost one hundred thousand Facebook shares. It was recommended at the VC by David Post and me. Many people think it's the single best article ever written on the topic, in part because it provides a rare insider perspective, from someone who actually worked for a major media company's Jerusalem bureau.

Friedman is back with an even longer and, I think, even more revealing article on the same topic, this time in The Atlantic. Among other things, he ruminates about how many Israel correspondents act not as objective journalists, but as part of class of mostly foreign elites who live in Israel or the territories and have taken up the Palestinian cause. This class includes the employees of international organizations based in the Palestinians territories, and several left-wing Israeli NGOs.

Friedman points out that these highly influential organizations are almost never subjected to any real scrutiny by the reporters who rely on them as objective sources. And indeed, the Associated Press, according to Friedman, actually banned its journalists from interviewing Gerald Steinberg, an American-Israeli professor who runs the watchdog organization NGO Monitor out of Jerusalem. Here's the relevant paragraph:

Around this time, a Jerusalem-based group called NGO Monitor was battling the international organizations condemning Israel after the Gaza conflict, and though the group was very much a pro-Israel outfit and by no means an objective observer, it could have offered some partisan counterpoint in our articles to charges by NGOs that Israel had committed "war crimes." But the bureau's explicit orders to reporters were to never quote the group or its director, an American-raised professor named Gerald Steinberg. In my time as an AP writer moving through the local conflict, with its myriad lunatics, bigots, and killers, the only person I ever saw subjected to an interview ban was this professor.

Long-time readers will recall that I've relied on NGO Monitor's work in the past. Indeed, one of the most consequential "scoops" I've had as a blogger, that Human Rights Watch Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson fundraised among rich Saudi Arabians with a pledge to use the money to counter pro-Israel forces in the West, came from NGO Monitor. My blog post on this, reprinted at the Wall Street Journal's website, set off a controversy about HRW's anti-Israel bias that has yet to fully recede (and assuredly won't until someone less maniacally anti-Israel than Whitson and her boss Kenneth Roth is in charge).

More generally, Steinberg and NGO Monitor are huge players in the debate over the role NGOs play in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and has been particularly effective in revealing how many NGOs in both Israel and the territories that are hostile to Israel's existence receive the bulk of their funding from European governments, creating significant controversy in Israel and Europe. I've been following NGO Monitor for years, and have yet to see the organization tell any lies or make any significant errors, which is much more than one can say for, e.g., Human Rights Watch and other anti-Israel organizations routinely relied upon by the media as objective sources. I've also met Steinberg and worked with his staff; they are professional, dedicated, and, based on my conversations with them, quite moderate in terms of the Israeli political spectrum.

Given all this, it's hard to come up with an innocent explanation for the AP banning its reporters from talking to Steinberg, assuming Friedman is correct. There are many possible non-innocent explanations, and none of them reflect well on the AP and how it covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

UPDATE: The AP denies that it blacklisted Steinberg and NGO Monitor. I have requested more information from both the AP and Friedman, and will post an update when I have a more exact grasp of each side's position.