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Most Israeli media publish press releases as straight news

By Shuki Tausig, 7th Eye – Hebrew original here.

“Netanyahu’s office has an original technique for marketing its messages,” senior Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in his Friday column. “Briefings are emailed every few hours to reporters and commentators.  The condition is that the information not be attributed to Netanyahu, his advisers, his “circles” or his “associates.”  This way, the Prime Minister’s Office achieves broad circulation for its messages without having to answer questions and without taking responsibility for the facts.  It is a wonderfully convenient technique.”

One of these email messages, a perfectly standard one sent to reporters last week, has reached The 7th Eye. It’s an example of the said technique in action; and a review of reporting related to the email message also demonstrates just how convenient the technique is.

The message, sent from the Prime Minister’s Office, describes itself as an “off-record factual background briefing,” and includes detailed instructions, a “user’s manual”: The content of the briefing “must be published as information by the reporter, without naming the source under any circumstances. A reference may be made to a diplomatic source in Jerusalem, where the briefing says as much.”

The actual content of the briefing concerns the delays in the formulation of the agreement (“the American letter”) between the Israeli prime minister and the American Administration concerning the renewal of the moratorium of construction in the Territories (“the freeze.”) According to the Prime Minister’s Office, which is to say, according to that off-the-record statement issued by the PMO in the middle of last week, the letter is being delayed “because of the Palestinians,” who are arguing to the Americans that the agreements between the State Department and Netanyahu makes them look bad. In other words: The agreement is delayed not because Netanyahu spilled the beans on it too early (as it would transpire later in the week), but because Netanyahu got such a fantastic deal, and the Palestinians are now trying to undermine it.

The email was sent in the middle of the day and its content spread quickly across the media: First on the internet, then on broadcast media, and finally, the next morning, in print.

Within half an hour of the email, Atilla Somfalvi reported information relayed by a “diplomatic source,” on YNET; after another half hour, the content of the briefing appeared on NRG (Ma’ariv), Walla! and Haaretz, and then on Nana10 and on other websites. The web edition reporters (on Haaretz and on NRG they were print-edition reporters Barak Ravid and Eli Berdenstein, respectively) follow the instructions of Nir Heffetz, head of the Prime Minister’s spokesman’s office, to the letter. The information is sourced to the reporter himself, to a “diplomatic source” and to a “diplomatic source in Jerusalem.” The message is quickly absorbed, and the headlines on the websites are all variations on the claim that “the Palestinians are delaying the freeze.”

In the evening, on the Channel 2 main news program, Udi Segal implied the same claim in his report, while on the main news program on Channel 10 Chico Menashe reported on the talks without mentioning the PMO’s anonymous spin.

The next morning, Guy Varon reports the content of the briefing on Army Radio, and like the web reporters, quotes parts of it and sources them to a diplomatic source in Jerusalem. Israel Radio’s Ran Binyamini does the same. Later that day, it appears the political reporters in Ma’ariv and Yediot ignored the information disseminated by PMO and obtain clearer and different information. In Haaretz and Yisrael Hayom, Barak Ravid and Shlom Tzezana quote most of the statement verbatim, sourcing it to a “senior Israeli official with knowledge of the talks (Haaretz) and a “senior diplomatic source in Jerusalem (Yisrael Hayom).

The political correspondent of Yisrael Hayom not only stayed true to the exact phrasing by his “source,” but much of the report under his byline consisted of phrases written in the prime minister’s office, with suitable headlines: (“The Palestinians are stirring the pot?”, one subhead asked.”)

So is the prime minister’s technique working? Does it secure “broad circulation for its messages without having to answer questions and without taking responsibility for the facts”? An overwhelming “Yes.” The success is particularly helped by the fact that the web reporters – who, in some cases, are also the print reporters – are committed to constantly feeding the information monster, and are frequently compared by the editors to their counterparts on competing websites. In the case of Yisrael Hayom, the success of the technique is also helped by the fact a major media outlet in Israel sounds as if its political reports are composed directly in the Prime Minister’s office.

“The problem is that in the absence of a father, the facts tend to run wild,” Barnea wrote in his column. In the absence of a father, even the instructions the father leaves behind are not always clear to those who are supposed to follow them. And so, for example, Marlen Aviva-Grinfiter reports in the Hebrew edition of the Epoch Times, an esoteric publication by the Falon Gong, part sect, part dissident movement in China which, for some reason, runs a global newspaper network:”The Prime Minister’s Office released a statement ‘by a diplomatic source’ who did not wish to be named, which shed some light on the matter.”

Shuki Tausig is the editor of the website of The 7th Eye, Israel’s pre-eminent media magazine.

Update: The author’s 7th Eye colleague and Israeli uber-blogger Ido Kenan is inviting editors and journalists to leak him communiques such as the one analyzed in this article. The idea: To monitor which reporters are most susceptible to spin.

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