Bad News Bears: Gerstenfeld and Colleagues Show How Bad Spin Works against Anyone

I just heard a talk from an American historian working on the history of “spin.” His conceptualization of the problem has me thinking about the phenomenon in new ways. I actually think that a history of spin might shed interesting light on the media coverage of the Middle East. It’s not that spin is bad, or even dishonest. One describes one’s house differently to the tax assessor from how one presents it to a prospective buyer, and there’s nothing necessarily dishonest about it — especially since both the assessor and the buyer know what you’re up to. But like all those checks we get at restaurants that have mistakes, if the errors are consistently in favor of the house, you know you’re up against something less than honest.

And spin is identifiable, possibly even quantifiable. Wikipedia defines it as follows:

    In public relations, spin is a sometimes pejorative term signifying a heavily biased portrayal in one’s own favor of an event or situation. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, “spin” often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics. Politicians are often accused of spin by commentators and political opponents, when they produce a counter argument or position.
    The techniques of “spin” include:

  • Selectively presenting facts and quotes that support one’s position (cherry picking)
  • Non-denial denial
  • Phrasing in a way that assumes unproven truths
  • Euphemisms to disguise or promote one’s agenda
  • Ambiguity
  • Skirting
  • Rejecting the validity of hypotheticals
  • Appealing to internal policies

None of these are outright dishonest. Everyone selects evidence; they have to. Most people assume unproven truths, often thinking them proven. Most people use euphemisms and ambiguity, and skirt difficult material, etc. By this definition it would be hard not to be accused of spin.

On the other hand, there are ways to determine just how heavy the spin, and how consistently it favors one side, as in Steve Erlanger’s journalism. Interestingly enough, the definition assumes that spin is “in favor of one’s side,” which raises the question: Why would journalists spin, and particularly why would they spin hard? Whose side are they on?

Again, I don’t have too much of a problem with journalists from civil societies who benefit from a culture that prizes and guarantees freedom of the press, spinning in favor of civic players, and against tyrants of various kinds. The real puzzle, as with Erlanger and so much of the Western press is why they so favor the most regressive elements in the Palestinian world.

In any case, I imagine that it would be possible to define, even quantify spin (e.g., leaving out significant details that any impartial reader/viewer might want to know in order to make an intelligent and informed judgment, like the data on Sderot without which one cannot undestand Israeli actions against Gaza). And if one tried to develop an impartial means of quantifying the data — never certain, but capable of giving a general sense of the tendencies — I think one would find that the media systematically spin against Israel, presenting negative news as often as possible. Indeed, if we were to give a scale to the degree of spin, one might find that their treatment approaches the level of “character assassination.”

Manfred Gerstenfeld, the indefatigable prober of anti-Israel sentiment, especially in Europe, but also in academia and the media, has launched an interesting project that gets at the core of this problem. By presenting negative news about other countries, he shows a number of important phenomena:

1) How easy it is to make a country look bad.
2) How little people like it when their country is portrayed in the media in so negative a light.
3) How rarely the media engage in the kind of character assassination when it comes to other democracies.

As Gerstenfeld noted in an earlier piece on his project:

The Dutch haven’t quite developed the thick skin that we have as Israelis to outside acrimonious criticism. Maybe that’s why the seminar is generating such interest there,” Gerstenfeld suggested. “And by successfully blackening Holland’s name despite its positive image abroad, we are demonstrating how easy it is to portray any country as a brutal police state.

When one realizes that a “moderate” Arab county will imprison its own academics for “tarnishing the image” of his own country, one can begin to understand how thin a skin some countries have. Again, the exceptional self-criticism of Israelis who are often proud to be ashamed of their country, skews the field and creates an epistemological confusion among outside observers who don’t understand how much the information they get is skewed by the profoundly different cultures from which it emanates.

Cnaan Liphshiz, who already wrote a piece on this project has a follow-up in today’s Ha-Aretz.

Ha-Aretz

Bad News Bloggers bid to beat press bias
By Cnaan Liphshiz

What began six months ago as a brazen attempt to counter a perceived anti-Israel slant in the Dutch media, has evolved into a network monitoring the media in eight countries across the world. The idea is simple: Beat press bias at its own game by advertising only bad news about one place.

Over the past months, seven activists from Israel and elsewhere have been exposing online readers to scandalous yet accurate reports from media in Britain (violent drunk teens), France (high homeless mortality), Norway (serial child molesters), Finland (sexual harassment in parliament), Sweden (soaring suicide rates), The Netherlands (menacing Muslim unrest), Mexico (rampaging flood victims) and Los Angeles (drive-by killings).

The seven bad-news activists visit one another’s online blogs and have incorporated links referring the dozens of surfers who visit their pages every day to sister-sites. Though they all act out of a desire to counter what they see as media bias against Israel, they operate independently and have little communication with one another. Some of them rely on friends to send them interesting bits of bad news.

“This project demonstrates how media coverage can degrade any country’s image by using selective news without context,” explains media analyst Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld from Jerusalem. His seminar last summer, entitled “Bad News about the Netherlands,” became the kernel of his blog.

Gerstenfeld told Anglo File at the time that by maligning Dutch society he was “merely employing the methods of some in the Dutch media.” Those parties, he said, habitually report only about Israeli aggression while omitting any reference to Palestinian violence, among other tactics.

The Netherlands’ former ambassador to Israel, Bob Hiensch, indicated he found the project “simplistic and naive” – which hasn’t stopped Gerstenfeld from updating the site every day. His blog attracts up to 300 readers a day.

Dr. Genevieve Benezra cites a sense of deep frustration in explaining what made her launch her bilingual Bad News from France blog two months ago. “For years I’d fume over bias in French papers and television,” she says. Benezra, a retired jurist from Kfar Hayam near Hadera and veteran French immigrant, heard about the initiative from Gerstenfeld last year at a conference for child survivors of the Holocaust.

It was around that period the British blogger, who preferred to remain anonymous, joined the Bad News club. John (not his real name), who immigrated to Israel from Britain 12 years ago, heard about Gerstenfeld’s pet project at a lecture. “We agreed we could make a very good one on Britain,” he recalls. “I realize this can be seen as unpatriotic, but the truth is British society never fully accepted me. I was always a Jew there,” says the 69-year-old academic. “You could say I have a chip on my shoulder, even though I love British culture in general.”

I wouldn’t call it unpatriotic. There are plenty of Israelis who believe they’re being patriotic by focusing on the bad news. Advertising the sins of your people can be your effort to improve them. Leave it to a Jew to apologize for doing to his native country what Jews regularly do to Israel.

David Silon, a Los Angeles are Jew from birth, runs Bad News from L.A. He says defaming his hometown – which enjoys some degree of glitz in foreign media – is only a means to demonstrate how easily media reports can be manipulated.

Appearing patriotic seems to be of little concern to Kenneth Sikorski, a Finnish non-Jew who runs both Bad News from Finland and Bad News from Sweden. “Even harsh criticism does not generally register as unpatriotic in Scandinavia,” says the 48-year-old retired paper industry machinist. Sikorski, who was born in the U.S. and immigrated to Finland 20 years ago, has been monitoring the media for years. “I observed egregious errors in the reports about Israel. One major newspaper said the Separation Fence was electric instead of electronic,” he says.

“I have written countless letters to editors,” says Leif Knutsen, 48, who runs Bad News from Norway. “I usually received no response and my letters weren’t published.” Knutsen, a management consultant who converted to Judaism and immigrated from Norway to New Jersey 15 years ago, says the Norwegian press is particularly hostile to Israel. Part of this, he says, draws from Norway’s strong peacenik tradition of the 1960s, which Knutsen thinks has resulted in “a simplistic world view where Israel is seen as the one remaining imperialist client state of the U.S.”

Gerstenfeld would most like to see a bad news blog covering Belgium. “If it faced Israel’s difficult position, Belgium would have disappeared long ago,” he says. Benezra would especially like to cover the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec. “I may include it, though I don’t know how helpful my blog is,” she says. “At least it relieves some of my frustration.”

Ultimately, this systematic spin against Israel — which Gerstenfeld and colleagues make clear can be done to any country, no matter how “progressive” — is the product of a tagic imbalance between Israelis with an astonishingly thick skin for criticism and the Palestinians with an correspondingly thin skin. There is no cost to trashing Israel: reporters who write nasty, even dishonest articles about Israel will not find themselves expelled or worse. There is a high cost to trashing Palestinians: only the most favorable reporters can afford to live in Palestinian territory, and even then, nothing’s guaranteed. The tragic aspect of all of this comes into focus when one realizes that the cost of this puerile assault on Israel are dangerous for those who are unaware of how skewed their information is.

One of the most critical of Jewish blogs about Israel — a man convinced he’s repaiing the world by assaulting Israel — thinks this is the ding-battiest pro-Israel wingnut project of the week, month and perhaps year.” Nothing will get in the way of his “self-”criticism. On the other hand, a European scholar acknowledges the skew of his media.

8 Responses to Bad News Bears: Gerstenfeld and Colleagues Show How Bad Spin Works against Anyone

  1. Mike Harmon says:

    I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Mike Harmon

  2. Sophia says:

    Has anybody considered the commercial aspect to MSM “journalism”?

    Who buys the ads?

    This of course goes for the TV as well as newspapers.

    I don’t think the sponsors and ownership of these outlets can be discounted as major influences on story content.

    I think the enormous influence of the petroleum and petrochemical industries, with all their incredibly powerful associated industries (transportation for example) can be discounted.

    I think also there is more than a small tint of “the socialism of fools” lingering in the West, and that clearly affects BBC and probably also American and French media too. Of course media in the Middle East are appallingly antisemitic as well as ahistorical.

    Highly pertinent is this article on British interventionism in the Middle East, ca WWII era and shortly thereafter – in which they were apparently prepared to betray their French allies as well as the Yishuv:

    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/950373.html

    I found the article via the new site “Z-word”.

    In any case, my point is simply this: morality will be trumped, apparently, by imperial, political and economic concerns and that has, I think, impacted journalism severely.

    In any case, Jews provide such an easy target. There is so much negative baggage associated with the very term “Jew” that the “Jewish state” is bound to become yet another victim of what is apparently an almost ritual abuse that has repeated itself over and over and over again.

    I long for the journalists and media outlets that will somehow find the courage to defy this and stand up and confront it. As it is, CAMERA, MEMRI and other organizations that attempt to correct the record are smeared as “Likudniks” or worse – the very term “Zionist” has become synonymous with a disease – :( – words themselves are losing their meaning and history its basis in fact.

  3. [...] Augean Stables wrote an interesting post today on Bad News Bears: Gerstenfeld and Colleagues Show How Bad Spin Works against AnyoneHere’s a quick excerpt I just heard a talk from an American historian working on the history of “spin.” His conceptualization of the problem has me thinking about the phenomenon in new ways. I actually think that a history of spin might shed interesting light on the media coverage of the Middle East. It’s not that spin is bad, or even dishonest. One describes one’s house differently to the tax assessor from how one presents it to a prospective buyer, and there’s nothing necessarily dishonest about it — especially sin [...]

  4. fp says:

    sophia,

    quite right.

    add to this the fear from jihadism/terror and the picture is quite clear.

    never again, my foot.

    fp
    http://fallofknowledgeandreason.blogspot.com/

  5. diane says:

    Intriguing concept, but I’m underwhelmed by the results thus far. Perusing the links, I find very little content, no analysis, and a heavy-handed pro-Israel agenda that undermines their credibility — preaching to the choir, as it were.

  6. fp says:

    diane,

    agreed.

    but without these flaws i doubt the effectiveness. it is so critical for the west to scapegoat the jews and israel that practically nothing can stop it.

    i mean, imagine the implication of no scapegoat: they will have to take on islamism and fight for survival. they are neither willing nor capable — at this stage of western circumstances — to even think about it. the idea that getting rid of israel will save their ass is just too attractive a delusion relative to the alternative for any evidence, as overwhelming as it is, to be effective.

    while i agree that the israelis are abysmally bad at the PR war, I very much doubt that even if they were better it would have any significant impact. scapegoating solves too many problems in the minds of the scared and unwilling to defend themselves.

  7. fp says:

    i meant “but EVEN without these flaws, I doubt the effectiveness”

  8. diane says:

    Ironically, as RL has pointed out again and again, the West’s self-inflicted blindness to the mischief brewing in the Islamic world hurts Muslims far more than it hurts the West. The big difference between 1939 and 2009 is that this time, the Jews won’t wait around for the world to notice when anti-Semitism boils over from rhetoric to reality. Israel will act when Iran crosses the line – as it already has acted in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza – and the UN can wring its hands all it likes, no blue helmeted peace keepers will stand in Israel’s way.

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