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Felice Friedson: Getting unbiased Middle Eastern news

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Felice Friedson

Felice Friedson is the president and CEO of the Media Line. She has been working as a journalist for three decades and covering the Middle East for two. The Canadian Jewish News sat down with her on a trip to Toronto.

What is the Media Line?

The Media Line is an American non-profit news agency that brings contextual and in-depth news from the Middle East – from Israel, the Palestinian territories, the greater Middle East – to the world.

It gives a minimum of two sources in every story, a journalistic standards that we don’t see enough of today. What’s critical is it’s giving analysis, it’s giving the context behind stories. So that is the aim of the Media Line, to really build an understanding of the region, so that mistakes aren’t made when people are formulating policy, when the public is reading news and trying to really understand what’s behind a story and to get all sides of the narrative objectively.

In terms of our educational component, we have a mandate towards education, so over the years, I have created our Mideast Press Club, which has brought over 200 Israeli and Palestinian journalists together. I’m very proud to say that I think it was a very monumental time and proves that Israelis and Palestinians can put the politics aside and sit down on a professional basis when you don’t have ancillary political forces pulling at you, which is what we see today.

A couple of highlights of that is when we had eight of the leading bureau chiefs fill the YMCA in Jerusalem. It was Israeli, Palestinian and foreign press, it was after the Lebanon War and it was to discuss what went down during that war in front of 500 people.

What was that like?

Fascinating, because they talked about news that sometimes Israel couldn’t get and they had to find ways to get news coming from sources one might view as the enemy. It was quite fascinating.

In terms of photos, at that time, there was a discussion about photo distortions and fraud, and the discussions came out to the public. I think it’s important to be able to actually go to the sources and discuss these issues.

Another very interesting story, I’d call a sort of a quid pro quo, was bringing the Palestinians into the Israeli parliament for the first time and bringing the Israeli journalists into the Palestinian Legislative Council when it actually had lights on. It doesn’t exist today, it’s over a decade at this point that it’s sitting in an empty building in Ramallah.

Today, there’s a lot of fear of how safe is it for journalists, particularly local journalists. Journalism is critical today. You cannot make decisions if you don’t have journalists’ boots on the ground. You can’t do journalism just sitting in a newsroom. It’s not possible.

READ: AN INTERVIEW WITH THE IDF’S LT.-COL. JONATHAN CONRICUS

 

Do you ever get backlash for trying to look at both sides of the story and talking to people in the Palestinian territories?

I think if you do your job right, if you’re not taking sides, if when you write an opinion, you state that it’s opinion, when 90-something per cent of your news is showing all narratives, that you’re being fair to giving all sides a voice, even if you don’t agree with any side. That’s how you do journalism properly.

So the backlash we get is welcome. If we get letters that you might call hate mail, it’s great. I think that shows you’re doing your job. Because if it’s all positive, then there’s something wrong.

If you turn on the news, people tend to watch news channels, whether its CNN or Fox, based on their political affiliations. Globally, this has become more and more the case. You have it here in Canada, too, with your national papers as an example. In Israel, it’s the same way with the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz.

That’s not our position. We’re an American agency with the perspective of bringing back what classical journalism is all about – hence the teaching component. I think that we’ve lost sight of what journalism is. It’s not an arm of a governmental party. So people always ask: “Who’s driving who? Is the media driving the politician and helping the politician, or is the politician driving the media and using the media?” It should really not work that way.

What are your education initiatives?

I’m most proud of those initiatives. Whether it was educating through the Mideast Press Club, or empowering women that I have been involved with for several decades, we’ve been training young students for years, and scores of them. And they’re sitting in the leading newsrooms today. Whether it’s USA Today, or Reuters, or Univision, or a young person who now just got into Stanford, it’s powerful.

And what’s different is not only were we training, we went and we actually did research. We called 500 universities and we asked if they’d be interested in a program that would really be the gap between the university and getting employed and really understanding what it’s like in a working newsroom. We had scores that came back and said “yes.” So it’s a partnership with the universities, it’s a minimum of three months of training, some of them actually stay longer.

What’s fascinating is even last summer, there were seven students from all over, it was like the mini United Nations. Seventy, 80 bylines, a dozen videos, they’re really learning and they’re understanding the region. They walk out skilled. They’re ready to go into the next part of their career.

How have your views changed since you started covering the Middle East?

I don’t take things at face value. I’m very careful to say, “Hold back, it’s not about being first, let’s get it right,” if a source is missing. And, of course, there’s that fine line today of everybody rushing to get that story out so Google picks it up. That’s not going to change things when you look back in history. It’s much more dangerous for some politician to wake up and use that tweet and his career is destroyed because there wasn’t fact-checking in the piece he sent out to the public. To me, it’s about having restraint. And I think that you learn that. And I am imparting that and teaching that. And it’s a pivotal component in understanding that you’ve got to have the big global vision, as opposed to being the follower. So that’s where I think I’ve grown up a lot in running this institution.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.