How the Media See the Middle East (with a Fixer’s Cameo)

On March 1 a discussion under the title ‘Media Perceptions of the Middle East’ took place at the University of Toronto. It was organized by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies (FSWC). As with everything related to the Middle East, not only did the event provide insights and varying views, but it also caused an eruption of stormy passion among the participants, which made it even more interesting.

The four panellists included Michael Coren (Sun TV), Carole MacNeil (CBC), Jonathan Kay (National Post), and Tarek Fatah (journalist and radio talk show host), with Avi Benlolo, Presisdent of FSWC acting as a moderator.



Left to right: Michael Coren, Carole MacNeil, Avi Benlolo, Jonathan Kay, Tarek Fatah


The discussion revolved around several questions posed by the moderator, and the first one covered:


According to Michael Coren, before 1973 the coverage of Israel was very favourable, Israel could do no bad. Starting with the Yom Kippur War things changed and during the last 20 years, especially in Europe, it became much worse. Carole MacNeil added that when journalists cover the Middle East, they often don’t want to touch a story, because the reactions could be unpredictable and they’ll be intimidated. She often did coverage of stories from that area for CBC, but was never censored – there is no bias in CBC. Her impression is that people in Canada usually are willing to stand with Israel.

In Jonathan Kay’s opinion, media bias against Israel is not such a problem anymore. There are several reasons for that: first, the wide spread of the Internet, which made it very difficult for the media to hide or distort facts. Second, a turning point were the Jenin events of 2002, where in a battle 13 Israelis and 55 Palestinians were killed, yet that was misrepresented in Europe as a massacre with thousands of victims, but in reality it was just Palestinian propaganda, which was revealed quickly. Third, the issue with the suicide bombers – that type of terrorism is so repulsive that nobody can applaud them, even the most fanatical leftists have no other choice but to distance themselves. Fourth, the Arab Spring – since those ground-breaking events unfolded, they became a much better story for the media than the tired Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tarek Fatah provided a wider perspective, stating that we often forget that the Middle East is not only Israel and Palestine – it’s appalling how other peoples are ignored (like the Kurds). The Arab Spring was misrepresented by journalist who knew nothing about the area. For example, they ignored the black people who were mistreated in Libya (he didn’t mean the black “mercenaries”, but the native population – 10% of the Libyan population is black). There are many other cases of ignorance. Saudi Arabia and Iran, which play significant role, are ignored as well – the Iranian missiles, which target Ormuz, are the real story, not Israel and the Palestinians.

Here Avi Benlolo noted that the Toronto Star has a certain bias – they provided a very positive coverage of the Gaza flotilla last year.

Jonathan Kay then remarked that the Toronto Star might be biased, but they had reporters in Libya. Besides, their columnist Haroon Siddiqui is a representative of the mainstream Muslim ideas.

That was enough to stir up Tarek Fatah’s emotions: “Mainstream” is a terrible word to use about Haroon – he defends Saudi Arabia, Ahmadinejad, and sharia law. The Toronto Star is very biased, some people even call it “Toronto Crescent”. Just like The Globe and Mail, which employs two hijab columnists, they look to hire strange-looking and hostile Muslims in order not to be accused in racism.

(I was really shocked by Kay’s remark – reading the Toronto Star almost every day, I see absolutely no reason to call Siddiqui “mainstream”. On every issue he writes about, he finds a subtle or blatant way to attack Israel or the West and to show how much better Islam is. In his recent article against the defunding of Palestine House, he defended their “logo” showing the whole territory of Israel as Palestinian land:


He even defended their celebration of the released terrorists in exchange for Corporal Shalit. And that’s just one article. Haroon is criticized overwhelmingly even by the Star’s lefty readership – often the paper turns off the comments under his articles.)

The second question discussed was:


Carole agreed that the country receives a disproportionally high coverage compared to the size of its population. Among the many reasons are the constant threats against it, especially from Iran.

Michael Coren found a particular aspect that’s very important: Israel has a much more democratic way of treating journalists – they are allowed everywhere, except in areas with military secrets. Hezbollah, on the other hand, takes journalists to specific locations and tells them what to write. Many lefty college kids from the Western countries go to the West Bank to play heroes, because that is a safe area, where they don’t risk their lives (they would never go to Syria, where they can get killed).

Tarek Fatah pointed out at a very specific perspective – we often forget that Israel is attacked as a Jewish state; it is not even recognized by most Muslim countries as an independent state. Its situation is unique – for example, Iran wants to destroy it, no other country is in such position. Imagine if two European countries are in a similar situation – that would cause immediate outrage. That strange situation is reflected in Toronto Star’s anti-Israeli stand. The editorial content of the newspaper is appalling – they even romanticized the flotilla. (At this point Jonathan Kay whispered “Haroon!” to Tarek, apparently thinking it was a good joke.)

The next question covered


Avi Benlolo started by noting that Israel is attacked in the universities as an apartheid state, which it is not, the comparison is absurd.

As a possible reason, Tarek Fatah stated that the supporters of Israel failed to affirm convincingly their point. There are many countries in the area, which are truly apartheid states. For example, in Saudi Arabia only Arabs can become citizens, while Pakistanis and blacks cannot and they are even mistreated. In Egypt, a Christian is not allowed to run for President. It’s wrong to single out Israel, while the countries with real apartheid problems are ignored.

Jonathan Kay added that this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) will be the most unremarkable in memory – when people are dying in Syria, it doesn’t make sense to have that week. However, it will be bad to ban the IAW, because we live in a free country. Most of the participants in IAW are not anti-Semites; they are actually veteran anti-racists from the 1970’s. They want to recapture their lost moral purpose, so they go to Gaza.

(Again, I have to disagree with Jonathan. Downplaying the vitriolic hatred, which is displayed during IAW both by speakers and participants, as a misguided hippy moral quest, is not correct. Portraying IDF as a bunch of vicious killers in a poster they sold at the University of Toronto last year, is simply poorly veiled anti-Semitism:



They even sold it at a premium price, because it was supposedly banned.)

Carole MacNeil then said that we should let the marketplace of ideas to decide what will happen. Michael Coren shot back right away – CBC doesn’t believe in marketplace of free ideas – in many of its programs the religious people are ridiculed. In his opinion, IAW is profoundly anti-intellectual. It doesn’t go into discussing the reality – the Israeli Arabs are part of Israel, it is absurd to compare Israel to South Africa. In the Haifa University about 30-35% of the students are Arabs, many with anti-Israeli sentiments. The real purpose of IAW is to create a climate of hostility and discomfort.

Then came the fourth question:


The participants went immediately into discussing hate speech. According to Tarek Fatah, when discussing hate and hate crime, we must have an open debate and not charge people with hate speech. Those people should be challenged openly in public.

Jonathan stated that the hate crimes against Jews are exaggerated – every little thing is reported and presented as a hate crime. In reality, Jews play a very important role in the universities – they have a good representation.

Michael Coren expressed his discomfort with the hate speech idea. For example the Mormons baptized Anne Frank – this is not strictly anti-Semitism. In Europe we have real attacks, conducted mostly by Muslims, while the rightists, who are often blackmailed, embrace Israel. IAW is not anti-Semitism, it’s an expression of a lack of empathy especially with the problems of Israel.

Then Avi Benlolo asked: why shouldn’t we consider the BDS movement anti-Semitic? In Michael Coren’s opinion, the people in that movement are radical minorities. There are not many Arabs, only aging white people.


After that the discussion drifted to the actual field coverage of the events in the Middle East. Somebody brought up the point that the limited budgets force the media to reduce the number of reporters. Carole MacNeil said that because of that the remaining journalists have to rely on local “fixers”. She obviously meant that those local people help in obtaining information about events.

At this point, Tarek Fatah expressed his displeasure with the term, saying that it implies an inferior position. Those people should be treated the same way as the Western journalists. Jonathan Kay tried to help out Carole by sharing an experience he had with a “fixer” in the West Bank. That Arab woman helped him arrange interviews with people, whom he would’ve never been able to see otherwise. On top of that, she had a souvenir shop in Ramallah, where JK spent over $500 on gifts and both of them were happy.

At this moment Tarek literally went ballistic – he said that both of them had a racist attitude toward the local people and Kay even treated his “fixer” like a pimp, because he paid her. Frankly, I wasn’t able to figure out the reason for his rage. Neither Carole, nor Jonathan had used the word in any racist context. In fact, if Tarek had the same reaction after Kay’s remarks about Haroon being “mainstream”, I would’ve supported him completely.


Michael Coren and Tarek Fatah


Tarek got up and said he wanted to leave; he couldn’t stay with people expressing such outrageous views. Coren tried to stop him, but after a heated verbal exchange Tarek left. His daughter Natasha tried to explain to Jonathan why the talk about “fixers” is racist and “paternalistic” and to make him apologize, but frankly she wasn’t very convincing. Jonathan Kay didn’t apologize.


The discussion heats up



Tarek Fatah leaves the building


Due to that exciting experience, we lost 20 minutes of the discussion.

That lengthened the question and answer session. Many were deeply concerned with the danger coming from Iran. There were a few Muslim students, who after the discussion went straight to MC with the usual questions. I didn’t hear everything, but remember how one of them, standing next to me asked him why the 6 million Palestinians living in Israel and under occupation are not allowed to mark their “Nakba”. When did they multiply to such numbers?


Michael Coren with the Muslim students



The discussion continues


Overall, it was a nice discussion, even with the “fixer” incident – a nice exercise in free speech, which makes you feel good that we live in a country, which is still free.


© 2012

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  1. SM ISAC says:

    Excellent coverage of the evening!!

    I agree with your response to Jonathan Kay. As much as I would have liked to believe the IAW was losing its drive, I see the movement becoming even more entrenched in some ways within the academic institutions which not only continue to accommodate this hate fest but also offer Arab-Pali centric(meaning not based on facts) programmes.

    I also disagree with Kay that media bias is no longer a big issue, that “Jenin massacre” misreporting was a huge embarrassment and had a “chastening effects.” On the contrary, the evidence suggests that the leftist media reporters simply looks for another cause celebre. Their common characteristic is that they are unrepentant and they NEVER learn. The British media was particularly vicious on Jenin reporting, all major ones like “The Times,” The Independent”, The Guardians, Daily Telegraph, swallowed the “war crime every bit as repellent as the 911, and they never apologized after the truth came out. We saw the same sort of things played out in 2009 May flotilla incident in which Israel was found guilty until proven innocent.

    Carol McNeil’s claim that there is no bias at CBC because she has never been told what to report and how to report, is laughable. She doesn’t need to be told: Her own bias is a perfect fit for CBC. I guess I have my own personal bias. I don’t like people who whine as she did when she said she was afraid of the “blow back.”

    I think Tarek was right to take offence at Jonathan’s comment on Haroon Siddiqi (spelling?) representing the mainstream Muslim voice because Siddiqi is radical. However, I don’t know if his views are mainstream or not. (I was not able to grasp racist overtone to the term “fixer.” Whatever that was, I don’t believe Tarek’s daughter helped explain.) Whatever his limitations, Tarek’s views are unique and I value that because after all, we are fighting on the same side of this war.

    1. admiwrath says:

      Thank you for your detailed response. Just like you, I am totally confused about what Jonathan Kay’s real position is.

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