As noted yesterday, former AP Jerusalem reporter Matti Friedman has caused a stir with the following claim:

In the aftermath of the three-week Gaza war of 2008-2009, not yet quite understanding the way things work, I spent a week or so writing a story about NGOs like Human Rights Watch, whose work on Israel had just been subject to an unusual public lashing in The New York Times by its own founder, Robert Bernstein…. Editors killed the story.

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.

The AP, as part of a response to Friedman’s broader article, absolutely denies that such a ban existed: “There was no ‘ban’ on using Prof. Gerald Steinberg. He and his NGO Monitor group are cited in at least a half-dozen stories since the 2009 Gaza war.”

Paul Colford, director of media relations at the AP, sent me a link to the response, which I’m happy to post, and I did so above. But I checked on Nexis, and I didn’t see any citations to NGO Monitor from the AP’s Jerusalem bureau after Robert Bernstein’s piece appeared in the New York Times in October 2009. (There is one from a Gaza-based reporter in August.) A few reporters based in Europe did cite Gerald Steinberg and NGO Monitor, but Friedman never alleged that the AP as a whole banned Steinberg and NGO Monitor, only that the Jerusalem bureau did.  I also found two articles citing Steinberg from 2011 and 2012.  But (a) those articles post-dated the departure of the editor (Steve Gutkin, who left in 2010) who was allegedly responsible for the ban; (2) were not about NGO-related matters; and (c) cited Steinberg as a professor at Bar-Ilan University, without noting his affiliation with NGO Monitor.

Given that there is nothing in these citations to contradict Friedman’s claim (reiterated in more detail in an email to me) that the Jerusalem bureau in Fall 2009 instituted a ban of indeterminate length on citing Steinberg and NGO Monitor, I asked Colford if he could let me know which headlines the AP believes contradict Friedman. Colford did not respond except by asking me once again to link to the AP’s response. I tried to contact Gutkin via Twitter and Facebook, but he has not responded.

Meanwhile, the plot thickens.  The Jewish Press reports that another former AP Jerusalem bureau reporter, Mark Lavie, who worked for the AP for a decade and a half, confirms that there was a ban on quoting Gerald Steinberg and NGO Monitor:

He said he knew there was such a ban because, when he put a quote from Steinberg in one of his articles sometime in 2009, the AP Jerusalem bureau chief made him remove it. That editor then told him that AP reporters “can’t interview Steinberg as an expert because he is identified with the right wing.” Subsequently it was made clear that NGO Monitor’s reports were not to be quoted, either, because it was pro-Israel or anti-Palestinian or right-wing, however it was put.

Neither Lavie nor Friedman have alleged that this policy was put down in writing.  But I have heard that Gutnick sent an email in mid-2009 warning reporters about relying on spokesmen for ideological organizations as sources.  He gave a few examples, some pro-Palestinian and some pro-Israel. One of the latter was NGO Monitor. This was not an absolute ban, just a caution.

One possibility, then, is that Friedman and Lavie are misremembering that email as a oral ban on citing NGO Monitor.

More consistent with their recollections, perhaps Gutkin was trying to reduce/eliminate reliance on ideological/partisan sources in AP reporting. This effort came just when HRW was in the news for alleged anti-Israel bias, with its leading accuser being NGO Monitor, leading to an unexpected tussle between Gutkin, who thought this an inopportune time to start citing NGO Monitor (which had not been cited often in the past) and his reporters who thought that with HRW itself a story, it was only natural to cite its leading critic.

The latter scenario is entirely plausible, but even if true it still creates a problem for the AP. NGOs that are de facto but not explicitly anti-Israel such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (which, for example both tend to hire employees for their Mideast divisions that have backgrounds in anti-Israel activism), aren’t covered by any such ban/discouragement of using “ideological sources”–only the one Israeli organization that serves as a watchdog on such groups is banned.  If you have a situation where HRW is considered a mainstream, objective source, but reporters are discouraged or even banned from citing NGO Monitor on the one hand, and, say, the International Solidarity Movement on the other, you don’t have balanced reporting, you have a situation in which anti-Israel NGOs dominate the discussion so long as they don’t openly admit that they are biased. Moreover, once HRW itself became a story following Robert Bernstein’s article, it was bizarre to tell reporters they couldn’t cite HRW’s leading Israeli critic. And that’s if we take a charitable interpretation of the alleged ban.

But perhaps the more important point is that Gutkin, as when he is said to have killed Friedman’s story on HRW, apparently didn’t think the role of NGOs in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was newsworthy, even when other news outlets were covering it. Checking the AP archives from 2009, there was no story when it was revealed that HRW was going fundraising among Saudi elites with an anti-Israel pitch; no story when founder Robert Bernstein denounced the organization’s bias; and a brief story when HRW military analyst Marc Garlasco was discovered to be collecting Nazi memorabilia, but that story was datelined New York, not Jerusalem. All of these things got widespread attention elsewhere.

I’ve often thought that media “bias” is often less a product of slanting the news one covers, and more a question of what one covers.  I’m no “gun nut,” but some of my Facebook friends are, and I get a stream of links to newspaper articles about people who successfully use guns in self-defense. Such stories are invisible in the elite media, assumedly because reporters don’t find them interesting or important. Similarly, the bias with regard to the AP and NGOs might not primarily be who is being quoted, but whether NGO influence and possible bias are considered newsworthy to begin with.