2016-10-12 / World News

Former ‘Russia Today’ anchor talks media bias

By JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff


“Media 101” featured journalist Liz Wahl. Joining the discussion were (from left), Pam Benedon, JCRC Israel Advocacy Initiative co-chair; Amy Clayman, JCRC president; Liz Wahl; Michelle Myers, JCRC Israel Advocacy Initiative co-chair; and David Snyder, JCRC executive director. “Media 101” featured journalist Liz Wahl. Joining the discussion were (from left), Pam Benedon, JCRC Israel Advocacy Initiative co-chair; Amy Clayman, JCRC president; Liz Wahl; Michelle Myers, JCRC Israel Advocacy Initiative co-chair; and David Snyder, JCRC executive director. TV journalist Liz Wahl experienced her 15 minutes of fame when she resigned as a “Russia Today” (RT) anchor at the peak of 2014’s deadly Ukrainian conflict. Live and on air, she went completely off-script. Citing media bias and distorted coverage to justify Russian action, Wahl dramatically quit the Russian-funded network.

While the bold move made international headlines, she also became the target of anti- Semitic and anti-Israel bias. This was surprising, she explained during an event sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council. She is not even Jewish.

“At first I thought this is just the Internet and people can be very nasty,” said Wahl. “But it became too much a pattern to be ignored. I came to the realization that not only is anti-Jewish sentiment and hate alive and well but the Internet has given it a platform to spread.”

The epiphany led Wahl in a new direction. She launched an investigation of media bias, honing in on coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her visit to the Jewish Community Campus on Sept. 27 included a viewing of “Media 101: Reading Between the Lines,” a documentary she made in partnership with Jerusalem U that explores the Middle East conflict and provides a tutorial intended to help both the media and its consumers distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources of news.

The film covers a trip that Wahl took to Israel—her first one—where she explored bias in the context of international coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In both the film and discussion, she noted that one of the big reasons so much news about the conflict tends to be one-sided is because it is relatively safe and easy for reporters in the Middle East to report from Israel.

“I think it is absolutely critical for any functioning democracy to have a strong press and for people to be able to question and hold their government into account, and that’s able to happen in Israel,” she said. “But you do have to ask why Israel is held to such a high standard when you look at the Middle East now and see the unspeakable tragedies all around. The fact that there is this double standard says something about the mindset of the reporting.”

She also noted that while she believes most journalists strive to balance their stories, many have internalized that Israel is the bully in the conflict.

“The Palestinians have been successful at selling their story,” Wahl said. “They portray their story as being victimized and occupied and people want to root for the underdog. Unfortunately the reality of what’s happening there is so complex. It’s an oversimplification.”

While it was clear from the night’s discussion that her pro- Israel audience mostly agreed with her, she noted she often speaks on college campuses where the crowd is more diverse—with journalism majors and pro-Palestinian students in the mix as well. For the most part, these events have been productive and civilized but hearing about what pro- Israel students confront on campuses has been eye opening, she said.

JCRC Executive Director David Snyder noted he was in the process of reaching out to college presidents in New Jersey, inviting them to take part in an upcoming fact-finding mission to Israel being planned by the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations.

Regarding her time at Russia Today, Wahl said she generally did not feel pressure to report from a pro-Russian slant during her first 2 1/2 years on the job.

The situation changed dramatically with the annexation of Crimea and the Ukrainian crisis, she said.

“The pressure was incremental,” she said, noting that there was always a level of self-censorship and knowing just what was acceptable to say on air. “When the Ukrainian crisis happened, it was heightened to an unprecedented level.”

“Perhaps more than ever, people need to be more responsible news consumers and be more aware where they are getting their information,” she said. “Taking control of your media is really taking charge of your world.”

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