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Grassroots group primed to fight the local media’s anti-Israel bias

Published in The Jewish Advocate, July 27, 2014

By Alexandra Lapkin
Advocate Staff

PRIMER Israel advocacy comes in many shapes and forms, but for Alan Stein, it is fighting anti-Israel bias in the local news media.

And when Stein set his sights on Massachusetts-based newspapers, he decided to engage Greater Boston’s Jewish community in this effort.

“When anti-Israel, biased stuff is in the paper, I think it’s important to counter it,”said Stein, the former president of a Connecticut-based grassroots group called PRIMER (Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting), which he now plans to start in Massachusetts. The organization, which began as a chapter of CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting), takes a different approach from that media watchdog group by focusing solely on local newspapers such as The Boston Globe and smaller publications from surrounding towns.

The group operates similarly to CAMERA but on a smaller scale. PRIMER activists send out e-mail alerts about news articles on the Middle East that misrepresent or omit facts about Israel, and also hold workshops on composing letters to newspaper editors in response to op-eds and other editorial content.

Stein retired from the University of Connecticut, where he taught mathematics, and moved to Natick two years ago. At the time, he also left his post as president of PRIMER, although he remains active in the organization. After his retirement, he taught a course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the University of Connecticut.

While in Connecticut, Stein also served as president of the Jewish Federation of Waterbury (now called Jewish Communities of Western Connecticut) and several years before that, as editor of Chavurah, the Federation’s monthly community newspaper. Stein’s wife Marsha, also a college professor, was an associate state director for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in Connecticut. He said he decided to form a Massachusetts based branch of PRIMER when he picked up on similar anti- Israel prejudice in the Bay State press, but “didn’t see much response from the Jewish community.” After unsuccessfully trying to elicit a response from Boston’s Jewish advocacy groups to scathing op-eds and biased reports in the local newspapers, Stein added, he decided to take a grassroots approach.

“I got frustrated,” Stein said. “If nobody is doing this, somebody has got to do it.”

Stein, who is also active on CAMERA’s committee, said a group like PRIMER can fill a necessary void because “CAMERA deals with national media – The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal,” he said. “It’s rarely going to deal with The Boston Globe.”

Sarit Catz, the international letterwriting director at CAMERA, emphasized that PRIMER and CAMERA work alongside one another, and together, without stepping on each other’s toes. “We need all hands on deck, all the time,”she said. Catz added that since CAMERA cannot closely monitor smaller, local news sources, “the more people we can get involved, the better.”

“My hope is to get enough people in different communities,” Stein said, “to look at their newspapers and when there’s a problem, not just aggravate over it, but do something.”

Although PRIMER in Connecticut is an incorporated 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization, Stein does not plan to formalize the group’s Massachusetts chapter, but rather wants to focus on building its membership. “I don’t see a need for any kind of staff,” he explained. “We don’t have to have expenses or do fundraising, but be grassroots. And I hope it stays that way, but grows.”

Stein, who is in the process of making aliyah, plans to divide his time between Israel and the United States. His goal is to be able to pass the torch to a Massachusetts resident, while also running a similar group with Americans in Israel.

In addition to writing letters to the editors, Stein wants to encourage local rabbis, and Jewish professionals who are well-regarded in the community, to also write op-eds for local press.

“In Connecticut, we’ve been effective” with this strategy, Stein said. When “some newspapers were inundated with anti-Israel letters, we got enough people to write pro-Israel letters to counter them.”

Stein also aims to educate PRIMER members on Middle East issues in order to be able to identify false information, omitted facts, or a slanted, editorialized article presented as news. To get his facts straight, Stein reads Israeli English-language newspapers and reports by the Palestinian Media Watch (an Israeli research institute that studies Palestinian society). He also gets The Daily Alert (dailyalert.org) prepared by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and reads information on the website of the Israel Project, a non-governmental organization of Middle East experts.

Stein thinks that PRIMER will be able to fill the void in Massachusetts that he identified above, based on his experience with the group in Connecticut. Members who were on the organization’s mailing list, even if they did not write op-eds and letters themselves, said they appreciated seeing pro-Israel content in their local newspapers, because “it was good for their morale,” Stein noted.

“It made them feel better; it helped them understand the issues better,” he added.“It’s not just getting a lot of people to write letters – it’s getting people in our community to see the letters and feel that they’re not alone.”

Stein will hold a letter-writing workshop at Temple Israel of Natick on Sunday, July 27, from 8 to 9 p.m. Visit primerma.org for more information.

PRIMER’s Ten Points of Media Bias

  1. News reporting, not objective, laced with opinion or commentary, but not labeled as “news analysis.”
  2. Source of news:
  3. Selection of wire service stories, photos, or op-eds that reflect the personal views of the editor.
  4. Placement and size of story:
  5. Frequency of story theme:
  6. Headlines and photos that do not reflect the major content of the story.
  7. Distortions.
  8. Omissions and half truths.
  9. Inaccuracies.
  10. Opinion/commentary that is not balanced or factual.

For more information about PRIMER-Massachusetts, send email to info@primerma.org

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