Edward Jay Epstein, the student of journalistic ethics, has noted that journalists are rarely – maybe never – in a position to establish the truth of an issue without the help of sources who have their own agendas. 

Despite the problem of such bias, journalists will do many things to gain access to sources and even risk their own freedom to protect them. So, it is surprising to learn that the Associated Press recently ordered reporters in its Jerusalem bureau to stay clear of a source. That source is Professor Gerald Steinberg, an American-born Israeli political scientist, an expert on arms control and proliferation, who brings to the table a background in physics. 

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In a world where journalists take risks to interview brutal dictators, terrorists, mass murders, and any variety of psychopaths for a sensational story, the off-limits sign on a distinguished professor appears to make no sense. 

Steinberg upset the ideologically critical relationship between the AP and its sources in non-governmental organizations (NGOs), groups that Steinberg revealed are more concerned with bashing Israel than advancing human rights. 

The story begins when Steinberg formed NGO Monitor and, more than a decade ago, went on the offensive against such high-profile groups as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam, and Christian Aid. Using his formidable skills as a researcher, he peeled away their reputations for fairness to reveal the true workings of these organizations when it came to dealing with Israel. 

Steinberg did not mince words. Writing on the editorial pages of the Jerusalem Post, he described Human Rights Watch this way: “Armed with a human rights halo, HRW and its fellow NGOs (Amnesty, Oxfam, and their Palestinian subsidiaries) provide the ideological foundation that allows the terrorists get away with murder.”  

That’s the crime for which AP told its Jersualem staff that Steinberg was off-limits. 

Most of us know about Steinberg’s work because of Matti Friedman, a former reporter and editor at the AP’s Jerusalem bureau. In August, Friedman wrote an article in the Jewish magazine Tablet that provided a penetrating insight into how biases – including the reliance of some Western reporters on anti-Israel NGOs – drive coverage of the conflict between Israel and Palestinian extremists and why reporters are, consequently, destined to get the conflict wrong. 

To those who follow reporting on the Middle East, or are familiar with the work of media wachdogs CAMERA or MEMRI, episodes of biased reporting are well known. But Friedman was an insider who spoke in detail about how those biases directly shape not only what is reported but also how it is reported. 

And if that were not sufficient to cause Friedman’s article to go viral, there was the revelation that AP had created a strict cordon sanitaire around the distinguished professor. 

Steinberg is an AP pariah because he became sickened by the mendacity of NGOs that garb themselves in the trappings of human rights organizations. Adopting a pro-Palestinian orientation, these NGOs can always brand the democratic Jewish state as violating human rights, but seem relatively incapable of doing so when it comes to the terror-organization Hamas or the repressive Palestinian Authority. The NGOs were, where Israel is concerned, little more than propaganda organizations. 

If Steinberg’s research and eloquence were not sufficiently convincing, in October 2009, Richard L. Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch, took to the editorial pages of the New York Times to assert that the organization had lost its moral compass – that it was far and away more focused on Israel, with its vibrant democratic culture and a population of 7 million, than on the brutal Islamic tyrannies that subjected 350 million people to some of the worst repression on the planet. In seeking a meaningless moral equivalence in the Middle East, Bernstein said, Human Rights Watch had lost its way and jeopardized its legitimacy. 

One would think the AP would have wanted Steinberg’s voice to be heard. Not so, according to Friedman, who detailed how the off-limits order on Steinberg was simply part of the AP’s general attempt to create a story line that denigrated the Jewish State. 

Friedman’s depictions show the AP not simply to be in violation of journalistic ethics, but serving as a propaganda bureau for the anti-Israel cause. If the so-called human rights organizations were fanning the flames of war rather than peace, the AP was bringing gasoline to the conflagration. 

On November 30, 2014, Friedman published a longer article on the subject in The Atlantic. This one raised the ire of Paul Colford, director of the AP’s media relations, who quickly and strongly issued a statement claiming AP had “no 'narrative' that says it is Israel that doesn't want peace; the story of this century-long conflict is more complicated than that.” 

Colford also denied that AP gave"explicit orders to reporters ... to never quote" Steinberg or NGO Monitor. 

But in the midst of this emerged Mark Lavie, whose book Broken Spring discussed why it is so difficult to get accurate information about nearly anything that comes out of the Middle East. Lavie also worked for the AP’s Jerusalem Bureau, and he confirmed that he too was told he couldn’t cover Steinberg. Colford’s ineffective denials now seemed to have at best a passing acquaintanceship with policy at the AP’s Jerusalem Bureau. 

This is not a tempest in a teapot. In a free society, journalists have a special place, a special responsibility, and get access denied the larger public. When they give up the quest for the truth and become propagandists for any cause, they remove one of the foundations of a free society. The AP doesn’t just threaten Israel. It threatens the ideal that real journalism is the quest for the truth – however elusive, difficult, and imperfect that might be. 

Miller is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Cincinnati. He is a contributor to the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

Editor's note: As mentioned in the above op-ed, the AP has denied making Gerald Steinberg off-limits to reporters.