Changing the World, One Journalist at a Time
A profile of Hollywood mogul Merv Adelson and his new pro-Israel project, Access Middle East.
Merv Adelson got his introduction to Hollywood through the back door -- literally. At age 13 he drove a truck delivering groceries from his father's store to the entertainment industry elite. From there it was a few giant steps to founding Lorimar Telepictures which produced such TV hits as The Waltons, Eight is Enough, Dallas and Knots Landing. Merv's company also produced motion pictures including Being There starring Peter Sellers and The Postman Always Rings Twice starring Jack Nicholson.
Thirteen-year-old Merv had little inkling of what was to come. Though his glimpse of Hollywood ignited a passion, he continued to deliver groceries and pursue his passion for athletics, eventually playing college football and semi-pro baseball.
In 1949, Merv's father took him to Israel and another passion was sparked. "My feelings for Israel inform my world view today," says Merv. "Everything is viewed through a prism of Israel and the Jews."
In the early '50s, Merv moved to Las Vegas and began what was to become a hugely successful real estate career. In those days, Las Vegas was a small town, and Merv noticed there was no 24-hour grocery store. So he borrowed money -- from his father and the bank -- and built one. Then Merv and his partner, Irwin Molasky, decided that Las Vegas needed a new hospital, so they built Sunrise Hospital and kept expanding it as the city grew.
They had a hard time finding someone to run the hospital, so Merv asked his father, Nathan Adelson, who was retired at the time, to help. "What do I know about running a hospital?" Nathan asked. "Nothing," Merv acknowledged, "but you're a good businessman and you can keep things in order." So Nathan came to Las Vegas -- originally for 90 days -- and stayed for the rest of his life. He built the hospital into a 600-bed institution and won the National Administrator Award. (The Nathan Adelson Hospice, built by Merv and dedicated in his father's memory, has treated more than 20,000 terminally ill patients.)
In the early '60s, Merv returned to Los Angeles and built the famed La Costa resort that became a haven for the Hollywood and business elite. Merv wasn't peeking through the back door any more. He launched Lorimar, which became the industry's leading producer of TV programming. In 1989, Lorimar merged with Time-Warner Inc.
Merv is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and serves on the board of trustees of the American Film Institute and the Entertainment Industries Council.
Merv is a lifelong supporter of Jewish organizations, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Friends of Israel Defense Forces, American-Israel Friendship League, United States Middle East Project of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Builders for Peace. He has given his home and his energies to help with programs for Aish HaTorah's outreach efforts.
And for the record, Merv has five children -- ranging in age from three to 51!
Although he disdains being called a "visionary," Merv has always tried to think into the future, to be ahead of the curve. He commits to projects that fill a genuine need, and enjoys himself in the process of reaching his goal.
Which brings us to his latest project, Access Middle East (AME) Merv believes this will help Israel by changing the tone of Middle East reporting, and he told Aish.com all about it in his office in Brentwood, California.
Aish.com: Many projects have been launched to help Israel's PR efforts. How is this different?
Merv: Actually, AME is not a PR effort. It is a rich resource for attributable news, information and analysis. I've been involved in communications, media and advertising for many years. For the past 30 years, I've been very conscious of how the media has turned around on Israel. And I've worked for many years to try to change things, mostly unsuccessfully until now.
We have to stop the problem before it starts, rather than try to correct it once it's done.
About two years ago, I was reading an article about Israel and got so frustrated! I decided to reach out to a lot of very intelligent people who were feeling the same way. Until then efforts being made to help Israel were almost 100 percent reactive -- reacting to events and reacting to media reports. Through my business experience I know that reaction doesn't work. If someone slanders you in a newspaper one day, and you make a pronouncement the next day saying that you're really a wonderful person, it just doesn't work. People remember what they read first. So I realized that we've got to become proactive. We have to stop the problem before it starts, rather than try to correct it once it happens in print.
I called upon people around the country who I've known through my years of involvement with Israel, and found that everyone shared my frustration and passion. They gave me their time, commitment, and money to look for a way to impact this growing and dangerous reality.
Aish.com: What are the roots of the problem? Why is Israel so often maligned in the press?
Merv: At the time this project was germinating I had dinner with a non-Jewish friend in Aspen who has a research company in Washington. He loved my idea and offered to research the phenomenon.
The problem, he found, was not bias. Of course, certain individual reporters are biased, but the general journalistic community is not biased one way or the other. Yet there are a few key issues driving anti-Israel reporting:
- The media almost always sides with the underdog. Since 1967 and the Six Day War, Israel has been viewed as powerful which in turn has established the Palestinians as the underdog.
- The Palestinians are superb at what they do -- because they're unhampered by the truth. And unhampered by having to check with any chain of command before saying something. And boom, boom, boom -- they stay on message and keep pounding away.
- It's the rare journalist who makes an effort to get to the bottom of a story; most will just take what's fed to them. The Palestinians are quick to provide "facts," while the Israelis take extra time making sure the facts they give are accurate. Reporters have a deadline to meet and they take whatever information comes quicker.
- Very few reporters speak Arabic, so 95 percent of the news coming out of the West Bank and Gaza is provided by Arabs. If you trace it all back, like DNA, you'll see that one Arab stringer can be responsible for a high degree of public opinion.
Aish.com: In reading the news, one gets the sense that the Palestinians have forged personal relationships with journalists.
Merv: Yes, they made this a priority. When a new journalist goes to Israel, he's met at the airport by Palestinians. He's taken on his first tour by Palestinians. He visits the refugee camps. He's invited into Palestinian homes, to meet the grandmothers and the children.
The Palestinian guide says to the journalist: "Because you're new here, we want to help you as much as possible. We'll take you under our wing. We'll send you to the right places, get you good interviews, access to photo ops, and show you the ropes."
That effort translates into ink on the page. We see this in the press every day. They all quote Palestinian witnesses. "The Palestinian witness said he didn't have a gun. The Palestinian witness said he was a child." These people are not necessarily actual witnesses. They've been coached, and they have a clear agenda. So even if the reporter starts out unbiased…
Aish.com: Israel, on the other hand, doesn't do any of that. Why?
Merv: The culture of Israel has fostered a "we can do it ourselves" attitude. For Israeli politicians, outreach to the media has always been low on their priority list. They are primarily concerned about what Israeli voters think. No matter how many times you preach to these politicians that world opinion is important, and no matter how many times they nod their heads and say, "Yes, we have to work on that," nothing happens.
Aish.com: And there have been PR fiascos -- like the April 2002 battle in Jenin.
The Palestinians were not constrained by the truth or the need to check facts. They simply cried, "Massacre."
Merv: Perfect example. Why didn't Israel react more quickly to that situation? The worldwide viewing audience was told there was a "massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Jenin" -- and yet we now know that 23 Israelis and 52 Palestinians were killed. How did this misinformation happen? Because when the story first broke, the Palestinians simply cried, "massacre," and in the absence of any Israeli information, that was reported as fact.
The Israelis took 48 hours to respond -- because the various Israeli government ministries, the IDF and the Mossad were all checking whether the casualty count was 40, or 50 or 60. And it takes about 48 hours to come to an accurate conclusion. But at that point, who cares? The "massacre" already "exists." Prime Minister Sharon's advisor confirmed that before he can put out a response, he has to check with seven different people! So in the end, the story reported by the media is almost always from the Palestinian perspective.
Aish.com: How does Access Middle East address these problems?
Merv: We determined that if we can change the modus operandi of how journalists obtain their facts, then we can influence hundreds of papers and millions of people. We're not targeting first-tier newspapers, because they frequently have journalists on the ground who are already entrenched, and our ability to move them is limited. But throughout the U.S. and the world are thousands of newspapers who don't have their own correspondents in Israel and are dependent on the news services like AP and Reuters, who in turn depend on Arab stringers. We want to give those journalists the chance to report the story directly. So we're targeting second- and third-tier press in cities such as Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Miami and San Diego.
Aish.com: You spent two years and $2.5 million putting this together. What's your bottom line mission statement?
Merv: When a journalist wakes up in the morning and wants to know factually what has gone on in the Middle East in the last 24 hours, or over the last five years, we want him to log on to www.accessmiddleeast.org. We do no editorializing; everything is with attribution and a source. If we can instill in the journalists the sense that our word has credibility, just as AIPAC does when it speaks to legislators, then we believe than on balance the truth will benefit Israel.
AME is non-partisan. We are not left, right or middle. Our philosophy is that the truth will benefit Israel -- even information we personally may not like. Many well-known people have been involved in bringing Access Middle East to life. My own son, Andy Adelson, gave up his career as a prominent TV producer to run this operation full-time.
Aish.com: Please share with us some specific strategies.
Merv: One strategy is conference calls for journalists to interview policy and opinion makers in Israel, America and around the world. We recently had 10 journalists from Dallas, Baltimore, San Diego, etc., interview Ambassador Dennis Ross who had just returned from the region. Some of the papers printed the entire interview verbatim.
We emailed 400 journalists around the world an alert that the project is up and running, and will continue email alerts when something significant happens in the Middle East.
Another example: Armstrong Williams, an African-American talk show host with a weekly TV and radio audience of over 40 million, did a series of shows from Israel which AME facilitated. With enough funding, we will be able to supply second- and third-tier TV stations with broadcast footage from Israel.
The site is open and accessible; we encourage private individuals, Jewish community leadership, teachers, students and policy makers to log on.
Aish.com: Tell us more about the contents of accessmiddleeast.org.
Merv: AME features state-of-the-art software that translates, in real time, 400 newspapers from around the world. It's a one-stop shop for journalists. We also have headlines from 10 major newspapers in the world, any of which you can click on to get the full story. The user is also able to track responses from around the world to different statements made by prominent people regarding Middle East issues. We have links to over 50 prestigious think tanks and institutions. Everything you could want to know about the Middle East is on our site.
Aish.com: It seems that context is what's so often lacking in news reports. Do you have background info for journalists?
Few journalists know that Israel's security fence is similar to the one separating the U.S. and Mexico.
Merv: Yes, the AME site features analysis as well as a tremendous database of Jewish information. We have fact sheets on issues such as the security fence. Few journalists have any idea what the fence is -- or that it is similar to the fence the U.S. is putting up in Iraq, or the one that separates the U.S. and our ally, Mexico.
Aish.com: In a democracy such as the U.S., public opinion is important in how it impacts the decisions of our elected representatives. How will AME make a difference here?
Merv: Although our focus is on journalists, the website is perfect also for legislators and their staff. It's significant that the majority of Congress (535 of them) come from a home town that falls into a second- or third-tier news market. The chairman and ranking member of every committee in the House and Senate that impacts the U.S.-Israel relationship comes from a home town with a second- or third-tier local paper. Elected representatives pay close attention to those papers because they are what their constituency uses to form opinions. So impacting that market is hugely important for the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Aish.com: For someone so committed to helping Israel, this project is a dream come to fruition.
Merv: All my projects may seem visionary in retrospect, but they've happened because I've seen a need. Most of my successful projects have been great challenges! Most people would have said, "That won't work", and I'm sure there are people who say this won't work. But I believe we can be tremendously effective. And we must make the effort. Not acting in time has cost us greatly in the past.
There's no question that the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship depends on this. We must be ahead of the curve, setting the agenda, being proactive and not merely reactive. For too long the agenda has been set for us. If we don't act now, we will lose a window of opportunity that may never come back to us. People must recognize how important public opinion is -- to Israel, to the peace process, to the future of the Middle East.
Access Middle East may not change the world in a day. But one journalist at a time, we are going to affect the future of Israel.