"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

"Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβʊμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος."
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Source of the Problem – the Fourth Estate and its role

It was a hard week. But now it is better. The lull is over, “senior IDF sources” informed us – much to their relief. Nearly 30 Qassam rockets are plain obvious proof of that. For Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip, the killing of five militants in the West Bank is also considered proof that the lull is over. There is nothing harder than waiting for the enemy to make a move. It’s like in the black and white movies, when the veteran Foreign Legion officer keeps telling his inexperienced troops to ‘wait… wait… wait…’ only to let loose in a massive fusillade, felling the charging natives at close range.

But last week was troubling for another reason. For nearly eight days, even before the lull became apparent – we cannot say that it ‘went into effect’ since we are told that there was no agreement behind the break in the rocket attacks – the media reported that negotiations were taking place. These were ‘indirect’ negotiations between Israel and Hamas, with Egyptian officials playing the role of mediators, moderators and brokers, all at once. The media insisted that negotiations were taking place, but senior government officials in Israel, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, were steadfast in their own assurances that there was no such diplomatic effort.

It is not uncommon for the media to report something only for government to deny it the next day. However, it is uncommon that such tit for tat would go on for nearly a week. The consistency of the reports, claiming that negotiations were taking place, and the equally stubborn insistence from government that there was nothing happening, was striking. It is the kind of consistency that one is not used to in this part of the world, where the situation can change two-three, sometimes more times, in a single 24 hour period.

Whether negotiations were or were not taking place is not the point here. Clearly different sides use the term ‘negotiations’ differently: the Palestinian Authority, the government, the IDF, the Hamas, the Egyptians, the journalists and others, all had their own agendas for interpreting certain behavior as ‘negotiations.’ In fact, that special sign language that Israel believes it shares with Arabs over the years, Palestinians and others, a combination of force, restraint, gestures of good will, punishment, etc., is also a form of ‘negotiations’ in this part of the world.

The point here is about sources, the integrity of the media, and its role in society. If for an entire week media outfits insist something is happening, citing unnamed sources, while the government is denying it, we have a problem. If the denials last 24 hours or even 48 hours, that is borderline normal. Usually, the story will change due to the pressure on those denying it, more information will be released or uncovered. But if they hold out for six-seven days, they have chosen to challenge the media’s claims. They are not just hiding. They are challenging the professionalism and the integrity of the reporters, as well as their ability to interpret the situation in their beat. At this point the media have two options: they must either go on the attack, proving the government officials are not telling the truth, or they must recall their story and acknowledge that they were wrong. Neither happened in this case, and this reflects poorly on the media and on our society.

The root of the problem is with a culture in which sources are overly protected. This creates a cycle of feeding/leaking information, a chafing of what is the most potent tool in a journalist’s kit – skepticism, and a failure to carry out to its maximum effect the role of the Fourth Estate in society. Obviously there are ethical and security restrictions. The famed Watergate scandal source, Deep Throat, remained anonymous for decades. There are censorship issues, particularly in security related stories, as well as gag orders protecting the identities of suspects. Neither are consistently applied and leaks with attached agendas are rampant.

But there is also a point in which either the sources need to be tested by their willingness to ‘come out’ or they need to be dropped. Cultivating sources is fundamental in journalism and competition can be fierce. But what is also basic is that attribution of sources is the norm, and protecting them is secondary and requires serious evaluation by the reporter and the editor. More often than not, the same story appearing in the Israeli press, quoting “sources” or “highly placed sources,” also appears in the international news agencies, except that in those stories the source is named, often because the information was provided at a public press conference. If the media in Israel is going to fulfill its duty with professionalism and unblemished integrity, it must begin to refer to its sources by name, at the risk of losing them. This will make this country more transparent and this society less corrupt.
Michalis Firillas
March 14, 2008

1 comment:

Steve in Wisconsin said...

Just letting you know that my newsblog is linking to your Haaretz article this date (21 March) at:

I would have sent you an email about this but I couldn't locate an address.

You have an excellent blog! I have placed a bookmark on it and look forward to reading it regularly.