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Citizens should insist on a fair press

21 February, 2005
Last week, I found myself envying America its media. Certainly, American journalism has its share of error, biased reporting and other journalistic sins. Yet unlike many other countries' media it still takes the ideal of fair and honest reporting seriously - so seriously that egregious sins against this ideal can even cost a journalist his job.
Eason Jordan's February 11 resignation from his post as CNN's executive vice president was a case in point. On January 27, addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Jordan allegedly accused US soldiers in Iraq of deliberately targeting journalists. (Jordan denies this, but his denial seems suspect given that one audience member who reported and protested his comment was Barney Frank, a homosexual Democratic congressman from ultra-liberal Massachusetts - hardly a knee-jerk right-winger.)
And because in America it is considered unacceptable for senior journalists to make such incendiary charges without serious proof, public pressure, including from parts of the mainstream media, eventually convinced Jordan (and presumably also CNN) that resignation was the wisest course.
But Jordan's case is hardly unique. Five months earlier Dan Rather, the veteran anchor of CBS Evening News, announced his resignation after reporting, based on what later proved to be forged documents, that President George W. Bush had shirked his military service. Rather did not falsify the documents himself; he merely made insufficient efforts to authenticate them before broadcasting them to the nation.
But in America, senior journalists are expected to vet such serious accusations thoroughly before airing them. The resultant public outcry was sufficient to make Rather (and presumably CBS) conclude that he should resign.
Since all Western media claim to aspire to accuracy and fairness, one might think that such journalistic accountability would be the norm. Yet in many Western countries journalists can falsify, fabricate and distort with impunity.
A particularly flagrant Israeli example was Ilana Dayan's report on the October 5 shooting of a 13-year-old girl in Gaza by IDF soldiers. Initially, the soldiers claimed to have no idea that Iman al-Hams was a schoolgirl; they merely saw an unidentified Palestinian carrying a backpack near their outpost, where no innocent Palestinian had reason to be, and concluded that it was a bomber coming to attack them. Later, however, several soldiers accused their company commander of "confirming the kill" - i.e. shooting al-Hams repeatedly at close range, where he could not have avoided seeing that she was a schoolgirl. (The star prosecution witness in the commander's trial has since admitted in court that his "eyewitness" account of this "confirmed kill" was a lie.)
After the "confirmed kill" story broke, Dayan broadcast an investigative report into it on Fact, the acclaimed television news magazine she anchors. The IDF subsequently accused her of having distorted, or even fabricated, parts of the report in a libelous fashion. Most egregiously, the IDF said, she tacked footage of the soldiers celebrating onto the footage of them shooting, so that anyone watching would assume they were celebrating al-Hams' death. In reality, the celebration footage came from a Rosh Hashana party several weeks earlier - a fact Dayan admitted when confronted.
Tacking unrelated celebration scenes onto the ostensible footage of al-Hams's killing (in reality, the shooting scenes also turned out to be from a different incident) is indeed slanderous fabrication; it implies that the soldiers rejoiced over having killed a schoolgirl.
Yet not only did Dayan pay no price; her media colleagues vigorously defended her right to indulge in such fabrications. Her boss, program editor Doron Glazer, for instance, dismissed the incident by declaring: "The chief of staff has more important work to do than attacking Fact." And Haaretz columnist Ehud Asheri went even further, writing that Dayan was not guilty of "tendentious and intentional fabrication," because "the celebration scene was shown in the context of the general atmosphere in the company."
In other words, since Dayan believed - rightly or wrongly - that those particular soldiers were capable of celebrating a schoolgirl's death, it was legitimate for her to fabricate footage that showed them doing so when they did not.
YET ISRAEL is hardly unique: Similarly egregious incidents occur in many European countries.
Consider, for instance, the behavior of Riccardo Cristiano, a journalist for Italy's national television station, RAI, after a Palestinian mob lynched two Israeli reservists in Ramallah on October 12, 2000. Media outlets around the world broadcast footage of the event by the independent Italian station RTI, but many mistakenly
credited RAI. Four days later, Cristiano published an advertisement in the Palestinian press declaring that RAI not only did not, but would not shoot such footage. "We always respect the Palestinian Authority's
journalistic procedures for working in Palestine," he wrote. "This is not our way of acting. We do not do such things."
It is hard to imagine a more egregious journalistic sin than openly admitting to the systematic suppression of news unfavorable to one party in a conflict. Indeed, RAI was sufficiently embarrassed not only to recall Cristiano (about that, it had no choice, as Israel revoked his press credentials); it even held a disciplinary hearing. But then, far from penalizing him, RAI rewarded Cristiano with a prestigious New York posting - without eliciting a murmur of protest from Italy's media or public.
Similarly, when France's Nouvel Observateur published a story in 2001 that accused Israeli soldiers - without a shred of evidence - of systematically raping Palestinian women, no heads rolled; the journal merely mumbled a brief apology, and the French media and public deemed this sufficient. There, too, printing libelous accusations without checking the facts is evidently considered unexceptionable.
The quality of information disseminated by the world's media would undoubtedly improve if more media outlets adopted American standards of accountability. But that will only happen when other countries' citizens start emulating their American counterparts - by insisting on it. Published by the Jerusalem Post


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