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ivoh | November 17, 2017

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The value of truth-telling

David Green

David Green

By David Green

I was still living in New York and working at The New Yorker when I experienced for the first time a conflict between my responsibilities as a journalist and my loyalty and attachment to Israel. It was 1982 and, as a fact checker, I had worked on a multi-part article on the first Lebanon War, written by Argentine Jewish journalist Jacobo Timerman who was then living in Israel. Timerman was convinced that his adoptive country had made a strategic and moral mistake in invading Lebanon that June, and his outrage and shame climaxed with news of the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Palestinians at two refugee camps in Beirut. The killing was done by Lebanese Christian militiamen, but overall responsibility for the area was in Israeli hands.

Fact checkers usually worked in cooperation with authors, who would provide them with names and phone numbers of interviewees and other sources. When the checker encountered problems confirming accuracy of a writer’s assertions, the two would generally collaborate on a mutually satisfactory solution. But in the case of Timerman, whose articles had been translated from the original Spanish, I was on my own. I was told to check what I could and make the necessary corrections according to my best judgment. As always, I kept detailed notes on how I confirmed each fact and listed the reasons for each change that I made.

Even three decades ago, it was impossible to write about Israel without setting off alarm bells among readers, and Timerman’s critical pieces were especially particularly adept at upsetting people, especially Jews who saw themselves as defenders of the tiny and threatened state. One reader wrote a long letter to William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor, detailing what he claimed were a number of factual errors. As was the procedure, the letter was passed on to me, and I prepared a memo for Shawn on which to base his response to the reader. In it, I not only provided him with the factual basis to defend our version of each disputed point but also,
since Shawn was my boss, I tried to explain to him just how tough it had been to determine firm facts about this controversial war. Journalists had had only very limited access to the battleground, and Timerman, it became clear to me, had based most of his article on published accounts. I explained that in cases where I was unable to confirm precise facts – about casualties, for example, or what physical damage Israeli forces had inflicted on Lebanese towns – I had sometimes “softened” language so as to make the assertions less specific, more vague.

Some weeks later, parts of my internal memo were published in a column in The New Republic written by that magazine’s editor-in-chief, Martin Peretz. Shawn, it turned out, had not only used my notes as a basis for composing a response to the reader, but had actually sent my memo in full to him. The reader had, in turn, passed it on to Peretz, who always seemed to enjoy bashing the New Yorker as much as he felt responsible for defending Israel’s good name. Being handed evidence that editors at the New Yorker had “laundered” a correspondent’s language when they had failed to confirm his assertions – as opposed to just throwing the entire unreliable story away – was proof of the magazine’s anti-Israel bias, claimed Peretz.

My name had been left out of the account, but the entire episode smarted terribly, and not only because of the rare example it provided of bad judgment on the part of the generally wise and prudent William Shawn. Had I indeed done my job properly, I wondered? Should I have been more assertive in expressing my concerns about Timerman’s articles? Was it possible that Timerman’s article was basically correct, even if he had been careless with some of his facts? I had been trained to believe that all facts were of equal weight, integral building blocks in the foundation that supported the burden of an article, so was such a subjective judgment even my concern?

Nearly three decades later I see how the journalistic rhetoric about the Israel-Palestine conflict has become only shriller and more polarized. Having now lived in Israel for nearly a quarter century, I realize that “facts” are only one part of the story, and they can be manipulated, not only by politicians but also by journalists operating under the cover of supposed objectivity.

But even saying that some journalists approach their work with a hidden agenda doesn’t tell the whole story. Journalists aren’t scientists, and all of us and all of our work should be suspect, as far as consumers of the news go. That’s part of being a responsible citizen. And what of the responsible journalist? As one who has spent most of his career writing and, mainly, editing articles that attempt to help people around the world understand what is happening in Israel, experience has allowed me to draw some conclusions.

First, I still believe that facts are important, and accuracy is next to godliness. We have no right to ask people to trust us if we don’t make the effort to get the facts straight and to present them clearly. Still, that’s only the beginning of our job, not the end. Rather than attempt to shed any agenda, it makes more sense for us to acknowledge to our readers – and mainly to ourselves – that we do have opinions, sympathies and values, and that it’s okay to apply those values to the subject that we’re covering. At the same time, those beliefs must not trump the facts. And doing the job well means helping the reader understand the values of the people they are reading about.

If I can contribute to understanding Israel, whose situation seems more complex each day, I am already doing my job. And while indignation in the face of injustice seems just fine to me for a journalist, there is no room for self-righteousness. We must remember that we may never know the entire story and that everyone we’re writing about is convinced he or she is right. Part of our job is to allow people to present themselves on their own terms. At the same time, we need to resist accepting the conventional wisdom, the official line, the convenient narrative that the increasing numbers of public relations professionals are always trying to sell us, and that so many of us seem increasingly willing to buy. As I have found in covering Israel, reporting the truth is rarely easy, often risky and sometimes painful. But in the end, it’s the only responsible approach.

David Green’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.