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Truth and Consequences on the Palestinian Beat

June 16, 2002|HANOCH MARMARI | This piece was excerpted from a lecture delivered by the Ha'aretz editor-in-chief last month at the 9th World Editors' Forum in Bruges, Belgium. The Tel Aviv-based newspaper can be found on the Internet at www.haaretzdaily .com.

TEL AVIV — First, the good news: Abu Ali's nine children are alive and well--as well as children can be among the ruins of the Jenin refugee camp. Please deliver this news to all of your friends who may have read, a few weeks ago, Abu Ali's mournful declaration: "All my nine children are buried beneath the ruins." Abu Ali's photograph was spread across a double page in a distinguished and influential European magazine under the title: "The survivors tell their story."

Israeli tanks and bulldozers had entered the camp, Abu Ali recalled. He went out to fill his car, telling his nine children to meet him at a nearby intersection. But the Israeli forces blocked his way back, and it was a week, he told the reporter, before he could return to the ruins of what had been his home. "It smells of death here," he is quoted as saying. "I am sure all my children are buried beneath the rubble. Come back in a week and you will see their corpses."

The reporter and his editors did not wait a week to publish the tentative story. They were not satisfied with the extent of the tragedy that they could see with their eyes and legitimately depict in their copy. The desire to hype the story blunted their healthy journalistic instincts to doubt and double-check any story before publishing it.

I recently made some inquiries about Abu Ali's case. First, final numbers indicate that three children and four women were killed during the fighting in the Jenin refugee camp. Second, Abu Ali's children were not among them. And third, the magazine did not bother to tell its readers of this relatively happy end to its story.

The last 20 months of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have created a crisis of values for journalism. The coverage and comment have exhibited four fundamental sins: obsessiveness, prejudice, condescension and ignorance. The story of Abu Ali conveniently exemplifies all four.

The intensive media coverage of the conflict is often so self-absorbed and so harmful to the region that it is a disgrace to our profession. I wonder whether the disseminators of the Abu Ali story were conscious of the impact they may have had on readers, from the back streets of Jakarta to the universities of Boston, from the Muslim neighborhoods in Marseilles to the Jewish community in Toronto. Were they conscious, one wonders, of the effect of their story on the parties themselves?

The worldwide resonance of the conflict has meant that there is a greatly intensified response to the work of Ha'aretz, the newspaper where I am editor in chief. All of us at the paper, reporters and editors alike, find ourselves dealing with consequences of our work in ways we never experienced in the past--and frankly never expected to experience.

The months of violence have forced our venerable 84-year-old newspaper to play its part in the collective national ethos, though our critics claim we do not show sufficient enthusiasm for this role. Daily, we feel the impact of our work in our contacts with Israeli public opinion, and we can trace our impact, though less measurable, on world public opinion.

That does not mean, though, that we are free of those four cardinal sins I referred to. Oh, yes, we are often obsessed. Sometimes we do prejudge. I hope we are not ignorant. As to the fourth sin, condescension, many of our readers think we are condescending toward them.

Recently, a best-selling Israeli author, politically middle-of-the-road, canceled her subscription to Ha'aretz. She wrote (and I quote): " ... I have reached the conclusion that you and I don't live in the same place. A large and growing proportion of the reports and articles in your newspaper stink of the foreign press, which regards the State of Israel as a different, distant and repulsive territory."

The difference between the situation of Ha'aretz and that of the international press covering the region is, I hope, now clearly emerging. Unlike those who report the conflict as a grand adventure, we live the consequences of our reporting with every inch of our being.

Ha'aretz is a small paper in a small country. Our paid daily circulation, Hebrew and English, reaches 100,000 copies--less than 10% of the Israeli newspaper market. Nonetheless, in the last 15 months since we launched our online edition, our Hebrew-language Web site is now logging half a million page-views a day, and our English-language site, another 700,000, mainly from outside Israel.

Very quickly, we were forced to recognize that despite our modest pretensions, we had been chosen by many on the Net as producers, suppliers and packagers of information from the Middle East. We are servicing individuals, media groups, communities and organizations all around the world.

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