"Singing along" when reporting on conflict

by Ron Kampeas
07 April 2009
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Washington DC - To be of one side in a conflict and to report it is to be perpetually stuck in that awkward moment at a dinner party when a childhood friend starts singing a familiar song that marked a perhaps silly yet definitely memorable event in the history of your friendship.

You know the song. You know exactly where your friend gets the lyrics wrong. You're mortified, and the guest across the table you were hoping to impress cocks an eyebrow at you, almost imperceptibly, in bemused expectation.

And yet, you know the words, and when it comes to the part where you often jump in to harmonise, you have to decide whether you will sing along.

Too often, I've seen journalists lose themselves to an elusive definition of objectivity: as if how we were raised, the languages we speak, the food we eat, what we choose to worship, yes, even the songs we sing can be cast aside as soon as a cursor flashes before us.

In 1993, I covered a mini-war between Israel and Hizbullah from the Israeli side of the Lebanese border. I was a "local hire" for The Associated Press (AP); my utility was that I spoke Hebrew and could get quotes in real time.

Driving through the city of Kiryat Shemona after a rocket had hit, I bumped into a couple of foreign correspondents travelling together.

One of them, "Wendy", had been in the same position as me not too many years earlier – a wire service local hire, on board for her Hebrew speaking skills, and angling for the big break.

A family emerged from a bomb shelter. They spoke no English. Wendy and her companion looked at me, expectantly.

I suppressed a double take: why was Wendy pretending she couldn't understand? I shrugged and translated for both of them.

Wendy, with an obvious Jewish last name, was doing her best to appear as an unrelated third party to the conflict so as not to compromise her neutrality as a reporter.

It didn't make sense.

Her understanding of Israel could give added value to her reporting. The games a little boy played before bedding down in a bomb shelter, a reserves soldier's slang, the casual biblical reference – all this was potential texture. Reporters owe their readers insights; why sacrifice those we already possess?

The ability to tease the sensational out of dry facts and figures does not compromise accuracy.

My friend and former colleague, Ibrahim Barzak, covers the Gaza Strip for AP. He knows each of its byways, its streets, its fields, its blunt realities, its guarded secrets. In the most recent war, we grasped its tragedies through his insights.

Yet Ibrahim is also a consummate professional. In a now famous story, he described Israel's bombing of his own home. He also recorded the adjacent target, a government compound controlled by Hamas. Legitimate target or not, the reader has the whole story and, thanks to Ibrahim's unyielding ethic, is able to decide for herself.

As reporters, we bestride two worlds, the one we're explaining and the one we're explaining it to. Biculturalism can only help.

Tzipi Livni, Israel's former foreign affairs minister, was in Washington, DC in January where she signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States that paved the way toward the ceasefire that ended the war.

The memorandum of understanding was vague – what was the role of the United States, and by extension the international community, in policing this ceasefire? The perfect word for what was missing is a Hebrew-Yiddish hybrid, tachles, a word that means political essence.

At a National Press Club conference on 19 January, Livni fielded a number of questions that drew us no nearer to what I wanted to know. I wondered at the time, should I show my Israeli hand by using the term she would immediately register?

I did.

And she delivered her first substantive answer: the United States and its NATO allies would police international waters in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, tracking arms smugglers.

Moments before Yitzhak Rabin was felled by an assassin in 1995, he joined in singing "Shir Lashalom" ("Song for Peace") at a rally. The song, a relic of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, had been revived by the peace movement to rally support for the Israeli prime minister's bold plans for peace.

Within minutes of Rabin's death, the world learned this message: "Raise your eyes in hope, not through rifle sights; Sing a song for love, and not for wars."

More than a few reporters at the scene could sing along, and the world was a little wiser for it.

###

* Ron Kampeas is Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 7 April 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
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