Serving the public’s best interests: A story of one journalist’s dilemma

by Akiva Eldar
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TEL AVIV – In January 2000, several days after the crucial meeting between then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, which took place under the auspices of President Bill Clinton in Shepherdstown, Virginia, I received a copy of the draft agreement the United States had presented both parties.

Being a seasoned political correspondent, I understood that publishing the secret document prematurely could embarrass the Syrians and even torpedo the negotiations. On the other hand, I knew that what I held in my hands was not only a once-in-a-lifetime scoop, the kind that could propel a whole journalistic career, but also contained information that was important, even vital, for the public to know. Among my readers are people for whom information about an opportunity to end the conflict with Syria would spur them to urge decision-makers to advance a peace treaty. On the other hand, such knowledge would send some of my readers into the streets in an attempt to prevent the territorial compromise and evacuation of settlements that such a treaty would entail.

This is one of the many moments in my long career as a political correspondent and analyst when I was torn between my ideological and ethical commitment to peace with our Arab neighbours and my professional commitment to the newspaper and my readers. As an Israeli, a Jew and a democrat, I regard peace as being of supreme value and key to the continued existence of Israel as the secure and democratic state of the Jewish people (and of all its citizens). As a journalist and writer, I regard the truth to be of supreme value and a basic condition for a trusting relationship between myself and the public on one hand and my editors on the other. How should one act, I wondered, when making this information public could undermine chances for peace, and therefore the future of my children and granddaughters?

I do not have a magic formula for solving this inner dilemma which often touches on the roots of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Each journalist must adhere to his or her own conscience, professional code and set of priorities. The principle I abide by says that a journalist, like a public servant, first and foremost serves the public. The moment I receive information I become a pipeline whose role it is to pass on the information to the readers without hesitation or delay. No one gives me the authority to conceal the truth from people. If I should choose to censor the materials I am given, I would lose the trust of my readers. Were I to conceal information that doesn’t coincide with my world view, why should my readers believe the information that does? If they were to discover that I am being selective with the facts, how could I expect them to take the columns I write to promote my views seriously?

Moreover, at the beginning of my career as a journalist, I learned that any time a politician or senior official decides to leak information or a document, it will find its way to the paper—if not through reporter x then through reporter y, and if not through the newspaper then through television. In addition, the next time that source has important information to pass on, he or she will go directly to my competitors. A journalist who loses his sources of information will sooner or later have to find another vocation and thus will lose his sway over public opinion.

My dilemma, therefore, became not whether to report or conceal the information, but how to report it. Like in other fields, responsible journalism is tested in times of crises. A lawyer who works on a divorce case must always have the children’s interests uppermost. Even if this doesn’t serve his interests, he must refrain from aggravating discord between the couple and aim for an arrangement that would best serve the interests of the minors. In our case the minors are confused readers, many of whom have lost their faith in the politicians who are leading the peace process on behalf of the public. So instead of focusing on the weak aspects of the draft and announcing in bold letters that “the negotiations between Israel and Syria have reached crisis point”, I indicated the areas where the two parties have come closer to an agreement and encouraged them to persevere in the talks.

There were indeed some (notably then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak) who claimed that leaking the document brought about the crisis in the negotiations. I believe that if countries are serious about reaching a settlement, no leaked documents will stand in their way. On the other hand, if all it takes is a leaked document to torpedo a peace agreement, it stands to reason that it wouldn’t have lasted very long in the first place.

Sadly, competition within the media, which is intensifying in the current economic situation, is dragging the newspapers and television networks into frantic pursuit of dramatic headlines and sensational images. Any difference of opinion in a negotiation is referred to as a “breakdown”, every Qassam rocket attracts live coverage, and any lightly injured person is the hero of the day. The Palestinian media and Arab television stations act in a similar fashion regarding reports from the occupied territories. Responsible journalism, on the other hand, resists painting the world in garish tabloid colours, preferring instead to give the green light to any effort at achieving peace.

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* Akiva Eldar is a senior columnist for Ha'aretz. He is the co-author of Lords of the Land: The War for Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007 (Nation Books). This article is part of a special series on responsible journalism in the Arab-Israeli conflict written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service, 16 April 2009, www.commongroundnews.org.
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
 
 
 
 
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