Part 4 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.
Since we have just broached the Middle East, what are the special challenges for reporting from there. What are the challenges in reporting around highly emotive issues more generally?
Where do you begin? If we are talking about Israel and Palestine, we are talking about two national movements, with their own histories, their own set of grievances and their own interpretation of their history and the relationship to each other and how they have treated each other over now 100 years. Plus, the national histories go back way before that. So what you have is an armed struggle between two national movements. And inevitably those two movements are going to – because it is an ongoing war â€“ mobilize every fact and every tool and every potential weapon as part of that struggle. And the press, the media simply becomes another stage, if you will, another battleground in that struggle.
And I think we have to be constantly aware of the fact that we are – we walk in their trying to be neutral observers, trying to capture truth as best as we can â€“ we are constantly being told to not be neutral observers, constantly being pulled in one direction or another, intimidated, coerced, seduced, and if we don’t fulfill the demands of each side then we are under attack â€“ sometimes physical attack, oftentimes emotional, verbal -all of that. So, you have to go in there with an understanding, or you learn over time, just who you are and who they are and what they want from you and they are not going to be satisfied with your neutral best, even-handed approach. That’s not gonna work for them. They are going to be part of your audience but you are not really working for them, and you are not writing for them. You are writing for the world, if you will, especially now. So, your obligations are first and foremost are to the readers, to your customers â€“ whatever you want to call them and to the truth as best as you can discover.
And so I have very little patience with journalists who fall victims to one side or the other if you will or who eventually take on the coloration of one side or the other. It is easy to do, there is plenty of justification you could have for doing it but it’s not what I see my role as. There is certainly room for journalists who become advocates, who become highly critical. Take someone like Robert Fisk, a correspondent for The Independent. I have great admiration for Robert Fisk’s for this courage, for his enterprise, and for his writing ability. I consider Bob to be a strong advocate of a certain point of view. And there is a role for him and a role for people for people like him and a role for people who are very supportive of the state of Israel; I don’t see my role and the role of Washington Post to be similar to that. I think we play a very different role. I think in a way – it’s in some ways harder, and in some ways easier. What Bob does per se, the personal courage of Bob, the risks he takes, the beliefs he has â€“ I don’t question them at all. I don’t agree with the journalism because it’s not the kind of journalism I am seeking to practice. I think that he belongs on one side of the spectrum; he is valuable and useful for people to read. What we do, try to do is something very different.
Its really hard to do, because the struggle, the constant demands on you from people who have real grievances â€“ I mean you know it is hard to find a family on either side of the divide from those national movements who haven’t had a direct personal loss at this point, who haven’t lost a family member, whose lives haven’t been affected in some horrible way by this struggle. Its very much a war of populations. Its not just governments fighting each other and enlisting people in the army and going off to a battlefield and fighting, it is a war which takes place within the civilian populations of both communities, both national movements. So, it becomes, even more, person and intimate. It is an inter-communal war where everyone is a soldier whether they want to be or not. Trotsky once said that you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. This kind of war allows no one to be a neutral observer. You can be a shop keeper in Ramallah and simply want to do business every day – you are not allowed to do that in this war because the Israeli army will come and shut you down because you are in middle on an unrest zone or Palestinian kids will come back at you and make you open up, your child trying to go to school on a given day could be shot, school can be closed, so many things could go wrong and then its your kid out there throwing rocks at a tank and your kid rebelling against you as well as the Israeli occupier. So many things happen. So many lives have been lost.
My job as a journalist is to try to understand all of that, to get within that process, and to meet these people and to write about them in a world they live in with empathy and understanding and at the same time to stand outside of it and to be critical of both sides and their inability to get beyond this and to find a way out of this.
It’s a beautiful job in a sense because I could be one day in a family’s home in Nablus talking about their dead son, who was killed by Israeli soldiers, and who he was and what happened and how they feel about him, and I could be at Tel Aviv next day at the ministry of defense talking to Yitzhak Rabin about how he sees the situation in Nablus and what he thinks he is trying to do. No one else is allowed to move between those two poles. No one else but a journalist can see all the things or can see both sides in that way, and there are times when of course both sides try to prevent our access to both sides. In Iraq, it is impossible to do what I have just described because the physical threat is so huge. In Israel and Palestine, at times it has been very very difficult because the army may seal off Nablus or the Palestinian authority police won’t let you in within an area. Lots of things can happen to prevent that access. But our job is to go to both those places and to talk to all those people and to process and understand what we are hearing, and to understand both the delusions, if you will, and the assumptions and the limited knowledge both sides are working under about each other and to present the best we can to our readers.
Some people have pointed to the distinction between being balanced and being accurate. They see a journalist’s responsibility towards being accurate and not particularly towards being balanced. Tell me a little more about your thoughts on the issue.
I don’t agree with a notion that there is a contradiction or an inherent conflict between being fair and even-handed and being accurate. When I talk about being fair and even-handed, it’s not a ‘on the one hand and on the other hand’ kind of journalism. I think inherent in our assumptions and the way we write stories, a good journalist conveys the truth as best he or she can.
The even-handedness involves being fair, understanding the assumptions that both sides are making, their motives, their imperatives, their personal constituencies â€“ why is prime minister of Israel making a certain decision at some point, what are the political reasons behind that, what are his own constituents demanding of him? Understanding the internal dynamic of why he may make a decision is not the same thing as apologizing for him.
I think that the heart of accuracy is to be even-handed and to be fair and at the same time telling the truth as best as we could find it. The fact that you give everyone a chance to explain themselves in a story doesn’t mean that the story isn’t clear about whats going on. If a massacre occurs, if Israeli army guns down six or eight Palestinian women standing outside a mosque where they are protecting or putting their bodies in front of Hamas fighters, which happened a couple of weeks ago in Gaza. Reporting on that â€“ telling the truth about who opened fire, and how it was done and the fact these people are dead and what people is Gaza feel about that. Going back to the army and figuring out what were the rules of engagement, who did that. Reporting as best as we can â€“ reporting the Israeli apology but at the same time reporting the rules of engagement and whether this was about the individual initiative of the soldiers – I think all of that is important and all of that speaks to the truth of the situation.
It’s our obligation to report the whole thing; to see the whole complex picture of what went on. That doesn’t take away from the horror of what happened. I think in some the explaining of how it happened and to allow both sides to explain that does not say – we don’t know what the truth is, on the one hand, one the other hand. That’s not what that kind of reporting does. That kind of reporting brings you insight into how that kind of thing can happen. I think its the most valuable reporting we do and I don’t think â€“ I think you can be very critical and provide your readers with a real understanding so that they can make their own judgment about it. Your story will guide them to a judgment.
I always thought it was most important in covering a conflict to make sure each side understood the price of what they were doing. If you are in Israel and you say that it is really important to the hold the West Bank, there is no way we can give that up. We are killing two Palestinian kids a day right now, and we are doing damage to our own army. I always felt that the journalist’s role was to make sure that everyone, our readers, understood what the price was, understood what this number 2 a day consisted of â€“ who those people were â€“ that they had families that they had fathers and mothers, that they were out there doing whatever they were doing, what their motives were. I felt that our role to make sure everybody understands the price and consequences of their actions. If you can do that, you have done a lot. I really believe deeply that it’s both.