“… reporters are under deadline and often at risk, and many don’t speak the language and have only the most tenuous grip on what is going on.” Matti Friedman, former AP Correspondent, 8/26/2014
As I was reading “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth” written by Matti Friedman at Tablet Magazine today, I remembered my own experience as a journalist.
The year was 1973, exactly 41 years ago. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war, with the ensuing oil embargo and the Arab oil money coming into play, journalism also became a victim of the war. We could see – or better yet, read – how reporting of the conflict was taking a new direction. The “Arab narrative” was gaining space. No matter if justifiably or not, no matter if truthful of not, it was gaining space.
Nahum Sirotsky, the long time correspondent of the two largest Brazilian newspapers had been fired as the war ended.
I had just moved from Haifa a few months earlier, and was on my first year of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel-Aviv University. At the same time, was having my first steps in journalism, working at a local magazine, and also, since the Yom Kippur war, as a correspondent of Resenha Judaica – the Brazilian Jewish newspaper.
This is when my experience – of which I was reminded by Matti’s article – started.
As I returned from visiting my family in Brazil, an envelope was taped at my apartment door. The new correspondent of Sao Paulo’s largest newspaper had arrived to replace Nahum, and was asking for my help – to work with him as a stringer at Nahum’s recommendation.
Of course, this was a great opportunity and I was very excited. Soon I realized how telling this experience would be.
This new correspondent was recruited to go to Israel in a very peculiar way, as he recounted to me at that time: While he’d been based as a reporter in the Brazilian wastelands (“Pantanal”), he hosted the newspaper’s editor when the editor vacationed at the Pantanal. During that trip, the editor told him that there was an opening for a correspondent in Israel, and since the journalist was Jewish (but a self-declared Marxist), maybe he would be interested. The editor did not have to ask him twice.
Knowing only Portuguese, some French, and with no clue of what was going on in the Middle East, this new correspondent arrived in Israel. Exactly the way Matti described in his piece today – 41 years later….
He was what we called at that time, a “scissors journalist.” Today we would call him a “cut and paste” journalist. He would go to the newsstand, buy some newspapers – mainly in French – cut out some articles and build his own report based on them. Then he would give his report for me to check if it made sense, to make the necessary corrections and add my own input.
I remember one night, as I arrived at my place around 1 am, I saw a message that he was after me to review his story, and since he did not reach me, he sent it without my review. He had left a copy at my door. As I read it, I found it to be inaccurate – perhaps his lack of understanding of the subject and his poor French lead him to a conclusion totally opposite than what it should have been. I immediately called him, and realizing the mistake, he suggested we immediately meet at the United Press International (UPI) to resend the article with the appropriate correction. At that time, with no fax, much less internet, articles were sent by telex: we would give the story to a telex operator who would type it into a punctured yellow tape that was transmitted across the world.
Of course, it did not take long before I quit working with him. I could not stand him “cutting, pasting” and then twisting the story to fit his personal ideology, one that was embraced by the editors of the newspaper given the new reality.
So, here I am today, reading Matti Friedman, and seeing that not only nothing has changed, but more than that, this terrible journalism has proliferated, and has been bowing to the threats of terrorists instead of not reporting at all – which would be the right thing to do in this case.
Worst than that, it feeds many op-eds and opinion makers, thus contributing to a distortion and even rewriting of history. As Matti says: “The world is not responding to events in this country, but rather to the description of these events by news organizations.”
It is incumbent on us to spread articles like the ones of Matti Friedman, so that as many people as possible become aware of this reality.
Many journalists think of themselves as the watchdogs of our world. We need to be their watchdogs.