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My first editor had a strict rule: "When in doubt - out." As a result, many good stories - ones that we weren't able to fully prove - never saw the light of day.
Over the last few days I've been rethinking that principle. Perhaps there should be a lower threshold for absolute proof when an issue of clear public interest is at stake.
This week on his NFC Web site, investigative reporter Yoav Yitzhak published two reports of alleged corruption on the part of Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The first, on Sunday, was about a "fictitious" arbitration that Olmert had made between the Betar Jerusalem soccer team and its former owner, Moshe Dadash. The story was discussed on the air for a mere few hours - until the registrar of non-profit organizations announced that the arbitration had been totally legitimate.
It's too early to tell how long the second report - on the serious question marks punctuating the sale of Olmert's Jerusalem house to billionaire Daniel Abraham - will persist.
More relevant, as far as this column is concerned, is the fierce criticism that Yitzhak leveled at the mainstream media - specifically Yediot Aharonot, Haaretz and Channel 2 - for "sitting on" reports of Olmert's corruption by not publishing the details of the stories, for fear of running foul of the future prime minister.
After Yitzhak's accusations were posted on NFC, Haaretz rushed to its own Web site to post part of a large report on Olmert's shenanigans that was slated to appear on Friday - which, it turned out, prompted the decision of the State Comptroller to investigate the house sale. So, perhaps Yitzhak's accusations were too hasty. Regarding the other papers and networks, too, matters are more complex than Yitzhak made them out to be. To be sure, financial and personal interests, as well as external pressures, affect the tone of reportage in general - and even some embarrassing reports specifically. But there's a much more simple reason for the absence of such reports.
Every journalist has a list of stories about politicians taking bribes and granting favors that he will never publish. This is due less to threats and pressures than to the information behind the stories being patchy, and to none of their sources being willing to testify in court in the likely event of libel cases.
In addition, a serious and seasoned politician who breaks the law tends to be scrupulous about covering his tracks, making sure that every exposed action is backed up by reams of paperwork. The chances of a journalist penetrating the safeguards are extremely slim. It is for this reason that the politicians whose dubious dealings are eventually exposed by the press are usually those from the lower echelons - like Yair Peretz, Nomi Blumenthal and Yehiel Hazan. They are relatively easy to catch, not because the media went looking for them especially, but because they are simply not as well-versed in the art of hiding incriminating facts as their more senior colleagues are. In other words, smart pols don't get caught.
LET'S ASSUME - hypothetically, of course - that senior ministers are involved in various corrupt schemes. We can also be pretty certain that teams of top lawyers are on standby if anyone starts asking too many questions.
What kind of chance do reporters with limited resources stand against such superior forces? What can we do?
The standard answer is that we only publish verified information. On the other hand, shouldn't there be another kind of responsibility that obliges the press to share with the public suspicions against its leaders - particularly on the eve of elections?
Yoav Yitzhak practices what he preaches. His Web site regularly reports on serious allegations of corruption among the high and mighty. Though some of his reports are easily deflected, nevertheless he has had many coups, the most memorable of which was the illegal loan that former president Ezer Weizman received from Edward Sarousi.
That Yitzhak doesn't always have actual proof of his investigations doesn't mean he is less reliable than his counterparts in the more mainstream media. It does mean that he takes a higher degree of risk than others. He plays a similar role to that of independent Web sites and blogs - such as the "Drudge Report" - in the US.
Over the last few years, scandals that seemed too delicate or dangerous for the major newspapers or networks have first surfaced on the Internet. And, depending on the reception they receive online, they are then often taken up by the mainstream.
This is exactly what happened with NFC's reports on Olmert's house this week. In spite of the fact that by next week the whole story might blow over - and not make a dent in Kadima's success - at least Yitzhak can chalk up one victory to his credit: He is the first journalist to make the rest of the media finally deal seriously with the corruption issue. Well, at least for 24 hours, that is.
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