Back in November 1977, William Safire coined the phrase "Cronkite diplomacy" to describe the successful efforts of the fabled TV anchorman to broker on-air, via joint interviews with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, the latter's ground-breaking visit to Jerusalem.
I don't think anyone's going to start yet discussing "al-Shafi diplomacy," but there's no doubt that Channel 2's Gaza reporter scored the journalistic coup of the week, with his phone interview on Tuesday in which Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said he was prepared to negotiate a cease-fire of rocket attacks on Israel.
An Israeli Arab, al-Shafi is still able to report from Gaza, where his journalistic peers, and even many foreign reporters, fear to tread. Perhaps as a measure of extra insurance, he published an opinion piece in Haaretz last July titled "A bit of mercy," in which he argued the case of regular Gazans suffering "bombardment, casualties, destruction and bloodshed." It also included the plea of a Gazan mother named Najwa Sheikh, who has lost faith in such leaders as Haniyeh, and felt she should "go over their heads and tell her story to ordinary Israelis," because "only with this enemy is it possible to make peace."
In talking with al-Shafi, this appears to also be in some degree Haniyeh's strategy, since according to reports he also sent out private feelers for talks with Israel that have yet to be reciprocated. Hamas spokesman Rivhi Rantisi - yup, yet another Hamas Rantisi, of which there seems no end - speaking to Army Radio the day after the Haniyeh comments, assured listeners that his boss was motivated solely by his concern for the travails of ordinary Gazans.
Appealing directly to the public through the media can indeed sometimes be an effective strategy for leaders who find official channels blocked, but somehow I don't think that will be the case here.
It certainly doesn't help Haniyeh's case that just a few days earlier, he was pledging eternal "resistance and jihad" against Israel before a massive crowd at Hamas's 20th anniversary rally.
Nor does his sudden concern for the Gazan public sound particularly convincing, coming right after Israel successfully carried out pinpoint strikes against a dozen top Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists without killing civilian bystanders these groups don't hesitate to use as human shields. One can't help thinking that it is more his own skin that Haniyeh is far more concerned about nowadays than that of his people.
As a fellow journalist, I give kudos to al-Shafi for his impressive scoop this week. But I don't see it leading to any diplomatic breakthrough; the problem here is not that al-Shafi is no Walter Cronkite, but that Haniyeh is surely no Anwar Sadat.
THE OTHER big TV news scoop of the week was Channel 10's Internet sting operation, done in cooperation with the Israel Police, which netted the arrest of 11 men for soliciting sex with a minor.
Channel 10 investigators entered Web chat rooms in the guise of 13-year-old girls, who were then approached by various men trying to start up a relationship with them, and in some cases supplied them with pornographic material. When asked by the men for a face-to-face meeting, the "girls" invited the suspects to their "homes" while their parents were supposedly away. When the men entered the hidden camera-rigged house to meet the young-looking actresses hired to play the girls, they were joined shortly afterwards by reporter Dov Gilhar, and police officers who placed them under arrest.
The report, broadcast Sunday night, undeniably made for compelling television. And certainly all of us, especially parents of young children who already know how to use the Internet, have to be satisfied with the results. This is especially so, since pedophile cases in the past have been notoriously difficult to prosecute, due to the myriad problems in using testimony from children, something not necessary in this instance.
Still, this approach to nabbing pedophiles raises some tricky questions about the interrelationship between law enforcement and media, and the role of privacy in the criminal justice system.
First off, although Channel 10 is taking credit as the first local news outlet to pull off this kind of operation, the idea comes straight from the US. The NBC-TV current affairs program, "Dateline," has run a whole series of such reports about online pedophiles, under the title "To Catch a Predator."
For the most part the results have been impressive, with the sting netting on-camera dozens of suspects, including teachers, clergymen and public officials.
But serious reservations began to be raised last summer, when "Dateline" ran such an operation in the town of Murphy, Texas. One of the suspects ended up committing suicide by shooting himself, while police and a television crew were waiting outside the door of his home.
Then the local district attorney decided not to prosecute most of the cases, in some instances citing jurisdiction issues, and in others the fact that the evidence might be tainted because the media was so directly involved.
"The fact that somebody besides police were involved is what makes these cases bad," Murphy DA John Coburn told AP, whose report on the incident also quoted defense attorney Eric Chase: "Police should not be abdicating a very important function to either private organizations or entertainment organizations."
There's no reason, though, why a private news operation like Channel 10 isn't free to pursue such an investigation, or that undermanned police, especially when it comes to something so new and widespread like tracking online sex offenses, should not necessarily utilize that resource.
That said, the notion of police and media working so closely together at the very inception of such an investigative project raises all kinds of tricky civil-liberty issues, to say nothing of journalistic ethics. Technically, all this may be entirely legal; yet I have to wonder what would happen if one of those alleged offenders who had their faces plastered on Channel 10 this week ended up doing something as dramatic as taking his own life.
As a concerned parent myself, I'm certainly happy something is being done here to patrol the Internet for sexual predators. But Channel 10 and the police have undoubtedly opened a Pandora's Box of sorts, and must tread very, very carefully when using these kind of investigative tactics.
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