Freedom of the press and good taste

“What do you mean I’m an antisemite? My wife is Jewish!”

Then-US delegate to the United Nations General Assembly Eleanor Roosevelt holds the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish, in 1948 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Then-US delegate to the United Nations General Assembly Eleanor Roosevelt holds the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish, in 1948
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE NEW York Times correspondent looked at me, totally puzzled. This was a long time ago, in a conversation taking place in the storied lobby of the King David Hotel.
“What do you mean I’m an antisemite? My wife is Jewish!”
“OK,” I said, “you are not to blame. I bet your editor told you, ‘When you get to Israel, put it under a magnifying glass.’”
“How did you know? That’s exactly what he said.”
The conversation is imprinted deeply into the memory cells of my brain, so let’s skip the details and go right to the end.
I told the correspondent: “What the editor did was set a double standard. Israel is under a magnifying glass. India, for example, incomparably larger, is not. The Arab states are not.”
The correspondent settled into an uneasy silence.
The publishers of The New York Times have been anti-Zionist from day one. That does not preclude the paper, at times trying to rebalance by publishing favorable reports, but the slogan “All the news that’s fit to print” means someone decides what’s fit to print and what is more fit to print.
This is not to attack The New York Times, but to show how this “bastion of democracy” and “newspaper of record” is finally answerable to its publisher. And if that is so, certainly it applies to all others as well. And, in these days when print media are struggling to survive as the world turns more and more to the web for its news coverage, publishers are even more pressed to cut expenses by reducing the number of pages for news or opinion coverage and shrinking staff.
To bring matters home, would Haaretz, which today pursues a far-left line, publish a photo of Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wielding a knife dripping with blood? Doubtful, at the very least. Would Israel Hayom, financed by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, publish an attack on gambling? Come on, of course not.
Since working as a newspaperman and later even more clearly as the media spokesman for a prime minister, I understood that the editor is “smarter” than the reporter, and the publisher is “smarter” than the editor. There is a red line every editor or proprietor will not cross.
For example, I saw The Jerusalem Post generally moving in step with the Labor-led governments. Then the paper was sold and – voila – it became voraciously right-wing. It has now swung, as I see it, to a more balanced position under the leadership of Steven Linde and now of Yaakov Katz.
A more egregious and absolutely clear example is the efforts of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to secure favorable coverage in Yedioth Ahronoth in meetings with Arnon Mozes, its publisher.
The Atlantic magazine (February 21, 2018) even wrote:
“Former editors and writers at Yedioth have described a ‘favorites list’ kept by the paper’s senior management, which reportedly includes the names of politicians, business moguls, and other powerful people who helped advance the Mozes family’s interests. In return, they have received positive coverage, according to former Yedioth workers. The paper’s management has consistently denied these allegations.”
Obviously, the press is freer in the West than in those countries where journalists are imprisoned or assassinated, but that freedom is or can be limited by a line that proprietors set. Having said all that, let us turn to the freedom of reporters. These women and men need sources and there is often a “one hand washes the other” situation. The politician or the spokesman will leak or tip off reporters who then owe one to their source.
Most startling to me was Wolf Blitzer of CNN speaking to an American Friends of the Hebrew University meeting in Washington in the early 1990s. He said, as I recall it: “When I report from state or war [departments] with their seal behind me on screen, I have to be very careful what I say because some people may think this is an official report.”
There was a case in Israel when a member of the Jewish Agency demanded that the then-chairman, Leon Dulzin, resign over an issue too lengthy for this column. That member was interviewed on Israel TV Channel 1. But Israel Radio news was silent on the issue. It seemed rather clear that there was a special relationship between Dulzin’s spokesman and one of Israel Radio’s reporters.
In other words, an experienced eye can often identify who is behind which report. It is not unreasonable to assume that the source will gain favor in the eyes of the reporter. But any reporter who is worth her or his salt would not hesitate to publish a story about a source if clear proof of wrongdoing were substantiated.
Freedom of Expression
Every person has the right to freedom of expression as, for example, was promulgated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That was in 1948, and that right barely exists in many parts of the world.
But even that sweeping statement was limited in the following few decades. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights limited that freedom, and called for respect of the rights or reputations of others. Israel is a signatory to the Covenant (which also enjoins full equality of all men and women without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. That might get the government out of the corner it has painted itself into.).
There is a point that can be crossed by any of us. But to claim that the Jerusalem Report (and its sister The Jerusalem Post) do not allow criticism of the prime minister is total nonsense. My criticisms have never been altered. I also have even written about “porcine capitalism.” But there is a difference between characterizing ultra-capitalism as pig-like and writing “Mr. X is a pig.”
There was, in my opinion, a clash of the freedom principle with another – of not harming others – as well as a lapse of taste involved in printing Avi Katz’s cartoon showing Sara Netanyahu behind bars when her case has yet to be adjudicated. There was a problem with his cartoon showing members of the government as pigs. The symbol is as abhorrent to most Jews as it is to Muslims. In halachic (Jewish law) discourse, the animal is often referred to in Hebrew as “davar aher,” which means “the other thing,” or a negative “something else.”
Often, in every profession, there is a place where one principle conflicts with another. I faced this kind of dilemma daily, it seems, during my work in senior public positions. But what we have seen in what I have written here, there are limitations on any freedom. And even in the freest of countries, the media – like everything in life – is not absolutely free.
Finally, dear readers, if the editor is “smarter” than the reporter, and the publisher “smarter” than the editor, ultimately, it is the reader who tops them all.
The author knows that many will agree and disagree with this column. Comments are welcome to