The trouble with honest reporting
Once more into the
In my 30 years as a
journalist, I have received only two notices of libel. Both related to
media coverage of the Middle East, more specifically the conflict
between Arabs and Jews in Israel. I have also been targeted by B'nai
Brith, been buried by nasty emails and been reviled on a number of
hateful Web sites/logs where I stand accused of anti-Semitism and
promoting the cause of radical Islamists.
And I don't even
report on the Middle East; I report on the reporting of the Middle East.
So imagine what it's like being in the direct line of fire.
journalist who has most felt the fury of the so-called "honest
reporting" watchdogs is CBC-TV's Neil Macdonald who, along with his wife
Joyce Napier, has been covering some of the more difficult years in
(In the interest of
disclosure, I should say that I am friendly with the couple, as I am
with many journalists I write about. It's a small country and a smaller
business. I should also add that I am under contract to CBC as co-host
of Newsworld's Inside Media, along with The National Post's Matthew
Once again this
week, Macdonald was smeared by the usual Web sites for a supposed
"scheme to embarrass Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by organizing a
boycott of a (cocktail) reception held in Jerusalem for the foreign
As if hoisting a few
with Israeli government flacks constitutes journalism. Or refusing to
chug-a-lug along reveals bias.
The revelation came
in the midst of yet another journalistic dust-up, one between CBC's
chief news editor Tony Burman and Norman Spector, Canada's former
ambassador to Israel, a one-time publisher of the Conrad Black-owned The
Jerusalem Post, a regular columnist in The Globe and Mail and a frequent
commentator on CBC-TV and radio programming.
Very long story very
short, last month, in the wake of the shocking anti-Semitic comments
made by native leader David Ahenakew, Spector wrote a piece published in
CanWest Global-owned newspapers, blaming CBC's "biased" Middle East
coverage for, among other things, "encourag(ing) demented views such as
these," ideas that incite hatred against Jews.
"If you watch the
CBC, that is the kind of image that comes through," Spector told me last
week. "I know that it's a strong charge and I am quite willing to back
it up. The reason it does is the way it frames the story – as the big
bad powerful Israelis besieging the poor beleaguered Palestinians and
the root cause of the conflict is the occupation, the settlements."
Calling this a
"contemptible smear," Burman demanded a withdrawal and then Spector
fired off a bunch more columns in both CanWest papers as well as in his
Globe column. And then Global Sunday offered to host a debate between
them and then CBC offered to carry the debate and then the negotiating
began and then the negotiations went on and then the negotiations broke
down and then Spector wrote columns about Burman backing out and then he
posted his thoughts and exchange of e-mails with CBC on the Canadian
Association of Journalists' (CAJ) Web ring where, last I looked, the
debate was still raging among hacks.
Both Burman and
Spector insist that the other side withdrew from the debate.
extraordinary thing that Burman would not be defending his coverage,
leaving his troops bleeding on the battlefield," Spector said to me,
clearly spoiling for a war of words.
Then, last week, the
CAJ itself offered to provide a debating forum. Spector agreed in
principle but Burman declined.
Which, to tell you
the truth, is, as they say in Yiddish, nisht ahir un nish aher because a
debate, whether it happens or not, is simply not relevant to the issue
here which is how difficult it is to cover this breathtakingly complex
and emotional issue.
painfully that, even when you cover a documentary about the situation,
you'd best consult the entire history department of Israel's Hebrew
University before you commit a word to keyboard. And, if you're going to
put something in historical context, you had better be prepared to go
back very far, even unto the Book of Genesis.
Two weeks ago, CBC
actually commissioned an Ekos poll which asked a scientific sample of
Canadians if they thought the broadcaster was biased in its presentation
of the conflict. Not only was CBC seen as significantly less biased than
other national media, the perceived bias was seen as favouring Israelis
Judging by the
reaction on the CAJ ring, journalists think Macdonald is doing a
terrific job under very tough circumstances.
But it was Alan
Bass, chair of the journalism school at the University College of the
Cariboo in B.C., who summed it up best when he wrote:
"As I recall Neil's
address to last year's CAJ annual meeting, he indicated that he tries to
report on what he sees from the perspective of an ordinary North
American who has no ties to either side. I think that's why his reports
often have an 'everybody here is totally f----d up and it's horrific and
disgusting' tone that can be aggravating at times but also often seems
"Anybody with half a
brain and no axe to grind will notice that Neil's disgust is aimed at
Palestinian tactics and objectives as often as it is aimed at the
(Spector's) purpose in making these recent accusations against the CBC
is to plant seeds of doubt and self-questioning in the minds of all
Canadian journalists in hopes that, somewhere along the decision-making
tree that produces news, someone will decide to ease off a bit on
material that could be seen as being critical of Israel ...
"My advice (for what
it's worth) to Neil, the CBC and all the other journalists trying to
sift through the blood and the spin and the history is this: Don't let
Spector get to you. Keep on trying to do the best job possible in
Couldn't have said
it better myself.
© The Toronto Star