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January 26, 2003

The trouble with honest reporting

by Antonia Zerbisias

Once more into the minefield ...

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.

The Canadian 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 Israeli history.

(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 Fraser.)

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 press corps."

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.

"It's an 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.

I've learned 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 over Palestinians.

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 quite appropriate.

"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 Israelis.

"I believe (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 impossible circumstances."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

The Toronto Star


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