Rihannagate: Trial by Error

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We all screw up. It’s an inescapably frustrating aspect of the human condition. Strive as we might for perfection, we all do it - we forget things, we make bad decisions, mishear, misinterpret and mismanage information. We do it in our private lives and in our professional lives. Waitresses bring the wrong order. Programmers leave bugs in the code. Even, horrifically, surgeons make the wrong incision.

Journalism is no exception. Reporters make mistakes. Editors fail to catch the mistakes of reporters, and can introduce new errors of their own.

Luckily, in the age of the Internet, publications can not only retract such mistakes but change the offending text. In the old days, you couldn’t un-print the newspaper like you can change an article on the World Wide Web.

What is less lucky about our modern age is that while back in the day a journalist's mistake was contained to his own outlet, today, as information speeds across the Internet rapid-fire, replicated in web site after web site, it makes putting the genie of inaccurate information back in the bottle impossible.

In this context, mistakes like the one made in a recent Haaretz article, when a reporter at a massive concert misheard the superstar Rihanna and reported that she substituted the word “Palestine” for “dollar signs” in one of her song lyrics, the result was a doozy.

If the journalist in question was writing about a municipal election or 99 percent of what Haaretz regularly covers, the mistake could have been quickly and quietly straightened out. But this was Rihanna. Journalistic errors involving coverage of celebrity superstars are up there with slip-ups by politicians, big companies, sports figures and movie stars when it comes to attracting attention. Rihanna herself has suffered her fair share. They are public and they are embarrassing. I am certain that everybody at Haaretz - not least the reporter herself - wishes it had not happened.

Now that we have established what did happen - a mistake - let’s talk about what didn’t take place.

A ‘lie’ didn’t happen. ‘Lies’ occur when someone purposely obscures and twists the truth. ‘Mistakes’ occur when someone accidentally reports the wrong thing.

A “malevolent agenda” wasn’t being pushed forward. There was no master plan.

The theory goes in some unhinged corners of the Internet that Rihanna’s lyric was purposely misreported in order to demonstrate that Rihanna really, deep down, does hate Israel, even though she ignored pressure to boycott the Jewish state. Because the goal of Haaretz as 'an Arab propaganda tool' don’t you know, is to prop up the BDS movement and speed along the pace of Israel’s destruction.

I get that there are people who strongly disagree with Haaretz’s political slant, and the positions of several of its writers. I like a good political argument as much as anyone else. You disagree with something? Speak up. But to take pure human error, and attribute malevolent motives and weaving it into a grand conspiracy theory is simultaneously laughable and shameful.

Such a plot would have to be one heck of a conspiracy, involving the large cast of characters in the Haaretz English-language newsroom, all of us cleverly disguised as immigrants from English-speaking countries, all of whom hate Israel so much we chose to live here, employed by a newspaper that's been pretending to be Zionist since 1918.

And the supposed point person of this nefarious plan, the purveyor of the supposedly purposely false information? A freelancer for Haaretz, a respected journalist of 15 years who has written for a long list of high-profile mainstream publications in the United States, and an editor at such hostile anti-Israel hotbeds such as The Jerusalem Post and The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

Yes, this theory makes lots of sense. So much more than a simple story that someone heard something wrong, they reported what they thought they heard, an inaccurate story was published, the mistake was pointed out and a retraction was published.

Such a version of events, it seems, is far too boring for the hordes of righteous keyboard warriors whose self-appointed mission is to blacken the reputation of a publication that dares to publish views with which they disagree, viewing the obscene insults they spread across social media as some twisted form of service to the Israeli cause.

Scrutiny and demand for accuracy in the press is a good and healthy thing. Mistakes should be caught and pointed out, whether the errors benefit those on the right or on the left. But spewing poisonous bile and malicious far-fetched conspiracy theories in response to an honest error should only be the purview of those who never, ever, make mistakes.

Rihanna performing at Hayarkon Park, Tel Aviv, Oct. 22, 2013Credit: Daniel Tchetchik