A friend of mine, a Lebanese journalist, tells the following story:
Three years ago, when his country was under Syrian control, he was stopped at a surprise Syrian roadblock north of Beirut. A strong-looking mustachioed officer asked to see his papers. He examined them in silence for a long time as my friend's heart began to flutter. What had he done wrong, he wondered. Maybe it was all because of a sarcastic column he wrote about Syrian President Bashar Assad?
The officer's voice interrupted his thoughts. "So, you're a journalist?" he asked. My friend confirmed his profession. "I've wanted to talk to a journalist for a long time," the officer said. "Your profession is a strange one. What do you write about in the newspaper? Just what happened and that's it?"
"God forbid," my friend responded. "Not just what happens. We also write about what might have happened, what we heard has happened, and what might happen."
"I understand," said the officer. "Very interesting." With that, he gave my friend back his papers and sent him on his way.
I was reminded of this story after The New Yorker published an article three months ago dealing with the Bush administration's attitude toward Sunnis and Shi'ites, written by investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner Seymour Hersh. In the article, Hersh wrote that the U.S. administration, embracing realpolitik, was siding with the Sunnis in their conflict with the Shi'ites. This led the administration to cooperate even with those who are hostile toward the United States, including groups linked to Al-Qaida. To back up his claim, Hersh wrote that the United States was transferring funds to the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, even though it knew some of the money was going to the Palestinian group Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon. (The article was published about two months before fighting broke out between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army.)
Sharp-eyed reporters in Beirut read the article in astonishment. Siniora, of the Lebanese Sunni establishment, was assisting allies of Al-Qaida who had split off from a pro-Syrian organization? And the United States was aware of this and might even be planning it, in order to strike at Hezbollah? And all this was in the context of aid to the Sunni forces in the Middle East in their conflict with Shi'ites backed, according to Hersh, by Iran? A world turned on its head. How could it be?
But it was published in The New Yorker, a magazine known for its meticulous fact-checking. The Lebanese reporters began investigating the story on their own.
Hersh said he heard the story from Robert Fisk, the bureau chief of The Independent's Beirut office. But Hersh did not check out the story himself. For his part, Fisk said he heard the unconfirmed report from Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence agent and the founding director and Middle East representative of the Conflicts Forum, a non-profit organization that aims to build a new relationship between the West and the Muslim world. Crooke, who gained his reputation through his involvement in the conflict in northern Ireland, does not know Arabic. When Lebanese journalists spoke to Crooke about the report, they said he told them only that he had heard it "from all kinds of people."
Thus are reports about the Middle East generated, I thought to myself. And this is a case involving two well-known journalists and an even more well-known magazine.
And suddenly I thought of a British ditty from the beginning of the last century:
"You do not have
To bribe or twist
Of the British journalist
Considering what he would do
There is no reason to."
Inspired by the "caveat emptor" principle of Roman law, which sounds a note of caution for potential buyers, media consumers should heed the unwritten warning, "Reader beware." And some criticism within the journalistic profession wouldn't hurt either.
The author is a professor of Islamic History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.