Why Journalism Is Scary - or at Least Amusing: Mr. Friedman Returns to Israel

New York Times columnist says he was simply reiterating what he’d read in Haaretz, which had become 'public knowledge,' when he wrote his last column.

Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher
Ilene Prusher

With digital technology rapidly changing the face of journalism, it’s pure entertainment to listen to Thomas L. Friedman, the inveterate New York Times columnist, describe filing his stories from war-rattled Lebanon in the 1980s. He had to bang out several versions of his stories on a typewriter and then feed the final version to the city’s sole telex machine operator, three painstaking paragraphs at a time.

One day the telex lost power and he couldn’t file the story he’d worked so hard to write. His editors at the Times ran an Associated Press story instead, announcing to the world in a banner headline that the PLO had withdrawn from Beirut – the journalistic equivalent of getting a flat tire just as you were poised to win the Tour de France.

These days, it’s not only difficult to imagine journalists having such a tenuous thread to the outside world, but it’s hard to fathom anyone out-scooping Tom Friedman. On the contrary, he’s more likely to get credit for a scoop – and then quoted around the globe – when he has no idea he was offering anything particularly exclusive.

His visit to Israel this week is a case in point. After attending an annual conference Tuesday at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, he filed a column called “Why Kerry is Scary,” which ran in Wednesday’s New York Times. In it, he wrote: “The ‘Kerry Plan,’ likely to be unveiled soon, is expected to call for an end to the conflict and all claims, following a phased Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (based on the 1967 lines), with unprecedented security arrangements in the strategic Jordan Valley. The Israeli withdrawal will not include certain settlement blocs, but Israel will compensate the Palestinians for them with Israeli territory. It will call for the Palestinians to have a capital in Arab East Jerusalem and for Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. It will not include any right of return for Palestinian refugees into Israel proper.”

The column was widely quoted as a definitive development across the Israeli media. And when Friedman spoke at the Jerusalem Press Club on Thursday night, Uri Dromi, the JPC director, gave him a “mazal tov” on the important scoop.

Friedman chuckled and said he’d thought he was simply reiterating what he’d read in Haaretz.

“Haaretz had already had it,” Friedman shrugged with a sheepish smile. “I didn't think I was saying anything that was news. I thought it was already in the public realm.” The dynamic, in fact, is an almost amusingly well-worn one. The Israeli media often have to wait until something important is published in the international press for it to be reportable in Israel – or in some cases, to be taken seriously. From the leaks about Israel’s nuclear program, first published in the Sunday Times in 1986, to the more recent Prisoner X scandal in which foreign papers were reporting important details while Israeli reporters were compelled to obey a state-issued gag order, there has long been a strangely symbiotic relationship between the Israeli and foreign media.

During dinner at the JPC after the event, Friedman said he found it rather amusing that his column was being quoted as if he’d actually broken news. He’d seen similar reports in Haaretz and elsewhere, he said, that he had come to consider these basic bullet points of Kerry’s plan to be “public knowledge” and not even in need of a specific source.

“And then all the papers started quoting me, but I thought what I wrote was already out there in the public sphere,” Friedman explained.

“Because you wrote it, it becomes a reality,” offered an old friend, Yaron Ezrahi, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Your article gave it the status of fact that it didn’t have before.”

Friedman nodded affably. “All I know is that when I checked with the State Department officials, no one was denying it.”

A three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the author of such award-winning books at “From Beirut to Jerusalem” and “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” Friedman has reached an almost unparalleled level of authoritativeness in the foreign policy community. Although critics do occasionally take him to task for making a bad call – he is still having to defend his support of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (“I was in a small group of liberal hawks who supported the war for democracy reasons, not WMD reasons,” he explained to the audience at Miskenot Sha’ananim, where the JPC is located, on Tuesday night) – he continues to have a knack for tapping into the global zeitgeist, making complicated international issues understandable, and offering creative policy prescriptions wherever he sees fit.

It’s not the first time he’s broken a major Middle East story almost unintentionally, as if he stumbled into it. At Thursday’s talk, he described his 2002 meeting with the then-Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, in which Friedman told his Saudi host that he was about to write one of his famous “phony” columns in which he pretends to be one world leader writing to another. In it, he outlined the idea of a Saudi ruler offering a peace initiative in which the entire Arab world would make peace with Israel and normalize in exchange for a withdrawal from the occupied territories. Abdullah said it was exactly what he was thinking, and through some persuasiveness on Friedman’s part, the prince let Friedman run with it. It became the Saudi Peace Initiative, sometimes called the Arab Peace Initiative because it was picked up by the Arab League.

Is that proposal still on the table? “It’s still possible for it to be relevant, but the full effect would be blunted now,” Friedman says. “What is the Arab League anymore?”

Friedman says that many of his columns work this way. He has a theory, and then he runs it by his sources. Despite the image the world has of a famous columnist like himself, this doesn't involve a leisurely, three-martini lunch every day. “Ninety percent of my interactions with senior officials are me calling them up and saying, ‘Just tell me if I’ve got this right.’”

Friedman explained that the gist of the piece was trying to make sense of why Kerry would invest so heavily in what so far has proved a thankless job: trying to broker Israeli-Palestinian peace. “My main point in that column is that I think what Kerry is testing out is whether it’s five minutes to midnight and whether it’s still possible to reach a solution, or whether it’s five minutes after midnight, or even 1 a.m. Time’s on nobody’s side here, not Israel’s, not the Palestinians.”

Thomas L. Friedman speaking on Thursday at the Jerusalem Press Club.Credit: Ilene Prusher

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