Legends as Truths

The line between being a lying impostor and being serious and reliable is razor thin. And as a serious journalist, I can’t help but laugh at the brouhaha this week over Channel 10’s false story about the girl at Disney World.

This guy, Moses was his name, said God had spoken to him from a burning bush and revealed that he was omnipotent. (Upon review, it turned out that somebody had attached a Channel 10 microphone to the bush, so Moses was suspended from his job when it emerged that he had acted unprofessionally and failed to check the facts. )

God revealed that he had created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, and that he would expunge the slave mentality from the people of Israel and turn them into normal people. Moses believed this lie, even though there was and is apparently no hope of it ever coming true. He even wrote a famous book about it. This is one of the first examples in human history of the spread of an urban legend.

Illustration by Eran Wolkowski.

People got wise to this trick and began making up their own stories - that God had spoken to them, that their mother had been impregnated by God (thus producing Jesus ), that this same mother had spoken to them from a spring (the apparitions seen by St. Bernadette ).

In Egypt, when Israelis could still go there, I met people who swore that in 1968 they had seen that same divine mother standing with open arms above a Coptic church in the poor Cairo suburb of Zeitoun. I saw pictures of the apparition taken by Egyptian television. I dared not, for reasons of bodily safety, propose that this was an urban legend.

Also, I was once at a military trial in Ofer Prison near Ramallah. The military prosecutor argued that the defendant, Mohammed Khatib, had thrown stones at Israeli soldiers. The prosecutor presented a photograph of the defendant raising an arm. The defense argued that on the day the stones were thrown the defendant was actually in Canada; he showed his passport to prove this.

The military judge seemed convinced that an undated photo of someone waving an arm wasn't enough to send the person to prison, so I was sure the accused would be acquitted. But that's not what happened: Khatib was sent to jail because of reasonable doubt. Now that is an example of an urban legend called the enlightened occupation.

Inundated as we are by urban legends masquerading as truths, and out of laziness or fatigue, we don't have the strength to take on the world and refute these legends. Who cares if one more or one less legend gets spread? So I was greatly surprised by the media storm this week over unfortunate Channel 10 correspondent Sivan Cohen, who had been duped into reporting a made-up horror story that supposedly took place at Disney World. It involved a girl who had allegedly been kidnapped from her parents and was later found in a bathroom stall bruised and with her head shaved.

Let's admit that this story, even if it were true, is just an anecdote. Far less anecdotal is the urban legend that attributes to the media, especially television, the ability to pursue the truth. I've always claimed that even though I'm a journalist, you, the readers, mustn't automatically believe what I write.

There isn't enough space here to cite the inaccuracies, falsehoods and mistakes I've made over my 35 years of newspaper work. Only the patience and mercy of my superiors has saved me from being publicly humiliated and suspended. But the legend that I'm a serious journalist has spread so far that I don't have the strength to refute it and cry out in the town square: "I'm a fraud!"

Paradoxically, then, every serious journalist realizes at every moment of his career that the truth is extremely fragile and that the line between being a lying impostor and being serious and reliable is razor thin. And as a serious journalist, I can't help but laugh at the brouhaha over Channel 10's false story about the girl at Disney World.

And if we're talking about Channel 10, let me tell you a true story: About three years ago I went to Istanbul to write about the anti-Israel protests there; on the plane I bumped into Sharon Gal, then a Channel 10 correspondent, who had been sent to cover the same story. We searched and searched for protests and came up empty. Upon my return, I told my readers the absolute truth: I hadn't encountered a hint of anti-Israel animosity. The Channel 10 reporter, however, cooked up a story that we had each seen the exact opposite.

Since I'm considered a serious person, I warn you not to believe blindly what I just wrote. That way if somebody comes along and claims that the story of my trip to Istanbul with the Channel 10 reporter was just an urban legend, I'll shrug. But inside I'll tremble with fear and await the suspension that precedes my dismissal.