Promoting his new book on PBS’ “Bill Moyers and Company,” former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges makes a number of striking, and at times contradictory, assertions: truth and news are not the same thing, the great journalists care about truth at the expense of their careers, the “powerful Israel lobby” suppresses the truth, and journalism is rooted in verifiable facts. As someone who was reportedly pushed out of The New York Times (an incident to which he and his host repeatedly refer) due to his public statements against the Iraq war, Hedges clearly positions himself among the great who care for the truth at the expense of his professional advancement (and Moyers embraces this view of Hedges). These revelations are all the more noteworthy in light of Hedges’ demonstrably false coverage of Gaza Strip issues from health care to water, and including his notorious, unfounded charge that Israeli soldiers kill “for sport.”
The following are excerpts from his July 20 PBS appearance dealing with journalism, truth, the “Israel lobby,” and the Gaza Strip:
CHRIS HEDGES: Well, I think that in life we always have to take sides.
BILL MOYERS: Do journalists always have to take sides?
CHRIS HEDGES: Yes. Journalists always do take sides. You know, you’ve been a journalist a long time. The idea that there’s something objective and impartial is just a lie. We sell it. But I can take the same set of facts — I was a newspaper reporter for a long time, and I can spin that story one way or another. We manipulate facts. That’s what we do. And I think that the really great journalists–
BILL MOYERS: Not necessarily to deceive though. Some do, I know, but—
CHRIS HEDGES: Right, but we do.
BILL MOYERS: We choose the facts we want to organize—
CHRIS HEDGES: Of course, it’s selective. And it’s what facts we choose, how we place, where we put the quotes. And I think the really great journalists, like the great preachers, care fundamentally about truth. And truth and news are not the same thing.And the really great reporters, and I’ve seen them, you know, in all sorts of news organizations, are management headaches because they care about truth at the expense of their own career.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean truth as opposed to news?
CHRIS HEDGES: Well, let’s take the Israel occupation of Gaza. You know, if I had a dinner with any Middle East correspondent who covered Gaza, none of us would have any disagreements about the Israeli behavior in Gaza, which is a collective war crime. And yet to get up and write it and say it within American society is not a career enhancer. Because there’s a powerful Israeli lobby, and it’s a lobby that I don’t think represents Israel, it represents the right wing of Israel. And you know it. But, the great reporters don’t care. And they’re there. But you know, large institutions like The New York Times attract huge numbers of careerists like any other large institutions, the Church of course, being no exception. And those are the people who are willing to take moral shortcuts to promote themselves within that institution. And when somebody becomes a headache, even if they may agree with them, even if they may know that they are speaking a truth, and it puts their career in jeopardy — they will push them out or silence them. . . .
CHRIS HEDGES: I think journalism is essential. I think it’s essential. And we’re watching its destruction. You know, journalism, the power of journalism is that it is rooted in verifiable fact. You go out as a reporter, you seek to find out what is factually correct. You crosscheck it with other sources. It’s sent to an editor. It’s fact-checked, you put it out. That’s all vanishing.
Attempting to untangle Hedges’ theories on truth and journalism is a daunting task. (If the great journalists care about the truth, and necessarily pick sides, what do they do with information that contradicts their point of view? Discard it? Aren’t picking sides and caring about the truth competing interests?) Instead, we’ll focus on Hedges’ final point, with which we agree, that “the power of journalism is that it is rooted in verifiable fact,” and that reporters “seek to find out what is factually correct. You crosscheck it with other sources.”
In his coverage of the Gaza Strip, rife with charges that boost his Israel-is-guilty-of-war-crimes-in-Gaza axiom, Hedges did not seek out what is factually correct. He did not crosscheck with other sources. We did. And here’s a sampling of what we found:
Hedges: In Mawasi [near Khan Younis] many wells have gone completely dry, but the Israelis refuse to allow the villagers to drill new ones (Harpers, September/October, 2001).
Fact: According to Yoram Barak, then spokesman for the Coordinator for Civilian Affairs in Gaza, Mawasi was completely under Palestinian civil control, and therefore the Israelis had no say one way or another concerning drilling there.
Hedges: When I met a few days earlier with Osama al-Farra, the mayor of Khan Younis, he explained to me why the Israelis chose to build a settlement right between Mawasi and Khan Younis. “They have thirty-two wells. They built a pipeline in 1994 to carry the water into Israel. There are probably about 1000 people in the settlement next to the camp, but they consume one third of our water supply, though about 160,000 people live in Khan Younis.” (Harpers)
Fact: According to Noah Kinarti, then chief water advisor to then Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, and Mekorot, Israel’s National Water Carrier, Israel built a total of 26 wells under all 17 Gaza settlements, not 32 under one settlement. Of those, one was not in use at the time Hedges wrote the article, and Israel turned five more over to the Palestinians as part of the Oslo Accords.
Also, the Kissufim pipeline pumped water from Israel to Gaza, and not the reverse, as claimed by Hedges. Palestinian Water Commissioner Nabil A-Sharif confirmed to CAMERA that “Water is never taken from Gaza and brought to Israel.” A-Sharif completely disputed Mayor al-Farra’s claims, which Hedges never bothered to crosscheck.
Hedges: Children have been shot in other countries I have covered — death squads gunned them down in El Salvador and Guatemala, mothers with infants were lined up and massacred in Algeria, and Serb snipers put children in their sights and watched them crumple onto the pavement in Sarajevo — but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport. (June 17 diary entry in Harpers)
Fact: Hedges’ vitriolic June 17 account is at odds with other media reports from that day. For instance, The New York Times’ Douglas Frantz wrote: “The Israeli military said soldiers had been under attack with stones and battles” when they opened fire on “a crowd trying to tear down surrounding Jewish settlements in Gush Katif.” (Presumably, in Hedges’ mind Frantz is a “careerist” “willing to take moral shortcuts to promote” himself at The Times. Not like the intrepid Hedges.) Hedges also asserted that Israeli soldiers shoot Palestinian children with guns equipped “with silencers.” But according to senior IDF officiers, including then spokesman Olivier Rafowitz, silencers are used only by special forces troops in close combat situations.
Hedges: On January 29 [Jihad Abu Mousa’s] twenty-three-old brother was shot dead by Israeli soldiers while, Jihad says, playing a game of soccer. (Harpers)
Fact: Jihad may have said he was playing a game of soccer, but Hedges never crosschecked what Jihad said. On Jan. 30, AFP reported: “Hamas’ military wing, Ezzadin al-Qassam, claimed responsibility during the funeral for a Palestinian shot dead by Israeli soldiers the day before at the Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. Around 10,000 people attended the funeral of Mohammed Abu Musa, 21, many shouting ‘death to Israel’ and praising both Hamas and the militia wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement.” The New York Times and Chicago Tribune reported that Abu Mousa was killed in a clash, not while playing soccer. But then, those journalists too must have been careerists cowed by the Israeli lobby.
Hedges’ pronouncements about journalism, Israel, facts, and the truth are informative, but not about any of those things. Instead, they reveal above all why Hedges has become a fringe figure, whose commentary is primarily relegated to far left publications and Web sites with occastional forays onto public television.