CAMERA Op-Ed: Access and Ethics at the New York Times

Like CNN, the New York Times aims to cover the globe, even from inside despotic regimes. Yet ethical compromise is inevitable in the controlled realms of dictators and medieval monarchs. Language must not offend, nor can there be reminders of unflattering policies and events. Watchful officials keep records, and journalists pay a price for perceived infractions.

At a Washington symposium in June, New York Times correspondent Douglas Jehl alluded to what is evident in much of his reporting from the region – a striking willingness to accommodate his reporting to such regimes.

He described an anecdote involving Syrian reprisals against a Washington Post reporter who wrote in 1996 that Israel “fired in retaliation” on a Lebanese target, killing 100 people. In covering the same event, Jehl had written that Israel “said” it attacked in response to provocation. For his concession to facts – suggesting that aggression originated with the Arabs – the Post correspondent was denied entry to Syria and, when later admitted, was lectured repeatedly for his misconduct.

The incident left an impression.

When once he affronted the Iranians, Jehl states, he wrote “a very carefully crafted letter” in which he “apologize[d] for any misunderstanding.” What is the effect of such experiences of threat and denunciation?

Jehl observes:

Does all this make me more cautious as a reporter? Certainly. I think I went back and reread sensitive stories more closely when I was in the region in a place like Syria or Iran or Iraq, certainly than I had elsewhere at other times in my career.

That’s not such a bad thing, as some recent experiences at my own paper would teach. Not a bad idea to double check and triple check sometimes. Did it make me pull punches? Maybe.

Regarding Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s support for Hizbullah, Jehl states he

wrote about these issues, but couldn’t dig as deeply as [he’d] like, and did recognize that the more of these stories one writes, the more difficult it would be to get back in.

Did it make me write more flattering stories? I was conscious that writing a travel story from Syria probably would be a good idea, that quoting the foreign minister at more length than I might otherwise have done was probably a good idea.

And Jehl did write a notoriously fawning and exculpatory “travel” piece on Syria in November 1999. Omitting such potentially provocative issues as Syrian support for Hizbullah and its occupation of Lebanon, Jehl dealt with the issue of terrorism by saying the Syrian “record is far from clean” but that “even the State Department” admits Syria has “not been tied to an act of terrorism since 1986.” The State Department, of course, emphasizes that Syria harbors terrorist groups, giving them safe haven from which to plan and promote terror.

Jehl found traveling in Syria to be “the most pleasant single surprise” of his time in the Middle East. It was “exotic and old-fashioned… a wonderful antidote to the monotony brought on by globalization.” He wished he “had more time” there, and the “cuisine” was “some of the most memorable” he’d tasted in the region. In old Damascus, shopping brought “prices that can be staggeringly good.” Syria’s virulent rejection of Israel, accompanied at times by blood libels, was subsumed in a gently worded reference to the fact that “would-be travelers with an Israeli stamp in their passport are bound to be turned away.”

Innumerable other articles from the region reflect the same hyper-careful avoidance of wording that would offend Middle East potentates. In reports about terrorism in October 2001, Jehl refers (when writing from Saudi Arabia or Syria) to “what the United States calls terrorism.”

Though Jehl has been based in Arab countries, a stint reporting in Israel likely only bolstered his standing in the surrounding states. A 1998 story on water issues in the Hebron area, written almost entirely from the Palestinian vantage point, was filled with errors and clichés blaming Israel and the “Jews” for shortages.

Asked at the symposium whether it is better to report on police states and closed regimes from the outside, where a reporter can write honestly without fear of retribution, or to make journalistic compromises and get access to inside stories, Jehl replied that “it’s a false choice,” and that the New York Times reports effectively from inside and outside such nations.

Jehl’s comments are a mix of candor and obfuscation. In suggesting double and triple-checking “sensitive stories” to avoid antagonizing thuggish officials, he implies absurdly that the key to mollifying them is factual accuracy. Yet much of Jehl’s reporting, and that of other Times correspondents in the region, does the opposite, omitting facts or shading them to assure access and ward off penalties from dictators and princes.

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post on June 25, 2003.

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