Ha’aretz is a newspaper whose ideological positions, as articulated in the editorials, are for the most part clear and unwavering. The paper’s minimal, terse and evasive clarification regarding the portrayal of the apartheid poll with the front-page headline (Oct. 23, 2012) was striking. The wording of the page-one headline “did not accurately reflect the findings of the Dialog poll,” the clarification stated, but that wording accurately reflected those who were responsible for the failure. It’s not the wording that is responsible, but rather those who wrote it. The newspaper’s evasion of responsibility for the journalistic calamity has only fanned the flames, rather than extinguish them.
Terse clarifications are a legitimate tool available to newspaper editors. Restraint and evasiveness are sometimes necessary protective mechanisms in light of pressures compelling newspapers to retract factually correct items. But in this case, these tools are not put to use to defend against powerful, threatening forces, but to cover up for a multi-system error.
Ha’aretz’s article involves four failures, three of them are readily apparent: The newspaper received and negligently published an ideologically driven poll, without investigating it in depth and without providing journalistic analysis and qualifications regarding its essential shortcomings (one brief line buried in the article mention the pollster’s note that probably the term “apartheid” was not sufficiently understood by many of the respondents, a substantial point which itself warranted greater attention, and which likely was enough to invalidate the entire poll). The wording of the erroneous page-one headline did not properly represent the poll. The decision to place the skewed poll on the front-page was also wrong and is likely to critically harm readers’ trust which is dependent on the paper’s publication of quality and important news.
The fourth failure, which will shortly become clear, provides a worrying look at the journalistic outlook that stood behind the editors’ decision to publish the poll. One of those who commissioned the poll, Dr. Amiram Goldblum, who spoke with Ha’aretz and was quoted in the article (Oct. 23, 2012), openly states what most poll initiators would be very wary of saying. Goldblum, a self-declared political activist, announced that the poll was commissioned in order to advance his agenda: “We need to work quickly, before the danger of apartheid irreversibly takes over.” In response to the claim that the poll was commissioned by leftists, he responds: “So let the right do its own poll to refute the results.”
Goldblum’s modus operandi was successful perhaps beyond his own dreams. Ha’aretz, which many consider a reliable and respected newspaper, swallowed the bait whole and gave the poll the maximum exposure. The fact that Ha’aretz gave the poll’s findings front-page coverage generated widespread coverage, and hundreds of credible and respected newspapers around the world hurried to quote the prominent headline, as Google News demonstrates. Who in the world is not for the eradication of apartheid?
As if all that was not enough, then there’s Gideon Levy, who rarely pens page-one stories, though he authored the story about the poll and its significance (Oct. 23, 2012), and then closed the circle of failure in an overheated Op-Ed (Ha’aretz, Oct. 29, 2012). Under the headline “Errors and omissions excepted” [CAMERA note: this is Ha’aretz’s English headline], Levy contempuously lashes out against the evidence that surfaced with the wave of criticism directed at Ha’aretz in the wake of the mishandled article. Mistakes were made, he begins, “They shouldn’t have happened; we must acknowledge them, apologize for them and fix them. They were not made intentionally, but as a result of neglect due to time pressure . . . “
Time pressure? Had editors bothered to first examine the poll, a one-day postponement of publication would have enabled them to act with the necessary clarity needed to decide on the manner of publication, if any, given the quality of the information. Even if Ha’aretz would have lost its scoop. It’s difficult for me to imagine any media outlet that would have stolen it out from under them, but even if there were, Ha’aretz has always enjoyed the advantage of presenting complex information in a reliable, erudite, and enlightening manner.
“The routine excoriation took off,” Levy hits back. “The mirror reflects an unsightly image? Let’s smash it. The messenger stumbles? Let’s slander him, and to hell with everything else described in his article, even discounting the mistake. This is what propagandists always do.”
Levy concludes his column by distancing himself from the poll upon which he relied — and essentially disavows polls in general — and suggests a new methodology to those who seek to gauge the situation according to their whims; a methodology which, in practice, is identical to Goldblum’s. The reality, in Goldblum’s and Levy’s method, is pre-determined according to the outlook of the interpreter, so that the poll’s methodology is irrelevant. Those who disagree with his world outlook, according to Levy, are required to supply the proof. “Herein lies a challenge for those who are not bothered by the results of the survey but are horrified by the errors made in reporting it,” he concludes. “Bring us another reliable poll that proves Israeli society is not as racist and nationalistic as depicted in this survey.”
Like Amiram Goldblum, Levy, in his column, projects the view “don’t confuse me with the facts.” Information that is correct, erroneous, skewed or out of context? What’s important is that the poll is formulated in such a way that the responses conform with the pollster’s agenda and supply a headline that resonates. Goldblum, as a political activist, can be satisfied with the proportion between his investment and the ensuing publicity. But a journalist who is in possession of faulty information and who immediately declares that it depicts the general picture and then invites his cr
itics to prove otherwise? He is no longer a journalist.
More than a few journalists these days are considering running for the Knesset. It is a pity that Gideon Levy, a man who rejoices in every challenge, is not among them. He could be a fabulous parliamentarian, in terms of his enthusiasm and commitment to his cause. It’s easy to imagine him pontificating on the Knesset podium, lashing out against the plethora of phenomena threatening Israeli society. As someone who is “horrified” by the expected crash of the journalistic establishment, I imagine MK Gideon Levy criss-crossing the country and battling, with polls and without, with the rotten fruits of the occupation — an entirely worthy effort. Unfortunately, though, with his column, Levy has relinquished his journalist credentials.