Freedom of the press, and the unique protection granted to journalists, are important pillars of all democratic societies. Although the news business has become a form of entertainment and a major money-making enterprise, the press continues to enjoy a special status. This protection is designed to insure that decision makers, and the public at large, have the knowledge necessary for informed choices. Journalists are still viewed as the public's watchdog, exposing secret actions and relationships that could and often do violate fundamental norms.
At the same time, each reporter, producer, editor, and member of a news organization undertakes to provide the information without bias or personal agendas. Journalists should not make the news, or filter it according to their own ideologies. When these central rules are violated, this undermines the justification for the special role and access given to the media. If the public is given false, misleading, or consistently biased information, the system breaks down.
CNN and Time Magazine's admission that they broadcast and published false reports, claiming that the U.S. military used poison gas in Laos during the Vietnam War, represents the most blatant example of a much deeper problem. For anyone who has dealt with Peter Arnett, the CNN reporter who first broadcast this false allegation, the incident is hardly surprising. Arnett was the voice of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War (and after), broadcasting under the auspices of the Iraqi dictator and showing exactly what Saddam wanted to be shown. He was never an example of investigative reporting at its finest.
At times, Arnett has also operated out of Israel, and like many, but not all journalists, has an agenda and uses his position as a platform to broadcast his biases. Before doing a story on Israel and the Middle East he formulates the answers he wants, and then looks for (and usually finds) people to interview who will provide the desired sound bites. The questions posed in his interviews are designed to elicit comments that reinforce and support his views. If Arnett is surprised by the responses, and gets a different perspective, these analyses are cut before they make it to the screen. In most cases, the resulting distortion is difficult to prove, so this behavior continues, but in the case of the poison gas allegations, he has finally been caught.
To their credit, a number of CNN employees are demanding the resignation of Arnett and the producers who are responsible for the broadcast of the false poison gas story. However, the problem is not limited a few such journalists. Instead of reporting the facts, without agendas and biases, correspondents tend to line up with the conventional wisdom, which they also create. One unsupported rumor is broadcast or printed, and it is picked up and repeated in every other media outlet until the rumor becomes conventional wisdom.
The process of "pack journalism" has created the consistently negative image of Israel over the past 30 years, in which the realities of the Middle East have been distorted beyond recognition. Shortly after the 1967 war, the press began to portray the Palestinians not as terrorists, but as victims, and Israelis became the oppressors. This line sold well among European journalists, and in the anti-Vietnam war environment of the U.S., and has not been challenged since then. (These biases are often reinforced by some Israeli reporters, who confuse journalism with an obligation to oppose any government, particularly if it is not led by the Labor Party, and who also want to join the "pack".)
Reporters with very little knowledge of the Middle East meet Palestinians or other Arabs, who tell their tales of Israeli "human rights violations" or how the "Jews stole their land". These claims are consistent with the preconceived notions and with what is seen in other news outlets, and all too many journalists make little if any effort to check out the details of the story, or to confirm the facts independently. They also ignore the broader picture, in which includes not only decades of hatred and violence directed against Jews, but also the threats and hostility posed by some states that surround and still reject the legitimacy of Israel. As a result, those people who rely on the major news sources are not able to understand why Israel is so concerned about the impact of a Palestinian state, or about the potential for more terrorism.
Although Peter Arnett is not an isolated phenomenon, there are also professional reporters who take their responsibilities and obligations seriously. Some journalists do come to the Middle East with a commitment to neutral reporting, and a deeper understanding of the complex and detailed history, (or they are open enough to acquire that knowledge on the job). Their reports reflect the complexity, and do not paint simplistic portraits of good and evil.
In order to correct the biases, distortions, and in outright inventions of the media, the professional commitment and democratic responsibilities of journalists need far more emphasis. There is no room for personal agendas, ideologies or interests in the press. Reporters, whether in Israel or Washington, should be invisible, serving to provide the information and context to the public, without filtering it through their own biases.