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July 13, 2011

Baseball, Palestinians and Media Self-Censorship

A recent segment on NPR's On the Media was about self-censorship in baseball reporting. But it could just as well have been about coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Speaking about his reporting on former baseball player Lenny Dykstra, Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist (and former reporter) Frank Fitzpatrick said,

I mean this was a train wreck waiting to happen. And, and we knew this back then and – and, you know, you can't help but looking back thinking, you know, why didn’t I do a little more in portraying this side of Dykstra instead of, you know going out of my way to portray the other, the more appealing to me side of him.

On the Media Co-host Bob Garfield: What kind of stuff did you choose not to share with your readers?

Frank Fitzpatrick: Did we all suspect that he was doing steroids? Yes. Did we all suspect that that he was taking greenies, you know, the amphetamines that were omnipresent in the baseball clubhouse in those days? Yes. Did we know he cheated on his wife on the road? Yes.

We knew all these things, and yet behind everything a baseball beat writer does there’s this fear of severing a good relationship because without them in a competitive news environment, you're dead. So I think we're probably all guilty of hiding the true character of Lenny Dykstra for all those years.

Garfield summed up the problem as follows: "The thrust of your column was that you harbor a sense of culpability, that you, in so cherishing this intimacy with Lenny Dykstra, became an enabler."

The Middle East, too, has its enablers. As Thomas Friedman described in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, journalists in Lebanon during the 1980s, an incalculably more serious playing field than the baseball diamond, self-censored for fear of severing their good relationships. Wrote Friedman:

The truth is, the Western press coddled the PLO, and never judged it with anywhere near the scrutiny that it judged Israel, Phalangist, or American behavior. For any Beirut-based correspondent, the name of the game was keeping on good terms with the PLO, because without it you would not get the interview with Arafat you wanted when your foreign editor came to town. (73)

The Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby devoted part of a 2004 column to the question of whether anything had changed since Friedman's days in Beirut. He noted,

In the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accord, Arafat and the PLO assumed control of the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank. Reconstituted as the Palestinian Authority, or PA, they lost no time cracking down on the press.

Arafat's "security forces have made more than 30 arrests of journalists and editors," the Columbia Journalism Review noted in 1996. "Although they have been almost completely freed from the Israeli yoke of military censorship, Palestinian journalists are being fettered in new ways. Reporters Sans Frontieres, a watchdog group based in Paris, released a report . . . deploring the Palestinian Authority's policy of suspending newspapers and employing threats and violence against journalists. . . . The result is a tame, compliant press that . . . rarely engages in investigative journalism and publishes only . . . 'vegetarian' criticism of the regime." ...

On Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were shocked by footage of Palestinians dancing in the streets to celebrate the terrorist attacks on the United States. But those scenes disappeared from the airwaves soon after -- not because they weren't newsworthy, but because the Palestinian Authority gave orders to suppress them.

An Associated Press cameraman was summoned to a PA security office and warned not to release the material he had filmed. A top aide to Arafat told the AP's Jerusalem bureau that if the footage were aired, "we cannot guarantee the life" of the cameraman. Other news outlets were likewise ordered not to use any images of the 9/11 revelry. Most of them caved, and the images dried up.

Journalists like to cultivate a reputation for fearlessness, for a publish-and-be-damned commitment to putting out the story no matter what. The reality is not always so heroic. Sometimes the media are not fearless at all -- and their coverage, or lack of it, can amount to collaboration with dictators or thugs.

Rarely is there such clear evidence of collaboration with dictators as there was in the case of Italian journalist Ricardo Cristiano, who went out of his way to assure his "friends in Palestine" that his television station would not have, and will not in the future, broadcast footage of Palestinians murdering Israelis. After a rival Italian station aired footage of the brutal lynching of two Israeli reservists who got lost and ended up in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, the following advertisement appeared in the Palestinian newspaper Al Hayat Al Jadidah

Special Clarification by the Italian Representative of RAI, the Official Italian Television Station

My dear friends in Palestine. We congratulate you and think that it is our duty to put you in the picture (of the events) of what happened on October 12 in Ramallah. One of the private Italian television stations which competes with us (and not the official Italian television station RAI) filmed the events; that station filmed the events. Afterwards Israeli Television broadcast the pictures, as taken from one of the Italian stations, and thus the public impression was created as if we (RAI) took these pictures.

We emphasize to all of you that the events did not happen this way, because we always respect (will continue to respect) the journalistic procedures with the Palestinian Authority for (journalistic) work in Palestine and we are credible in our precise work.

We thank you for your trust, and you can be sure that this is not our way of acting. We do not (will not) do such a thing.

Please accept our dear blessings.

Ricardo Christiano
Representative of RAI in the Palestinian Authority
(the official Italian station)

Posted by at July 13, 2011 10:43 AM


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