Whether Lies or B.S., Netanyahu's Interviews Pose Special Challenges for Journalists


Face the Nation/CBS News

Benjamin Netanyau, prime minister of Israel, is interviewed by Bob Schieffer of CBS News on the October 5, 2014, edition of Face the Nation.

A journalist colleague in Jerusalem sent me a link to the prime minister of our land speaking to a faraway audience on CBS News’s Face the Nation. She expected the video clip to make me laugh and choke at the same time. She was right.

It also made me think of philosopher Harry Frankfurt's immortal essay, "On Bullshit," because the unavoidable question, while watching Benjamin Netanyahu responding to White House criticism of settlement activity in Jerusalem, was whether he was deliberately speaking untruths, or was spinning words with absolutely no concern about whether they were true or not. As Frankfurt demonstrated, this is the difference between lying and bullshitting. (Understand that I follow Frankfurt in using the latter word strictly as a philosophical category. In contrast to the New York Times, therefore, the Prospect will not evade spelling it out.)

And this question led, perforce, to troubling journalistic issues: Is an interviewer responsible for checking the veracity of what the interviewee says? Is the interview format itself fatally flawed?

Quick recap: The night before Netanyahu met with President Obama earlier this month, Jewish settlers linked to the right-wing Elad movement moved into 25 apartments in the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. Just after the White House meeting, news broke that the Israeli government had given final approval to building a new Israeli neighborhood, Givat Hamatos, in East Jerusalem. In short order, White House press secretary Joshua Earnest said at his daily media briefing that approval of the new neighborhood would "distance Israel from even its closest allies" and "poison the atmosphere" with the Palestinians. He added that the "the United States condemns the recent occupation" of apartments in Silwan.

Netanyahu responded in interviews recorded for Face the Nation and MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports, He told Mitchell the criticism of the Silwan move was "baffling" because it was a matter of "individual Jews who bought apartments in an Arab neighborhood," just as Arabs buy in Jewish neighborhoods." He implored unnamed parties (presumably bearing the name “Obama”) to "get the facts straight." 

Speaking to Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer, Netanyahu escalated. Criticism of Jews buying property in a mostly Arab neighborhood "doesn't reflect American values," he said, and then asserted: "You know, Arabs in East Jerusalem—Palestinians—buy apartments, thousands of them, in the Jewish neighborhoods in West Jerusalem." That was the cue for my strangled laughter.

Let me pause to parse. By asserting that Obama was ignoring "American values"—by implying that the president is un-American—Netanyahu struck both McCarthyist and birther cords, as Haaretz writer Chemi Shalev has noted. Why commit the double diplomatic faux pas? The answer, I think, is that prime minister just let the story he was spinning take him there.

Netanyahu's tale about Silwan was that the newcomers were integrating the neighborhood, that administration objections ignored their civil rights, and that liberals, most of all, should reject the criticism. The storyline and most of the details were deliberately untrue. The apartments in Silwan, as reported in the Israeli and foreign press, were bought quietly by an American investment firm acting on behalf of Elad. The group's goal, as a member of the staff once explained, is to "establish [Jewish] footholds in East Jerusalem and create an irreversible situation" of Israeli rule around the Old City. As early as 1992, an Israeli Justice Ministry report found that other government agencies had acted hand-in-glove with Elad, sometimes illegally.

The latest purchases may have been legal and non-governmental, but there was nothing "individual" about them. Housing Minister Uri Ariel showed up in Silwan the day the settlers moved in to celebrate with them. Last Friday, Elad's public council—chaired by Nobel Peace laureate Elie Wiesel—ran a newspaper ad congratulating the new settlers. There's a political cause at work here, but as Netanyahu knows, it's not housing rights. It's preventing any political division of Jerusalem between Israel and a Palestinian state. It's maintaining the present situation, in which East Jerusalem is the first circle of the occupation.

Now let's look at movement in the other direction. East Jerusalem Arabs can, in principle, buy in West Jerusalem, the part within the pre-1967 borders. If any have done so, they're rare. At the end of 2012, a total of 2,150 Arabs were living in West Jerusalem, according to government data processed by the independent Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. Most are Arab citizens of Israel from elsewhere in the country. Attorney Daniel Seidemann, a prominent expert on Jerusalem, estimates that there are "no more than a few hundred" East Jerusalem Palestinians living in the west city.

In addition, some East Jerusalem Palestinians have rented apartments in Jewish neighborhoods that Israel has built in the east city—and for similar reasons: Israeli planning policy has restricted construction in Arab areas, driving up rents there. This, too, is a product of actual politics of Jerusalem: a conflict between two national communities, in which one holds the power.  When Netanyahu said "thousands" of East Jerusalem Arabs had bought homes in West Jerusalem, it's unlikely that he was thinking about the real city. It just sounded good; it fit the flow.

Netanyahu's riffs about Givat Hamatos were similarly misleading. "It's not a settlement, these are neighborhood [sic] of Jerusalem," he said to Schieffer. Reality check: It will be a neighborhood in the sense of being part of a city. And it will be a settlement, in the sense of being built on land that Israel has occupied since 1967. Like other settlements, it is aimed at determining the future of that land—in this case, by completing a swath of Jewish neighborhoods separating Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. The strangest touch, though, was when Netanyahu told Schieffer that Givat Hamatos is "three minutes from my office." Google maps says you can drive between the two places in 17 minutes. This sounds optimistic to me.

Was Netanyahu talking about doing that distance in a copter? No, he was just talking. Let us return to Frankfurt's philosophical distinction:  "A person who lies is… responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it," Frankfurt wrote. "The bullshitter… does not reject the authority of the truth, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it all.     By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

Truthfully, though, I'm picking on Netanyahu—not because I know him to be a particularly awful practitioner of nonsense, but because he's my prime minister and because I can identify where he left reality behind. (The true maestro of make-believe, as Rick Perlstein shows in his recent book, The Invisible Bridge, was Ronald Reagan.) My concern is with journalism, which should be committed to pursuing truth.

There are, of course, fact-checking sites and blogs in the American media. My impression (I don't claim to possess statistics) is that they pay minimal attention to foreign leaders who speak in the American media. Sometimes fact-checks go into news organization's follow-up stories. AP did produce a report on Silwan challenging Netanyahu's comments to MSNBC.

On the other hand, when the Washington Post's Lally Weymouth interviewed rightist Israeli politician Naftali Bennett last year, he got away with saying there were 700,000 Israelis in "East Jerusalem and what's called the West Bank." The number, meant to prove that Israel couldn't withdraw, was inflated by approximately 150,000 settlers. The classic question-and-answer format of the interview didn't allow the writer to insert evidence gathered afterward that Bennett's number was false, even had the writer found that evidence.

The format of a live television interview makes a challenge to the interviewee's claims even more difficult—unless the interviewer is particularly well-informed and willing to risk being labeled unfriendly or biased. In theory, a pre-recorded interview makes it possible to fact-check by show time. In practice, the conventions of interview programs might relegate evidence of fibbing to a separate news item—just as the conventions of print news seem to relegate politely saying "that's wrong" to a separate article, often labeled "analysis." Inside the news story, if Smith says Greenland is a jungle, the reporter will want to quote a Jones who says it's not, thus making the two opinions appear equivalent.

I'd like to suggest that sometimes putting the truth inside the news report, right after the quote, is the only way to be unbiased. I'd suggest that live interview shows, at a minimum, remind viewers regularly that they have no chance to check what the interviewees are saying. Maybe these are utopian proposals. But we who report must find ways to avoid being the enablers of bullshit. 

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