Journalism Lesson: Obama’s Note, The New Republic’s Goof

Gershom Gorenberg

“Is Anything Sacred?” was the title of a post a couple of days ago on the New Republic’s blog, The Plank. The subject: Publication of the note that Barack Obama placed in the Western Wall when he visited last week. The daily Ma’ariv ran that “scoop,” and immediately found itself under intense criticism – from rabbis, talk-show hosts, and a lawyer who began organizing a consumer boycott of the paper – for violating Obama’s privacy and Jewish religious sensibilities.

But the Plank’s Zvika Krieger wasn’t aiming his question at Ma’ariv. He was asking if Obama considered anything sacred. For in responding to the firestorm, a Ma’ariv spokesman had told various Israeli papers (English here, Hebrew here): “Barack Obama’s note was approved for publication in the international media even before he put [it] in the Kotel…” Krieger accepted that statement. A fairly early version of his post (via Google’s cache) said:

Obama may be above politicizing our troops, but if his campaign did approve the note for publication before he placed it, then I guess he isn’t above politicizing religion.

Clever: A snarky reference to Obama’s canceled visit to wounded U.S. soldiers, casting doubts on his reasons for canceling, as prelude to a statement that the candidate was willing to trash Jewish sensitivities for politics’ sakes. Truly, Obama had hit the trifecta: apostate Muslim with radical Christian preacher desecrates Jewish holy sites. But by writing the story this way, Krieger actually doubled down on Ma’ariv’s failed journalistic judgment. At least he has been doing a somewhat better job of backtracking.

Start here: Ma’ariv’s story from last Friday on the note is still available on line (in Hebrew). It explains how the paper got the note:

As soon as [Obama] left the wall, a yeshivah student hurried to the stones where the note had been inserted and searched between them until he found the hoped-for note… which has reached Ma’ariv’s hands.

The picture of the note showed it folded and crumpled. Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest-circulation paper, was reportedly offered the note and turned it down. Apparently, the yeshivah student was shopping his find around. Yediot is also a tabloid with screaming headlines, not known for its tact, but even its editors knew where to draw the line.

So virtually every paper in Israel was soon publishing that statement from Ma’ariv about how Obama had really handed out the note itself. The statement’s last sentence (take anti-nausea pill before reading) said:

In any case, since Obama is not a Jew, publishing the note does not constitute an infringement on his right to privacy.

Now let’s say I’m a journalist, and I read Ma’ariv’s second version. How should I relate to it?

Well, if Obama really had offered the note to everyone, everyone would have published it, and no one would have been upset. That’s exactly what happened when Pope John Paul II visited the Wall in March, 2000, during his historic journey of reconciliation, and publicized the prayer he inserted between the stones. He made a point of writing it in English. You can find it on the website of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, a Church body. No one thought the pope had violated religious custom. The pope’s prayer was meant to be public, so there was nothing untoward in publishing it. It was like printing words of a sermon. Publishing Obama’s words was the equivalent of using a secret mike to capture a whispered prayer.

Ma’ariv didn’t get that. That’s not terribly surprising. In the early 90s, I called Israeli author David Grossman to ask him to write for an op-ed for the Jerusalem Report, where I then worked. He said he couldn’t write on what I wanted, because he’d just done that piece for Ma’ariv. I apologized for missing it. He kindly told me not to worry about it, adding, “You know what they say: When I don’t have a book, I read a newspaper. When I don’t have a newspaper, I read Ma’ariv.”

(Full disclosure: I wrote for Ma’ariv’s op-ed page for a couple of years. I had to pay the bills, I like writing in Hebrew, and there aren’t many papers here. Some good journalists work there now. And I’ve quoted Ma’ariv stories that I have reason to regard as solid. A newspaper isn’t monolithic.)

Given the choice of believing Obama, who’s campaign denied releasing the note, or Ma’ariv, which was retreating under fire, Krieger chose Ma’ariv. Much as I believe that the press should have an adversary relationship with politicians, I don’t think that means that a newspaper, any newspaper, should always be trusted over a pol.

Eventually, Krieger got a Ma’ariv spokesman on the phone himself and asked about the accusation that Obama had set up the whole story himself. The guy on the other end of the line said

…that the accusation is “completely false,” and that he has no idea who these papers were quoting from Ma’ariv. “No official spokesman for Ma’ariv told this to any of the papers.”

Stage II of the walk-back: Spokesman No. 2 denies all knowledge of Spokesman No. 1. And Krieger’s new item on the Plank is entitled, “Obama Vindicated.”

You know, maybe he isn’t a closet Muslim, either.

4 thoughts on “Journalism Lesson: Obama’s Note, The New Republic’s Goof”

  1. It is sickening to see how far people will go to humiliate others, how low people can sink in jealousy and envy. Ma’ariv should have never said those but now that the rumor is started, it’s hard to stop. The people do know better and Obama, being the dignified person he is, hasn’t said anything against the Yeshiva student. Obama is a good leader and a good human being. Support Obama, visit!

  2. you know every-thing this man does it is like he is playing a roll. the note in the rock come on that was staged like every othere event with hecklers he has kept him self in the media bad or good press . this person is very smart but not in a good way in a scarey way. who the hell is our saviour any ways where the hell did he come from . its like he is proving to the rest of the wourld , man those americans are really some simple bastards. if this person gets elected president, i wouldnt be surprised to see him walk out with tubin on his head and his right hand man be binlodin and they both laughing and waving and mouthing the words stupid americans……..

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