Balanced reporting

The delicate balance of covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Every journalist's assignment has special challenges.

But Serge Schmemann, deputy foreign editor of The New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, said nothing in his 20 years of international reporting, which included stints in Russia and Central Europe, had prepared him for the difficulty and complexity of covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Freshly returned from the Middle East, where he reported from Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, Schmemann spoke to a packed audience in ASEAN Auditorium on the Medford/Somerville campus on October 2 during a forum sponsored by the International Relations program and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

"Whatever you say or write, someone will violently disagree with you," he said. "Nothing I had covered had ever drawn so much impassioned correspondence." As an American reporter working for The New York Times, Schmemann said that his role was perceived to be not just that of a witness, but also that of a judge. "We [reporters] are expected to keep score" as to who is instigating and who is retaliating, he noted. "Every aspect of our coverage is scrutinized."

Schmemann said that he and other journalists were constantly questioned about perceived imbalances in reporting and charged with misrepresenting the score, the effect of which gave one warring side a moral advantage over the other. Sometimes the charge was valid, many times not, he said.

While such criticism never colored a story, it did create a struggle in reporting, especially when both sides viewed a journalist's neutrality as a failure to be on their side. "There is a moral competition in which we are the moral arbiters," he said.

Schmemann mentioned one Times piece in particular that reported on an Israeli attack on a Palestinian hideout that resulted in howls of criticism from both sides. "From the Israeli perspective, the reporter failed to appreciate the restraint of military operations," he said. For the Palestinians, the story "did not recognize the illegality of Israeli conduct."

But while acknowledging that some criticism had merit, Schmemann also said that many of the accusations of reporting bias were "frivolous." Both the Palestinians and the Israelis promote their own "narratives of victimhood," he said.

Schmemann contrasted apartheid in South Africa to the Arab-Israeli conflict, adding that antagonism toward reporters was muted in comparison. The moral lines in South Africa, he said, "were already drawn," and everyone understood that the South African government was on the "wrong side of history."