JERUSALEM – The warmth, openness and seeming naiveté of sources in the Middle East often confound reporters in our region. So many people seem ready and eager to talk that it's easy to believe you've happened upon a fresh and authentic source of information. Let us never forget that there is no such thing as a disinterested party in the Middle East. Whether you're being guided through a dazzling bazaar fragrant with cinnamon and coriander, or through a malodorous open sewer, someone is trying to sell you a story. Let the buyer beware.
For example, I'm having coffee in Jerusalem with a Palestinian who has been involved in the launching of the first film festival in a West Bank city. The idea of the festival is very appealing to me. It's a sign of burgeoning normality and sophistication. If Thomas Friedman has taught us that having a McDonald's in your country is a sign that you're moving towards a peaceful lifestyle, then certainly holding a film festival demonstrates a more nuanced view of the world.
Sadly, it turns out that the film festival opening was a disaster. The audience was assembled, the films were ready to go, but the computerised projector didn't work.
I'm already bracing myself. How is the lynchpin of this story going to be that the failure was Israel's fault? I don't have to wait long. My Palestinian interlocutor shakes his head in despair. The projector's malfunction was an intentional Zionist sabotage of the evening. He relates a travelogue of the projector's winding journey through foreign ports and its ultimate delay by customs so that it would arrive "too late to be checked". He's clearly trying to sell me a story about the evils of Israel.
But I'm wondering how late that projector actually arrived. Certainly faulty machinery – discovered even a few hours before – could have been replaced with one from a sympathetic Israeli cinema.
"Hadn't anyone tried it ahead of time?" I ask.
"I guess not," he shrugs.
To him, the failure will always be caused by Israeli malevolence. From my Israeli point of view, it seems like Palestinian incompetence.
How does a journalist report this story?
She could describe the excitement of the crowd, the disappointment, the suspicion among those present that this is another Israeli plot, and then get a token denial from an Israeli official. Or, determined to justify Israel, she could launch into an investigation to debunk the charges. Perhaps the projector was indeed held up in customs, for either security reasons, because a tax was owed, or just plain inefficiency. Probably, facts will be eclipsed by opinions. Personally, I'm sceptical that a country which produces so many self-critical films would make an effort to kybosh a West Bank cultural event. But then, I tend to think well of Israel.
In the final analysis, the story told will wind up being more a reflection of attitude than fact. In this, we reporters can be equally culpable.
Many reporters pick up local attitudes or are influenced by the prevalent buzz of the press corps. Someone like me, with a strong pride in her country and unembarrassed Zionist ideology has to be careful not to accept at face value stories of my own people's heroism or victimisation.
Interviewees with an agenda are always guessing what a reporter wants to hear. I once received a tearful phone call from a young woman who complained about a Palestinian handyman in her dormitory. She said that the school was more concerned with political correctness than with protecting students from danger. The student's distress was genuine and indeed the school was liberal in its hiring policy. But the truth ended there. She was counting on both my political and feminist sympathies to convince me of the worthiness of her complaint. The man she was accusing of inappropriate behaviour turned out to be a highly respected and responsible employee. Coming from abroad, either she had mistaken the cultural clues and his avuncular nature as intrusive and threatening or she was trying to remove Arab workers from her dorm.
We reporters need to be conscious of our own prejudices and sympathies as well as the desires of those we interview to energetically promote their personal causes. A good knowledge of the region, common sense and a fair measure of scepticism are valuable antidotes to falling for a slanted story. It's far worse than buying a street corner wristwatch that fails immediately after purchase. A damaging story can tick on forever.
* Barbara Sofer writes magazine and newspaper articles, fiction and scripts for the short films she directs and produces. She is an Orthodox Jew, a feminist, a passionate speaker about Judaism, women's lives and Israel, and one of three recipients of the 2008 Eliav-Sartawi Award for Middle East Journalism. Barbara Sofer may be reached at: bsofer(at)netvision.net.il and www.barbarasofer.com. This article is part of a special series on responsible journalism in the Arab-Israeli conflict written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). at www.commongroundnews.org
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