You could be excused for forgetting what the media’s primary job is, so let us remind you: it’s reporting on facts.
This may seem quaint in a world of “infotainment” and “news you can use,” but it is precisely what distinguishes journalism from fiction.
In other words, a journalist’s first job is to tell the truth.
But these days, journalists who attend to this vital task seem to be in low supply.
Consider, for instance, the case of Brian Williams, who repeatedly told millions that he was shot down in a helicopter which actually landed quite safely.
Or consider Bill O’Reilly, who is currently fighting allegations that he claimed to be in the Falkland Islands covering the 1982 war when he was in fact hundreds of miles away in mainland Argentina.
So it is against this backdrop that the latest example of journalistic failure must be judged. And it gets worse.
In this case, the story concerns recent flooding in Gaza.
Now, to be clear, there was a flood in Gaza earlier this week, which caused new hardship in an already suffering region.
It was not, though, a complicated story to report. However, some coverage of this normal-course news item was so shoddy that it displaced the story itself.
In this case, Al Jazeera initially reported that the Gaza flooding had occurred because “Israel had, without warning, opened a number of dams.”
A plausible story at first blush, except that it was a lie – a lie that was repeated by others, including a major international wire service and a leading British newspaper.
In fact, no such dams exist. As Nehamia Scharf, head of the local drainage authority stated when contacted by actual journalists, “there is a diverting dam one meter high which directs water to reservoirs. This is a low dam which cannot be opened or closed.” He later added “If it does anything, it actually reduces the quantity of water flowing towards Gaza.”
Why didn’t Al Jazeera call the head of the local drainage authority when covering the flood? Because Al Jazeera forgot the first rule of journalism: reporting on facts.
While sloppiness may partly explain this debacle – Al Jazeera effectively blamed Israel for the weather – we believe that the real reason that Al Jazeera invented this “news” is more sinister: Al Jazeera’s core interests seem to include portraying Israel in a malevolent light.
It doesn’t take a huge leap to make this claim. Al Jazeera regularly lambastes the Jewish democracy while going easy on many of the neighbouring Muslim autocracies, kleptocracies and theocracies.
Consider Al Jazeera’s young, hip, interactive program, “The Stream,” which it bills as “a social media community with its own daily TV show.”
Though careful not to allow deep intolerance onto its broadcasts, The Stream seems to foster it online.
For instance, The Stream recently posted on its Facebook page an Israeli statement at the UN criticizing its neighbours’ human rights records.
For the web’s anti-Semitic underbelly, this was like waiving a red flag at an angry bull.
Among many other awful comments, someone posted an article claiming that Israel had kidnapped 25,000 Ukrainian children to harvest their organs.
Of course, the idea of Israel’s kidnapping 25,000 Ukrainian children and harvesting their organs is as ridiculous as it is anti-Semitic. But how different is it than a story about Israel’s flooding Gaza by opening dams which don’t exist?
Mistakes happen occasionally, and journalists are human. We cannot hold Al Jazeera’s journalists to a higher standard than others nor can we insist that they share our views. We must, though hold them to the standard of fact.
Al Jazeera has closed ranks and issued only a bare bones statement apologizing for its “error.” Moreover, there is no indication that anyone will face any consequences for fabricating this story, which further undermines Al Jazeera’s journalistic integrity.
In the end, did Al Jazeera put its anti-Israel narrative ahead of its journalistic duty to the facts?
We may never know for sure.
But Al Jazeera owes its public better. And that’s a fact.
Bernie Farber and Benjamin Shinewald are both former CEOs of Canadian Jewish Congress. Benjamin Shinewald has appeared on Al Jazeera’s the Stream.