Josef Olmert

On the late Bob Simon-the end of a legend

There is an Arab saying ”mafish gumrak an al kalimat”[no tax on words…], so the use of words such as ”legendary” can be attributed rather freely and easily to many who do not really deserve it. A necessity of protocol or sheer desire to be nice may lead us to use such big words, but not in this case. Bob Simon WAS legendary,the kind of journalist whose life story and career endeavors should be a required reading material in any school of journalism. Not the type of Brian Williams who forgot that the role of the journalist was to tell the story, not to be the story, not the type of Christian Amanpour and Anderson Cooper, who move from one global trouble spot to another , giving the viewers a lot of color and atmosphere , but hardly any substance…

Bob became the story in one memorable instance, when he refused to comply with the strict limitations imposed by the Pentagon on free coverage of the build up to the First Iraq war [Dessert Storm], left his hotel in Saudi Arabia, which was basically a golden cage, and went to the border to see for himself, and then taken prisoner by the Iraqis. 40 days he suffered the treatment of the Iraqis, but when back from his captivity he said that the entire experience was a”reckless ” situation, but it was not a coincidence that it happened to him, and him only, at a time when so many other journalists were in Saudi Arabia , living by the word of the American Government.

Bob did not like governments, he viewed them as potential adversaries, it was the attitude of suspect and respect. I know it first hand, because Bob was my ”client” when I became the Government Press Office Director in 1989, and Bob was the Chief Middle East CBS correspondent, based in a bungalow in Herzliyya, traveling all over the Middle East. I asked my stuff to tell me about the main stream American media correspondents in Israel, as it was the American media market which was my main concern, and they told me about them all, with one exception… And then there is Bob Simon, so I was told, and Bob is a different one, not susceptible to Israeli Hasbara, in fact to any hasbara from any source, Jewish, but this is how he was born, his true religion is the world of media, in short, I was told, he does not like the position of Government spokesman, nothing personal…

I met him on numerous occasions, and I always was at awe. The man generated a kind of distance , a sense of nobility , and yet was not arrogant. HE was THE Bob Simon, and people simply had to acknowledge that and refer to him as the ONE journalist who had to be treated differently. He was wondering all over the region, but Israel
was the basis, not because it being the Jewish state, if at all, despite that. Bob, like the rest of the American media presence in the Middle East, simply liked the freer , democratic environment in Israel, the advanced facilities, the ability to speak English with almost everyone. He did not command either Arabic or Hebrew, at least when I was in close touch with him, and this is a weakness, but he liked life in Israel. It was not however a factor in his coverage of the situation. I personally felt and still feel, that many Jewish correspondents covering Israel tend to bend over backwards to be ”objective”, in fact to be too critical of Israel in order to show that they are ”ok”, but not Bob Simon. I did not like his coverage on many occasions, and imagine the time , 1989-91, the first Intifada, the days when the old song”the entire world is against us”, became so popular again in Israel, and for a reason.

Still, I never thought that Bob tried to prove any point, other than be loyal to his journalistic conscience as he understood it to be. When he became a 60 Minutes correspondent, a program which under Mike Wallace had a distinct anti-Israel bias, he reported on occasions on aspects of life in Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians, usually more critical of Israel than not, but somehow as it was Bob Simon, even I could not bring myself to be angry, and in my long career, I was very angry at many foreign correspondents[ask the old timers of CNN…]

When someone like Bob Simon is killed in a road accident in the midst of Manhattan, it is NOT a case of a story with an end written in advance. Bob Simon and a road accident?, well, even great and legendary journalists cannot write their own fate. He should and would be remembered as one of the last, great Mohicans.Yehi Zikhro Baruch!

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina