That was the loud-and-clear message from Tablet’s Marc Tracy, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the Jewish Journal’s Shmuel Rosner, and others to the New York Time’s Jodi Rudoren this week. They were all admonishing the newly appointed NYT Jerusalem bureau chief for over-sharing on Twitter. We are all, on occasion, guilty of this behavior, they admitted. But according to Goldberg, this is not the time for Rudoren to be “schmooz[ing] up Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian activist who argues for Israel’s destruction…prais[ing] Peter Beinart’s upcoming book as, ‘terrific: provocative, readable, full of reporting and reflection’…and link[ing] without comment to an article in a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper.”
Tracy’s statement that “the most charitable reading says Rudoren possesses an astounding lack of sense of the profile of the post to which she has been appointed” made me think of two things that former NYT Jerusalem bureau chief David K. Shipler told me over the years. Shipler is a distant cousin by marriage on my mother’s side, and I got to know him and his family well just as they were returning from Israel to Washington, D.C. and I was beginning college there.
Way back in the late 1980’s as I was writing for my campus paper and contemplating a career in journalism (which I didn’t actually get around to pursuing until some 20 years later), Shipler told me that the most important thing about being a journalist was to really know your subject. Not a big proponent of J school (at least as I remember him telling me at the time), he said it all came down to whether you could or could not write. But you’d sure as hell not write a single word if you didn’t know what you were talking about, he warned me.
Then, just a few months ago, I interviewed Shipler for the Forward on the 25th anniversary of the publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Arab and Jew.” In our conversation, I asked him how he prepared to report the daily news from Israel and about the Middle East conflict. He told me that he spent a very long time upon arriving in Jerusalem just getting to know and listening to all the players — from high ranking politicians to regular folk of all backgrounds.
It would surely be prudent for Rudoren to follow Shipler’s example, especially when the situation could be judged even more complex now than it was back then. Not to mention the accusations of bias that dogged her predecessor Ethan Bronner. “Only a fool would expect a reporter to have no opinions, but we expect them to zip their opinions up in favor of objectivity and to come to new stories with an open mind; Rudoren is already damaging her readers’ trust,” wrote Tracy.
But I would argue that it is not as simple as that. There was no Twitter, Facebook or social media of any kind back when Shipler arrived in Jerusalem. I know plenty of journalists — myself included — who write objective reported pieces while, at the same time, sharing their opinions in blogs and columns and by social media. While we writers may post all different links on our Facebook pages, our “friends” can generally discern the gist of our political leanings from what we choose to share. The claim that the line between reporting and comment, or opinion, has been blurred in recent years is not a new one.
Rudoren basically said as much in an interview with Politico following the furor about her perceived left-wing (or anti-Israel, or anti-Zionist…depends who you ask) bias in the Twitterverse. While saying that she would be “careful to seek out the widest possible range of viewpoints, to interview people thoroughly, to see things first hand, and to then convey them to the public with fairness and thoroughness and honesty,” she is also reluctant to completely give up her use of social media.
In this day and age, it really is a disadvantage for a journalist to not be on Facebook and Twitter. “I think that would be really sad [to stop using Twitter], because a lot of people get their news from Twitter,” Rudoren said. “I absolutely will be more careful. But it’s not being careful that people won’t find out what I really think, it’s about being careful to be fair,” she continued.
Is it even realistic to expect Rudoren to take any other approach in 2012, when anyone can dig up anything you have ever posted in a matter of minutes and with just a few keystrokes — and read it in any light that suits them?