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Opinion: Fake news? Well, it depends

Lights, camera, action: Palestinians riot on cue in front of the media.

JUNE 7, 2018, JERUSALEM – It’s been on everyone’s lips since Donald Trump began running for president: “fake news.” You know, anything reported in the mainstream media (or MSM, now a pejorative term to many) that’s not to Trump’s liking or the liking of his core voter base.

There is indeed such a thing as fake news and it’s been around forever (well, for as long as news reporting has been around). It’s information made available to the media that’s demonstrably false but for some reason sees the light of day, whether it’s because the media is uninformed or just sloppy or lazy. What’s (relatively) new is media that knowingly disseminates fake news.

As one trained in journalism and working in the news industry since the beginning of the 1980s (when I left my kibbutz apple trees and vineyards), I have come up against it many, many times. I don’t mean the fluff of public relations – almost all legitimate PR is true; it’s just spun in a way that makes the client look good. I’m talking outright lies.

Back at the beginning of the first intifada in December 1987, Yitzhak Rabin, at the time Defense Minister, made the somewhat indelicate statement while facing the media that Israeli soldiers should “break the rioters’ bones.” The troops quickly seemed to take him at his word, and orthopedic wards in West Bank and Gaza Strip hospitals began filling up.

One morning, I toured a ward in the West Bank city of Ramallah. It was full of male teens, most with a cast on one limb or another. When I asked what had happened, they all said an Israeli soldier had beaten them. When I asked what they had been doing to provoke this, the reply never varied: They were on their way to the corner grocery to buy bread when for no reason at all, the troops simply attacked.

I marveled at the way the stories were so similar and figured the bakers must be cleaning up. Then I came upon a young man in more than one cast.

“Why did the soldiers beat you?” I inquired.

“I don’t know,” was his response. “I was on my way to buy bread and minding my own business.”

But I held a card of my own, for I recognized him as one I had seen the previous day throwing a Molotov cocktail at soldiers, who promptly chased him, caught him and, probably with Rabin’s words in mind, went to work with their truncheons.

Bad enough. But what about when doctors lie? We trust them with our lives. They take the Hippocratic Oath. My own tendency is to find them a lot more believable than a bunch of wild-eyed kids out to take on the Israeli army.

A few days later, I received a call from an Arab hospital in Jerusalem and was informed that doctors were about to remove a brain-dead boy from life support. The boy, a resident of the Gaza Strip, had been beaten about the head by Israeli troops, they said, and after being examined at a Gaza-area hospital, he had been sent to the better-equipped hospital in Jerusalem.

This would mean Rabin’s policy had killed someone. It would move the story ahead by light-years.

I was on another assignment at the time but later saw footage from our cameraman. There were no signs of what you’d expect from a beating to the head, especially one that would cause a death.

I called the hospital in the Gaza Strip and was connected with the deputy director. I asked about the boy, and was told that there had been no complaints of a beating. In fact, he had a history of naturally occurring brain hemorrhages.

I called the Jerusalem hospital and demanded to speak with someone senior who had been involved in the boy’s treatment. When I told of having spoken to the deputy director of the hospital in Gaza, the mouthpiece at the other end of the line went muffled and I could hear a mostly indecipherable, yet excited, conversation taking place.

When the person came back on the line, I was told that the beating had been the father’s version of events.

Was he still there?

“Oh no, he’s gone.”

Could I get his phone number or other contact information?

“We don’t release such information to the press.”

Well, what about the lack of head wounds, even if just outward signs of swelling?

“Israeli soldiers are sophisticated,” came the reply.

I made another call to the deputy director of the Gaza hospital. He now sounded very uncomfortable and began to change his story. Someone had been in touch.

I called my editors in New York and they agreed to stay away from the story until I could do more legwork. Other networks, though, took the Jerusalem doctors at their word and rushed toward what was clearly a Great Media Moment. (When I reported the story in its entirety, I was pilloried by a colleague who said I had made him look bad. I guess that’s what laziness does.)

Rabin – never known for his subtlety with the spoken word – could have avoided the whole episode by considering how his statement would play. It’s something a seasoned spokesperson would do. But during the same period, I received a tip that an Israeli bulldozer operator working in the West Bank had buried a young Palestinian boy alive in sand and I immediately called the spokeswoman for the IDF general in charge of the area.

Her first words were, “It can’t be true.” It was the late-1980s version of saying “fake news.” But then she said the following: “Only Nazis would do things like that.”

I went to the site, where in the interim the boy had been unearthed alive and removed to a local hospital. Together with another journalist, I found a sneaker deep within a hollow in the mound of sand.

We went to the hospital and saw the boy and his parents. We asked about his shoes. They said he had arrived at the hospital with only one. When we asked to see it, it was like Cinderella – just a lot less Disneyesque.

I called the general’s spokeswoman. She tracked down the bulldozer operator, a civilian employee of the army, and was able to confirm the veracity of the story. I admired her professionalism – even after she begged me not to quote her “Nazi” comment. I let it slide and she seemed grateful.

I’d like to track her down today and ask what she thinks about fake news, but even more important, about our ability to admit that what sounds fake might actually be true. It’s a reality we have to live with.

Lawrence Rifkin is a Jerusalem-based journalist.

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