No news may be good news when there’s actually nothing to report, but it’s bad news when there are stories that journalists simply refuse to deliver.
Several journalists witnessed a candid exchange at the recent G-20 summit in Cannes between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama about Israel’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. “Netanyahu, I can’t stand him. He’s a liar,” Sarkozy said. To which Obama replied, “You are sick of him, but I have to deal with him every day.”
To my mind, how two prominent world leaders really view their counterpart in one of the world's most sensitive and volatile regions is pretty important stuff. But most of the journalists who heard the remarks chose not to report them.
The comments were picked up by microphones, which had been switched on in advance of an official joint briefing, and were accidentally broadcast through the headset connections that were to be used for a simultaneous translation. The journalists also overheard Obama chide Sarkozy for not warning him that France would vote in favor of a Palestinian request for membership in the United Nations cultural heritage agency UNESCO.
Despite the journalists’ reticence, the comments soon appeared on the French website Arrêt Sur Images. After the cat was out of the bag, a Reuters journalist who had also heard the conversation confirmed the report. Reuters said journalists, presumably including its own, did not initially report the conversation “because it was considered private and off-the-record.”
That response leaves open the question of who did the considering. Certainly Sarkozy and Obama considered the conversation to be private, but that’s no real reason why anyone else should.
Reporters, especially those in the political world, usually have little choice but to let the subjects of news reports shape their coverage. Politicians strategically dole out information through official press releases and well-controlled leaks. Newsmakers also court individual newsbreakers in behind-closed-doors meetings with offers of “exclusive” information, often selective and offered only exchange for promises of anonymity and off-the-record agreements. It isn’t always pretty, but it is sometimes the only way to get the story.
In this case, however, journalists got unexpected access to unfiltered information. The reporters who heard the comments had made no agreements about what they would and would not print, but they went ahead and withheld information that they knew Sarkozy and Obama would prefer to keep quiet. This is troublesome.
Reporters are only human. They enjoy getting the inside scoop, even when it’s off the record, and they also like invitations to swanky parties. But when reporters start pulling favors for their friends in high places, like keeping embarrassing comments out of the papers, they do the public and their profession a disservice.
Some may argue that the comments were suppressed, not because of any desire on the reporters’ part to curry favor, but simply because of differing national standards for what constitutes news. Because the technical glitch involved simultaneous translation and because the summit took place in France, most of those who heard the remarks were French. In France, press tradition gives public officials a much wider degree of privacy than is common in America or England. That's why we hear less about the sexual misadventures of French politicians. But, in this case, the discussion was clearly of public significance. Ideas about politicians’ personal privacy should not have been relevant.
Occasionally, of course, journalists should practice discretion. If serious state secrets are accidentally leaked, and particularly if lives are endangered, a journalist may truly serve the public interest by burying a story rather than reporting it. But this should happen only in rare cases. A journalist’s job nearly always is to report the news, not to cover it up.
In this case, while the comments were certainly interesting enough to be newsworthy, they were hardly confidential. Both Sarkozy and Obama have previously criticized Netanyahu before microphones that they knew were switched on. And as Israeli Vice Premier Silvan Shalom told Israel's Army Radio, in politics, “Everyone talks about everyone. Sometimes even good friends say things about each other, certainly in such competitive professions.”
Political pros know that offhand comments picked up on open mikes are an occupational hazard. In 1984, President Reagan was accidentally recorded checking a microphone by joking, “My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” In more recent times, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and George W. Bush’s embarrassingly candid comments have all made their way to public airwaves. You would think that by now our leaders would know enough not to say anything inflammatory anywhere near a microphone unless they are willing to stand by their words.
But despite their best efforts to control things, politicians will occasionally make news when they don’t mean to. It is a journalist’s role to report it when they do.