By Angela M. Epstein
Angela Epstein is a former News Correspondent for the Univision Network and former Anchor of NBC's Canal de Noticias.
Today it is the Colombian in me who writes, as it was the journalist I once was who convinced me that I needed to do so after watching the documentary "Out of Cordoba" produced by Jacob Bender, who has made a name working on inter-faith relations. The documentary explores the relationships between Jews and Muslims and asks if those two people "are incapable of peaceful coexistence."
Mine is not a religious or political argument and instead I will discuss here the producer of the documentary and his journalistic practices, something of which I know more than about religion. This January 31, I walked out the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut from what could have been a night of enlightenment and education about respect for cultures and religions within the frame of honest reporting and film documentary. At least it is what I was sold. Instead I left the room deeply upset after watching the documentary whose producer" humbly" described himself as a "starving journalist."
The loose use of the word journalist deeply disturbed me; this is where my excitement wore out and my questioning began. The part that prompted me to sit and write this piece was Bender's denouncing of the Israeli West Bank security fence and the subsequent editorialization of his feelings of frustration, supported by the interview with an activist Rabbi. I had no problem with that; the producer's obligation is to do so. Where I found a serious ethical problem from someone who calls himself a journalist was the total absence of any type of background related to the building of the fence and the one-sided presentation of the issue.
I did not understand why he did, openly, omit giving a reason for why it was built. At the very least I was expecting very basic journalistic practice: both sides of the story are always a must. But Mr. Bender disregarded his obligation. When I asked him why, he told me his was a "deliberate" decision. Omitting some critical facts was "deliberate." His, was a poor explanation I could not understand and he could not elaborate well.
To me this is unacceptable and unethical regardless of how we look at it and it does not help the same cause he claims he is working for. But why did Mr. Bender make a "deliberate" decision, as he asserted to me, to not include any reason as to why the fence is there while simultaneously denouncing it? Why was his explanation so ambiguous and unconvincing?
Some would argue it was because of the nature of some of the funds and access given for this film, I argue that he is not a journalist and should stop calling himself that. I also call these types of "deliberate decisions" the prostitution of journalism, a passion for which many reporters in my country have been killed. So, as a former reporter with dead friends, I do not think, as some do, that the producer is being intellectually dishonest. I think he is a whore, and a very clever one.
In a different context, Mr. Bender reminded me so much of the dark days of our recent Colombian history when some journalists presented the facts depending of the size of the check or the threat received. That was a common practice and the only one who benefited was Pablo Escobar, the infamous narco-dealer, not the peace process that divided the country so much.
Jacob Bender has been acclaimed for this film and he is savoring the fruits of convenience, self-censorship and omission. I only see his personal self-interest. I did not see where and how this position is in the best interest of interfaith relations that he uses to get the limelight. If Mr. Bender is inserting himself in the process of interfaith relations and reconciliation between Jews, Christians and Muslims (of which I know nothing, I must confess), he should expose the facts with transparency. Please note, I am not debating the wall here; this is not my dilemma today. My dilemma today is journalistic ethics.
I was not expecting Bender to say that the motivation of the security fence was safety because the tactic of suicide bombing attacks carried out of the West Bank had been successfully used on Israeli civilians for several years claiming many lives, or that since the building of the fence there has been, according to Israeli sources, a 90% decline of attacks. Or that the fence has even caused Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdallah Shalah complain to the Qatari newspaper Al-Sharq that the fence "limits the ability to arrive deep within [Israeli territory] to carry out suicide bombing attacks."
History has told us that, like in journalism, in the process of reconciliation the facts are exposed from both sides. It happens everywhere these processes take place in in the search for healing. I ask myself if hiding facts is a way to promote dialogue. "Deliberate" decisions like the one Mr. Bender made ignite conflict; they do not appease it.
I must admit I learned about the very interesting lives of two highly enlightened religious philosophers of the Jewish and Muslim faiths, Maimonides and Averroes, two people of whom the world should learn more, but that is another subject. It could have been a nice documentary. Too bad it was tainted.