When Journalists Sit On A Story, It’s Bad News

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.

About Larry M. Elkin 525 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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