A Journalist’s Revenge
April 27, 2002
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amidst all the coverage of the Middle East in recent weeks, you may have heard about the book called Revenge. It's an account written by Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld of her quest to confront the Palestinian militant who shot her father. Her father was injured, but he recovered. Blumenfeld did not. She decided at some personal risk to pursue the shooter, exact some kind of revenge, and write about it all. But throughout she confronts an ethical dilemma. She cannot say who she is or why she is there. She works her way into the good graces of the shooter's family, the Khatab family, as a book writer interested in the shooter as a symbol but with no personal stake in the case. She lies. As a human being she struggles with that, but as a journalist she doesn't, and we wondered should she have?
JOSH HAMMER: Journalists are supposed to deal in the truth, and they're supposed to present the truth and quest for the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Josh Hammer is the Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek.
JOSH HAMMER: I think when you're dealing with the issues of deception like this you have to really weigh the ethical questions against the end result. I keep thinking of this book, the classic book, the old book from the '60s: Black Like Me where this white journalist went undercover as a black man and really came up with a very compelling narrative. I mean that was a clear deception, and it worked. I mean I don't think we condemned the writer for fooling those around him by posing as a black man.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:That landmark work by John Howard Griffin profoundly deepened his white readers' understanding of what it's like to be black in America. Keith Woods, a specialist in journalistic ethics with the Pointer Institute says that sometimes it's necessary to lie. But a report must be seeking something extraordinary.
JOSH HAMMER: --when you are trying to protect the public from great harm, inform the public about great danger, and all other means of getting that information have failed. So the bar is fairly high, and certainly to demonstrate some measure of revenge doesn't fall into either of those categories.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Ultimately Blumenfeld's revenge turns out to be an apology. Omar Khatab writes to her from prison that he regrets his action. They come to understand each other. Later she even tries to win his release. Her book is a tale of reconciliation and of hope. Is that worth a lie? Josh Hammer.
JOSH HAMMER: I still, in the back of my mind I sort of feel that there was an exploitative quality about this and that it really was sort of -- she was using these people. Clearly using these people. So that bothers me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It bothered Blumenfeld. She quotes her father, a rabbi, who reminds her that it says "Don't steal" twice in the holy books. "So," he asks, "why does it say it twice? Because you're not supposed to steal objects, and you're not supposed to steal a person's mind. At some point you have to be honest. There's a point where you have to have a sense of decency." Blumenfeld writes that her neck felt warm; a rising pang of guilt. When we called her she said she was willing to discuss the guilt she felt as a person, but she was unwilling and unprepared to answer questions about compromises she made as a journalist. Ethicist Keith Woods.
JOSH HAMMER: I understand the motive; I understand the goal; all of those things I have great sympathy for. But I, I think that you cannot divorce what she's done from the consequences, however remote the possibilities might be for the safety of journalists here and abroad. Certainly we can look at what happened with Danny Pearl, and if we believe at any level the people who killed him, then we, we might believe that at some point they thought he was operating as something other than an objective journalist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But to Josh Hammer, the notion that Blumenfeld's deception increased the danger to reporters in the region is, in his word, "farfetched."
JOSH HAMMER: I work in the West Bank and Gaza every day of my life, and it never crossed my mind that maybe my life would be in-- at any more risk because this journalist engaged in deception.
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: I think her situation was so unique, so sui generis, that it would really be intellectually dishonest to try to draw broader implications for journalism about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Samuel Freedman teaches at the School of Journalism at Columbia University. He says that since Blumenfeld was writing a book at the time, on leave from the Washington Post, she wasn't bound by the same rules reporters are. "Book writers," he says, "are free agents," and he likens her case more to "Cyrano de Bergerac's than Woodward and Bernstein's. When Cyrano courted Roxanne, he did it through a front because otherwise he believed never would be heard."
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: In a way, Laura Blumenfeld is both Cyrano and Cyrano's front, because by presenting a front that's Laura Blumenfeld writing a book about revenge, she's able to say some of the things that Laura Blumenfeld, the daughter of someone who was nearly killed by a Palestinian militant would not have been able to say without getting the door slammed in her face on day one.
JOSH HAMMER: I'm torn about it. I'm torn. I'm ambivalent. I condemn her act of deception. On the other hand I accept that this was a valid quest and a need for her to do this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Reporter Josh Hammer says "Blumenfeld's offense is more misdemeanor than grand larceny, and the sentence, even as she reaps the success of her work, will be the one she imposes upon herself."
JOSH HAMMER: Maybe the price of her game of deception is this queasiness and this feeling of guilt and this feeling of using people that she probably will always have when she re-reads her book and talks about it. She's always going to nagged by that feeling, and maybe that's justice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Blumenfeld seems to have understood that from the start. She wrote: "The journalist in me saw this as an opportunity for discovery. Reporting a book about revenge was an intellectual challenge; an exercise in empathy. The other person, the avenging child, knew that what was coming would be hard. I would lose all distance from my subject. Worse, I would become my subject. The outcome was unclear. The effort self-absorbed. The process full of ethical compromise. When I pictured telling anyone, I cringed." [MUSIC]