BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week we witnessed the power of a New York Times columnist. Three weeks ago Thomas Friedman floated a trial balloon to break what he called the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. He proposed that Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 borders and allow the creation of a Palestinian state in exchange for full diplomatic relations with its neighbors. Two weeks ago he said Saudi's crown prince told him over dinner that he had the same idea. This week other Arab states are lining up behind the plan and a serious debate is under way in Israel. Diplomacy by newspaper proxy. We called up Les Gelb, now head of the Council of Foreign Relations, a former New York Times reporter and op-ed page editor as well as a former official in the U.S. State and Defense Departments. We asked him if Thomas Friedman helped or hindered the peace process. Helped, said Gelb. But Friedman should have said more.
LES GELB: Friedman was perfectly within the bounds of proper column-writing. The Saudis were well within their diplomatic rights to play the game they did. But then in the end it's up to the journalist to provide the context; namely, why were they doing this? Why was he saying that to me? The, the context is not that the Saudis woke up one morning and have discovered that they should be the great peacemakers of the Middle East. The context is that the Saudis' position in the United States has been eroding quite seriously since September 11th, so I think the Saudis were looking for some way to put the brakes on that, and no better way to do that than to seem to be participating in the peace process.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now the Boston Globe in a column this week said that this isn't the textbook way for diplomacy to be conducted.
LES GELB:Well it is a textbook way, and very often journalists are chosen by government officials to deliver ideas or proposed compromises or deals in a low cost or no cost fashion. If the official presented the idea an official of the other side, then that idea is on the table - you've already paid the price. If you pass it through a, a journalist, you have deniability.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you expect Thomas Friedman to chime in again on this or is he going to step aside and let the process work?
LES GELB: Well I hope he chimes in. He's a real expert on these negotiations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you don't think it's inappropriate for him to, to be interposing himself periodically in this discussion.
LES GELB:Barbara Walters some years ago interposed herself between a warring Israel led by Menachem Begin and a warring Egypt led by Anwar Sadat and got the for the first time to talk to each other through her!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It's interesting, because we spoke to Ted Koppel who raised that very issue, and he says that he finds this journalism-fueled diplomacy to be entirely inappropriate and antithetical to the mission of journalism.
LES GELB: If you're doing straight news, I think that's so. If you're a columnist and you're dealing in the world of opinions and people understand that this goes well beyond the news, I don't think it's inappropriate at all, nor do I think it was inappropriate for Barbara Walters to stage that, that meeting between the, the Egyptian and Israeli leaders!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well what about you, Les Gelb? You were a foreign affairs correspondent at New York Times and you've conceded that you were used by the administration once or twice to get some messages out.
LES GELB: And by foreign governments! But every time it was clear they were using me as an intermediary I made clear in the column if I were writing a column or otherwise that this was a trial balloon being floated, and the reader has to be let in on the game!
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well what about you on the other side of this? One of the reasons why we called you is you were also an assistant secretary of state; you've also worked in the Department of Defense; you also worked for a senator. When you were tapping reporters to float your trial balloons--
LES GELB: Right--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- would you have preferred that perhaps they used less full disclosure than you currently recommend?
LES GELB: Sure! You, you prefer less disclosure because when you sit down at the negotiating table the next day or week you can say in diplomatic parlance, well you know that, that, that's an idea floated in the newspaper! [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thanks very much.
LES GELB: Okay, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Les Gelb is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, former New York Times reporter and former U.S. assistant secretary of state for political military affairs. [MUSIC]