After first defending its decision to honor two members of the Hamas terrorist organization, the Newseum–a museum dedicated to the media, located in Washington D.C.–seems to have reversed course. On Friday, I wrote about the museum’s exhibit honoring journalists killed on the job, and the inclusion on that list of two Hamas members who did propaganda work for the terrorist group who were killed in Hamas’s latest round of fighting with Israel.
The Newseum’s first instinct was to try to justify including the Hamasniks in the memorial, telling the Washington Free Beacon that they had the letters “TV” on the car they were in. Therefore, they said, the two men were journalists. This was ridiculous, and apparently as soon as they said it they realized just how silly it was and began the process of reconsidering. They were also criticized by a range of organizations who opposed honoring terrorists posing as journalists. Now, reports the Free Beacon, the Newseum’s leadership has decided to drop the terrorists from the exhibit–probably:
Cathy Trost, the Newseum’s vice president of exhibits, programs, and media relations, told the Free Beacon that the two Hamas operatives in question could be included in the Journalist’s Memorial at a future ceremony.
“The process is that serious questions were raised and we’re going to look in to the nature of their work,” Trost told the Free Beacon following the ceremony. “Based on a pending investigation, yes,” the two could be included in the memorial.
“We’ll look into the nature of their work,” Trost said. “We’re reevaluating.”
Since “the nature of [Hamas’s propaganda] work” is really quite horrifying, it’s doubtful the Newseum will reverse its reversal. The Newseum is treating this as a bit of a teaching moment about the need to double-check first impressions in the fog of war, but not everyone was thrilled about the way that debate took shape. After Foundation for Defense of Democracies President Cliff May suggested FDD would move a conference planned for the Newseum to a new venue, the Washington Post’s Max Fisher tweeted:
Fisher elaborated today in a blog post after the Newseum backed away from the Hamasniks, and raised the question of where the line should be drawn delineating who is a legitimate journalist and who isn’t. Journalists working for state-run media, Fisher noted, pose a challenge. But he suggested perhaps they should get the benefit of the doubt that, say, a Voice of America reporter gets, or even an NBC news anchor when there’s a possible conflict of interest with the station’s corporate owners:
But there are three important caveats to that case for including them in the Newseum honor. First, sometimes we do consider journalists with state-owned outlets to be serving the interests of their ownership over journalistic principle; for example, few would argue that the scribes at Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency are much more than propagandists (al-Aqsa is not KCNA, but neither is it the BBC). Second, journalists in the employ of combatants are sometimes considered components of that military force: this might include, as the writer Andrew Exum has argued, Serbian state media that helped incite ethnic violence in 1999; it might also include uniformed army soldiers who carry cameras, such as Goldberg’s hypothetical Israeli military cameraman. Third, though the Al-Aqsa cameraman were not uniformed, both Hamas and Al-Aqsa are classified by the U.S. government as terrorist organizations, so perhaps the line between journalist and combatant is easier to cross when you’re employed by such people.
That last detail is what makes the case of Hamas pretty clear cut. Hamas is a designated terrorist organization, and the members of Hamas who sometimes drove around in a car that said “TV” were terrorists. They were killed during their organization’s attempt to annihilate the Jewish state. Fisher may be a bit generous to BBC reporters when assuming their accuracy or integrity but for all the BBC’s failings, it is not a terrorist organization.
The question of whether a Hamas terrorist is a journalist is not an interesting one, but the question when applied more generally is interesting, and important. We do, after all, have “shield” laws which are meant to absolve a reporter, in most cases, from having to divulge a source even under legal pressure–a right not given to most citizens. So who gets that right? It’s a challenging question to answer, and can even undermine the shield laws themselves. For example, having spent part of my career as a newspaper reporter and editor, I am sympathetic to the journalistic value of being able to protect a source. But I’ve never been thrilled about the prospect of letting the government–which, after all, is generally the entity pressuring reporters to give up their sources or go to prison–choose who gets that designation.
The Newseum didn’t need to dive too deeply into the question because this was an open and shut case. Additionally, the Free Beacon’s report has the other way the Newseum could have figured out the answer to this one: the full-page advertisement it took out for the exhibit features the following text: “Some were targeted deliberately while others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. All were working to expand the reach of a free press around the world.”
How the Newseum could ever think to justify applying that description to Hamas propagandists, who are absolutely working against the establishment of a free press everywhere it can, we’ll never know. If they truly have dropped the Hamasniks from their exhibit, they made the right call. But by the Newseum’s own criteria, those two names should never have been on the list to begin with.