There are thousands of ax-grinders in journalism, pushing tantalizing stories with few verifiable facts. Most collect rejection slips, but Steve Emerson finds one respectable media outlet after another for his work, which is sometimes nimble in its treatment of facts, often credulous of intelligence sources, and almost invariably supportive of the Israeli government.
Although several major news outlets are in tune with Emerson's worldview--he got his start writing for the New Republic and U.S. News and World Report, two magazines with a strong pro-Israel bent--his draw for the media is access to sources unavailable to other writers.
That formula stood readers in good stead when Emerson wrote his 1988 book, The Secret Warriors. The book provided hitherto unknown details about the covert intelligence units that ran amok during the Reagan years. Emerson's 1991 book Terrorist--based on his apparently exclusive access to a Palestinian kept under wraps since 1984 in the federal witness protection program--was less well received: the New York Times Book Review (5/19/91) said it was "marred by factual errors (such as mistranslation of Arabic names) that betray an unfamiliarity with the Middle East, and by a pervasive anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian bias."
For CNN, where Emerson works part-time as a "consultant" for the Special Assignment unit, and where there are many more hours to fill with news than at the rival television networks, scoops equal audience equals profits. The network has become known for jumping on stories that don't pan out--most recently, Emerson's June 29 report of a coup in Iraq that apparently never happened. Even the government-run Voice of America was more skeptical, including a disclaimer in their coverage that the account "could not be verified."
In February (2/11/92), Emerson provided CNN with a tape of PLO Chairman Yasir Arafat purportedly cursing Jews as "Dogs! Filth! Dirt!" Emerson said he had obtained the tape from "a Western intelligence agency."
The genuineness of the tape was never conclusively established. The New York Times (2/13/92) reported that CNN had been told by a voice identification expert that the voice was "probably" Arafat's, but that the identification wouldn't stand up in court. Emerson said "a journalist" and "Arab specialists" had confirmed that the voice was Arafat's. Arafat says the tape was "fabricated by the Israeli secret service" (Le Quotidien de Paris, 6/2/92).
Whatever the tape's origin, its timing was highly convenient for the Israeli government: Emerson's scoop aired two days before Arafat's Feb. 13 address to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Reporters largely ignored Arafat's plea for international protection for Palestinian's under Israeli occupation and focused on the telephone affair.
Not only do Emerson's questionable journalistic practices not erode his credibility with mainstream media, he's even taken seriously as a press critic--leaping in to try to discredit reporting that tarnishes Israel's reputation.
When an Israeli gunman murdered seven Palestinians, Emerson rushed out a Wall Street Journal column (5/22/90) condemning "the predictable orgy of Israel-bashing by the media." Commentators should instead praise Israel for arresting the attacker, Emerson argued. (The column set off a six-week exchange on the Journal's op-ed page between Emerson and Alexander Cockburn, who argued that the Israeli government was responsible for encouraging an anti-Arab atmosphere--as when then-Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advocated that "Israel should have exploited the repression of the demonstrations in China, when world attention focused on that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the territories"--Wall Street Journal, 7/14/90.)
Emerson's ad hominem attacks in the New Republic (11/18/91) on journalists investigating possible ties between the 1980 Reagan campaign and the Iranian government were filled with unsourced and anonymous allegations. (See Extra!, June 92.) Yet they had a major political effect, being cited again and again by Congressional opponents of an "October Surprise" investigation.
Emerson's most recent media criticism was in the Washington Journalism Review (5/92), where he suggested that the New York Times, the Washington Times and "and much of the Fourth Estate" should apologize to Israel for reports last March that Israel was illegally exporting U.S. weapon technology to third countries.
There were two sets of these reports: one in the Washington Times (3/12/92) that Israel had shared Patriot technology with China; the other, which appeared first in the Wall Street Journal (3/13/92), was based on a report by the State Department's Inspector General (IG), which focused on the failure of the department to monitor Israeli re-exports.
To prevent a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations, the State Department distanced itself from the IG's report and said an inspection team could find "no evidence" of a Patriot transfer and that the matter was "closed." But New York Newsday (4/7/92) and the Washington Times (4/9/92) reported that two Chinese diplomatic attaches had confirmed the Patriot transfer to U.S. diplomats. Emerson ignored these reports.
Emerson based much of his debunking of the IG's report on Israel's claim that intellectual authorship of technology is a fuzzy area. The IG, Sherman Funk, had decisively rebutted that contention: "We mean something physical that can be looked at. Something with a serial number on it," he told the Washington Jewish Week (3/19/92).
This interview was widely discussed in Washington, but Emerson failed to mention it in his WJR article. Instead, he cited "a senior Defense Department official" who claimed that "the IG abjectly misrepresents the intent and bottom line of the documents upon which his report are based," and "a former government official who had access to raw intelligence," who said that the report was "a dumping ground for anyone who wanted to get their digs in on Israel."
These airy references to unnamed officials are standard Emerson. Also characteristic are the misleading strings of factoids. In the WJR piece, he disputes the fact that Israel sold cluster bombs to Ethiopia--a sale revealed by former President Carter in 1989, and confirmed in a confidential Bush administration memo (New York Times, 7/13/90). Emerson argues at length that the bombs were instead sold by a Chilean arms dealer--conveniently overlooking Reuters (10/7/90) and Financial Times (10/20/90) reports that Israel arranged for the sale after the Bush administration pressured it to stop its own cluster bomb shipments.
Emerson's WJR piece did contain one useful insight, when he noted: "Officials collect, interpret and even generate 'intelligence' designed to promote their views." That's a reality that Emerson--and the media outlets that publish his "scoops"--would do well to keep in mind.