Monday, August 02, 2010

Daniel Schorr's journalistic ethical dilemma

Judea Pearl writes in the Jewish Journal about journalist Daniel Schorr, who passed away last week. Pearl quotes a letter he once received from Schorr in 2003 that in turn quoted from his autobiography the  following poignant story:

My last major assignment in Poland was to produce, in 1959, an hour-long documentary, “Poland-Country on a Tightrope,” for Ed Murrow’s CBS Reports series. This gave me a production team and the time and resources for a deeper look at Poland-its people, its schools, its fast-decollectivizing farms.

And Oswiecim. Auschwitz.

In 1959 not many from the West had visited Auschwitz, and I was not prepared for what I would see and try to capture on film. I have always tried to separate my Jewish heritage from my reporting, but keeping emotion under control in Auschwitz, where members of my family may have died, was not easy.

I had to read parts of my script several times, trying to control a catch in my throat and sound detached as I reported, “Here was the greatest death factory ever devised, where a million died, pushed through these gas chambers at a rate of 60,000 a day, their bodies efficiently moved out and lifted mechanically into brick ovens after their clothes and hair and gold teeth had been removed. For many, there was no room in the ovens, and they were buried in open pits, now these stagnant ponds. If you run your hand along the bottom, you will pick up human ashes and fragments of bone.”

...While working on this Polish documentary, I ran into what may have been the greatest ethical dilemma of my career. Our little CBS cavalcade of three rented cars, carrying the camera crew, the producer, and a Polish interpreter, was driving through a small town in eastern Poland, not far from the Soviet border, when we espied a strange sight. It was a caravan of about ten horse-drawn wagons, carrying a few dozen people and piled high with their possessions. Stopping to talk to them, I discovered that they were Polish Jews and that I could converse with them in the Yiddish that I had hardly used since childhood.

They had come across the border in the Soviet Union and were on their way to a railway station, bound for Vienna and from there to Israel.

Our camera was soon set up in the muddy road, and I interviewed them in Yiddish. They could not tell me, however, how it was that they were permitted to travel to Israel. Out of consideration for Arab opinion, Russia and its satellites officially banned emigration to Israel.

Back in Warsaw the next day I consulted the Israeli minister, Shimon Amir, a chess-playing friend of mine.

“They told you they were on their way to Israel, and you have that on film?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “But how is it possible?”

“All right, since you know this much, I will tell you the rest, and then you will decide what to do.”

He explained that the Jews came from a part of Poland that had been annexed by the Soviet Union, that there were several thousand more caught on the Soviet side who had survived the war and the Holocaust and were desperately anxious to leave. Israel had negotiated a delicate secret arrangement with the Soviet and Polish governments. The Jews would be “repatriated” to Poland with the understanding that they would almost immediately leave the country-bound for Israel.

“But there was one condition attached to the agreement,” said Amir.

“The arrangement must remain a secret. If any word becomes public, the Soviets will immediately cancel the arrangement.”

“So,” my friend concluded, “you can decide, Mr. Schorr. Put this on television, and you condemn thousands of Jews to remaining in the Soviet Union.”

Each evening, my cameraman would pack up the cans of film we had shot that day and ship them by air to New York, later to be assembled with narration for our documentary. But I held back the reel with the Jewish interviews. It stayed on my desk in the hotel next day, and the next day and the next. I would have liked to have consulted Murrow, but could not do so over an open telephone. I never decided, exactly, that for humanitarian reasons I would practice self-censorship. I simply kept postponing the decision until it was too late. After a while, my camera crew stopped asking about it.

This was a profound violation of my journalistic ethic that a reporter has no right to interpose himself between information legitimately acquired and the public he serves.

My CBS Reports program, “Poland-Country on a Tightrope,” went on the air, documenting the political chill settling over Poland as Gomulka came to terms with his Soviet bosses. Auschwitz was in my film. But not the caravan of Jews making their way to Israel.

When next I was in New York, I brought the reel of film with me and went to see Murrow. He had strong pro-Israel sympathies himself. When he was sick, my Zionist mother had a tree planted in Israel in his name as a prayer for his recovery. His first question to me was, “How is my tree doing?”

I then produced the can of film and explained how, against all my principles,I had withheld it. All he said was, “I understand.”
They don't make journalists like that anymore.