It broke as do so many stories that burst upon the 24/7 media scene these days -- with a tweet, followed by nearly 3,000 retweets.
A major diplomatic step forward for Palestinians in their quest to establish an independent state, right?
Sure sounds like it. But no, although clearly another international boost for the Palestinians, it was not the groundbreaking achievement the initial Tweet implied.
That's because the Vatican actually recognized Palestine as a state in 2012. What happened this time was the Vatican referred to Palestine as a state, a reaffirmation at most, in a new treaty between the two entities concerning Church interests in the Holy Land. (The Vatican recognized Israel in 1993.)
What it was, instead, is another example of how the ultra-competitive race to be first to break news too often results in incomplete information that, for a spell, sets the journalistic world abuzz for no good reason.
Alas, that's just how it is in the no-time-to-think Twitter-sphere.
The confusion surrounding the Catholic church and the Palestinians escalated considerably at last week's end when virtually all (as far as I can tell) major international media reported that Francis called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas an "angel of peace." It remains unclear, as of my writing, whether the pope was quoted correctly or whether he said he hoped -- big difference -- that Abbas would act like an angel of peace or something else. I'll get back to this point below.
Look, I get it. Super fast dissemination, like it or not, is what it takes to survive in today's news business. Moreover, as a mass market wire service veteran (United Press International, New York and San Francisco bureaus, 1967-1969), I dictated to rewrite my share of bare-bones first ledes that later proved overblown, misleading or flat out wrong.
Yet it seems that these sort of failings happen more frequently today. Or perhaps the public, which Includes me, is just more aware of them thanks to constant cell phone updates and cable news stations desperate to report something new to fill airtime and garner eyeballs. And let's not forget the cacophony of bloggers, obsessive media watchers, partisans and others quick to have their say on the web. The attention payed to out-of-the-gate reporting gaffs is just so much greater today.
The AP Vatican tweet wasn't incorrect so much at it was incomplete, which is what set the buzz a-buzzing. Moreover, the AP story that followed the Tweet included the appropriate context that made the story understandable. Again, not a groundbreaking development but just another twist of the screw in the highly charged and oh-so-closely reported Israel-Palestine conflict. So everything's copacetic, right?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, because the requisite background was included.
No, because there remains the problem of all those with a stake in the story, including competing journalists and, in particular, partisans on all sides feeling the need to react immediately -- by which I mean instantaneously -- in an effort to control the media narrative that follows. This, of course, further feeds the media frenzy and, before long, the story's most headline-grabbing aspect becomes the takeaway, warranted or not.
Of all the stories I saw on this, one of the most accurate next day print pieces was in The Washington Post. The Post even mentioned the initial confusion over the historicity of the Vatican's treaty announcement.
One of the clearest same-day online commentary pieces I read was this one published by Tablet, an American Jewish website that generally leans center-right on Israel.
But Tom Gross, writing on The Weekly Standard website, soon blew that reporting apart with this piece, in which he meticulously picked apart the big guys' stories. His reporting was quickly picked up by other right-of-center outlets happy to stick it to their ideological opponents in the ongoing Middle East media war.
The Times, in what reads like a correction of the "mistakes were made" variety, followed up with a nuanced piece that sought to explain how it's reporting may have been off-base. But that's not the end of the saga. America, a progressive Catholic publication, issued its own postmortem in which it fingered the reporters' pool report for the verbal confusion and injected yet another interpretation of what the pontiff may have said.
And who is Tom Gross? He's one of those independent media watchers I referenced who specializes in Middle East issues. British-born, he's very well-informed, highly experienced, thought highly of in pro-Israel media circles and regularly reports what others have overlooked.
So what's the bottom line for journalists and media consumers?
When it comes to long-entrenched conflict stories of global interest that multiple actors want to manipulate for maximum p.r. value, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, take a deep breath, if at all possible, before deciding which "truth" is the truth.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict rarely moves forward in leaps and bounds, even when blood is flowing, despite what daily headlines, and certainly tweets, may insist is big news or an accurate rendering of events. It's a slow, slow slog that, unfortunately, will remain a huge story for years to come until at least one of the sides becomes exhausted. Confused reporting that produces more smoke than fire will remain one of the constants.