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Thursday, 28 April 2011

One more reason not to believe "investigative reporters"

In case the link dies, here's the story:

BAR 37:03, May/Jun 2011
First Person: The Lion and the Flea
By Hershel Shanks

J’accuse! I accuse the television program 60 Minutes of unethical and irresponsible reporting.

As BAR readers know, we have reported extensively on the so-called “forgery trial of the century” in Jerusalem and the artifacts alleged to be forgeries, including a bone box, or ossuary, inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” an ivory pomegranate that may have been a scepter from Solomon’s Temple, and the Yehoash Inscription, which, if authentic, would be the first Israelite royal inscription ever found.

On March 23, 2008, 60 Minutes devoted a segment of the program to the alleged forgeries, focusing on the rumor that an Egyptian jeweler named Marco, who was a friend of Israeli antiquities collector Oded Golan, a leading defendant in the case, had made forgeries for Golan, among them the Yehoash Inscription.

60 Minutes accurately described, in the words of the Israeli police major who was in charge of the investigation, rumors that were swirling about the case: “Golan was not working alone. He had help from academics, [antiquities] dealers and an Egyptian craftsman ... So Golan was the head of the operation, and he had an Egyptian who did the actual forgery.”

60 Minutes set out to confirm these rumors. It sent a team to the serpentine Khan Khalili bazaar in Cairo to find Marco. And they were successful! They found him in his little workshop where he made jewelry for some shops below, as well as for private customers. Like most jewelers in the bazaar, he made replicas of ancient Egyptian jewelry and other artifacts.

As the television program admitted, they operated “under cover”—that is, they did not identify themselves, recording and filming the interview without telling Marco. (This is obvious from the photographs of Marco.) Only at the end of the process did they inform Marco who they were.

But before that, they got what they wanted: After they showed Marco a picture of the Yehoash tablet, he confessed! In Marco’s own words, as he purportedly mouthed them for millions of television viewers:

“I inscribed several stone slabs that looked just like this for [Oded] Golan ... Golan brought me the text and I carved it onto the tablet.”

From BAR’s first look at the 60 Minutes segment, it aroused suspicion, not about Marco, but about the integrity of 60 Minutes. It seemed odd that Marco would simply confess to making a forgery. And, if you look carefully at the faint image of Marco in the background making his confession, his lips do not seem to match the words supposedly coming out of his mouth. (Was he speaking in Arabic or English?)

So we wrote to 60 Minutes and asked to see the complete transcript of the interview. The reply: “I am afraid it is the policy of CBS News not to release the unaired transcripts of interviews.” They refused to make their outtakes available. All we could do was complain that 60 Minutes was very good at asking questions but not so good at answering them. The issue sank like a stone.

Then in January 2011 we were in Cairo on other matters. As long as we were there, why not try to talk to Marco? If 60 Minutes could find Marco, maybe we could too. And we did. We located the 44-year-old Christian bachelor Semah Marco in his small third-floor walkup workshop deep in the heart of the dense Cairo bazaar.

Marco was very clear. He did not confess to forging the Yehoash tablet. He did not make any forgeries. He denied forging the Yehoash Inscription. He had never written a sentence in Hebrew letters, he said. He was very angry with 60 Minutes. He would like to sue them, but he cannot afford a lawyer, he said.

In the next breath, however, he said he would be afraid to sue them. He does not want to get involved. He had already been taken to the police station and interrogated by the police. He did not want any more trouble. (This was two weeks before the Egyptian protests erupted in Cairo. A few weeks before that, 20 Christian Copts had been killed and a hundred wounded in an Alexandria church. Egypt was a land of corruption—from the policeman on the street to the highest level of government—and fear of government was palpable.)

Marco speaks halting English at best. I spoke to him largely through an Arab interpreter. Did he admit that he made things “just like this for Golan” when shown a picture of the 15-line Yehoash tablet? Marco explained that he did not know who these people were when they came into his shop and talked to him; he thought they were potential customers, so, to sell his services, he told them, when shown a picture of the tablet, that he could make them something “just like this.”

60 Minutes has a recording of the interview, so it is possible to find out exactly what Marco said—and did not say—and in what context. Is the 60 Minutes text a translation of Marco’s Arabic? If so, is it accurate? Did they doctor it? Or did Marco speak English? We do know that 60 Minutes paid someone with a slight Arab accent to voice the words Marco supposedly said, thus giving the impression that we are hearing Marco himself in the background. But, as previously noted, the spoken words don’t match Marco’s lips.

What we also know is that Marco very clearly and firmly denies having told 60 Minutes that he forged the Yehoash tablet—or anything else—for Golan.
That is the only thing in question here: the integrity of 60 Minutes.

Let us be clear what this article is not about:
This article is not about whether the Yehoash Inscription (or the James Ossuary Inscription) is a forgery. It is not about whether Oded Golan forged these inscriptions himself or had them forged by someone else.

Nor is it about whether Golan’s Egyptian friend Semah Marco forged the Yehoash Inscription. It is not even about whether Marco lied when he denied forging the Yehoash Inscription.

The only thing this article is about is whether 60 Minutes accurately reported what Marco said. Did Marco say that he made things “just like this [the Yehoash Inscription] for Golan.” Or did he say only that he “could” make something just like this, if that’s what his customer wanted?

There is no question that Marco denied to me that he ever said he forged the Yehoash tablet. He was firm and clear, as was his anger at 60 Minutes.

Moreover, what he told me is consistent with his denial of having forged the Yehoash tablet. Before 60 Minutes interviewed Marco, he was interviewed by a team of Israeli police. In the Hebrew report they submitted following their trip to Cairo, they quote Marco as denying that he did anything wrong.

The largest circulation Hebrew newspaper (Israel haYom) also interviewed Marco. According to their article, Marco denies any connection with the forgeries.

Why, then, would Marco tell 60 Minutes that indeed he did forge the Yehoash tablet? Or did he deny forging the Yehoash tablet and 60 Minutes twisted his words—or their context—to make it seem that Marco was indeed confessing to forgery?

60 Minutes supports and demands transparency in government. It seems that 60 Minutes is in favor of transparency except when it comes to 60 Minutes.

Why did 60 Minutes twist its story to make Marco the forger of the Yehoash tablet? 60 Minutes had a lot of time and money in this story. It sent a crew to Egypt. If Marco denied making forgeries for Oded Golan, that would hardly be a story. Only if 60 Minutes could get a confession from the elusive Egyptian forger would it be a story—indeed, a blockbuster. So apparently 60 Minutes was determined to get the story—whether it was true or not.

Apparently, 60 Minutes had no concern for the effect of this charge on the life of a dinky little Egyptian jeweler—nor on the life of Israeli antiquities collector Oded Golan. The only question for 60 Minutes was whether it could get its story. And it was a story only if they could get a confession from Semah Marco.

The only remaining question is whether 60 Minutes will now release its interview with Marco. Or will this be another case of the flea biting the lion?

A flea went into a lion’s cage and bit that lion good
And then he stood on that lion’s mangy mane as a conquering hero should ...
Now concerning this flea, one sad thing must be written.
That lion didn’t even know that he’d been bitten.
From the 1957 Broadway musical “Archy and Mehitabel”

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