When Writers Write the News

Reporter-at-large (for one day) Zeruya Shalev
Reporter-at-large (for one day) Zeruya Shalev

In an essay in his book Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut described why he could never be a journalist. I'm paraphrasing here, but what it amounted to was that "journalists" are taught to completely extract themselves from their writing; a "writer" could never manage that task.

While expertly written news articles with their absence of any trace of their writers do what they're intended to do—present facts and information free of bias, emotion or personal experience—is it always a good thing? Do basic humanity and human interconnectedness really have no place in the news?

Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, set out to see just what would happen if novelists and poets wrote the news. The June 10 edition featured 31 Israeli writers reporting the news from their perspectives. The edition came about as a way to celebrate Israel’s annual Hebrew Book Week, but what resulted was much greater than a simple tribute to the nation's writers.

For one day the newspaper was filled with stories that looked beyond the facts and caused the text to shine and move with painstakingly crafted sentences that brought the story's subjects bubbling to the surface to tread alongside typically cold facts. In “The Man With No Rights," a story about migrant workers who are exploited by fraudulent labor brokers, Zeruya Shalev opens with “At night they break into the house and drag her out of bed, in front of her frightened children. 'Where is the money?' they shout. 'Where is the money you owe us?' They pull her by the hair, beat her, kill her, kill the children, set the house on fire. Every night they kill his wife and two children anew, and he wakes terrified, crying bitterly in his pathetic hiding place, a hot, narrow, windowless bedchamber.”

The edition is peppered with such heart-stopping accounts as well as insightful instances of levity like Avri Herling's stock market review which included this tidbit, “The guy from the shakshuka [Mid-Eastern dish with eggs and tomato] shop raised his prices again ...”

In an interview with The Jewish Daily, editor-in-chief Dov Alfon described the outcome nicely saying, “Thirty-one writers decided, what are the real events of the day?” he mused. “What is really important in their eyes? They wrote about it, and our priorities as journalists were suddenly shaken by this.”