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“The media is fairly and accurately covering the war in Lebanon.”
During the last war in Lebanon, disinformation was the norm and Israel’s enemies learned that they could disseminate lies that the media would not investigate, that they could exaggerate Israeli actions, and that reporters could be manipulated by controlling their access. This pattern is now repeating itself in coverage of Israel’s war with Hizballah terrorists.
Reporters covering the war from Lebanon have been particularly egregious in revealing their own biases based, it seems, on having been based in the country and developing sympathies for their subjects. More serious, however, has been the way some of these correspondents have allowed themselves to be used by Hizballah. In the first Lebanon war, the PLO threatened reporters and made favorable coverage the price of access. Hizballah learned from their example and now influences much of what reporters can see and say.
CNN’s Nic Robertson, for example, was taken to an area of Beirut and told that the rubble of buildings was a result of Israeli air strikes on civilian targets. He repeated the allegation as fact. He had no way of knowing what was in the buildings, whether it was a rocket workshop, a hiding place for katyushas, the home of a Hizballah leader, or a command center. In fact, he didn’t even know if Israel was responsible for the destruction that he was shown.
Robertson later admitted that his report had been influenced by his Hizballah guide. He acknowledged that he had been told what to film and where. “They designated the places that we went to, and we certainly didn’t have time to go into the houses or lift up the rubble to see what was underneath.” Robertson said Hizballah controls south Beirut. “You don’t get in there without their permission. We didn’t have enough time to see if perhaps there was somebody there who was, you know, a taxi driver by day, and a Hizballah fighter by night.” Unlike what he said on air during his guided reports, Robertson told CNN’s Reliable Sources, “there's no doubt that the bombs there are hitting Hezbollah facilities.”74
Robertson’s CNN colleague, Anderson Cooper, is one of the journalists who has been consistently fair and balanced. He also has not hesitated to point out Hizballah's mendacity. He said the group was “just making things up,” and gave as one example a tour he was given in which Hizballah had lined up some ambulances. They were told to turn on their sirens and then the ambulances drove off as if they were picking up wounded civilians when, in fact, they were simply going back and forth.75
Time Magazine contributor Christopher Albritton made clear that reporters understand the rules of the game. “To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hizballah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loath to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”76
Under no duress whatsoever, the Washington Post’s Thomas Ricks made perhaps the most outrageous charge of the war when he claimed that Israel is intentionally leaving Hizballah launchers intact because having Israeli civilians killed helps Israel in the public relations war.77
Israel’s image is also being tarred by suggestions that it is targeting Lebanese Christian areas, intimating that Israel is killing innocent Christians and is not restricting its attacks to the Shiite Muslims of Hizballah. CNN reported, for example, an Israeli strike “on the edge of the city’s mostly Christian eastern district” that killed 10 people. In the next paragraph, however, the report says Israel hit “a building near a mosque” (emphasis added)78
Photographs can be especially powerful, but they can also be misleading or outright fakes. In the last Lebanon war, for example, the Washington Post published a photograph (August 2, 1982) of a baby that appeared to have lost both its arms. The UPI caption said that the seven-month-old had been severely burned when an Israeli jet accidentally hit a Christian residential area. The photo and the caption, however, were inaccurate. The baby did not lose its arms, and the burns the child suffered were the result of a PLO attack on East Beirut.
A similarly dramatic photo of a baby pulled from the rubble of a building in Qana that appeared on front pages around the world is now being challenged as a fake.79 One of the photographers involved, Adnan Hajj, was discovered to have doctored at least two photographs, one of which was changed to show more and darker smoke rising from buildings in Beirut bombed by Israel, and the other changed the image of an Israeli jet so it showed three flares being discharged instead of one. Reuters admitted the photos had been changed, suspended the photographer, and removed all of his photographs from its database.80 This incident should make editors and viewers alike suspicious of images being disseminated by freelance Arab photographers and videographers who are engaging in propaganda rather than photo-journalism.
It is also conceivable that some of the scenes that reporters are being shown have been staged. It is difficult to prove without access to the raw footage of the photographers, but anyone who doubts that this is part of the strategy of Israel’s enemies need only look at the examples of Palestinians choreographing events in the territories documented on The Second Draft web site.
Reporters in Lebanon also continue to exaggerate the destruction in Beirut and elsewhere by showing tight shots of buildings hit in Israeli air strikes and rebroadcasting the same images repeatedly. “You would think Beirut has begun to resemble Dresden and Hamburg in the aftermath of Second World War air raids,” observed former Sunday Telegraph correspondent Tom Gross. But, Gross notes, “a careful look at aerial satellite photos of the areas targeted by Israel in Beirut shows that certain specific buildings housing Hizballah command centers in the city’s southern suburbs have been singled out. Most of the rest of Beirut, apart from strategic sites such as airport runways used to ferry Hizballah weapons in and out of Lebanon, has been left pretty much untouched.”81
Qana was also an example of how the press immediately reports whatever statistics they are fed by Lebanese officials. Again, we learned in the last war that these figures are usually inflated and the press rarely bothers to verify them. Front page stories around the world said that 57 civilians were killed when Israel bombed a building it believed to be empty. While still tragic, the actual casualty figure was only 28. Moreover, most accounts failed to mention the building was in an area where 150 rocket attacks on Israel had originated.
While an Israeli strike that killed UN observers drew headlines, little attention was given to reports that Hizballah was using the UN posts as shields. A Canadian soldier with UNIFIL, for example, reported that his team could observe “most of the Hizballah static positions in and around our patrol base” and noted that Israeli ordnance that fell near the base was not a result of deliberate targeting, but “has rather been due to tactical necessity.”82
Over the years, the Arabs have learned one sure-fire way to get media attention is to scream “massacre” when Israelis are in the neighborhood. On August 7, news outlets repeated Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s claim that Israel had committed a “massacre” by killing 40 people in an air raid on the village of Houla. Later, it was learned that one person had died.83 Throughout the fighting Siniora’s statements to the media have suggested that Israel has unique weaponry that only hits civilians and never terrorists.
Turning momentarily away from the carnage of war, some reporters have suggested that Israeli attacks have created environmental problems in Lebanon. Meanwhile, little attention has been devoted to the ecological damage caused by fires sparked by Katyusha rockets that have destroyed 16,500 acres of forests and grazing fields.
The press is also spending a great deal of time talking to Lebanese civilians and their relatives in the United States and highlighting the difficult conditions they are enduring. This is no doubt the case since they are living in a war zone; however, the media has spent almost no time talking to the Israelis living under the constant threat of rocket attacks. Few reporters have gone into the bomb shelters to interview the frightened Israeli families. No one seems interested in how the relatives of Israelis in the United States feel about their loved ones living under siege.
Similarly, initial reports focused on the Americans living in Lebanon while no one seems interested in the 120,000 North Americans living in Israel. It is terrible that tourists and students had to be evacuated from Lebanon, but what about those same groups in Israel? How many reporters talked to the hundreds of students on summer tours and programs in Israel, many of whom were in the north when the violence escalated? While the complications of leaving the country may not be as severe as in Lebanon, it is still very difficult to arrange a quick exit from Israel, and many American parents are in a state of panic worrying about their family and friends in Israel.
Here are some facts that the media has neglected:
- Two million Israelis are now living under threat of rockets, including approximately 700,000 Israeli Arabs.
- Altogether, more than 300,000 Israelis have been displaced from their homes.
- Fifteen percent of the entire Israeli population is living in bomb shelters.
- Approximately 5,500 homes have been damaged by Hizballah rockets.
- Israel’s tourist industry, which had finally started to recover from the Palestinian War, is again being devastated.
- Towns that are home to important sites of the three major religions have come under fire, including Tiberias, Nazareth and Safed.
Wars are never easy to cover, and each side of a conflict wants to make its case through the media. A responsible press, however, does not repeat whatever it hears, it first makes every effort to insure the accuracy of its reporting. That is the standard expected of journalists covering the war between Israel and Hizballah.