Finally, some good news on the portrayal of Israel in the media.
By Stephanie Gutmann
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
Much is infuriating about the last week’s coverage of Israel’s long-overdue incursion into the Gaza strip. Israel is seeking to destroy the rocket-launch sites that Hamas has used to terrorize the civilian population in the southern half of Israel, but a recent Yahoo news round-up contained an Associated Press story with the headline “Gaza civilians left exposed in Israeli invasion.”
The AP story begins with the now-familiar formula of a harrowing anecdote — this one about “10 members of Lubna Karam’s family [who] spent the night huddled in the hallway of their Gaza City home” — bracketed with an array of photos of wailing and bleeding Palestinian civilians. As usual, all civilian deaths are depicted purely as a result of Israeli militarism, disproportionate force, and brutality. There is no mention that while waging war on Israel, Hamas has never treated its own citizenry to anything approaching a respectable civil-defense network of shelters and warning sirens. Or that Hamas actually encourages civilian causalities; such casualties are its prime weapon in its public-relations war against Israel.
But that is the AP. Surveying other important media like CNN and the New York Times, there are many rays of light. Coverage has improved. Balance is being sought. It is an insipid, morally relativistic form of balance — but it is balance, unmistakably.
This is not the fall of 2000, when Yasser Arafat began a war with Israel, and when the mainstream media became a conduit for almost unadulterated PLO propaganda. These were the days when Tom Brokaw, on the NBC Nightly News, introduced a report with the words “Israeli riot police stormed the shrine, opening fire with rubber bullets and live ammunition on Palestinians who were throwing stones.” In fact, the confrontation in question began when worshippers poured out of the Al-Aqsa Mosque after an inflammatory sermon and tossed bottles, stones, and other deadly objects on worshippers at the Western Wall.
This is not even the summer of 2006, when Israel invaded Lebanon to stop a rocket barrage similar to the one the country is now getting from Hamas. Through the mainstream media, Hezbollah shut down the Israeli offensive with a carefully calculated stream of images of civilian casualties.
Of course, this is a war, and things can change on a dime — particularly as the conflict drags on and Hamas throws more of its civilians into the incinerator to provide fodder for “outreach” to the world community. But for the time being, one sees a rather dogged insistence on balance. This week on CNN, after the typical near-hysterical piece on mounting civilian casualties in the strip (again, no mention of the absence of a civil-defense system or of Hamas’s calculated use of civilians as human shields), a piece showing Israelis running for bomb shelters in Ashkelon and Beersheba aired. The segment included an interview with a Palestinian scholar who alleged that Israel had brought rockets, grads, kassems, et al., on herself with her continued “occupation” — but also clips of a powerful Israeli spokesman, who reminded viewers that Israel had tried to allow the Palestinians to develop their state for some time, but Hamas didn’t seem to want the party to end.
So what’s has happened between 2000 and the present? A number of factors have allowed Major Avital Leibovich, head of the foreign-press department in the IDF Spokesman’s Unit, to say, “I’m surprised for the better. The coverage has been balanced on most channels, even on some outlets not known for being pro-Israel.”
One big one is the creation and growth of web-based communities such as CAMERA, littlegreenfootballs.com, and honestreporting.com, which monitor coverage, share information with each other, and launch e-mail and phone-call campaigns in response to distortions. CAMERA (Committee for Accurate Middle East Reporting of America), the oldest and best-funded of the bunch, tirelessly scans headlines and transcripts and demands retractions and corrections. It often gets them. It is probably the New York Times public editor’s worst nightmare.
Honestreporting.com started life in London, truly the Belly of the Beast when it comes to bad reporting on Israel. One of its early triumphs came during the spring of 2002 and what was widely being called “Israel’s incursion into the Jenin refugee camp.” As has often been the case, CNN was one of the worst offenders, so the website’s devotees sent up to 6,000 e-mails a day to the network’s executives, effectively paralyzing their internal e-mail system. Meetings with CNN execs followed, with representatives of honestreporing.com briefing the execs about the real facts on the ground.
In the summer of 2006, a small army of websites, led by littlegreenfootballs.com, brought massive embarrassment to the Reuters wire service. The sites drew attention to a Reuters photo of the Beirut skyline after a single Israeli explosive had landed; the skyline had been amateurishly altered to make the “Israeli bombardment” look far more extensive. Knowing that “if it bleeds; it leads,” and apparently desperate to sell his shot, the klutzy photographer had used Adobe Photoshop to take a portion of smoke and replicate it all over the Beirut sky. Reuters photo editors — who may have been harried, but who don’t tend to question charges of Israeli disproportionate force anyway — had released the doctored image to its billions of media-outlet subscribers.
Once that gaffe received public attention, the game was on. Dozens more doctored or staged Reuters photos came to light. In one, an elderly woman wore a headscarf, her arms raised to heaven as she stood in front of a crumbled building somewhere in Lebanon. The caption read, “A Lebanese woman wails after looking at the wreckage of her apartment, in a building, [sic] that was demolished by the Israeli attacks in southern Beirut.” The problem was that the same woman struck the same pose in front of other bombed buildings for Reuters photos. All received captions about a woman mourning the loss of her home. “Either this woman is the unluckiest multiple home owner in Beirut, or something isn’t quite right,” commented one blogger.
It’s not just the blogosphere. Israel has changed too. There’s a new generation of leaders. Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert’s critics say they’re too yuppie-ish, too clever by half, out of touch with military realities, and over-dependent on diplomacy. On the other hand, they are doing something that supporters of Israel have suggested for some time: They are rolling up their sleeves and make making an attempt to fight the “Other War,” the media war.
The Israeli Defense Force (IDF), for example, has just launched a YouTube channel, and is using it to broadcast footage they say shows rockets launched from residential areas in Gaza. According the Jerusalem Post, it has become “the second-most popular channel on the popular global video-sharing site, drawing over 386,000 page views in the first half of Thursday alone. Meanwhile, the IDF has been in regular contact with over 50 major American blogs covering the fighting.” (Hamas supporters — not to be outdone — are trying to get YouTube to take the IDF footage down and put up their own footage of purported civilian casualties.)
And in the next a few days, Tzipi Livni will participate a sort of a mass, open conference call in which, according to the organizers, she will “brief participants on the latest developments in Israel’s efforts to stop Hamas terrorism, international reaction and diplomatic initiatives.” It’s unlikely this will actually work (an ordinary conference call is hard enough to set up), but the effort is significant.
Another factor affecting coverage is the Israelis’ controversial decision to keep reporters out of Gaza. (This is similar to Israel’s 2002 decision to bar the media from the Jenin refugee camp, a choice that’s debated to this day.) The media could make the shut-out a story in itself — setting up feet from the Gaza/Israel border and talking about “what Israel won’t let you see” — but given the reporters who have been kidnapped and held hostage reporting in Gaza, journalists seem almost relieved to have an excuse to stay out.
Further, keeping reporters out of the strip virtually forces them into besieged towns like Sderot, Ashkelon, and Beersheba in pursuit of the high drama news crews need. This is the kind of context — Israelis running for cover, Israeli towns under bombardment — that has been conspicuously missing until now.
Other facts on the ground have changed as well. Israel is now fighting Hamas, which makes no attempt to hide its aggressiveness. It proudly invites reporters to photograph their soldiers launching rockets into Israel. This is a huge contrast from Fatah, which strove to present a placid, diplomatic face to the world.
We are witnessing a new, chastened mainstream media. The blogosphere bludgeoning has worked. A superego has been created where there was none. Denizens of the blogosphere, the ones who over the last nine years have used the web to fight for truth in this conflict, should take a small victory lap — but then get back to their PCs.