New York, New York, July 25: There are two wars going on in the Middle East. One is the military conflict and the other is the media war. While the media covers falling bombs and fleeing civilians, and from time to time puts a human face on the agony of a war so far directed mostly at civilians, it rarely covers its own reporting with anything like a self-critical eye.
With the Daily Show taking potshots at “the media’s seeming inability to process the crisis,” with charges of bias on all sides, the media itself has become a battleground of warring narratives and interpretations. The question is not just how to know what’s true, but what you need to know to put rapidly changing events into context in order to make sense of them. A new book, “They’re Just Like Human Beings” by the Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk deals with these issues in depth. In a review, Michel Hoebink notes:
“When reporting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Luyendijk discovered what the term ‘media war’ really means. Newspapers and TVs are not neutral windows on the conflict, but stages where important battles are fought. The perspectives of both parties are so far apart, that impartiality is almost impossible.” Language and framing are critical: “It starts with the choice of words to use: terrorist or freedom fighter? Peace process or pacification process? All parties involved do their utmost to manipulate the news and get their version of the story across,” explains radio journalist Hoebing,
ISRAEL CALLS WORLD PRESS “BIASED”
The Israeli government has been masterful at using the press and is often the first to complain when any coverage invites criticisms of its policies. Even while most serious academics and media critics (not ideologues) tend to consider most coverage in the US as pro-Israeli, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert took a wack at the media for esentially not being biased enough from his point of view.
According to the New York Times, he “accused much of the international news media of bias in its reporting of the war, complaining that the “murderous viciousness” of Hezbollah was not being portrayed. “A twisted image is presented, where the victim is presented as an aggressor,” he said.
The Guardian reports that a prominent Arab critic who is usually a loud critic of western media for the first time feels that some mainstream media has been fair.
“Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of the influential London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, believes that the coverage of recent weeks has been the fairest he has seen. ‘For the first time, it’s more objective. You can see the suffering of the Lebanese people,’ he says. ‘Maybe the media learned from their mistakes over Iraq, when they trusted the government.’ This bias debate masks the way the media war is fought, with Israel far more akilled about monitoring media and then shaping and managing perceptions. Information warfare is a a major weapon in its arsenal as its planes pound cell phone towers and TV station antennas. It pumps out its own version of events like a 24 hour cable channel. Hoebing explains: “Luyendijk elaborates on the fact that the Israelis are far more successful at this than the Palestinians. While covering an incident on the West Bank, he found out the Israelis maintained an enormous press centre there, where journalists were provided with the Israeli version of events in several languages, accompanied by ready-made quotes and route descriptions. He tried calling the Palestinian press officer, but no one answered the phone.”
THE MEDIA MASSAGE
This well organized media massage is going right now with a full court press. A professional US based PR organization called The Israel Project which describes itself an “an international non-profit organization devoted to educating the press and the public about Israel while promoting security, freedom and peace” is on the ground in Israel working with its government to “provide” journalists, leaders and opinion-makers accurate information about Israel.”
According to its own release, here’s what they do: “As Israel’s defensive conflict against Hezbollah reached the end of its second week, The Israel Project’s team in Haifa, working together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Communications Center, organized a visit for journalists to the Northern District Command Police Headquarters. There they received a full briefing from senior police staff on northern Israel’s home front, including a PowerPoint Very good, thith comprehensive statistical data on the toll of Hezbollah missile attacks during the first 13 days of the war.” Note the characterization of Israel’s war as “defensive” and its single-minded focus on the “toll of Hezbollah’s missile attacks” not civilian casualties on all sides. You can bet they are not disseminating analysis from critical Israeli journalists or peace groups. TURNING THE PUBLIC INTO A MEGAPHONE Influencing the press is apparently no longer enough. The Israeli government, through its Consul General in New York, in what may be an illegal attempt by a foreign government to manipulate domestic public opinion, is now reaching out directly to the American public. It is an attempt to get Israel’s supporters to become their “megaphone’ in what’s described as “a new battleground:” the Internet. Here’s a direct solicitation from the Consulate received on July 24: “Dear friend, During the last couple of weeks we have received many phone calls and emails from people who are asking what can be done to support Israel during the current situation. Many of us recognize the importance of the Internet as the new battleground for explaining Israel’ position. ?With that in mind, an Israeli software company have recently developed a free, safe and useful tool – the Internet Megaphone. Please go to www.giyus.org, download the Megaphone, and you will receive daily updates with instant links to important internet polls, articles that require a talk back, etc.”
THE MEDIA WAR IN IS UNEQUAL
These are just two manifestations of a very unequal media war. The gap between coverage in the Arab world and the west is a big one and growing. At least two Arab journalists have been killed already while Israeli journalists leave the International Federation of Journalists for its criticism of Israel’s bombing of a Lebanese TV station. Israeli Arabs criticized the bombing as well as the decision by some to leave the IFJ in a cloud of noisy publicity.
Worse, the truth is in danger of being killed too-by simplification, sloganizing and ignoring the underlying problems at the root of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. A cease fire, a return to the status quo ante, is unlikely to solve anything.
According to the Guardian, “One senior journalist posted in London, who asked not to be named, claims that the origins of the current conflict have not been adequately explained. ‘The prisoners’ issue remains unresolved six years after the Israelis were forced out of Lebanon. But nobody talks about that.’ The latest conflagration has its origins in that, and cannot be understood without referring to it constantly, he claims.”
Its easy to blame the media and harder to hold it accountable. Distortions and spin can be found on all sides. It’s also often harder for individuals to take responsibility for their own media choices and make a conscientious effort to seek out diverse voices and viewpoints on all sides. Its not enough to rely on news accounts from outlets you think you agree with if you want to be truly informed.
It is time for the media to cover and expose the media war.
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits and blogs for Mediachannel.org. His new film In Debt We Trust exposes the credit credit in America. (See InDebtWeTrust.com) Comments to [email protected]