It’s not clear which of my experiences last week was more educational: Sitting on a hilltop on Israel’s northern border, watching Bint Jbiel getting pummeled by artillery, bombs, and missiles — or meeting the Western television reporters who were covering the war, and seeing firsthand how they made theater out of bloodshed.
NBC’s Ann Curry was on the scene. She was taken to a meadow from which a half-dozen 155mm artillery pieces were pounding away at Hezbollah. Curry approached a resting crew of artillery reservists, put a camera and microphone in the face of one pony-tailed young man, and asked (I quote from memory): “How does it make you feel to be firing artillery into Lebanon that is killing innocent civilians?” Curry, in her other interviews for NBC, has been similarly incredulous at the existence of civilian casualties in war.
Later, Curry interviewed Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Maj. Michael Oren, who in his civilian life is one of the world’s most highly respected historians of the Middle East, and author of the New York Times bestseller Six Days of War (disclosure: he’s a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, where I work). Oren’s analytical offerings were treated with a normal level of interest and courtesy, but upon gingerly broaching his family’s story — Oren’s son might soon fight in the same Lebanese town he did in 1982 — Curry became totally engrossed. So much so that the next morning NBC arrived at Oren’s home in Jerusalem and spent three hours filming his family’s story for The Today Show. All of this was extraordinarily good p.r. for Israel and its war effort.
The bizarre combination of Curry’s hostility towards the soldiers and her overt sympathy for Oren left me puzzled. What I realized, from watching her and other journalists like her, was that contrary to popular belief, most of these journalists are neither “pro” nor “anti” Israel. In fact, they are not exactly journalists at all, at least not in the sense that we have been taught to believe. They do not seem interested in reporting what is traditionally understood as news — that is, information that attempts to convey as complete and realistic an accounting of events as possible.
They can be more accurately described as entertainers, who stimulate their audiences with that which is factual and passing. The most striking thing about the producers and on-air reporters who show up in Israel is how deeply ignorant they are of the conflict and its history. This is not exactly their fault: It is the product of their job, which is to entertain rather than inform. The skills required of them are technical and theatrical, not historic or intellectual, and thus they do not approach their task with much in the way of rigor; they are looking for interesting personal stories and manufactured mini-dramas, whose correlation to reality is only occasionally discernable. It is just more interesting to expose the tortured consciences of IDF artillerymen than to report on their achievements in battle.
There is another problem that makes serious journalism here unlikely. Because it is impossible for television reporters to obtain hard, reliable information from terrorist organizations, journalists are structurally forced to do almost all their interviewing on the Israeli side. But television news thrives on the contentious interview: The reporter barrages the interview subject with tough and impertinent questions, hoping to produce high-quality drama for the audience. Here, for example, are three questions Curry asked during one brief interview of the Israeli government spokeswoman, Miri Eisen, on July 30:
“Some people ask, while Israel is trying to root out Hezbollah, how it is justified in killing large numbers of civilians. Your answer?”
“But what is the–but it [Israel] doesn’t target, but civilians were hit. What is to prevent this from happening again?”
“What–why won’t Israel agree to an immediate cease-fire, as now is being called for by the pope today, as well as the European Union?”
Curry and her colleagues would probably ask similarly tough questions of Hezbollah officials, if they gave interviews. So the institutionalized result is that Israel must always operate with its feet held to the fire while Hezbollah enjoys a permanent holiday from media scrutiny. This massive imbalance is of course never remarked upon by American journalists — has Curry, in all of her inquisitions of Israelis, ever bothered to note that she never gets to give the other side an equal grilling?
This imbalance of scrutiny is not terribly bothersome to television journalists, because it does not undermine their ability to create gripping theater. News segments, for the most part, require simple, compelling human dramas that can be delivered to the home audience in extremely small packages. The camera demands emotion and plot, not fairness, context, or intellectual rigor. To the camera, there is no right and wrong, no terrorist and victim.
This kind of reportage has created a relationship of co-dependency between terrorists and the media: The fetishization of suffering results in a morally obtuse emphasis on civilian casualties, and the ensuing outcry from world organizations and opinionated foreign governments intimidates and hamstrings Western militaries attempting to defeat terrorists. And the more that Western forces are undermined by oppositional coverage, the greater the incentive for terrorists to maximize civilian casualties and thereby keep the media pressure on their enemies. Operating without moral restrictions, Hezbollah has endeavored to do exactly that — and with magnificent, arguably unprecedented, success. Because democratic governments cannot endure in conflicts that the public believes to be immoral, the task of groups such as Hezbollah is to undermine the Western public’s sense of moral clarity in the fight. And, in too many cases, in the television news media Hezbollah has found a willing partner — as have other terror groups like Hamas and Fatah.
As a means of physically damaging Israel, Hezbollah’s military capabilities are almost laughable. But as a means to demoralize, isolate, and promote the ridicule of Israel, Katyushas and mortars aimed at civilian populations are the perfect weapon: Sufficiently ineffective to exculpate Israel’s legions of scrutinizers from apprehension about Israeli deaths, they invite a predictable military response from Israel that Hezbollah can use to cause maximum political and media damage to the Jewish state. Hezbollah does not waste valuable media capital by launching its rockets from rural hillsides; it launches them from crowded neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and schools, while its operatives aggressively promote the civilian-casualties deception to credulous Western journalists, fully confident that scenes of death and destruction will make westerners recoil from what is allegedly being done in their names. What follows is a translation of a letter to the editor written by a Lebanese Shia attesting to this tactic:
Received as successful resistance fighters, [Hezbollah terrorists] appeared armed to the teeth and dug rocket depots in bunkers in our town as well. The social work of the Party of God consisted in building a school and a residence over these bunkers! A local sheikh explained to me laughing that the Jews would lose in any event because the rockets would either be fired at them or if they attacked the rocket depots, they would be condemned by world opinion on account of the dead civilians.
In other words, Hezbollah does not have a military strategy; it has a media strategy that so far has been chillingly effective. In Lebanon, most civilian casualties are not the product of Israeli overzealousness — they are the most vital, important, and intentional victories in Hezbollah’s campaign. We are witnessing what is perhaps the most successful manipulation of civilian deaths by a terrorist organization to date, and while the reality of the situation is apparent to some observers, most members of the media are either oblivious to their own culpability in spreading propaganda for Hezbollah, or simply don’t mind doing so. Over to you, Ann.
– Noah Pollak is an assistant editor at Azure, the journal of the Shalem Center.