When Israel retaliated against Hezbollah during last summer’s war, it was forced to fight two battles: one against the Lebanon-based terrorist organization, and one against a hopelessly biased global media. The first serious study of the media’s behavior throughout the conflict has confirmed this impression.
The study, released in February and titled “The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006: The Media As A Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict" (pdf.), was written not by a partisan watchdog organization that would be expected to arrive at these conclusions; rather, it was produced by a respected journalist, Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
In meticulous fashion, Kalb details how the press allowed itself to be manipulated by Hezbollah. He also records the mistakes made by Israel in trying to manage coverage, points out several of the outright distortions that were widely reported, and analyzes the impact of the digital media and the fundamental disadvantage a democracy such as Israel faces in a public relations battle with a non-democratic state or terrorist organization.
As Kalb observes, Israel is automatically at a disadvantage in any conflict because it is an open society. “During the war,” Kalb notes in the study, “no Hezbollah secrets were disclosed, but in Israel secrets were leaked, rumors spread like wildfire, leaders felt obliged to issue hortatory appeals often based on incomplete knowledge, and journalists were driven by the fire of competition to publish and broadcast unsubstantiated information.” He adds that Hezbollah was able to control how it was portrayed to the world and could therefore depict itself as “a selfless movement touched by God and blessed by a religious fervor and determination to resist the enemy, the infidel, and ultimately achieve a ‘divine victory,’ no matter the cost.” (Of course, no mention was made of Hezbollah’s dependence on Iran and Syria.)
Perhaps the most serious charge made by the media throughout the war was that Israel was indiscriminately targeting civilians. Groups such as Human Rights Watch made the allegation, which was then publicized uncritically by reporters. Although Israel underscored that it was Hezbollah that was using civilians as shields, the media relied on the allegations of Kenneth Roth, the executive director of HRW, who charged, falsely, that Israel’s military showed “disturbing disregard for the lives of Lebanese civilians.”
Kalb notes that reporters should have been aware that Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had said before the war that Hezbollah fighters “live in their [civilians’] houses, in their schools, in their churches, in their fields, in their farms and in their factories.” Early in the war, indeed, reporters did note that Hezbollah started the war and casualties were a consequence of the fighting, “but after the first week such references were either dropped or downplayed, leaving the widespread impression that Israel was a loose cannon shooting at anything that moved.”
Kalb produces statistics that clearly show the anti-Israel bias of the Arab press. To be sure, it is not surprising that 78 percent of the stories on Al-Jazeera would label Israel as the “aggressor.” Western news services, however, would be expected to show some semblance of balance. Such was not the case. For example, the BBC ran 117 stories on the war, 38 percent of which depicted Israel as the aggressor. Only 4 percent of BBC reports placed the blame for the conflict on Hezbollah. Most media stories drew a disturbing moral equivalence between the warring sides, suggesting that Israel and Hezbollah were equally to blame.
In Kalb's assessment, American network coverage of the war was more intense than at any time since the 1991 attempted coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Of these stories, however, more than half focused on Israeli attacks against Lebanon. With the exception of Fox News, Kalb writes, “negative-sounding judgments of Israel’s attacks and counter-attacks permeated most network coverage.” Similarly, he reports that Israel was depicted as the aggressor nearly twice as often in the headlines of the New York Times and Washington Post and three times as often in photos.
Israel was repeatedly criticized for alleged attacks on UN troops in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Kalb notes that the “impartial” UNIFIL web site published information about Israeli troop movements while no such information was posted regarding Hezbollah’s military activities. Kalb also reiterates what media watchdogs knew all along, but journalists rarely admitted: that the media’s access to stories in Lebanon was strictly controlled by Hezbollah:
Foreign correspondents were warned, on entry to the tour [of a southern Beirut suburb], that they could not wander off on their own or ask questions of any residents. They could only take pictures of sites approved by their Hezbollah minders. Violations, they were told, would be treated harshly. Cameras would be confiscated, film or tape destroyed, and offending reporters never again allowed access to Hezbollah officials or Hezbollah-controlled areas. Kalb compared the terms to that of the Soviet era and said that only CNN’s Anderson Cooper described the ground rules that Hezbollah imposed to try to control the story. Kalb says “all of the other reporters followed the Hezbollah script: Israel, in a cruel, heartless display of power, bombed innocent civilians. Casualties were high. Devastation was everywhere. So spoke the Hezbollah spokesman; so wrote many in the foreign press corps.
Cameramen didn’t need permission to film devastation, but they were warned against taking pictures of Hezbollah terrorists. “The rarest picture of all,” Kalb observes, “was that of a Hezbollah guerilla. It was as if the war on the Hezbollah side was being fought by ghosts.” The Herald Sun of Australia also published equally rare photos showing Hezbollah preparing to fire rockets from civilian neighborhoods, the type of visual evidence that, if widely disseminated, could have quickly discredited the inaccurate reports of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Reporters always want more access to the war and the decision makers involved, so it is not surprising that many complained about restrictions placed on them by Israel. Kalb reports, however, that reports were filled with interviews with Israeli troops, generals and officials and that “the depth and breadth of the coverage seemed to belie the common complaints about access.” By contrast, he notes, “Hezbollah provided only limited access to the battle field, full access to an occasional guided tour, and encouraged visiting journalists to check its own television network, Al-Manar, for reports and information about the war.” Kalb adds, “Al-Manar was to Hezbollah what Pravda was to the Soviet Union.”
The discovery of doctored photos used by major media during the war was a major embarrassment and Kalb skewers the press for its misuse of photographs. In addition to several frequently cited examples, he mentions a photo of a southern suburb of Beirut that appeared in the New York Times that the Times' Jerusalem bureau chief Steve Erlanger later admitted was out of context. The Times used a satellite photo showing the destruction of a Beirut neighborhood that gave the impression of massive devastation throughout the city, but a larger photo of Beirut would have shown that the rest of Beirut was undamaged.
Nothing in Kalb’s report will come as any surprise to media critics or Israel’s supporters. What is shocking is that these well-documented abuses have continued for so long without the media itself taking corrective measures. The report should be required reading for journalism schools, not to mention working reporters. The serious maladies Kalb describes must be fixed if the media is to expect the public to have any confidence in its reporting.
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