A War Between Neighbors, Seen From Their Back Yard

Howard Kurtz hosts “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s weekly media program.

Brian Williams was talking to a Detroit native fighting in the Israeli military as the soldier was launching a round of shells into southern Lebanon.

“One of these shells,” the NBC anchor told him, “today or tomorrow, going by the law of averages, is going to kill a 6-year-old boy somewhere.” Darone Speelman replied that any child’s death was incredibly painful but that his family, and Israel, were at risk.

The 13-day battle between Israel and both Hamas and Hezbollah may be the most up-close-and-personal ever transmitted by television. Unlike Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, where conditions were either too dangerous or tightly controlled by the U.S. military, the Mideast conflict of 2006 allows journalists to roam freely, not just watching rocket attacks but interviewing victims’ families, neighbors, refugees and just about anyone else. It is Vietnam on satellite steroids.

But the very technology that enables reporters to show footage of a Lebanese father soon after his young son has been killed by a bomb blast carries not just an emotional punch but the power to distort the overall picture.

The deployment of top anchors — Williams, ABC’s Charles Gibson, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Fox’s Shepard Smith — has given the conflict a huge boost in visibility. So has the work of many correspondents who are veterans of the region, including NBC’s Richard Engel, ABC’s Dan Harris and CBS’s Lara Logan, who is co-anchoring from Israel.

Since Israel has inflicted far more damage on Lebanon than it has sustained, a heavy focus on the more than 300 civilian victims in that war-ravaged country could help tilt public opinion against the Jewish state. But that would overlook two key facts: that Israel retaliated only after Hezbollah crossed a U.N.-sanctioned border to kill and capture several Israeli soldiers, and that Hezbollah fighters hide — and hide their weapons — among civilians to make counterattacks more difficult.

A Hezbollah leader last week gave Engel a tour of a Beirut neighborhood, including a supermarket basement where residents were taking shelter. Engel made sure to tell viewers: “Hezbollah shares responsibility for making these people homeless, but it’s now feeding them.”

CNN’s Nic Robertson got a similar tour of bomb damage from Hezbollah officials who “wanted to show us that their civilians are being caught up in this conflict,” he reported. Robertson concluded that what he was shown “looked like civilian buildings” but acknowledged that he did not go inside them. Hezbollah showed CBS’s Elizabeth Palmer the ruins around its former stronghold in Beirut, “but no one was allowed to stay too long,” she said, noting that the guerrilla group is “determined that outsiders will only see what it wants them to see.”

On the other side of the border, sympathy for Israelis was inevitable when Harris interviewed the parents of soldier Ehud Goldwasser, who was kidnapped by Hezbollah, or Logan talked to a Haifa woman who rushed her four children to a shelter after a missile from Lebanon hit the apartment building across the street. Israel showed its concern in the image war in recent days by bombing not just Hezbollah’s TV station but two Lebanese stations unrelated to the group, which often fed footage of bomb devastation to Western news outlets. Israel is also censoring real-time reports of bomb damage locations to avoid helping Hezbollah with its targeting.

Despite the potential for each side to score propaganda points by spotlighting its most vulnerable victims, the heavy television coverage has succeeded in conveying the horror of the war and the terror of ordinary families who find themselves in harm’s way. This kind of reporting is extremely difficult in Iraq, where interviewing ordinary citizens is fraught with danger because of the daily toll exacted by suicide bombers, roadside explosive devices and some terrorists who are deliberately trying to kill Westerners in general and journalists in particular.

Still, anyone who saw NBC’s Engel, CNN’s Cooper and Fox’s Smith duck or react as bombs exploded nearby, or watched CBS’s Logan near a raging fire moments after a rocket struck an Israeli village, instantly grasps the risks that reporters are taking in Israel and Lebanon. Two Lebanese, one a photojournalist and the other an employee of the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp., were killed over the weekend by Israeli air strikes.

Partisans of Israel strongly object to coverage that they believe depicts Arabs opposing Israel in a favorable light. Still many Western journalists may have a natural sympathy for Israel, especially given the years of terrorist attacks against the country and the refusal of Hamas and Hezbollah to recognize its right to exist. Critics say this has dampened debate in the American press over whether Israel’s response to the initial attacks has been disproportionate.

Greg Mitchell, a columnist for Editor & Publisher, writes: “While it’s not surprising that nearly every editorial page in the U.S. has offered support for Israel’s right to retaliate against Hamas and Hezbollah, it’s a disgrace that few have expressed outrage, or at least condemnation, over the extent of death and destruction in and around Beirut — and the attacks on the country’s infrastructure, which harms most citizens of that country.”

There is no shortage of rhetorical fire within the region. A columnist for the Lebanese paper Daily Star complained that Western media reports “dilute the brutality of the Israeli onslaught” as “a prophylactic against the inevitable charges of ‘anti-Semitism’ and resultant drops in advertising revenues.”

Even stories about the evacuation of Westerners from Lebanon have drawn partisan fire. Electronic Intifada, a Web site that “strives to bring the Palestinian narrative front and center,” says: “On Tuesday, when at least 35 Lebanese were killed … we had the BBC’s Ben Brown in Beirut giving a blow-by-blow account of every facet of the evacuation of foreign nationals in general and British nationals in particular. If anyone doubted the racism of our Western media, here it was proudly on display. The BBC apparently considers their Beirut reporter’s first duty to find out what meals HMS Gloucester’s chef will be preparing for the evacuees. Lebanese and Palestinian civilians die unnoticed by the Western media (though not by the Arab channels) while we learn of onboard sleeping arrangements on the ship bound for Cyprus.”

The Lebanese and Palestinian casualties are hardly “unnoticed” by the media, but in a war of a thousand images, those with strong feelings can always complain that pictures and descriptions of the war are unfair to their side. The challenge for journalists is to temper the heart-rending images of suffering with balanced and skeptical reporting.

“Access Hollywood” apparently needs a refresher course in journalism.

The entertainment show — which just happens to be owned by NBC, Katie Couric’s former network — stirred up a bogus controversy Friday with what amounted to a swipe at the incoming CBS anchor.

A story on its Web site about journalists who have braved incoming missiles in Israel and Lebanon, as well as covered other wars, closed by asking: “The big question remains: what about Katie?” The piece said she “told ‘Access Hollywood’ that at this point, she would not venture into the Middle East hot spot. ‘I think the situation there is so dangerous, and as a single parent with two children, that’s something I won’t be doing,’ Katie said.”

The problem: That comment — which was never aired — was made in May, and it was about Iraq, not the Middle East. In fact, Couric made the remark right after a bomb killed two CBS crew members and badly wounded correspondent Kimberly Dozier.

What’s more, the story — which spread to a number of Web sites — left out Couric’s comments to television critics a week ago when asked about the Middle East. “Of course I would want to be there,” Couric said, although decisions would have to be made “on a case-by-case basis.”

After CBS complained, the piece was corrected late in the day, with this tagline: ” ‘Access Hollywood’ regrets that the earlier version of this story was misleading.”

Liberal bloggers ripped the New York Times last week for reporting that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had “chastised Democrats” for “taking on issues that arouse conservatives and turn out Republican voters rather than finding consensus on mainstream subjects.”

The bloggers, including Atrios and Daily Kos, put up transcripts that they said showed the New York senator was criticizing Republicans, not Democrats. Days later, the paper ran an editor’s note that said: “The opening sentence of the article and the headline were based on a misinterpretation of a passage in her speech in which she first referred to the Democrats’ agenda in the Senate and then went on to criticize the actions of the Republican majority in Congress.”

Howard Kurtz hosts “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s weekly media program.

Related Links

  • The racist subtext of the evacuation story, Jonathan Cook (19 July 2006)