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There are few things as frustrating for a journalist as being abroad when a national crisis suddenly erupts. There's a strange feeling of missing an opportunity, that the story you've been preparing for your entire career is getting away. On the other hand, much as one likes to believe that as professionals we're capable of seeing the news in an objective, detached fashion, there's nothing like spending a week abroad while Israel is at the epicenter of the news for getting a different perspective on events. (It also permits us to say that we didn't let the terrorists ruin our vacation.)
Israelis are obsessed with their image abroad, and whenever there's a major event, TV news shows give extensive coverage to how the foreign networks covered the incidents their own reporters discussed just moments ago. These clips are usually introduced by the anchor intoning "Israel dominated the airwaves around the world today."
This, of course, is a ridiculous distortion. The average Western citizen has better things to do than watch yet more pictures of people half way across the globe shooting at each other. They've seen it all before. And it's not only the Middle East that viewers have had their fill of, it's news altogether. Networks are broadcasting fewer serious news programs than ever before, and ratings for the 24-hours news channels and newspaper readership are also down.
This is true in most developed countries, but especially in Britain, which at least once had a proud tradition of foreign correspondents flying the flag around the globe. They're still out there, and over the past week they arrived in Israel and Lebanon in droves, but back in Britain you get the feeling that they've been pushed out of the limelight, into less popular shows after 10:30 p.m. or at breakfast time, and off the front pages.
So while two or three quality papers might have prominently displayed pictures from blitzed Beirut, and while "the situation" is naturally the BBC's lead story, there is a distinct feeling - after actually reading those papers, and especially their more down-market counterparts - that no one can really get too excited about more Middle East bloodshed, especially not during the worst heat-wave in memory, in itself much more burning news. So the papers and channels go through the motions, their correspondent in Beirut/Jerusalem/Baghdad" gets his or her say, and it's quickly back to the summer's daily soft-core reality show, heavy on the silicone and IQ-free.
IT WAS clear that even the most "serious" of newspapers like The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph realized that interest was flagging when they shifted attention from the warring parties to the sideshow of the evacuation of foreign nationals from Lebanon. Trying to drum up interest in the naval operation, one of those papers even compared it to the Dunkirk evacuation. (I hope none of this column's readers needs any explanation as to why this comparison is preposterous).
The obvious media exaggeration of the plight of the British and other foreign nationals in Lebanon, none of whom seems to be in any immediate danger, is a continuation of the tone typifying the coverage of the first few days' fighting. There were sweeping generalities regarding the way Israel was attacking. Phrases like "targeting the entire country," "disproportionate bombardment" and "attacking all four corners of Lebanon" gave the impression of B-52s carpet-bombing North Vietnam. Not that this kind of coverage was surprising, but what was interesting was the change of tone as the week of fighting continued.
Many of the veteran foreign correspondents have a soft spot for Lebanon. Most cut their teeth in Beirut covering the civil war in the 1970s and the Israeli invasion in the 1980s, and they actually had a good time, made many friends and enjoyed returning in recent years to produce nostalgic stories on the revival of the "Paris on the Levant."
Thus there should have been no surprises that they were blaming Israel for pushing the clocks back, especially as Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz actually said as much. However, after the first few days, it seemed that the British reporters were becoming increasingly inclined towards adopting a more even-handed view. There were no conversions to Zionism here, but a dawning realization that there wasn't much evidence for the Lebanese government's hysterical reports of indiscriminate killing of civilians. Even among the thousands of fleeing refugees, there was probably more criticism of Hizbullah than of Israel. The shift in emphasis had more to do with what was happening in Lebanon than the fact that Israeli cities were also coming under fire, though one of the results of the Katyusha volleys was increased reporting from Haifa and Nahariya.
ASIDE FROM the reality on the ground, there are a number of other factors contributing to the emerging more even-handed coverage. The first is a grim sense of proportion deriving from Americans' and Britons' daily exposure to the carnage in Iraq. Even the highest estimates of Lebanese casualties don't come close to the daily body count in Baghdad.
Another recent development is the deepening involvement of British forces fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. It was breathtaking to hear Israeli and British commanders appearing on seemingly unconnected news items, using exactly the same terms to describe the difficulty of fighting an enemy that uses civilians as shields.
Another factor is that usually, when covering conflicts involving Israel, the media at least believe that their reports influence Western governments. This time around it seems that, at least for now, the international community is giving Israel more leeway to deal with Hizbullah, and now it's the media which are following the politicians' lead.
Whether by design or not, I have a feeling that better Israeli information efforts have also helped in this regard. Early on, we were still getting the old tired faces of the career diplomats, with their bad suits and even worse accents, trundling out lame excuses to skeptical interviewers. But towards the end of the first week of fighting, the IDF suddenly came into the limelight. Generals began explaining the tactical rationale in surprisingly good English, foreign reporters were being given access to military operations as much as their Israeli counterparts, and there was a new tone of respect and understanding in the coverage.
There are a number of ironies here, among them that Israel's soldiers are much more articulate than its diplomats and that "liberal-minded" journalists are easily bedazzled by generals, but the fact remains that it works. As during last year's disengagement, the IDF has again learned that opening itself up to the media, - both Israeli and foreign - is a vital part of its job as a fighting force.