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Eight prominent journalists convened in a town hall meeting at the Jerusalem YMCA Monday night in the first public forum seriously tackling some of the most difficult questions that have arisen over the media's coverage of the second Lebanon War.
Bluntly responding to the interrogations of Media Line Jerusalem Bureau Chief David Harris, the journalists, including Steven Erlanger of The New York Times and Danny Rubinstein of Ha'aretz, took the opportunity to publicly reflect on their own shortcomings in covering the war.
Erlanger admitted that The New York Times did not take Lebanese politics seriously enough during the fighting.
"I think one could say quite properly," Erlanger said, "that we as a newspaper covered it as a human interest story, not as Hizbullah as a part of the military and government unto itself."
He said he also regretted that The New York Times published a photo of decimated southern Beirut but didn't include another photo of the city at large to put the destruction in context.
The effects of the war on northern Israelis, especially their spending a month inside bomb shelters, led Danny Rubinstein to believe that Hizbullah had won the war until Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's recent admission of misjudgment in kidnapping the IDF soldiers.
"In my paper," Rubinstein said, "I don't know how to put it - I don't know who won the war. In our case it's a zero-sum game; if Nasrallah said he made a mistake then Olmert did well. Olmert has to send some flowers to Nasrallah because Nasrallah killed the investigations committee."
Rubinstein also voiced complaint about how Israeli newspapers don't translate articles from Palestinian papers when newspapers like Al-Ayyam in the territories translate about 10 articles a day from the Israeli media.
"The Israeli public isn't interested in the Palestinian issues," retorted Yoni Ben Menachem, director of Israel Radio. "They wouldn't read it if translations were made."
As far as his own regrets, Menachem said he went along with the general euphoria that he experienced in Israel during the first days of the war, in which he and others were misled to believe that Israel's goals could be achieved with air strikes alone.
Acknowledgements like these were especially significant after a war in which so many accusations targeted the media from almost every constituency around the world. One of the most popular accusations was that the media failed to achieve what has become the holy grail of good journalism: balanced reporting.
Several journalists responded to this accusation, although none of them admitted personal failings in telling both sides of the story.
"My attitude to balance is the closest you are, the better," said Stephen Farrell, Middle East correspondent for The Times. "So I found a hotel where you can see the border and stood there with binoculars for three weeks. You see stuff that can't be censored, and you rely on someone back in Jerusalem for the big picture. You can't really go wrong with that sort of coverage. The IDF might not like it, Hizbullah might not like it, but that's how I did it."
Also satisfied with his own evenhandedness, the Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Al-Jazeera Walid Omary said it was the Israeli media that failed to pay enough attention to Arab sources and therefore couldn't approach the balance Al-Jazeera achieved.
"The same way Al-Jazeera pioneered the idea of interviewing Israelis," Omary said, "and they do it on a daily basis, Israelis need to learn what's happening on the other side."
Omary and several others said they weren't able to cover everything they wanted because of IDF restrictions they experienced in getting to the battlefield.
"The issue for a professional journalist is access," said Simon McGregor-Wood of ABC News, "and access to the battlefield was obviously a problematic thing." He said the access was tightly controlled by the IDF and their coverage was therefore dependent on what the IDF let them do, leading to a drastic reduction in coverage of the IDF experience in the field.
"The IDF tried to keep us out of the battlefield," Erlanger said. "They wanted us to cover the war from home, to focus on the Katyushas; we would write about that in any case. They didn't want us looking at the lack of water, the lack of jackets, the lack of orders."
One order the IDF did carry out, according to Walid Omary, was arresting his news crew four times in one day, on July 16, the day he refers to as "The campaign against Al-Jazeera."
"You must arrest the man who threatens my life, not me," Omary said, referring to how an IDF spokesman told him that he was being arrested to protect him from Hizbullah's Katyushas.
Alongside such stories about the failings and foibles they experienced as they covered the war, the journalists also reflected generally on hot topics in journalism today, like the spate of kidnappings in the Middle East.
"I spent a day [kidnapped] with Sunni insurgents," said Farrell. "It's a very nasty, horrible experience and you think you're going to die every minute. It's a good idea for them, though, because if you want the media out of a place, intimidating the people works. It ensures journalists won't go to places and human suffering won't be reported."
The doctored Reuters photograph and its repercussions were also discussed extensively at the meeting organized by The Media Line Ltd. and the Mideast Press Club.
"The credibility of the bloggers that uncovered it skyrocketed," said McGregor-Wood, "and our credibility plummeted." He said bloggers had more influence in this war than any other, especially in the US, where the doctored photo was uncovered.
Erlanger rejected the idea that he ought to take responsibility for media scandals like the Reuters photograph. "Part of it is inescapable," Erlanger said. "I get blamed for George Bush all the time. I only feel personally responsible for my own journalism, my own writing, my own coverage. I'm as affected by Reuters faking such a photo as anyone, but I'm not trying to speak for everyone."
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