Snap Judgment: The fog of war reporting

The term 'disproportionate response' also best describes the foreign media's coverage of this corner of the world.

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August 3, 2006 11:17
Snap Judgment: The fog of war reporting

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A few months ago I attended a conference where a veteran Middle East correspondent was asked the age-old question of why Israel receives so much media attention, even at a time when many journalistic outlets are cutting back on other foreign coverage. He responded with several of the explanations offered up over the years - Israel's connection to the much larger historical saga of the Jewish people, its strong ties to the US, the fairly frequent outbursts of violence that provide a steady stream of dramatic stories and pictures, etc. But he also noted with weariness his personal feeling that the story has for some time had a sense of sameness to it, a familiar repetition of repeated events and tropes, a seemingly endless cycle of terror attacks, Israeli military operations in response, the arrival of foreign envoys, the announcement of new peace initiatives, and so on. He noted that correspondents such as himself, who have covered the country for decades, sometimes end up feeling like the journalistic equivalent to the character played by Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, continuing to report on the same (or similar) events year in, year out. So why, he was asked again, does the Israeli-Arab conflict in all its permutations still get so much media play? "Well," he concluded, "I think to a certain degree that we cover Israel so much… because we cover Israel so much." Thinking about that, I realized how much Israel has become in a certain sense the O.J. Simpson or JonBenet Ramsey of international stories. Not that the conflict here lacks real news value, like those tabloid fodder sagas of American cable TV; quite the opposite, as the events unfolding in northern Israel and Lebanon amply demonstrate. But even such periods of genuine drama and geopolitical import don't quite justify the wall-to-wall coverage it's been given during the past month, at least not in relation to concurrent events unfolding elsewhere in the world. DON'T BUY that? Well, just compare the exposure given the Israel-Lebanon conflict with the widening hostilities in the Horn of Africa, where an internal struggle in Somalia is now spilling out into a potential regional war involving its neighbors Ethiopia and Eritrea. There are a number of legitimate comparisons that can be made between that situation and the one here: Both conflicts involve Islamic extremist militias linked with the larger global jihadist movement (in Somalia's case, even direct ties to al-Qaida); both are taking place in an area of strategic importance in which past US military intervention ended in disaster; the roots of both struggles go beyond strictly local political interests and involve wider cultural and religious factors; and, at the end of the day, international foreign intervention may prove to provide the only (temporary) solution to the fighting. So why has the Somalia/Ethiopia/ Eritrea story gotten only a tiny fraction of the coverage in the past month awarded the Israel/Hizbullah conflict? FOR ONE THING, the Somalia situation doesn't involve white people. Just like those stories in the US media about missing or murdered young women only seem to get real TV news/tabloid play if the victim is a fair-skinned beauty, so the Western media's interest in a war or tragedy on a global scale rises exponentially when at least one of the protagonists (either as victim or aggressor) is of Caucasian stock. The Israel-Hizbullah conflict is also one that is more comfortable - in the plain meaning of the world - for the media to cover. I'm not arguing though, that it's any safer; reporters in the field in northern Israel and Lebanon are bravely putting their lives on the line every day, and their courage and professional commitment should be commended. However, there's no disputing the fact that it is simply much more convenient for the international media, which already have long-existing bureaus and operations set up in Israel (and to a lesser degree in Lebanon) to cover the fighting here rather than shlep out to Mogadishu, where the hotels and restaurants aren't quite as accommodating as those in this part of the world. THE REAL problem for the media, though, is not comfort, but expense. Many top news organizations, for example, have stopped providing their own exclusive reporting from Iraq because they simply cannot afford the security costs and insurance payments needed to protect their correspondents. In Israel those needs are much less, and the necessary infrastructure is already in place. So the media are still covering Israel so much in part because - as the man said - they already cover Israel so much. And when there's genuine reason to do so, like now, the phrase "disproportionate response" can also best describe the media coverage of it. All this means simply that those who believe that the media pay an excessive amount of attention to this little corner of the world will have to resign themselves to that fact, since there's little that they, or anyone else, can really do about it. The best one can hope for - and encourage and work toward, by whatever means possible - is that foreign journalists, especially when they "flood the zone" here, as they have in the past month, do their job in as fair, informed and professional a manner as possible. UNDER THESE circumstances, journalists in the field should keep in mind a few basic rules of the profession. For one thing: It is more important to get the story right than to get it fast. Many earlier reports of the tragedy at Kafr Kana (including in this paper) put the death toll at 57; the actual number turned out to be half that, 28. The mistake lay in relying on Lebanese sources rather than waiting for an official Red Cross count - the same sources, by the way, that regularly throw out the figure of some 600 Lebanese civilians dead since the fighting began (with apparently almost no Hizbullah fighters among them) - a number that is accepted with little checking or question by much of the media. During the so-called "fog of war" it is difficult for those fighting and directing battles to make clear observations and informed choices, and the same is not much less so for those reporting on it. But if truth is not to become another casualty of war, of this war, the journalists covering it must always keep in mind just why it is that we - and our enemies - are fighting. And if at least that is made clear to their readers and viewers, then Israel, in all its glories and troubles, its triumphs and tragedies, will truly become a story that deserves to be covered so much - and for reasons far better than the fact that it is already covered so much. The author is director of The Israel Project's Jerusalem Media Resource Center. www.theisraelproject.com

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