Behind the Lines: The price of a free press

The summer's war demonstrated that an open society conveys the impression of chaos and uncertainty.

hizbullah riot 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
hizbullah riot 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
An important study on last summer's war has just been published by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. It is the first to give a comprehensive explanation of how, in an asymmetrical war "between a state [Israel] and a militant, secretive, religiously fundamentalist sect or faction [Hizbullah]," the fight is just as much about information and image as it is about military gains. After reading dozens of articles on the role of the media in the war (and writing quite a few myself), I can safely say that this insightful study (, written by veteran reporter, author and broadcaster Marvin Kalb, makes real sense of what we were doing during those fateful 34 days. It is a must-read for journalists, the military, politicians, spokesmen and news consumers. Kalb writes that Lebanon was "the first really 'live' war in history." The two wars in Iraq, with broadcasts of the bombing of Baghdad and reporters "embedded" with advancing units, were a mere taste of what technology has to offer. This time, every aspect of warfare - the troops going in and out of the battlefield, bombs and missiles falling, the dead, the wounded, the refugees - was brought to viewers in real time, "as though the world had a front-row seat on the blood and gore of modern warfare." The implications of this are only now beginning to be understood. Al-Arabiya's director of news and current affairs, Emile Nakhle, called the technological breakthrough "broadcast via broadband. In places not accessible by car, in the middle of conflict areas for example, a sole reporter with a laptop and small camera can shoot, edit, feed and do live interviews." This stream of immediate images, seemingly without any filtering, would seem like a positive development - in principle enabling viewers to reach their own conclusions. But, as Kalb shows, the new coverage is anything but objective. Miniaturization, wireless broadcasting and high-speed links enable news organizations to overcome technical obstacles. Censorship and intimidation, however, still remain. Which means that democratic societies living by the ideals of a free and unfettered press will always be at a disadvantage to dictatorships and oppressive ideologies, adept at manipulating the media. As Kalb writes: "A closed society conveys the impression of order and discipline; an open society, buffeted by the crosswinds of reality and rumor, criticism and revelation, conveys the impression of disorder, chaos and uncertainty." Israel's campaign was remarkably transparent: Journalists achieved unprecedented levels of access to its forces. As a result, every failure and mishap on the battlefield - and relative chaos on the home front - was highlighted. On this point I have only a minor factual argument with Kalb, who writes that Israeli "officials made a clumsy effort to control and contain the coverage, but essentially failed." As a reporter who covered the war on all three fronts (Lebanon, Gaza and the quiet but tense Syrian front), I was not aware of any real effort on the part of the IDF to limit media access - except, perhaps, for the faceless clerks in the military censorship office who occasionally crossed out minor details in my reports. The only significant censorship I felt was my own, in the cases in which I realized that the timing of certain reports might put our forces in danger. At no stage was I barred from roaming the border area, talking with soldiers and officers about to enter Lebanon or fresh from battle. From the experience of colleagues, I know that there were very few instances of this happening, and it was almost always the result of local initiatives by field commanders, not orders from above. The normally closed field headquarters and even air force bases were routinely opened to media visits. Even openly hostile Arab TV networks, such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, were allowed to operate in almost total freedom and film IDF units preparing for battle. ON THE other side, Hizbullah controlled the journalists covering the situation in Lebanon with an iron fist. Media tours of Hizbullah-controlled areas, where the IDF's bombing was mainly concentrated, were tightly managed, with foreign reporters being sternly warned against wandering off and talking to local residents unsupervised. Infringement of these rules would be punished by the confiscation of cameras and disbarment from any further visits or access to Hizbullah members. According to Kalb, only CNN's Anderson Cooper openly admitted to having operated under these rules. Hizbullah also forbade any photographs of its fighters. Cameramen were warned never to show men with guns or ammunition. The only armed personnel seen during this war were IDF soldiers; Hizbullah remained throughout a phantom army. Another scene almost never shown was the hundreds of Hizbullah firing positions and missile launch sites within residential areas and private homes, the cause of many civilian deaths and a violation of international law. The one exception was when the Australian Herald Sun smuggled a series of incriminating photos out of Beirut, but they were only shown after the IDF managed to capture some of these sites intact. These methods, Kalb writes, created "a narrative that depicted 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 in life and treasure. The narrative contained no mention of Hizbullah's dependence upon Iran and Syria for a steady flow of arms and financial resources." Not that there was any shortage of footage coming out of Lebanon. But it dealt almost exclusively with the results of the IDF bombing and the Lebanese civilian casualties. Few news organizations made an effort to balance these pictures with those of the damage from Hizbullah's indiscriminate bombing of Israeli civilians. Neither was any effort made to show that Israel's attacks were concentrated mainly on areas of Hizbullah activity, leaving the rest of Beirut and other Lebanese towns and cities relatively unscathed. Kalb quotes New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Steven Erlanger, who was upset by a photo in his paper of the leveled Dahia quarter in South Beirut. Erlanger said that it "bothered me a great deal. We did a satellite photo of southern Beirut, of Dahia, which was quite destroyed, and we didn't print near it a larger photo of the rest of Beirut, which I think was a failure to provide context." This style of coverage is what changed the general tone of reporting, which in the first few days of the war still reminded that it was Hizbullah that had begun the war, and turned the accusation of "disproportionality" made by Israel's critics into common media currency. Kalb describes the "combustible mix of 24/7 cable news, call-in radio and television programs, Internet bloggers and on-line Web sites, cellphones and iPods" which has deeply influenced much of the mainstream media, giving it a populist slant and transforming "the media from objective observer to fiery advocate, becoming in fact a weapon of modern warfare." He believes that we have entered a new media age in which the reporter has become the commentator and very often is himself a "part of the story." This new reality has both positive and negative implications which are only now coming to light. MOST OF the details in Kalb's paper were already known to media observers, though his keen analysis offers the first real perspective on this "information war." Two crucial questions he raises have special relevance for the Israeli media. One is the prominence that every IDF screw-up received in the local media. The other is that the war's result was so inconclusive that it caused feelings of disappointment and anger among the public toward both the military and the political leadership. There is no proof that the IDF made more mistakes or was in any way less professional than in past wars. What has changed is the media's viewpoint, thanks to official openness and modern technology. As Kalb remarks in a slightly different context, "Scholars say that if the media had had the technology during World War II to show photos and videotape of Allied bombing attacks on German and Japanese civilians, and to hear their tales of woe on 24/7 cable news programs, the morality of the war (though unlikely the outcome) would have been significantly different." This week I interviewed a veteran paratrooper, one of the officers who led the assault on the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six Day War. "We made all the same mistakes then," he said. "The commanders were no better, probably even worse. It just wasn't reported." HOW CAN the media balance between its duty to report failure and incompetence, which in many cases might remain neglected if not for the publicity, and the need to create a proper perspective from which to view the war? Which leads us to the next question. In a confrontation in which information is a weapon, should a democracy curb freedom of the press when its adversary is craftily manipulating the media and utilizing every report in the free press as military intelligence? (Hizbullah had a special section that monitored every detail in the Israeli and international press, and passed on up-to-date information to its forces in the field.) Is the price of living in an open democracy too heavy in time of war? How can a free country put its case across to a free press? Kalb quotes former US secretary of state Colin Powell who, when asked how he would have responded to a reporter revealing the exact location of his forces during battle on live television, answered: "I'd have locked all of you up... the American people would have stripped your skin off." That was a decade ago, today's generals are not so sure in their answers. The unavoidable conclusion as Kalb sees it - and it is very difficult to argue with him - is that "in strictly military terms, Israel did not lose to Hizbullah in this war, but it clearly did not win. In the war of information, news and propaganda, the battlefield central to Hizbullah's strategy, Israel lost this war." And he makes a worrisome prediction that the outcome on other battlefields of the war on terror could be similar. One of the most interesting quotes in his paper is from Col. David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert, who explains that when insurgents attack a US convoy in Iraq, "they are not doing that because they want to reduce the number of Humvees we have in Iraq by one. They're doing it because they want spectacular media footage of a burning Humvee. If [Osama] bin Laden didn't have access to global media, satellite communications and the Internet, he'd just be a cranky guy in a cave."