Media Matters: Cloudy skies over Gaza

Operation Cast Lead is the only thing anyone cares about right now, other than the weather.

IDF soldier directs artillery 248.88  (photo credit: AP)
IDF soldier directs artillery 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
As missiles from Gaza continue to bombard the South, the entire country is being blitzed by another airborne force: the news. This is as natural as it is necessary. Operation Cast Lead is the story - the only one, other than the weather report, that anyone is really interested in right now. Proof of this lies in Channel 10's decision to take the hit, Survivor - the second season of which began with a bang, so to speak - off the air "until further notice." This future date could be, say, when there's a cease-fire, or another reason for reality shows to resume receiving higher ratings than reality itself. You know, the point at which the parents of combat soldiers, whose cellphones are confiscated before they enter the battle zone, no longer need to rely on reports from the field to feel connected to their sons. That this connection is a bit of an illusion, since crews have been reporting from the home front, not from inside Gaza, makes little difference. As one worried father put it this week, "I'm like a junkie who can't tear myself away from the TV, even though it tells me nothing of my boy's actual whereabouts or condition." He is not alone in his addiction. And the media are dutifully supplying the national drug. So much for why the news barrage is natural. Why it is necessary goes even deeper. The media have become a chief branch of society, government and even of the IDF, whichever way you slice the pie chart. This is not to say that the press is controlled by any of the above. On the contrary, if anyone has been calling the shots in recent years it's been the "watchdogs of democracy." Well, they and their rival for influence on politicians - the polls. There is no getting around the fact that the media have become central players in all dramas-of-state, whether that state is democratic (in which case the production is improvised) or totalitarian (in which case it is staged). Nor can anyone deny that modern technology is as responsible for the phenomenon as it is manipulated by it. When amateurs and professionals alike have access to digital equipment and the Web, photos, footage and ongoing commentary fly around cyberspace as freely as Kassams, Grads and Katyushas do over Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheba and Nahariya, to name but a few of the locales within Hamas and Hizbullah rocket range. As a result, a country like Israel, which has been under physical and ideological assault since its establishment, is in a constant quantitative and qualitative information predicament. And never is this predicament more apparent than when the country is engaged in an actual war. Quantitatively, Israel is at an information-dissemination disadvantage by virtue of its small size and that of the sum of its supporters worldwide. This is not new, nor is it the main problem. Public diplomacy on the part of people unwilling to lie in order to convey a message simply has to be heavier on the brains than on the brawn. It's a challenge, to be sure, but one that is as accepted as it is assumed. It's the qualitative predicament that presents the larger quandary. As a democracy with a free press - and a foreign one greeted with a welcome mat and red-carpet treatment - Israel is like an open book. This means that it has many editors and even more critics. We wouldn't have it any other way. But neither would those who don't have its best interests at heart. HERE IS where the army enters an arena that we in the media normally would view as our sacred space, never to be invaded. Under any other circumstances, the curtailing of our freedom of expression would be construed as a ground invasion into our sovereign territory. Indeed, even under the current circumstances, correspondents and editors often are chagrined when the Military Censor's Office exercises its might. At best, we feel inconvenienced by being coerced into submitting our work to a body viewed by many of us as anachronistic in the age of the Internet. It seems silly to remove certain details from an article or a broadcast, when the very same ones are being revealed elsewhere for all to see. Even more ridiculous: An item that is given the heads-up one day by the censor's office might be nixed the next, depending on the staff member whose shift it is. Still, we also recognize and respect its task: to prevent the leakage of information that could endanger individuals, jeopardize national security or - no less important - cause emotional pain to families of fallen soldiers or civilians. It is for this reason that, in spite of our bitching and moaning, we uphold the written law as we would an unspoken code of honor. This wasn't always our behavior. During the Second Lebanon War, clashes between journalists and the censor erupted over coverage of troop movements and casualties. There was a lack of coordination and rumors ran wild. There were even cases of parents learning that their sons had been wounded or even killed through TV channels, rather than military ones. Among other lessons supposedly learned from the failures of that war was the importance of caution and restraint where exposing details of military operations is concerned. This is why extra care is being taken by reporters not to reveal the exact location of missile hits, for example - a rule the censor insists is golden, as is keeping quiet about which missiles turned out to be duds, which fell into the sea and which struck strategic targets or IDF bases. According to guidelines released by the censor's office at the start of Operation Cast Lead at the end of December, the purpose of the above is to prevent the "other side" from being able to adjust its rocket launchings, based on details of their landings. KEEPING A haze over the precise goings-on of the operation may be responsible journalistic practice, but it creates a different kind of difficulty for members of the press, particularly those on screen. Which brings us back to the original point. Filling up hours upon hours of airtime with the news everyone so craves these days is no easy feat when much of that news is censored. This has led to the phenomenon of there being more punditry provided than actual reportage. One can't help but feel sorry for the likes of Channel 1's Yoav Limor and Yinon Magal - for instance - standing in the cold, on camera, with a vague, dark Gaza skyline in the background, trying to blah-blah their way intelligently through entire broadcasts. Then there are the endless interviews in the studio with ex-generals and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome experts, Mideast analysts - and regular appearances by the Home Front Command's Col. Gil Shenhar, reiterating procedures for the public follow prior to, during and after an attack. This should only be our worst problem in the upcoming days.