Photos of despair trump sound bites

Foreign Ministry: "Pics in the press hurt Israel's image during war."

lebanon woman 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
lebanon woman 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israel lost the media war this summer because it sent spokesmen with sound bites to combat the photographs of destruction and despair that dominated television and newspapers during the Lebanon War last July and August, according to the Foreign Ministry Director of Public Affairs Amir Gissin. He was one of a host of speakers at the fifth annual David Bar-Illan Conference on the Media and the Middle East held Monday at the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel, who analyzed the reasons why Israel found itself so ill-equipped to dominate the media blitz during the war. It was like sending the cavalry out to fight the machine guns in World War I, said Ra'anan Gissin, a former spokesman of the Prime Minister's Office under Ariel Sharon. "The war was judged on the death toll," said Steven Erlanger of The New York Times who added that the level of destruction in Lebanon as the result of the IDF airstrikes was much larger than the impact of the Hizbullah launched rockets into northern Israel. "This was a big issue outside of Israel; it is not an issue that the Israeli press dealt with," he said. Nor, he added, was it one that was comprehensible to the majority of Israelis. Israelis were aghast to think that the world was viewing the war through that lens, Erlanger said. Since the war started with an attack on Israel, they felt it was "inconceivable" to consider the issue of disproportionate losses. "If anything," he said, "I would fault the Israeli press for not giving you, the readers, a sufficient picture of what was happening on the other side." Channel 10 news director Gilad Adin said that viewers complained when he broadcast scenes of destruction from Lebanon; they felt it was unpatriotic. But outside of Israel, it was exactly those photographs and video footage which shifted international public opinion against Israel because the government failed to provide a compelling tool to combat, said Gissin. Instead, the government fell back on the tried and true methods of using eloquent spokesmen to plead Israel's cause, said Gissin. Gissin added that it was not reasonable to expect that people would change their behavior and their opinions based on a sound bite. A small survey conducted by the Foreign Ministry showed that in the first two weeks of the war, CNN spent 4,000 minutes on the crisis in the Middle East, said Gissin. Ten percent of the time was dedicated to Israeli speakers compared to the 30 minutes given to Arab ones, he added. But the extra time didn't help Israel because instead of combating opposing spokesmen, they were placed against photographs of bombed-out apartment buildings in Beirut in the wake of IDF bombing raids. "A spokesman can not compete with the pictures," said Gissin. He recalled the idea that a photograph is worth a thousand words. Similarly, he said, that New York Times articles were balanced. The words, he said, supported Israel but the photographs were against it because they focused overwhelmingly on Lebanon. He credited the discrepancy between words and photographs to two contrary trends within the media and international opinion in general. On one hand, he said, sites of civilian casualties in war were increasingly treated as crime scenes - a move that did not help Israel's media image. That is contrasted with a growing understanding that the Israeli-Arab conflict is part of a larger struggle between moderate and radical Islam. He referenced a survey taken in France, where 85% of the respondents said they would support Israel in a conflict with Iran. Ra'anan Gissin predicted that in the future local wars would increasingly take on a global dimension. What happened both in Lebanon and in the Palestinian areas is that radical Islam hijacked a local conflict. According to Gissin, terrorism is globalized and so is the media "This is a global theater in which you can win the hearts and minds of people," Gissin said. But he warned that it can only happen if Israel looks at the media as the second front in any war. "You have to deal with the media with the same seriousness that you deal with other theaters of war," said Gissin. In last summer's war, he said, Israel failed to understand that. In the aftermath of the withdrawal from Gaza and in light of the fact that Israel was attacked on two internationally recognized borders, the international community thought of Israel as the victim. But Israel, he said, "wasted that good will." Part of the problem, he said, was that "the war started as a spin." It was not supposed to be war, said Gissin. It was originally intended to be a quick military operation that would leave Israel basking in the glory of victory, he explained. When quick victory was not achieved and Israel found itself fighting a war, it failed to adopt a "winning spirit." He added: "What started with a spin, ended without a win." What was needed was some of the spirit exhibited in the famous photograph of a wounded soldier who held up his two fingers to make the letter "V" for victory.