The media war

Not only doesn't Israel engage in preemptive damage control, it often seems resigned to lose by default.

media cameras 88 (photo credit: )
media cameras 88
(photo credit: )
In bygone wars, it was often said that the less divulged, the better. Israel's upper echelons - both civilian and military - often conduct themselves as if this were still the case. It isn't. Today's media war is often inseparable from the physical conflict. Neglecting the war of words and images inevitably weakens Israel's ability to pursue its cause on the ground and in the air. Hizbullah and the Palestinians know the value of propaganda. They often fight their media battles by the dirtiest possible means. An expose in these pages on Thursday by former Sunday Telegraph correspondent Tom Gross revealed that Hizbullah officers supervise CNN reports, that a CBS reporter admitted Hizbullah overseers determine what's filmed, that repeated shots of several downed buildings lend Beirut the erroneous image of devastated WWII Dresden, that journalists are threatened, that Hizbullah holds their passports for ransom, that their analyses are skewed to curry favor, and so on. Not only doesn't Israel engage in significant preemptive damage control, it often seems resigned to lose by default. The axiomatic official Israeli attitude often seems to be that "the world hates us." It may indeed deny us a fair shake, but there's a difference between giving up a priori and trying to do something about it. To forfeit without a fight is reckless neglect. It can only impact on Israel's image, its standing abroad, and the pressure on international politicians to take unsympathetic positions, and thus directly on Israel's future well-being. Israel's sometimes spectacularly inept PR is often hampered by red tape. Information on incoming Hizbullah rockets, for instance, isn't the IDF's brief but that of police spokesman Mickey Rosenberg. He operates alone, from one cell-phone, with no switchboard or staff. There's no excusing the enormous gap in the quality of information available to local media stars and foreign correspondents out-of-the-loop. Instead of capitalizing on what Israel knows about Hizbullah's nefarious tactics, unsavory associations and perfidy, such information is frequently meted out only to an exclusive coterie of domestic newsmen. The background material offered outsiders is pathetic instead of sophisticated. Throughout the current war there have been few official briefings specifically for foreign correspondents - not even to explain air-strikes and show relevant footage - and fewer still by IDF higher-ups, ministers or the prime minister (whose speeches are translated a day too late). The IDF intelligence chief maintains no relations with representatives of overseas media. Press conferences are focused on the local media, held in Hebrew. Indeed, official Israeli PR seems to lack a sense of timing, or even to understand the notion of urgency. When an Israeli missile boat was hit off Beirut, the information reluctantly and belatedly hemmed and hawed was sketchy and minimal. It might have done Israel's case good to stress that the missile in question could go 16 kilometers off-shore and that a Cambodian boat was hit by an even longer-range missile, both supplied from Iran and based on North Korean technology. Prominent stress on the collusion of the Lebanese army in that incident would have helped explain why its radar installations were targeted in a subsequent IAF raid. Supply routes from Syria to Lebanon are often hit in Israeli air force raids. The inevitable claim from Hizbullah and Lebanese sources is that food-ferrying trucks are being bombed. The IDF rarely comments. That's plainly no way to do business. In the aftermath of the Kana tragedy, it took officialdom all day to produce footage of Katyusha rockets flying out of the village toward Israel. Asked why this had not been released earlier, a very senior Israeli politician opined that the overseas channels would not have broadcast it anyway. Politicians who are so adept at interacting with the local press could surely, assuming they have the language skills, do likewise vis-a-vis the international media. A war-room of the sort set up to react to negatives in any election campaign could do wonders in this situation. On the domestic front, our leadership, like that of all democratic countries, understands the importance of crafting messages strategically and getting them out in real time. It is inexcusable that such skills and seriousness are not applied in the international sphere, in the mistaken belief that they will inevitably have no impact. As our soldiers fight on the battlefield, our civilian leadership owes it to them and to the nation to do its job of fighting the media war with no less vigor.