GRUMPY OLD MAN: What remains unreported

It’s not easy or even possible for today’s journalists to tell the whole story, which means news consumers should be forewarned.

A UN worker gestures after what witnesses said was an Israeli air strike outside a UN-run school in the Gaza Strip on August 3. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A UN worker gestures after what witnesses said was an Israeli air strike outside a UN-run school in the Gaza Strip on August 3.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The foreign press was all over Operation Protective Edge like mosquitoes on a summer- evening barbecue guest. I won’t say the coverage was one-sided, as many critics claim, but a certain aspect of it – Hamas fighters in Gaza streets, and rockets and mortar rounds being fired from built-up areas – seemed to have been pretreated with a stiff shpritz of insect repellent.
Things appeared to get better toward the August 5 truce when some reporters and crews, preparing to leave the Gaza Strip or already out, scooped the big outlets by showing or relating first-person accounts of rocket launchings. It’s not that they had gone looking for them – their scoops were more serendipitous, most spectacularly when the sudden flash and whoosh of a nearby launch interrupted their on-camera stand-ups in residential areas and even outside a local hospital.
Sreenivasan Jain, working for India’s NDTV, took things a step further when he and his crew quietly recorded the scene right outside their hotel window early on the morning of August 4. The footage showed what appeared to be combatants burying something under a blue, tent-like canopy.
“[I]t wasn’t hard to conclude what this was,” Jain later wrote on NDTV’s website. “When they started running wires out of the tent, the final steps before covering the earth with a spade, moving some shrubbery on top and then slinking away, it was even clearer.”
The next day, just minutes before the 72-hour ceasefire went into effect, the camera caught the boom, whoosh and smoke of a rocket being launched from what turned out to be an improvised underground silo just outside.
On its website, the station featured the footage by saying the following: “This report is being aired on NDTV and published on after our team left the Gaza Strip – Hamas has not taken very kindly to any reporting of its rockets being fired. But just as we reported the devastating consequences of Israel’s offensive on Gaza’s civilians, it is equally important to report on how Hamas places those very civilians at risk by firing rockets deep from the heart of civilian zones.”
Do NDTV’s owners and management wake up in the morning singing Israel’s national anthem? I doubt it. What I don’t doubt is that next time they want to send a crew into Gaza the station probably will have to come up with a pretty good song and dance – which makes me think that for its Gaza material it will be relying on other outlets for the time being.
MY FRIEND and former colleague, Mark Lavie, with a half-century in the business (sorry, Mark) and a lot of insight about the news-gathering process, recently penned a lengthy analysis in geared to news consumers: "Why Everything Reported from Gaza is Crazy Twisted."
According to Lavie, “In some cases, it’s anti-Israel bias.
In others, it’s bad journalism – covering the story you can easily see above ground, like destruction, misery, death and funerals, instead of digging for the real story.... It’s the scourge of 21st century ‘journalism,’ with its instant deadlines, the demands to tweet and blog constantly, the need to get something out there that’s more spectacular than the competition, and check the facts later, if at all. Add to that the cruel cutbacks by news organizations around the world. It all means that fewer and fewer reporters have to file more and more stories.”
Also important, he tells consumers, is the “intimidation” reporters can feel.
“It’s nothing new.
I’ve experienced it for decades. Autocratic regimes threaten, attack and jail reporters who write anything critical of those in power.
Other reporters get the message and just don’t do it.... But if [this aspect of the news] isn’t told, you’ll be harmed. You won’t know why you don’t get the whole story.”
(If it’s not enough that Lavie and others are noting the problems of reporting from within the Gaza Strip, witness this statement issued Monday by the Israel- based Foreign Press Association: “The FPA protests in the strongest terms the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month.”
It’s not the first time the FPA has criticized Palestinian authorities for their treatment of foreign media representatives, but its statements are almost always focused on specific incidents. The non-specificity of this statement, as well as the timing, are telling.) I shared Lavie’s piece on Facebook. Then a Facebook friend brought a Haaretz article to my attention. It was headlined: “Foreign Press: Hamas Didn’t Censor Us in Gaza, They were Nowhere to be Found.”
The article started out as follows: “On Wednesday night [Prime Minister] Binyamin Netanyahu briefed the foreign press, summing up four weeks of warfare in Gaza. ‘Now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidation,’ he said, ‘I expect we will see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets. I think it’s very important for the truth to come out.’” The piece then paraded the responses of several members of the foreign press, who explained the understandable difficulties of actively seeking out rocket launchers or other weapons, which were just as well hidden as the Hamas fighters who, if seen at all, were probably in civilian garb.
But there seemed to be a chip on at least someone’s shoulder.
“‘It’s a phony controversy,’ said one reporter who spent three weeks in Gaza and, like most who were interviewed, asked to remain anonymous. ‘This is a post-facto attempt to claim the media’s biased and Netanyahu [is] therefore infallibly right,’” Haaretz reported.
My Facebook friend wrote: “I think this article pushes back” at Lavie.
I agreed, but with a caveat.
“Mark does an analysis,” I wrote. “This is just a bunch of people saying they didn’t see anything and trying to explain why. (It almost sounds as if some had taken umbrage because the accusation came from Netanyahu.) It is very possible that they didn’t see anything.
It’s just that my editors, when sending me out into the field when I was young, nimble and hungry, expected me to see things. And if I pushed aside the tall grass, I usually did.”
For emphasis, I added: “I am not sure the journalism of today is the same as it was back then.”
FOR A JOURNALIST to take into account personal safety when covering a war is entirely understandable – not everyone wants to be remembered as the next Robert Capa or Marie Colvin. Dead journalists aren’t good for the home office either, which has to scramble for reassignments and worry about paid-up insurance premiums.
The problem is, when a news outlet fails to admit that not all is being reported because to do so would entail endangering the journalist on the ground, the consumer, as Lavie writes, remains unaware that a piece of the puzzle – perhaps a very important piece – might be missing.
Perhaps most at fault are the journalists’ bosses. Anyone who remembers the First Lebanon War and onward will recall how networks and other foreign news media made very clear that their reports had been either censored or subject to censorship by the IDF. It seemed just as much a protest against the Israeli authorities as a public service announcement to the consumer.
We don’t see those declarations much anymore, if at all. Perhaps it’s time we did, especially when the censorship is much more subtle and intimidating.