Television's 'battle of Lebanon' -- distortions?

Charges by top Israeli officials that American television is presenting a distorted picture of the war in Lebanon have been denied by NBC News president Reuven Frank.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in a speech delivered to visiting American Jews in a Tel Aviv temple on Aug. 11 and carried in part by Cable News Network, charged that American TV is deliberately presenting the news from Beirut in a way that shows Israel in the worst possible light.

In off-the-record conversations, TV news executives say they are showing what is actually happening. If the Israelis do not like the pictures of what is happening, they say, maybe they should stop doing what is being pictured.

Zeev Chafets, director of the Israel Government Press Office, told the Monitor: ''American television is acting unethically by trying to hit Israel over the head with its own military censorship. American TV acquiesces to censorship of the most disturbing kind -- exclusion from various countries -- and never remarks upon it. American viewers, for instance, never see footage from Saudi Arabia and most other countries in that area because the countries do not allow American cameras in.''

Citing what he called Israel's ''benign, up-front form of military and security censorship,'' Mr. Chafets charged that ''the networks have been unfair in calling special attention to the existence of Israeli censorship to make it appear falsely as if Israel is subjecting their stuff to political censorship.''

As proof he pointed out that the the disturbing and unpleasant things from Israel's point of view that have been transmitted from Israel would have been censored if there had been political censorship.

Many pro-Zionist Jewish-American organizations have been especially disturbed by last week's commentaries by John Chancellor on the NBC Nightly News. On Monday night, in a report from west Beirut, Mr. Chancellor came down hard on the Israelis, referring to ''imperial Israel.''

The next night, from Tel Aviv, he made more moderate comments. As he spoke, the words ''passed by Israeli censors'' appeared on the screen. Some viewers might have inferred from those words that the reason for the more moderate commentary was due to censorship when, in fact, not a single word in Mr. Chancellor's commentary had been changed or deleted, according to Mr. Chafets.

Israeli officials receive a daily report from the New York Israeli consul on the way the American media is reporting the war. Shmuel Moyal, consul of Israel and press officer, told the Monitor in New York:

''Reports from west Beirut are especially unfair now. When the cease-fire has been broken and the PLO and Israel exchange fire, what do they show? They show Israeli tanks and Israeli planes. They never show PLO launching rockets and shooting at us. The PLO doesn't allow them to show anything other than Arafat kissing children. And, when you juxtapose that against footage of mutilated children in hospitals, it is especially distorted.

''It is terrible what is happening to some civilians and we know that war is ugly. But concentrating on the wounded is not the whole story,'' he said. ''Israel is suffering from a double standard on American television.''

Reuven Frank, president of NBC News, denied the accusations of distortion in the Chancellor commentaries:

''We are handling the news from Lebanon fairly. The statement on John Chancellor's commentary that it was passed by the Israeli censors is simply a statement of fact. Whether or not it was actually censored is immaterial. It had to be passed by the censors. We have had previous occasions where things were censored.''

Mr. Frank defended the networks from the charge that they never mention their total exclusion from some countries, but he seemingly confirmed the charge that there is a double standard in regard to Israel:

''Generally we hold Israel to the same expectations we hold democratic countries to,'' he said. ''In the case of the Falklands we complained openly that we were not allowed access. When you deal with a democratic country, you're dealing with one set of rules. When you are dealing with a one-party state, you're dealing with another kind of rule. Since Israel is in the first group, we feel justified. . . .''

Mr. Frank said that from what he has been able to observe, American TV is not distorting the news from Lebanon.

''NBC is airing what the news is. To explain the motivation and the past history each time is not news practice in this case or in any other case,'' he said.

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