TV's Stamp on Middle East News
GOOD or bad, Americans get their news from television more than from any other source. And when it comes to foreign news, which local papers seem to push farther and farther into their back pages, network television plays an ever larger role. But unlike the print media, television's primacy of the picture can tilt and shade the reported facts in a way many of us are not aware. And nowhere are pictures more deceiving than in the Middle East.
National Public Radio correspondent Jim Lederman has been reporting from Jerusalem for some 25 years, and few journalists have a longer perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than he does. And so his new book "Battle Lines," a biting indictment of how television greatly misportrayed the first months of the Palestinian uprising, must be taken seriously by all concerned news watchers.
Lederman takes a clinical approach - attempting something more scientific than journalistic - to this case study that he examines also for its larger lessons. Thus, he calls the intifadah a "best case scenario" for understanding the dynamics between the media and its consumers, public officials, and the events covered. By best case, he means a news event important to the international public and to foreign governments, taking place in a country with broad press freedoms and civil liberties. On this count
he is correct; at least in the early days of the strife, West Bank Palestinians had wide access to and attention from the overseas press.
As backgrounder, Lederman correctly notes that pictures speak louder than words on the television news. Images - and especially images of war and violence - are overpowering, he argues, and their unconscious impact must be carefully balanced against the voice-over's explicit meaning.
But Lederman is wrong to say that television played a role during the intifadah fundamentally different from that which all media take when reporting emotion-laden issues. Such issues always have passionate and partisan consumers of the news. And whenever the unexpected happens, such as, in this case, a sudden outbreak of civilian violence answered by widespread official violence, passions rise even further and accusations of bias fly with renewed vigor.
He coins the term "intifada imagespeak" to frame his criticism of what he calls television's implicit editorializing against Israeli policy. In a strained and ultimately failed analysis of the evening broadcasts' picture content, he argues that television crossed the line from being an observer to being a participant in the news it covered. Its alleged goal - nothing less than to "demoniz[e]" and "delegitimize" Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, influence United States foreign policy, and set the national ag enda.
But such a grand conspiracy theory does not hold up under the weak evidence given. To give just one example, Lederman claims camera angles alone made Israeli soldiers look bigger and more menacing than Palestinian demonstrators. He overlooks the fact that Israeli soldiers were generally older, heavily armed, and equipped with bulky riot gear.
A tinge of professional jealousy seems to creep into Lederman's unflagging critique of television and praise of print. As a radioman himself, it is understandable that he think a story's words should carry the weight. But he fails to acknowledge that words too can bear emotional baggage and subliminal meaning, especially in the Middle East.
The choice of one word over another - for instance, "the West Bank" or "Judea and Samaria," "terrorist," "guerrilla," or "soldier" - transmits a strong cue, even in quoted material. Similar is the impact of unsubstantiated claims made without rebuttal, as Lederman himself uses with harmful effect by repeating Israeli charges that Palestinian leader Seri Nusseibeh spied for Iraq. And what message, finally, is sent to readers by the print media's practice of referring to Palestinians but never to Palestine ?
Most troubling of all is Lederman's insinuation that anti- Semitism lies behind what he calls purposeful attempts to make Israel look bad on television. As he well knows, anti-Semitism can be a career-damaging, if not career-ending, accusation in the mainstream news business. By raising this as a possibility, but neither pursuing nor dismissing it, a cloud of suspicion is left over all journalists reporting unpleasant news from Israel.
AS an old hand on the Jerusalem beat, Lederman was one of the first to see the uprising's long-term significance - not the widespread violence, but the struggle for leadership between young Palestinians and the West Bank's old guard Palestine Liberation Organization supporters. Television and even most newspapers followed the wrong "storyline," as he calls it, when they focused too closely on the conflict over land.
But Israel's accelerated settlements policy, and the growing sense of despair it engendered among Palestinians, lay directly behind the demonstrations. Land was the issue and the conflict was violent, unprecedentedly so. Lederman's argument that the presence of cameras often incited violence, something even he acknowledges as open to debate, is outweighed by the fact that the images of detainees being brutalized were instrumental in uncovering the official beatings policy.
In spite of Lederman's misaimed critique of TV coverage, he does note correctly that Israel's wide-open press freedoms made journalists' work more difficult, simply because they had so much choice in what could be reported. This he favorably, and rightly, compares with the Pentagon's strict press controls in Grenada, Panama, and the Gulf war.
In stark contrast to this sober, reflective analysis is CNN executive producer Robert Wiener's breathless, as-it-happened account of his network's news operation in Baghdad before and during the Gulf war. No one doubts that CNN scored coup after coup in getting stories first and staying on the longest. Viewers then might not have asked themselves how this was possible, and Wiener now is not at all shy in telling.
Many of Lederman's comments about television's sometimes crass journalistic ethics are unwittingly confirmed by Wiener. Any producer who, in the heat of the Romanian revolution, vetoes a seasoned reporter's lead story in favor of his own special segment about an Olympic star, Nadia Comaneci, deserves to be taken less seriously about Iraq than he might otherwise want.
Despite his sensitivity to charges that CNN got too close to Iraqi officials to permit objective journalism, Wiener in fact makes them ring true. The Iraqis dangled carrot after carrot over the network's head - an exclusive interview with Saddam Hussein or a solo trip into Kuwait - and CNN always bit.
Although the rug bazaar metaphor is overused in this kind of review, the inescapable conclusion is that Wiener got his prize at a considerably inflated price.