Blame It on the Bloggers? Israel Lost the Media War


An important study on last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah has been published by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. It is the first to give a comprehensive explanation of how, in an asymmetrical war "between a state [Israel] and a militant, secretive, religiously fundamentalist sect or faction [Hezbollah]," the fight is just as much about information and image as it is about military gains.

This insightful work, written by veteran reporter, author and broadcaster Marvin Kalb, makes real sense of what Israelis were doing during those fateful 34 days.

Kalb writes that Lebanon was "the first really 'live' war in history."

The two wars in Iraq, with broadcasts of the bombing of Baghdad and reporters "embedded" with advancing units, were a mere taste of what technology has to offer. This time, every aspect of warfare — the troops going in and out of the battlefield, bombs and missiles falling, the dead, the wounded, the refugees — was brought to viewers in real time, "as though the world had a front-row seat on the blood and gore of modern warfare."

The implications of this are only now beginning to be understood. Miniaturization, wireless broadcasting and high-speed links enable news organizations to overcome technical obstacles. Censorship and intimidation, however, still remain — which means that democratic societies living by the ideals of a free and unfettered press will always be at a disadvantage to dictatorships and oppressive ideologies adept at manipulating the media.

Israel's campaign was remarkably transparent: Journalists achieved unprecedented levels of access to its forces. As a result, every failure and mishap on the battlefield — and relative chaos on the home front — was highlighted.

On the other other side, Hezbollah controlled the journalists covering the situation in Lebanon with an iron fist. Media tours of Hezbollah-controlled areas, where the Israel Defense Force's bombing was concentrated, were tightly managed, with foreign reporters being sternly warned against wandering off and talking to local residents unsupervised.

Infringement of these rules would be punished by the confiscation of cameras and disbarment from any further visits or access to Hezbollah members.

According to Kalb, only CNN's Anderson Cooper openly admitted to having operated under these rules.

Hezbollah also forbade any photographs of its fighters. Cameramen were warned never to show men with guns or ammunition. The only armed personnel seen during this war were IDF soldiers; Hezbollah remained throughout a phantom army.

Another scene almost never shown was the hundreds of Hezbollah firing positions and missile-launch sites within residential areas and private homes — the cause of many civilian deaths and a violation of international law.

These methods, Kalb writes, created "a narrative that depicted a selfless movement touched by God and blessed by a religious fervor and determination to resist the enemy, the infidel, and ultimately achieve a 'divine victory,' no matter the cost in life and treasure. The narrative contained no mention of Hezbollah's dependence upon Iran and Syria for a steady flow of arms and financial resources."

Not that there was any shortage of footage coming out of Lebanon.

But it dealt almost exclusively with the results of the IDF bombing and the Lebanese civilian casualties. Few news organizations made an effort to balance these pictures with those of the damage from Hezbollah's indiscriminate bombing of Israeli civilians. Neither was any effort made to show that Israel's attacks were concentrated on areas of Hezbollah activity, leaving the rest of Beirut and other Lebanese cities relatively unscathed.

This style of coverage is what changed the general tone of reporting.

Kalb describes the "combustible mix of 24/7 cable news, call-in radio and television programs, Internet bloggers and online Web sites, cellphones and iPods" which has deeply influenced much of the mainstream media, giving it a populist slant, and transforming it "from objective observer to fiery advocate, becoming in fact a weapon of modern warfare."

The unavoidable conclusion as Kalb sees it — and it is very difficult to argue with him — is that "in strictly military terms, Israel did not lose to Hezbollah in this war, but it clearly did not win. In the war of information, news and propaganda, the battlefield central to Hezbollah's strategy, Israel lost this war."

Anshel Pfeffer is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.



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