Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Marvin Kalb on media as weapon in Israel-Hezbollah war

Here is an excerpt from Marvin Kalb's paper on the news media as a weapon in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

Kalb, a former U.S. television correspondent, is a senior fellow of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center.

The paper, published in February, deals with asymmetrical conflict and "shows how an open society, Israel, is victimized by its own openness and how a closed sect, Hezbollah, can retain almost total control of the daily message of journalism and propaganda."

The following excerpt discusses the media theme that Israel's response was disproportionate.

[begin excerpt]
No theme resonated through the coverage of the Lebanese war more forcefully than the repeated assertion by Arab and Western reporters that Israel responded “disproportionately” to Hezbollah’s initial provocation. Though eight soldiers had been killed and two captured, it was said that the provocation was similar in style to others that took place over the years, both sides expecting the U.N. or the U.S. to intervene and negotiate first a ceasefire and then a prisoner swap, and that the Israeli response thus seemed wildly out of kilter—and, therefore, “disproportionate.”

Whether it was first the media focusing on this theme and then Hezbollah exploiting its propaganda value, or whether it was Hezbollah deliberately drawing journalists to this story day after day (though given the almost daily damage, this was hardly necessary, since journalists would have focused on it anyway) there appears to be little doubt that the media everywhere emphasized the theme of “disproportionality” from the opening day of the conflict, as though nothing else measured up to it in importance.

The theme was obvious in most of the reporting. Let us engage for a moment in what scholars call “content analysis.” Look at the headlines, the photographs and the television reports, measure the time devoted to them on television and the space set aside for them in newspapers, check the nationality of the “victims” (sometimes referred to as “martyrs” by Arab reporters)—and you are quickly able to spot the media’s approach in covering this war. Was it, as Fox President Roger Ailes might ask, “fair and balanced?” Or, was it tilted or biased in one direction or another?

Asharq Al-Awsat is one of the two Arabic-language newspapers published in London and then distributed throughout the Middle East. From July 13 to August 16, the paper ran 24 photographs related to the war on the front page; all but two of them showed the death and destruction in Lebanon caused by Israeli attacks.20 The Arab reader of this paper could have drawn only one conclusion—that Israel was guilty of converting Lebanon into a “killing field.” Only once, July 31, did Asharq Al-Awsat show a photograph of the destruction that Hezbollah rockets were causing in Israel. This imbalance (22 to 1) could hardly be defined by a Western yardstick as “objective journalism,” but it could still be explained in the context of Middle East journalism, where many Arab reporters feel a nationalistic, religious or cultural prejudice against Israel. Therefore, by featuring 22 front-page photographs of the devastation caused by Israeli bombing of Lebanon and essentially ignoring Hezbollah’s attacks against Israel, Asharq Al-Awsat was only doing what came naturally—it was playing to the prejudices of its readers, who felt sympathy for their Arab brethren under Israeli fire. Asharq Al-Awsat was selling papers.

Further, if you were watching Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, and switching back and fourth, and if on occasion you asked the question, “Who is really the aggressor in this war?” (which started when Hezbollah staged a cross-border raid and killed eight Israelis) your answer would be Israel, and the answer would surprise no one. Media Tenor, the highly-respected media research organization in Germany, found, first, that Al-Arabiya ran 214 stories on the subject, and, second, that 94 percent of them referred to Israel as the “aggressor.”21 Al-Jazeera ran 83 stories on the subject and 78 percent of them reached the same conclusion. All of these stories, showing pictures of Israeli attacks against Lebanese targets, were presented as examples of “disproportionality.” Why Al-Arabiya ran twice as many stories on the subject was not explored or explained.

Another survey by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy examined headlines and photos on Al-Jazeera’s website. Fifty percent of the photos portrayed Israel as the aggressor, only six percent portrayed Hezbollah as the aggressor. The headlines made an attempt to strike a more balanced picture but did not get far: Israel, labeled as the aggressor 39 percent of the time, Hezbollah 13 percent of the time.22 Most Arab news organizations now have their own websites, which provide a separate universe of news, information and opinion but reflect essentially the same editorial opinion. While not yet profitable, these websites are moving from loss leader status to profit centers.

By comparison, if you were watching the BBC for war coverage, you would have seen a somewhat more balanced approach. The BBC ran 117 stories. Thirty-eight percent fingered Israel as the aggressor, only four percent fingered Hezbollah. The BBC then said that both Israel and Hezbollah were equally to blame for the war. BBC coverage generally tipped against Israel, perhaps in response to public opinion. According to a YouGov poll of British viewers and voters, 63 percent believed that Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s attack had been “disproportionate.” Only 17 percent thought it was “proportionate.”23

However, if you were watching American television, you would quickly have concluded that Fox cable news favored Israel, CNN tried to be balanced, and the three major evening news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC were more critical of Israel than of Hezbollah. It was a time of saturation coverage. In the first two weeks of the war, they ran 258 stories, an average of 18 stories a night, representing the heaviest period of international coverage since the failed coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the summer of 1991. More than half of the stories (133) focused on Israeli attacks against Lebanon, 89 of them on Hezbollah attacks against Israel.24 Negative-sounding judgments of Israel’s attacks and counter-attacks permeated most network coverage, except on Fox, where the coverage of Hezbollah’s activities was decidedly negative.

A man-in-the-street interview on the NBC Nightly News on 7/21/06: “They (Israelis) are destroying everything. We do not understand for what, because they kidnapped two soldiers? It’s not a reason.”25

Reporter David Wright on ABC World News Tonight on 7/17/06: “That kind of destruction is what leads many ordinary Lebanese to view the Israelis as villains. Whether or not they approve of Hezbollah, they hear the bombs raining down.”26

On the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, Israel was portrayed as the aggressor nearly twice as often in the headlines and exactly three times as often in the photos, according to another Shorenstein Center survey.27 Although neither The Times nor The Post stressed the theme of “disproportionality” on their front pages, both made frequent references to it in their stories, analyses and editorial columns.

Another major theme in the coverage of the Lebanon war had to do with traditional Arab feelings of “victimization.” Both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya hit this theme frequently. Al-Arabiya, for example, stressed Lebanese victimization in 95 percent of its stories, according to Media Tenor.28 In other words, the viewer could not escape the belief that Israel was the aggressor and the Lebanese were the victims. Al-Jazeera, though, hit this theme in 70 percent of its broadcasts about Lebanon, a high percentage but still 25 percent less than Al-Arabiya, which coincidentally meant Al-Jazeera was emphasizing this theme with the same frequency as the four top television programs in Germany.29 Most television networks around the world ran many more stories from Lebanon than from Israel, and the stories all focused on Lebanese deaths, destruction and devastation, which led to the obvious conclusion: in this war, as in other Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Arabs were portrayed as the victims.

On the other side of the coin of victimization is said to be an equally strong Arab feeling of humiliation, which often finds its expression in the question: how come Israel consistently defeats the Arab nation? Al-Jazeera’s editor, Ahmed Sheikh, recently addressed this question in the German weekly Die Weltwoche: “It gnaws at the people in the Middle East,” he said, “that such a small country as Israel, with only about seven million inhabitants, can defeat the Arab nation with its 350 million people. That hurts our collective ego.”30 Sheikh sees the Arab nation as one nation, which is interesting and even understandable within the context of romantic 20th century nationalism. Until the Lebanon war, Israel defeated one, two or three Arab states at a time. Now, it faces not just states but tribal sects, religious factions and “states within states,” such as Hezbollah. Asymmetrical warfare has added a critical new factor to any calculation of winners and losers. 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. How it will attempt to control the media message in the next war is likely to be a hot topic of discussion in Israeli war councils. One question is whether a democracy can—and should—make such an effort.


20 Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. (2006). Statistical Survey of Arab and American Daily News Coverage.

21 Media Tenor. (2006).“Picturing War: Media Content Analysis of the Coverage of the 2006 Lebanon War in International TV News,” p. 33.

22 Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. (2006). Statistical Survey of Arab and American Daily News Coverage. 23 Bloomberg News. (2006/August 12).“TV News Reflects Nations’ Differences over Lebanon.”

24 Media Monitor. (July/August 2006).“The War in Lebanon.”

25 Richard Engel and Martin Fletcher, “Civilian Deaths Mount in Lebanon as Israel Moves Troops to Lebanese Border,” NBC Nightly News, July 21, 2006.

26 David Wright, “War Zone: Line of Fire,” ABC World News Tonight, July 17, 2006.

27 Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. (2006). Statistical Survey of Arab and American Daily News Coverage.

28 Media Tenor. (2006).“Picturing War: Media Content Analysis of the Coverage of the 2006 Lebanon War in International TV News,” p. 26.

29 Ibid.

30 Pierre Heumann, “An Interview with Al-Jazeera Editor-in-Chief Ahmed Sheikh,” Die Weltwoche, November 23, 2006, English translation by John Rosenthal.
[end excerpt]

-- posted by Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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