Thursday, August 31, 2006

August 31, 2006 John Wayne is Dead

The location of the secret tunnel and bunker, which Israel’s Prime Minister and the Israeli cabinet are to use in a national emergency, has been revealed. Not by a Hezbollah spy ring. Not by a Hamas terrorist cell. Not by Iran’s Islamic Jihad organization. Nope. The location was broadcast two nights ago on Israel Television’s Channel two. A pretty, young, woman, head covered signifying that she was an Orthodox Jew, stood up in front of the tractors and trucks and work crews and gave the exact spot to anyone watching TV.

The fact that many residents of the Jerusalem neighborhood where the tunnel ended already knew of its existence wasn’t the same as broadcasting the precise location throughout Israel, and to the Arab world. The excuse for the report was the controversial security fence/wall that is under construction near the bunker. The fence/wall is to one day separate Israel from the West Bank. The reporter was amazed that the new security bunker was only a few hundred meters from an Arab village that was to be included within Jerusalem and not fenced out of Israel. The fence/wall would protect the Prime Minister and the Israeli cabinet. What was the government thinking, she wanted to know.

The question, rather, is what was the reporter thinking? What were her bosses thinking? Where is the military censor in all of this? Questions like these were also raised during the Lebanon War II. Raised by those high up in the corridors of power. An Army Radio reporter happened to be near the army bivouac site in a northern kibbutz where the katyushas rockets had landed only a few minutes earlier, killing twelve Israeli soldiers and wounding a score of others. During her exuberant report she gave the exact location. Didn’t the reporter know that Hezbollah listens to the radio and has maps, critics asked a day later. Didn't she know that by reporting the precise site the reporter was essentially acting as a spotter for those aiming the rockets?

The guy asking the questions that night was Moshe Shlonsky, a respected journalist who once ran Army radio. Didn’t the reporter have an editor? What was the editor thinking? How could the army high command allow something like this to go on? Shlonsky asked.

And it did go on, day after day. Israel TV Reporters innocently stood beneath clearly visible street signs in Haifa telling the viewers, including Hezbollah, that they weren't allowed to identify the location of the explosion. Other video crews, Foreign, Isaeli and Arab, were camped out in Haifa on the promontory above the beautifully manicured Bahai Temple Gardens, ready to hone in on the incoming missiles falling on the port below. No one supervised them. No one censored them. No one bothered them.

In a recent symposium in Jerusalem, reporters gathered to discuss the issue of how the Lebanon War II was covered, and to explain themselves. One reporter complained that the Israeli Army didn’t allow the press to go into Lebanon, so he had to stay in his hotel, filming the action from the balcony. Of course, the action was only a short distance away, and he still got his story.

In the Jerusalem Post article on the symposium, the New York Times correspondent reportedly apologized for his paper. The NYT showed the bombed out Hezbollah neighborhood of Beirut, but not pictures showing that in reality almost all of Beirut was untouched and unbothered. The picture gave the false impression that Beirut looked like Berlin after the Allied bombings razed it. He admitted he should have shown the bright side of Beirut as well, to give a true picture of the situation.

Then the question of Kfar Kana comes up. The building in ruins and exaggerated, later corrected, reports of dead and injured. No one ever listened to or read the corrections. U.S. Sec. Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld complained recently that the press was distorting the war in Iraq through its one-sided coverage. He said that biased reporting that undermined the battles waged there. No one ever said Rumsfeld was loveable, or credible, but there is some substance to his complaint. The media, for lack of anything better to say or do, finds that criticism attracts more attention than compliments.

Iraq isn’t Lebanon. The US troops in Iraq are fighting bravely, and valiantly, no matter if you’re looking at the battles through a Republican or Democrat’s rose-tinted glasses. Should they be there? Is Bush off his rocker with this stuff about “Islamic Fascism?” Is it possible to “win” in Iraq? All good questions. Everyone has given the answers from Statesmen to greengrocers.

Israelis supported the US endeavor in Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a sworn enemy of Israel. He proudly displayed huge billboard-sized checks for $25,000 given to every suicide bomber’s family, paying for those who went to their death in Israel. Hussein reimbursed Palestinianw whose homes were destroyed by Israeli forces; destroyed as punishment for a son or daughter's deadly suicide bombing. Palestinians cheered Hussein as he dodged the US army; Israelis cheered when he was captured.

Israel’s armchair generals criticized the way the Iraqi war was waged, knowing that if you bypass a village filled with terrorists, as the US army did rushing from the border to Baghdad, you’re only going to have to go back and clean out the village sooner or later. These pundits claim that had the US put in sufficient force to begin with, gone village to village, house to house, working their way to Baghdad, the “resistance” they left behind wouldn’t have come up and bit them in the butt. Taking out Imam Al –Sadr would have been a top priority. Now he’s become the Iraqi Nasrallah.

The battle tactics used in Iraq were a valuable lesson to the Israelis when they faced the Hezbollah forces. Ultimately it was only the ground forces, going house to house that had any effect. But while the Americans allowed “embedded” journalists to cover the war, Israeli denied them access. Except for a few crews from Israeli TV going in with the troops towards the end of the fighting. The foreign press came at the story from the Lebanese side of the border. They drove in from Jordan, or took boats in from Cyprus, or a taxi from Damascus. The fact they came onto the battlefront from the Lebanese side influenced the way they reported the news.

Many commentators are now accusing the press that covered the Lebanon War II on the Israeli side of delving so deeply into minutiae that they lost sight not only of the truth, but good sense. With the constant pressure to deliver a story, sometimes every hour, they spouted conjecture and guesswork as credible details, just to get on the air, just to get on the radio, just to have something to write, unknowingly giving the enemy information.

The question of again empowering the Israeli censor is now on the agenda. During the 1991 Gulf War Israelis heard about the first scuds from CNN, or relatives calling from abroad who were watching CNN. Israelis were in their ‘sealed rooms’ preparing for a gas attack. Luckily it never came. Then Israel’s censors were going full blast. Nothing was reported as it happened. Once in a while the army spokesman would come on the screen with an announcement. By that time most people already knew what had happened by watching cable news. Today with the plethora of channels, and the web, keeping a story secret is nearly impossible. That’s why the censor essentially gave up.

But does that mean a reporter should go on the air with the location of a place that may save the lives of Israel’s leaders, the decision makers who have to call the shots in case the fighting gets so close that underground is the only safe place? One assumes that self-censorship has become one of the most unused journalistic practices. However, if anyone ever saw the HBO movie about CNN covering the Gulf War they quickly realize that an ambitious, sometimes cruel, journalist, could care less about the results of his report, and more about just getting a good story on the air during his time slot.

Some time back CBS eliminated its independent news division placing it under "Entertainment." News was no longer on the level of integrity practiced by Edward R. Murrow, or Walter Cronkite; now it was the pretty boys with their blow-dried hair, and the sleek women clutching Gucci bags. Most with pre-conceived notions cooked up in the New York or London home offices. Some of these reporters were recently doing weather, or modeling underwear. Now they were busy getting out the story. News was about ratings. Ratings about advertising dollars. Programming meant to keep viewers watching between soap commercials.

It was a blog site that revealed the doctored Reuters photograph of damage in Beirut. No surprise. By inclination, reporters try anything to get recognition. There’s a lot of competition these days. But perhaps it’s the blogs that are becomming the real reporters. Who knows? News organizations have sponsors and money to pay staff. Bloggers are at best well-meaning people driven like Charles Bukowski to write and report, or at worst cranks making up stuff to blow off steam and get attention.

Problem is, you’d expect a blogger to reveal the location of the Prime Minister’s secret hide-away, not a government approved news channel.

Sort of makes you wonder if the driver hasn’t been shot and a team of run-away horses isn’t pulling the stagecoach called information. Big problem, that. Clint Eastwood’s too old to be jumping onto the horse’s back and bring the team under control, and John Wayne is dead.

If, as Rumsfeld and others say, the media is as much a part of a battle as the soldiers, then someone better catch that stagecoach before it caroms over the cliff up ahead and takes us all with it.