The Media’s Debacles

from the Sinking of the Maine to the Israeli-Lebanese Border

by Norman Berdichevsky (Oct. 2006)

The most recent violence across the Lebanese-Israeli border and the civilian casualties it caused has been accompanied by most of the international media and the U.N. repeating many of the worst excesses of wild, bias, blatant selectivity, self induced amnesia, and a rush to judgment employing mirrors, smoke, selectivity, bias, and voodoo.

What happened along the Israeli-Lebanese border in July-August 2006 or the earlier mass demonstrations in Lebanon following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Harriri calling for the eviction of Syrian troops cannot be understood without reference to the earlier events of the two preceding Lebanese Civil Wars (1958 and 1975-1990). During the recent massive anti-Syrian demonstrations in Beirut “The Cedar revolution”), Hizbollah stood apart and organized counter demonstrations in support for the continued presence of the Syrian forces. Media coverage, true to its shallowness and anti-American, anti-Israeli biases, largely made no effort to inform, analyze or explain why Secretary of State Rice quite correctly rejected the idea of an immediate cease-fire that would simply perpetuate the continually recurring crises in Lebanon and their Syrian-Hizbollah-Iranian sponsors.

Today’s Media Compared to the Past

How do the media of today working with the most sophisticated electronic equipment compare with the past? How can they be worse when events today are portrayed in “real time?” Both the press and televised news have been guilty of many sins. In spite of all the great advances in the technology of communications, what unites them over more than a hundred years has been the “rush to judgment” in order to out-scoop rivals. Newspaper journalists could always excuse the need to meet deadlines with the explanation that it was not possible to wait and find confirmation in the field because they lacked the technical “eyes and ears” of information gathering that would allow them to check the validity of their sources. They knew however that the readers would expect follow-up reporting to verify and interpret events with careful research and analysis.

The viewers of today’s televised news are of a different order. They have been raised on appreciating visual images as “reality” with the fill-in provided by a reporter. Unlike the previous generations of newspaper readers, they do not dispose of the same leisure time to wade carefully through follow-up reporting. An examination of several historical examples will clarify the difference.

Without an analysis of the significance of an event, the news becomes an arena in which to compete for attention and the most outlandish, shocking, offensive or bizarre becomes “newsworthy”. Competition for sensational news is no less intense today than it was when the so-called “yellow press” in the United States, largely under the control of editor William Randolph Hearst, found Spain guilty for the disaster of the sinking of the U.S. battleship “Maine” in Havana harbor and provoked the Spanish-American War in 1898. It would be many years before the U.S. public was informed in an official report by Navy investigators that the likely cause of the explosion was a faulty boiler on the ship.

Hearst was also responsible for some of the worst misinformation ever disseminated by American newspapers due to his own prejudices and misperceptions of information his reporters knew would confirm his views. He went on record in 1936 with the most inaccurate prediction ever made regarding an American presidential election when he wrote that “The race will not be close at all. Landon will be overwhelmingly elected (and FDR defeated for a second term), and I’ll stake my reputation on it (sic!). This monumental error was due in part to poor techniques of poll-taking which relied on a very biased telephone sample – at a time when telephone ownership was quite heavily concentrated among the wealthier segment of the population but it also played into the hands of Hearst and his prejudices looking for evidence to back up his beliefs.

This should remind us that many reporters in the field, even today usually cover only one side in a conflict and are unduly influenced by their limited environment and vision of reality. Very few are knowledgeable in the local language and culture. They are rarely “eyewitnesses” to actual events (except staged demonstrations) and they report to us what their informants believe, “know” (or think they know) and these views are often presented as facts rather than opinions.

When the reporter is located in an area such as a Palestinian refugee camp or inside a city under bombardment, such as Baghdad and Belgrade were in recent conflicts, there are virtually no local neutral or “objective” sentiments that a reporter can expect to hear without an immediate threat of reprisal or charge of collaboration with the enemy. In brutal dictatorships and medieval theocracies, there is no “man in the street” ready, willing, able and unafraid to give a candid off-the-cuff opinion, yet reporters never make these circumstances explicit in their coverage of news.

More than a generation ago the passion to be the first to report the news led to the Chicago Tribune’s famous banner headline edition on Nov. 3, 1948 “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN; GOP Sweep Indicated in States.” President Truman delighted in posing with the newspaper and beaming a smile from ear to ear. The Chicago Tribune had itself accepted as gospel the issue of Newsweek the previous month that headlined FIFTY P0LITICAL EXPERTS UNANIMOUSLY PREDICT A DEWEY VICTORY (Oct. 11, 1948). Such a mistake, the public was later assured, was due in large part to the lack of modern computer technology. Thus, newspapers have often compounded their mistakes by relying on each other.

Why Television is even worse

The visual media of television is often even more distorted than newspaper reporting. The time deadline is even more compressed to “get out a story”. But it is not only the rush to judgment factor that leads to errors. Given a choice between two alternative news items, professional news managers of TV networks clearly prefer coverage of a type 1 event for which on-the-spot visual coverage exists. This is most often a noisy, provocative demonstration of a mob claiming to be aggrieved on account of some real, self-inflicted, or imaginary “injustice” usually involving the disruption of normal routines, and mayhem resulting in injuries and/or fatalities rather than a type 2 event – an unplanned happening requiring an “informative report” to explain the Who, What, Where, When, How and Why background. Reporters almost always have no advance warning of such an occurrence. This is less newsworthy for television than for a newspaper. Whereas readers may take the time to read about the reaction/response of all those not participating in the event/demonstration or even opposed to it, television news “producers” are often unwilling to let a commentator or anchorman verbally explain such details that are not accompanied by visual images.


Television consistently prefers a type 1 event even if the viewer is often aware of the magician-like “mirror image” of the presence of TV cameramen inadvertently filming each other as they scurry after a crowd. Probably the most repeatedly filmed event shown almost nightly across TV screens over the past several years is a mob burning American, British, and Israeli flags (for three months this year burning Danish flags became the fashion and a major “newsworthy event“) and ripping apart dummies portraying the leaders of these countries or “trashing” some fast-food franchise as an idealized symbol of global capitalism. The only accompanying vocal commentary is almost always an attempt to embellish this form of voodoo magic with a brief explanation that the crowd is venting “grief, anguish and pain.”


The ever-present camera crew has often served to provide publicity to the sponsors of such events and demonstrations that their grievances are newsworthy. It is then a small step for the sponsors to attempt to inflict this pain and anguish by some atrocious act on the flesh and blood enemy instead of rags and dolls. Thus we have the most sophisticated mass communication technologies of the 21st century catering to primitive mob behavior animated by the belief that their actions produce the effect of “like produces like”, namely what happens to the flag, doll, shop window, or image will through sympathetic magic happen to the real thing – the countries and their leaders and the corporation headquarters.

Ideally, a responsible press, which has at least enough additional hours before its written coverage of the mob event demonstrations, should feel a responsibility to present a balanced view and assess whether or not the event was spontaneous or carefully planned and to what degree its staging has been solely or primarily to express sentiment or impress a viewing audience. Clearly, world opinion had grown tired of repeated dummy-targets and the shock value necessary to capture media attention had been deemed insufficient by fanatical and extremist groups. The grizzly events of the Yugoslav civil war, the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, and bombers against civilian targets in Israel, Bali, Madrid and London are a clear indication that the “ante” for what constitutes a newsworthy event has been raised to new heights (or depths).

Equally reprehensible is the common technique today of allowing wild statements to be made without editorial comment even though hard evidence exists that clearly refutes them. Such statements have often gone unchallenged solely for the purpose of “balancing” a presentation of views. Typical was the media coverage of the major networks that gave “equal time”: to the absurd comments of the Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, jocularly called “Baghdad Bob”.

The Collected Quotations of “Baghdad Bob,” were quoted on hundreds of media outlets often without any commentary attempting to verify his remarks that included (see website about the “Minister of Disinformation”)

Attempting to Acknowledge What Was Happening Militarily Beyond Baghdad:
March 22, 2003

“Maybe they will enter Umm Qasr and Basra, but how will they enter Baghdad? It will be a big oven for them. They can penetrate our borders but they cannot reach Baghdad. They will try to pull our army and troops out but we are well aware of their plans and they will fail.”

March 23, 2003
“In Umm Qasr, the fighting is fierce and we have inflicted many damages. The stupid enemy, the Americans and British, failed completely. They’re not making any penetration.”

After U.S. Forces Seized Baghdad‘s Airport:
“We butchered the force present at the airport. We have retaken the airport! There are no Americans there!”

Many viewers on television heard these remarks and saw interviews with Baghdad Bob and could with the flip of a channel change also see the simultaneous reality of American troops in armored vehicles barreling their way through the main thoroughfares of Baghdad and across the airport. A viewing audience unequipped with basic background information is likely to take at face value the absurd, shocking and grotesque if portrayed often enough and presented as “news”. Do those who run the media feel any such need or responsibility to inform the public that when a head of state such as Iran’s Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust, it is no more newsworthy or informative than a screaming headline that declares “Iran’s leader Asserts the World is Flat”?

Selectivity and the Man Bites Dog Syndrome

The largely unreported “unseen” atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Red Guards in Mao’s China, the civil wars in Angola, Algeria, Lebanon or the mutual genocide in Rwanda-Burundi largely took place without the presence of television cameras. Among the major events covered or of interest to the general public in the United States and Europe was the eight year long war between Iran and Iraq. Few people today even recall that since the end of World War II, this was probably the bloodiest armed conflict with the greatest number of killed and maimed including tens of thousands of teenage boys sent to clear mines with their bodies. Most of the European and American press brought little coverage of these events. Even fewer reporters bothered to risk their lives to cover the carnage. It was basically un-newsworthy because it involved a scenario of “dog bites dog”.

Therefore, there was no UN debate or resolution, no appeal from the Pope, no demonstrations in the street. Such a devastating war in which Muslims killed Muslims has none of the shock appeal of a noisy demonstration, skirmish, or even stone throwing incident involving Muslims and Jews or Muslims and Christians. It is simply the old rule of journalism that “dog bites man” is not news”, “dog bites dog” even less so, whereas “man bites dog” makes headlines. The result is that there is a vicious circle reinforcing what is considered newsworthy.

The Rush to Judgment

We also saw how the American television networks found themselves guilty of mismanaging coverage of the U.S. Presidential election in 2000 hoping to “out-scoop” each other. The result was that the networks unduly influenced part of the electorate in the Florida “Panhandle” and on the West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii where voters, convinced the election had already been decided, stayed home instead of voting. Even more reprehensible was the media blitz with wild charges of a “massacre” and “thousands killed” in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin as a result of an Israeli strike at the terrorist infrastructure in the camp. After more than a month of baseless charges, even U.N. sources, traditionally hostile to Israel, revised the numbers dramatically downward to match the reality.

Unfortunately, much of the press, which should be more patient and get the news right before commenting does not see a special responsibility to be a counterweight to the visual media. The role of the press has traditionally been to bring a more balanced interpretation and explanation of the significance of the “news” and put it in perspective but all too often it tries to compete with television and compounds the distorted image we frequently get.

The worst examples of this involve both the “rush to judgment” and the self-flagellating, masochistic penchant of many reporters and news teams to “sell” a story that uses dramatic visual images in which the “man bites dog” element can be exploited. Israel, for example, is the guilty party since this makes headlines whereas coverage of intra-Arab atrocities would hardly raise an eyebrow.

Anyone with any memory cells intact and subjected to the constant images flashed across television screens the world might well ponder whether indeed anything seen along the Israeli-Lebanese border in July and August 2006 remotely approached the mammoth carnage of 150,000 Lebanese dead during the Civil War that country endured lasting 16 years and 7 months, beginning on April 13, 1975 and ending on October 13, 1990, interrupted by brief pauses. The overwhelming majority of Lebanese fatalities and casualties in that already forgotten conflict were the result of inter-Arab sectarian strife totally apart from Israel’s involvement. That war should properly be called the Second Lebanese Civil War as it was preceded by the one in 1958 in which President Eisenhower intervened with American forces to help bring to an end.

(1) Besides the non-coverage of the previous civil wars in Lebanon, the lack of interest in providing any background and an analysis of the consequences were at least as dramatic in …………

2) the Jordanian crushing of the “Black September” fanatics in 1970 (PLO claimed 20,000 Palestinians massacred by king Hussein’s loyal troops) and

3) Syria (1982) “Crackdown” by the Assad regime firmly in the hands of the Alawite sect minority against the Muslim Brotherhood in their stronghold in the city of Hama, where entire neighborhoods were razed to the ground and at least 20,000 people killed – no newsman present and subsequently barred from entering the city for years afterwards.

4) “Civil disturbances” (a largely unreported civil war of brutal mayhem) in Algeria over the past decade. Objective sources place the number of people killed by Islamic extremists in the murderous violence at more than 120,000. Contrast these cases with the accidental killing of a

5) 12 year old Palestinian boy Mohammed Al-Dura. The boy was supposedly killed crouching in terror behind his father during an exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators on September 20, 2000. Newsreel coverage of this event was repeated countless times around the world and was the subject of constant reference by the Arab media as a venerable icon of the “Intifada” (several Arab countries have already issued postage stamps with this image of the dying boy in his father’s arms) and the heartless cruelty of the Jews who according to the ancient blood libel kill children for their blood in religious rituals (a “fact” accepted by many Palestinians).

Subsequent “cool” analysis and intensive investigating of “eye-witnesses” and a meticulous examination of all the film footage (taken by Reuters, AP and the French television network France 2) that was “edited” (pasted together in TV studios now cast considerable doubt that it could have been shots fired from the Israeli side (from that angle they were protected by a large concrete cylinder). Nevertheless, while the first reports of the incident all used the term “crossfire”, the language was transformed into “under Israeli fire” within 24 hours of the event. Moreover, considerable doubt has been raised regarding the boy’s actual death since no body was subsequently produced.

It simply is more newsworthy if man bites dog. A news item that “dog bites man” sells few newspapers. In other words, for the media, the U.S. or Israel or “The West” is presumed guilty until proven innocent in any conflict with Moslems, Arabs, or “The Third World”. Moreover, in these inter-Moslem conflicts, there is a complete absence of the plaintive tone of commentary that the unceasing violence and total disregard of human life by the aggrieved side is the result of their “despair”, calling upon a guilt mechanism designed to evoke empathy that many reporters bring to bear in the “man bites dog” scenario.


Is a Picture Worth 10,000 words?

Today, the old adage that “one picture is worth 10,000 words” is misleading. It may well be that 10 words are worth much more than a misleading picture or we may need more than 10,000 words to understand what we see and be aware of what we do not see or has been hidden from the camera or been manipulated. With today’s computer generated images, pictures can show anything the designer wants and make it look believable. It should be the responsibility of the press to bring light instead of heat to the news so we can distinguish between real events and stage-managed happenings.

We all honor and respect the “Freedom of the press”, but it can only have value when it adheres to the highest ethical principles, is aware of its own limitations and does not seek to take shortcuts or “save time”. Likewise, a free press should make it a sacred duty not simply to cover what is the most visibly shocking, accessible and familiar but seek to penetrate areas where cameras are usually forbidden to go and provide analysis of the backgrounds and people behind events rather than filming what stage managers have produced.


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