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Is America Watching a Different War? American, Lebanese and Israeli Panel on How the US Media is Covering the Invasion of Lebanon

StoryAugust 03, 2006
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Some have suggested that Americans are watching a different war in Lebanon than much of the world. We’re joined by three panelists — Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) in New York, Middle East Broadcasters editor Habib Battah in Beirut and Ha’aretz reporter Gideon Levy in Tel Aviv. [includes rush transcript]

We continue our coverage of the situation in the Middle East by examining how the U.S. press has been reporting on Lebanon, Israel and Gaza. Some have suggested that America is watching a different war than much of the world. The British journalist Julian Borger came to that conclusion after watching the news in Washington and London.

The British press, he said, overwhelmingly emphasized the civilian casualties in Lebanon. Meanwhile the U.S. media has focused on the situation in Israeli cities like Haifa. Meanwhile some journalists from the Middle East are now refusing to work with American news outlets.

Earlier this week, two producers working for Fox News in Amman Jordan resigned in protest. In their resignation letter, Serene Sabbagh and Jomana Karadsheh wrote “We can no longer work with a news organization that claims to be fair and balanced when you are so far from that.”

They went on to write “Not only are you an instrument of the Bush White House, and Israeli propaganda, you are war mongers with no sense of decency, nor professionalism.”

We speak with a panel of media analysts and journalists here in New York as well as in Lebanon and Israel.

We are joined by Peter Hart in our New York studio as well as Habib Battah in Lebanon and Gideon Levy in Israel. Peter Hart is a media analyst with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Habib Battah is managing editor of Middle East Broadcasters Journal. He is a former correspondent for The Daily Star and al Jazeera. Gideon Levy is a journalist working for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.

  • Gideon Levy. Journalist working for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz.
  • Habib Battah. Managing editor of Middle East Broadcasters Journal.
  • Peter Hart. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about media coverage, we’re joined by Peter Hart in our New York studio, of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting; Habib Battah in Lebanon; and Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz in Israel. We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Peter Hart, let’s begin with you. Your assessment of the current crisis coverage.

PETER HART: I think there are a lot of things to talk about. One of the first things to understand is that the media in this country are obsessed with a timeline, establishing when history began in this story. And usually in the media, it begins when Palestinians attack. CBS reporter Bob Simon said just as much a couple of weeks ago on the evening news. June 25th, Hamas captures an Israeli soldier. That’s when history began. July 12th, Hezbollah does the same, captures two Israeli soldiers. That’s when this story begins.

You can appreciate this history, but you have to ignore a lot of very relevant history: dozens of Palestinians dead in Gaza in the months prior; the attempt to destroy the Palestinian government in Gaza; the fact that the day before this capture of an Israeli soldier in the West Bank, two Hamas members, alleged Hamas members, were captured by Israeli forces in Gaza, crossing that border. We hear a lot of talk about borders and sovereignty being the story, but when Israel crosses that border, it’s apparently not a story.

The same is true in Lebanon. There’s a lot of context to that story that predates July 12. In late May, a member of Islamic Jihad was killed in Lebanon. Many people in Lebanon and Israel actually think Israel had something to do with it. Border skirmishes had been going on for the past month and a half or so. These are things that are excluded from the timeline. If you read your newspaper, they have a graph, they have a chart. Almost all of them have done this. And they begin on June 25. They begin on July 12. And they ignore all of this relevant back story.

AMY GOODMAN: You were mentioning Bob Simon; you mean, Bob Schieffer of CBS?

PETER HART: Bob Simon did that. Bob Schieffer pretends that the timeline doesn’t matter. He says this is the Middle East. It doesn’t matter who did what. These are irrational people, which is at best lazy and, I think, at worst downright bigoted.

AMY GOODMAN: Gideon Levy, you work for Ha’aretz in Israel. What is the Israeli press reporting?

GIDEON LEVY: You mean the coverage of the war right now?


GIDEON LEVY: You see always in times of war they’re also changing a little bit, and what happens to the entire society happens also to the media, mainly becoming more united, more nationalistic, more militaristic, and even more chauvinistic and violent. Same happens here, though I must tell you there is a sense of criticism already now about this war, but mainly about tactical aspects of it. Should we use the territorial option or not? Did the army function well or not? Questions like this are being raised already now.

My main criticism about the Israeli media right now is a very old one, namely ignoring almost totally the sacrifice of the other, the sacrifice of the Lebanese people, the destruction, the killings. All this is covered in the Israeli media in a very, very hidden way, modest way, and really out of proportion, so that the Israeli reader is not really exposed to pictures and reports that the European reader is exposed to. This, I think, is not something to be proud about.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to ask you after break about how this relates to public opinion in Israel, the whole issue of media manufacturing consent for war. We’ll also be joined by Habib Battah in Lebanon, who has been watching U.S. media from Beirut.


AMY GOODMAN: As we talk about media coverage from Tel Aviv, from Beirut and from here in the United States, we’re joined by Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, we’re joined by Gideon Levy in Tel Aviv of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, and in Beirut we’re joined by Habib Battah. He is managing editor of Middle East Broadcasters Journal, a former correspondent for the Beirut Daily Star and Al Jazeera. He recently published a piece on Al Jazeera called “Watching American TV in Beirut.” Well, Habib Battah, what do you see?

HABIB BATTAH: When I’m watching the media coverage here from Lebanon, I’m reminded of — the American media coverage — I’m reminded of being in Qatar during the Iraq war, the beginning of it at least, and watching how the use of sources on American media reflected the policy of the United States government. And those sources are mainly retired military analysts. I was watching a show last night, Hardball on MSNBC, and the three guests were two American generals and a former colonel. So there really isn’t a diversity, and these sources allowed assumptions they made that kind of slip under the radar, and these assumptions typically would assume the best of Israel and the worst of Hezbollah.

So the conflict isn’t approached from an objective point of view. It’s approached from reflection of the policy of the government. Just like the United States government won’t talk to Hezbollah, American media, you’ll rarely find a Hezbollah source being featured or Hezbollah claims being countered to IDF claim. Just like in the Iraq war, the IDF claims become the main source of information, the sole source often, which misleads that into being really the fact on the ground. We hear the American reporters assume that Hezbollah is using human shields. At the same time, they also assume that Israel has committed all of these massive killings of civilians by accident and that, indeed, the killing of the UN soldiers was, as some reporters put it, even before the Israeli government came out and apologized for this, reporters on some British networks and American networks were saying this was an accident waiting to happen. So that’s an assumption, whereas on the Hezbollah side the assumption would be absolute war, that these are using human shields.

And I just wanted to also mention the tone of the coverage, the reporters’ familiarity with Israel and Israeli cities compared to Lebanon. And we see, for example, some reporters touting Tel Aviv as a city that is very familiar. It’s like a city in California, they said, a very modern city. When an attack is on Nazareth, they’ll call it the holy town of Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus. When there was an attack on Qana, we didn’t hear that, you know, Qana has a biblical reference, as well, as being the place where Jesus made wine. There was no identity, identifying with that place. Beirut, as well, could be described as the city in California, in some sense. So that’s a real problem in identifying and actually giving more sympathy.

AMY GOODMAN: Habib Battah, speaking to us from Beirut, managing editor of Middle East Broadcasters. Gideon Levy with us from Tel Aviv with Ha’aretz. Gideon, what about this issue of how the Israeli media coverage relates to Israeli public opinion? And I’m wondering if today in your headlines, of the headlines in newspapers in Israel, report on this Human Rights Watch report that says that Israel is deliberately targeting civilians.

GIDEON LEVY: I didn’t see it. I mean, I think I saw it in one of the websites, but I didn’t see it in the newspapers. But I can ensure you, if it will appear, it will appear in a very small place, as all the question of human rights and all the question of the damages that we created in Lebanon is partly hidden from the Israeli public opinion, hidden in a way that it does not get the proportional place, not in size, not in the location. As you know, location is very important in media. So if you mention in the head of a news program 20 casualties, it’s one thing. And if you say just in the beginning, it’s another thing.

There are scenes that we see from Lebanon. We see pictures from Lebanon. It’s not that we don’t see pictures of Lebanon. But if someone wants really to know how does it look like there, he has to move to BBC or CNN or Sky News or one of those international networks, because in Israel they will show again and again our casualties, our sacrifice, which is very natural and very understandable. The only problem is lack of proportion.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does it relate to Israeli public opinion? Do you think Israeli public opinion would change if the media changed?

GIDEON LEVY: That’s a big question that I kept on asking myself for many years concerning the occupation. Would the Israelis know everything about the brutality and the cruelty of the occupation, would they change their mind? It’s a speculation. I truly believe that for sure, at least among part of the Israelis, it might have brought to a change in their perceptions, because would they really know how cruel the occupation is, I think they couldn’t live in peace with it. And they would have understand that democracy, as civilized society, cannot live with such phenomena in its backyard. But, you know, it’s just a speculation, because the matter of fact is that most of the Israelis are not exposed.

One more remark, you might also say that the Israelis who want to know, they can quite easily know, because if you are really interested, you have the place where to look at, both in the Israeli media and in foreign media. The problem is that most of them also don’t want to know. That’s the problem.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to be specific about what I said. The Human Rights Watch report says Israel is indiscriminately targeting civilians. I said “deliberately.” They said “indiscriminately.” Habib Battah, you’ve been comparing the same network, that is, CNN with CNN International. Is that right? Can you see what we see here in the United States, which is different than CNN International?

HABIB BATTAH: Yes. It’s very interesting that there is a very big difference in the reporting styles of CNN International and CNN United States. Reporters on the American network will — recently a reporter with the IDF said that Hezbollah is like no terror organization Israel has ever seen, whereas the international reporters won’t describe Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. They’ll call it a militia. And then, so you kind of wonder, why would they adjust the message based on the audience, when the goal is journalism? It shouldn’t really change from audience to audience. And in that way, again, we are seeing a reflection of the American policy of labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the images that we see in the United States.

PETER HART: I think it goes without saying that Americans see a very different war in this case and in most cases. You’re mentioning the Human Rights Watch report. It’s reported halfway through a page one story in the New York Times today. The headline in the New York Times is “Civilians Lose as Fighters Slip Into Fog of War.” The subhead is “Lebanese Deaths Show Dilemma for Israel.” That is the approach, I think, of a lot of television reporters, that there is a PR battle that Israel is losing if we show the realities of this war.

There’s a CNN show called Reliable Sources, the media discussion show hosted by Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post reporter. It has been obsessed with the idea that television might be too graphic in the United States, that people will get the wrong impression, the wrong impression being that Lebanese civilians are the ones who are suffering under this bombardment from the Israeli military. That is underscored by CNN reporters — Anderson Cooper, Paula Zhan, Wolf Blitzer — constantly reminding viewers after a particularly gruesome or graphic report that Hezbollah hides among civilians, so this is the trouble you get into when do you this.

It’s reminiscent after 9/11 and when the war in Afghanistan began, there was a memo inside CNN. If you’re showing graphic images of Afghanistan, remind viewers that this is happening because of 9/11. CNN would cut back to ground zero to remind people that however you feel about those images, if you feel that these people are suffering for no reason, you should be reminded that they’re getting something that they deserve. And I think that’s the message that CNN and much the rest of the media is sending right now.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. I was invited on MSNBC on Chris Matthews’s show Hardball for the tenth anniversary of MSNBC, and they were doing it live from Rockefeller Plaza. He usually does it in Washington, D.C. And there was a crowd of bystanders. And when we were in commercial, the producers said to people, if they’re going to be on camera, they were handing out American flags. So on the one hand, they said these are just New Yorkers. And if you wanted to be called on, you know, you’d wave that American flag, whatever your view was. But it certainly skewed the image that people had of who these New Yorkers were.

PETER HART: And I think there really is no debate in the media about the current war. There is no debate in Washington. I think that the media reflects that. I think the only real dissenter who’s regularly on the American media is Pat Buchanan. And that really says something about the spectrum of debate. Public opinion polls suggest that there’s a good chunk of the American public who thinks this has gone too far, the Israeli response has gone too far. That idea is mentioned almost nowhere in the American media.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Gideon Levy, Israeli journalist with Ha’aretz. Your piece, “Operation Peace for the IDF,” “The war that the IDF has declared on Lebanon and […] Gaza, will never be considered another 'war of no choice.' […] This is unequivocally a war of choice,” you write. Why?

GIDEON LEVY: I think there is no doubt about it. There was a provocation made by the Hezbollah, and Israel has chosen to react in a very, very, very aggressive way, attacking almost all Lebanon. And this is a war of choice. Justified or not, it was a choice of Israel to react. It could have reacted in a much more limited way, local way, just attacking the Hezbollah bases around the border. But Israel chose to go to an overall war against Hezbollah, which is almost an overall war against Lebanon. This is a classical war of choice.

HABIB BATTAH: Can I just add, it’s not almost a war against Lebanon.

AMY GOODMAN: Habib Battah in Beirut.

HABIB BATTAH: Yeah, it’s not almost a war. Being here in Beirut, you just have to go down to the gas station and find that there’s no gasoline or go to the hospital and find out that it’s a matter of days. Life support systems will probably end, because there’s no more electricity in the country. So it’s not really a war against Hezbollah, and it’s very disheartening to watch the reporters report from a major bridge and say this was a Hezbollah supply line, when actually, you know, for all we know Hezbollah’s probably out in the bushes or on some four-wheel drive. This is a major civilian bridge that hundreds of thousands of people are using.

Another big problem that I also see, and I would build on the point about the CNN memo, is I was watching CNN last night, and they were reading a viewer opinion, and it was the opinion of a New York City fireman. And the anchor introduced it by saying it was a very emotional letter. And the fireman was saying from New York City that you only have to stand on 9/11, the ruins of 9/11, to understand all of this death and killing in the world today. And so, we wonder, what does Lebanon have to do, this conflict between territory and soldiers and prisoners, have to do with the events of September 11? Nothing, really.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Habib Battah, about the bombing Al-Manar, the communications tower at the beginning of the attack, the TV station.

HABIB BATTAH: Sure, sure. Al-Manar, I mean, if you’re not familiar, is actually a network that is very strongly supportive of Hezbollah. It wasn’t the only channel that was targeted by Israel, though. I mean, Israel also targeted the communication towers for several Lebanese stations, including LBC, which is a Christian broadcaster and the most vocally critical of Hezbollah, the only network that seems to be actually criticizing Hezbollah at this point. It’s very strange to understand their strategy, why they would be knocking that out. The view was that basically the images being shown on international television were very strong. And the follow-up of reporters is also important, and I haven’t seen that follow-up. I haven’t seen a lot of reporters asking Israeli officials just why they bombed the towers that were used by LBC and other —

AMY GOODMAN: Habib Battah, we’re going to have to leave it there, managing editor of Middle East Broadcasters; also Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting; and finally, Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz newspaper, speaking to us from Tel Aviv.

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