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Media Coverage of Israel-Hezbollah Fighting Shapes Perceptions

July 27, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC News: We’ve been hearing Israeli shelling on the outskirts of Tyre all day…

JEFFREY BROWN: From Lebanon…

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN Correspondent: It was the roughest day for the Israel army…

JEFFREY BROWN: … to Israel…

BILL O’REILLY, FOX News Host: Three weeks into this chaos in the Middle East…

JEFFREY BROWN: … from studios in New York and points in between…

LARRY KING, CNN Host: We have top journalists everywhere in the region, and we’re going to check in with all of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: … American television networks have dedicated enormous resources and time to covering the Middle East crisis. Much of the coverage is based in Israel, where American networks have long had bureaus and well- developed contacts. But sometimes those ties have still not allowed reporters to get solid information.

JOHN ROBERTS: And I have to say, part of the problem is, it’s the fighting that we’re not witnessing. You know, after being embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, we’re not seeing any of the fighting. The Israeli military likes to keep a close hold on all of that information.

JEFFREY BROWN: On cable in particular, on-the-ground coverage has been mixed with plenty of analysis and opinion.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: I think what it’s really all about, Larry, is an extension of the war on terror.

BILL O’REILLY: But you are making an excuse for the United Nations, which I think is so impotent there isn’t enough Viagra in the world. These people aren’t going to protect us.

JEFFREY BROWN: But how much of the story are American journalists showing and their viewers seeing? Last week, NBC’s Brian Williams raised the point in this way.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC Host, “NBC Nightly News”: How this crisis in the Middle East is being covered, especially in the Arab world, in part because of the longtime U.S.-Israeli alliance, it has long been argued that American viewers and readers get one view of the Middle East that is not shared by all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, audiences in the Middle East have a growing number of different viewing options. Al-Manar TV is run by Hezbollah itself and today showed a triumphant address by the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah.

And viewers in the region have access to a wide range of news networks, some of them made available in the U.S. on Link TV.

ARABIC NEWS ANCHOR: … Lebanese unity and steadfastness in the face of the Israeli war machine.

JEFFREY BROWN: From Al-Jazeera, the largest Arab news channel in the Middle East, which along with its big rival, Al-Arabiya, has correspondents on the ground and discussions in its studios, to one of the six networks in Lebanon itself, to Iranian state television.

IRANIAN STATE TELEVISION ANCHOR: More than a dozen rockets fired by Hezbollah from Lebanon hit the port city of Haifa in northern Palestine.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, with so many options available, this is a war that can be, and is, viewed through many prisms.

A spectrum of prisms

Jamal Dajani
Link TV
[I]n compared to the war on Iraq, Abu Dhabi TV is absent now in this coverage. It's not giving it the wall-to-wall coverage that we are seeing on Al-Jazeera or on Al-Arabiya or on the Lebanese network.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at those different prisms of reporting and viewing now with Jamal Dajani, the director of Middle East programming at Link TV.

Donatella Lorch, a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and NBC News.

Lawrence Pintak, director of the TV journalism program at the American University in Cairo. He's a former Middle East correspondent for CBS. His recent book is "Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam and the War of Ideas."

And Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland.

Welcome to you all.

Professor Telhami, starting with you, what jumps out at you about the different ways that this is being portrayed in the Arabic media?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, University of Maryland: Well, look, the media looks at the world through the prism of its audience, through the prism of its costumers. And what's clear the American media, consciously or subconsciously, is looking at what's happening in Lebanon through the prism of terrorism, through the prism of support for Israel, and therefore through the prism of link with Iran, which is seen to be a threat in this war on terrorism.

The Arab media is looking at it through the prism of their audience. The audience sees Israel as the enemy, as the aggressor, as the occupier. They see some acts by Arab terrorists, but they don't consider Hezbollah terrorist acts. They look at the victims, and we look at the victims, that you see more pictures of Arab victims, more pictures of destruction, more pictures of pain, Arab pain, that reflect their view.

Having said all of this, if I look at the Arab media today and contrast it with past crises, actually they have far more diversity of opinion and far more diversity in coverage than they have in the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Dajani, how do you see what's going on in the Arab media, and how monolithic is it?

JAMAL DAJANI, Link TV: Well, I think I agree with Professor Telhami that there is a split in the coverage in the Arab media, and that split began with the declaration of the Saudi position criticizing Hezbollah. But after the first 50 bombs dropped over Beirut and they expanded to 500 and so forth, that split has changed.

But also what I have noticed, which is very interesting, that the players in the media party, the leaders in the media, for example, in compared to the war on Iraq, Abu Dhabi TV is absent now in this coverage. It's not giving it the wall-to-wall coverage that we are seeing on Al-Jazeera or on Al-Arabiya or on the Lebanese network.

Also, that split was evident early on within the Lebanese satellite television networks, that you have more than six different satellite networks competing for the same audience within Lebanon. You have the Christians, and the Sunnis, and the Shiites, and so forth, and they have taken position.

But definitely after we have seen so much outrage from the public, extending from Cairo into Rabat, and even including like what Professor Telhami has mentioned on Al-Jazeera, where they usually run programs allowing the viewers to participate in, that outrage from the people on the ground, the common people in Saudi Arabia, in Lebanon, in Jordan, being outraged changed the tone, even though there is a major difference between the reporting between Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, where Al-Arabiya, which is financed by Saudi money still maintains that passive coverage style, and more in favor of the Saudi government position, and does not reflect the will of the people.

A polarized view of the conflict

Donatella Lorch
Former Correspondent, NBC News
We see everything in good and bad here, in black and white. And the third rail, Israel has always been an incredibly sensitive subject. You touch it with a 10-foot pole.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Pintak, why don't you try to start to bridge the two worlds for us in comparing the Arabic and the American media? We heard Professor Telhami talk about the two world views, the post-9/11 terrorism view on the one hand, and the larger Mideast Israel-Palestinian conflict on the other. What do you see?

LAWRENCE PINTAK, American University in Cairo: I think we are seeing a continued polarization here of the media. It's not the same kind of bloodshot lens that we had with coverage of Iraq, where the Arab media had one clear view.

Now, as my colleagues have said, there are various views there. They ultimately come down to Israel now being an aggressor again.

But in the American media, we're seeing another version of the story. We're seeing it through a different prism and, in part, a very simplified prism. So, again, we have a situation where Americans are looking at a conflict saying, "Bad guys, good guys, white hats, black hats." And Arabs are looking at a conflict and seeing a different set of hats. And that has big implications for U.S. policy yet again.

JEFFREY BROWN: In what ways?

LAWRENCE PINTAK: Well, if America, as is the case now, is being completely identified with the Israeli cause, but Americans over here don't understand that that's going on, if Americans are saying, "Hezbollah bad, Hezbollah terrorists," and Arabs are saying, "Well, there is a more nuanced situation here," Hezbollah is seen as defending Arab causes, et cetera, then that impacts yet again our foreign policy, in terms of how Americans are viewed and how American policy plays out in the Middle East.

JEFFREY BROWN: Donatella Lorch, Deborah Howell is the ombudsman for the Washington Post. She wrote recently that reporting on Israel is, quote, "the third rail of American journalism," rife with charges of bias, so sensitive. What do you see happening?

DONATELLA LORCH, Former Correspondent, New York Times and NBC News: Well, I think, first to go back to what Larry was saying, there is a chasm between what the Arabic media is doing right now and what the American media is doing right now. And there is no connect.

We see everything in good and bad here, in black and white. And the third rail, Israel has always been an incredibly sensitive subject. You touch it with a 10-foot pole.

And the bias I think that we see right now, particularly in television news, is much more delicately put. It's, let's see what appears first on the news broadcast. Is it going to be news about Israel or the news about Lebanon? How do they place it? The length of the pieces, how they're cut, how much do they show of the killings on the Lebanon side, particularly of the civilian killings on the Lebanon side. I think this is all very telling, in terms of analysis of the bias that is going on right now in the American media.

Trusting a news source

Shibley Telhami
University of Maryland
I want to say something about the media as such, because I think we don't understand the media is really more often an intermediate factor, not really a causal factor.

JEFFREY BROWN: For example, yesterday there were multiple deaths on the Israeli side. There was the Rome conference. There were repercussions over the bombing of the U.N. checkpoint. Would those have been played differently in different places?

DONATELLA LORCH: You mean in different places within the American media?

JEFFREY BROWN: No, I mean in both.

DONATELLA LORCH: I think they would have been played -- yes, they were played differently. And, by the way, completely forgotten, except in passing, were the deaths in Gaza that have also been forgotten. It's become the side conflict in this fight between Israel and Lebanon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Telhami?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I want to say something about the media as such, because I think we don't understand the media is really more often an intermediate factor, not really a causal factor. We find that actually in the surveys.

It's not the central cause. It has an impact, no doubt, in the particular case of the covering of what happened yesterday, the difficulties that Israel had in the war. It gets exaggerated in the media. It's now portrayed like a victory, as if the war had ended already. We do that also in the Iraq war early on, when every little thing you exaggerated, the media does become part of the story.

But nonetheless, I think the media reflects a mood, and the governments reflect a mood, and the media partly reflects government and partly reflects the public. We see that in terms of the demand. Now, if you look at, for example, Al-Jazeera or Arabiya, two leading television stations in the Arab world, obviously people are going to go to the ones that resonate more with their heart in the times of conflict.

And you see criticism of the Arab media. A lot of the Arabs who were calling in, even some of the guests on the shows, are saying now, "Now you're telling the Israeli story to much." And some are saying, "We should watch Al-Manar Television of Hezbollah.

I would predict, if I were to do a survey, like the ones I do every year in the Arab world, if I were to do a survey tomorrow, the stock of Al-Manar Television of Hezbollah will have risen dramatically, because people are trusting Hezbollah in this case, they're going for it, and they want to hear their story even more.

So I'm suggesting here that the story is fluid. You see even government positions evolving. The Saudis initially were critical of Hezbollah; now, they're backtracking as a consequence of public opinion.

DONATELLA LORCH: We also have to talk a bit about the uniqueness of this coverage, more so now because of satellite television, because of the plethora of satellite television available in the Middle East, and because of the access to both sides of the conflict, you have access, very, very good access on both sides, both Lebanon and Israel sides, very different from Iraq, very different from Afghanistan. We haven't seen such access since the Vietnam War, except now we have the difference is that you have instantaneous news.

Sanitizing American news

Lawrence Pintak
American University in Cairo
Now, it's a cultural thing, sure, but you turn on the television in the Arab world, you are seeing the disemboweled babies, you are seeing the burned children, you are seeing the pieces of flesh in the streets.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I wanted to ask about that, pick up on that question of technology. Mr. Dajani, is more access, more media, and new technology, is it creating more splits, more prisms in other words, or is it bridging views or at least making more accessible to one another the U.S. world and the Arabic world? Is it bringing us together, in some sense, or might it?

JAMAL DAJANI: Well, I am a believer in more access and giving, especially the American audience, a view on what 280 million people watch on a daily basis in the Middle East. That's why our program, Mosaic, just does that five days a week.

But I do think now you have 200 or more satellite television networks operating in a small region. And we keep adding to that, you know, television networks from the United States, British networks and so forth, and the water in between somehow is becoming muddled with all of this reporting that is going on. And at the end of the day, people want to watch the networks they support.

So, yes, during this war, a lot of people has been watching and trusting Hezbollah, the ones that believe and support Hezbollah, station Al-Manar, they tend to tune into Hezbollah stations.

But I wanted to get back quickly to a point that there is a major difference between the coverage on what we see here on American TV here and the amount of time that has been spent -- camera time to the superstar anchormen there on the ground rather than the story itself, where the Arab networks focus on the story itself, and the damage that is caused by the war, and the stories of the individuals affected by that.

Here we see wall-to-wall coverage of reporters. Even CNN's Sanjay Gupta went to the scene to tell us about a health report from the hospital in Haifa and in Beirut, and he was following the doctors into the operating room, you know, during trauma hours.

I think this is really important to pay attention to that point, because this is what people are watching on a daily basis, and they sit down, and they look at on their TV screens, and they see the cries of children. They see people with legs amputated.

There's an entirely different culture, where the war is brought inside your living room, and it creates a lot of emotion and stirs their feelings anti-Israel, anti-American, because they know that the United States is supplying Israel with the weapons or stands with Israel 100 percent.

So this is really important to understand how the people are feeling and because of what they are watching right now on their screens.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Pintak, yes, why don't you pick up on the differences of style that go to these differences of mindset?

LAWRENCE PINTAK: You cannot overemphasize the impact that images have. American television is sanitized. We don't see the real blood and gore of war.

Now, it's a cultural thing, sure, but you turn on the television in the Arab world, you are seeing the disemboweled babies, you are seeing the burned children, you are seeing the pieces of flesh in the streets. And that has a visceral impact.

Americans, we talk about this plethora of prisms now in the Arab world with this media revolution, but Americans in many ways still live in an information ghetto, because we are not seeing the images coming out of the Arab world.

Arabs, if I stood at home in Cairo, I have 300-odd stations. I can watch Al-Jazeera. I can watch Al-Arabiya. I can watch Al-Manar. I can watch CNN, and the BBC, and FOX News, and MSNBC. So an Arab can surf across the spectrum. Americans can't.

Jamal's wonderful project is a drop in the budget, as I'm sure he'll agree, 100,000 people seeing it on the Web a month, something like that. It's a step in the right direction. But in general, Americans don't see what Arabs see. And so we say, "Why do they hate us? Why don't they like what we're doing?" Because we're not seeing the impact of what we're doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We'll have to leave it there. Lawrence Pintak, Jamal Dajani, Shibley Telhami, and Donatella Lorch, thank you very much.