For all its firepower, Israel’s military is at a disadvantage fighting Hamas and Hezbollah because internationally accepted rules of military engagement hamstring democratic nation-states battling non-state terrorist groups. This is true even when terrorists show utter contempt for all standards of human decency and engage in wanton killing — a sign of how ineffective the rules of engagement are in today’s era of asymmetrical warfare.
International media compound the problem by holding democracies to an impossible standard while giving Hamas and Hezbollah what amounts to free passes. Their intimidating ways allow them to get away with blatant censorship and lying. Reporters who challenge them find all access cut off, rendering them useless in the eyes of their editors, a career stopper.
Throw in the changing nature of media forms — think populist blogs, the 24/7 news cycle and over-the-top talk radio — and technology — think video phones, laptops, and portable satellite dishes – and Israel starts from behind the media eight ball.
Israel’s supporters can be forgiven for reading the above paragraphs and cynically mumbling, “Tell me something I don’t know.” Nonetheless, a recent — and unfortunately little noticed — Harvard University study of the media’s performance during last year’s Israel-Hezbollah war is an eye-opener because of the clarity with which it outlines the problem.
The report was written by former TV newsman Marvin Kalb and professor Carol Saivetz for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. If I had to pick just one sentence from the 34-page report to sum up its solemn warning, it would be, “An open society becomes the victim of its own openness.”
Although the report deals solely with Israel’s war with Hezbollah, its implications also hold true for the United States in its battle against global terrorists.
Hezbollah, “like Hamas and al-Qaeda,” Kalb and Saivetz write, understands “that it is on the ‘information battlefield’ that the historic struggle between Western modernity and Islamic fundamentalism will ultimately be resolved.” In short, in asymmetrical warfare, media images are as important, and sometimes more so, than seizing territory or inflicting casualties. Public perception, not war’s historical objective realities, is the new standard for separating victors from losers.
The Internet is by far the most important change in the media firmament. During the Lebanon fighting, partisan bloggers and Web sites more interested in provocative rhetoric than fact-based reporting spread unsubstantiated rumors, innuendos and outright falsehoods far quicker than Israel’s fact-based but bureaucratically encumbered government spokespeople could offer responses. This enabled Hezbollah to shift the focus of media coverage from its raid into Israel that precipitated what Israel now calls the Second Lebanon War to Jerusalem’s allegedly disproportionate response.
Another critical change is the rise of global Arab media, with cable TV’s Al-Jazeera being the best-known example. Such media operate from a different mind-set than mainstream Western media, note the authors.
Western-style “objective” journalism, for all its shortcomings, strives for a measure of balance and fairness. But such balance, says the report, is simply alien to Arab-style journalism that, for the most part, “unashamedly” fails to differentiate between advocacy and fact gathering. Throw in ingrained Arab beliefs that Israel is an illegitimate state and that the Arab-Israeli conflict can end only with Israel’s destruction, and you preclude any striving for coverage that approaches a fair threshold. Israeli media, meanwhile, reflecting the openness of the society in which it operates, produced story after story critical of Israeli political and military actions in Lebanon, handing Hezbollah enormous propaganda windfalls.
Perhaps the most important of the report’s conclusions is that the new technology-enabled, real-time battlefield reporting in text and images posted on Web sites and broadcast on cable stations provided Hezbollah with important, up-to-the-minute military intelligence.
Hezbollah tightly controlled the reporting done on its side of the line. However, Israel — again reflecting the values of an open society — allowed journalists to record its soldiers going into battle, making no distinction between media outlets hostile or friendly to Israel. “Network anchors, representing cable TV operations from Al-Jazeera to Fox, set up their cameras along the Israeli-Lebanese border, like birds on a clothes line, one next to another, so they could do live and frequent reports from the battlefield,” reads the report. “Even in the dead of night, the anchors, using special cameras, were in a position to observe Israeli tanks and troops preparing to cross the border into Lebanon and to report live when the action began. As waves of Israeli armor moved into southern Lebanon, people everywhere, presumably including Hezbollah, could see on their screens what was happening. This was after all a war being carried live to every TV set and computer in the world.”
Despite this, journalists still complained about Israel denying access to the battlefield, and did so “for weeks and months after the war ended,” the report adds. Hezbollah, meanwhile, restricted coverage on its side to tightly controlled official tours that severely limited what journalists could show, and, hence, report with contextual accuracy. Instead, it “encouraged” journalists to watch its official TV station, Al-Manar, for information.
“Al-Manar was to Hezbollah what Pravda was to the Soviet Union,” the report says.
All this presents Israel with a formidable media challenge. Because even if Israel were to tighten its rules for coverage in a future conflict, Kalb and Saivetz conclude, it is doubtful media representatives would go along. “In an open society, ground rules may be announced, but they will not likely be observed or enforced,” say the authors. “The challenge for responsible journalists covering asymmetrical warfare, especially in this age of the Internet, is new, awesome and frightening.”
Even more frightening is what this means to open, democratic societies striving to remain so while fighting for survival in the age of growing jihadist terror.
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