The West -- and in particular, the Western media -- remains hopelessly naive about terrorist manipulation. My own way of putting it is: "The first story out wins." Hezbollah, Hamas, the various PLO factions and al Qaeda all use this principle to influence world opinion and decision-makers. The latest example is the tragedy at Qana. Seven hours after an Israeli airstrike on a building behind which Hezbollah was firing rockets into Israel, Hezbollah spokesmen reported 56 dead, including 34 children had been killed. Yet the International Red Cross subsequently reported 28 deaths, 16 of them children.
Once the news broke, news photographers were invited to photograph the scene. Hundreds of photographs show Hezbollah and Red Cross rescue workers posing with several dead children for over an hour under the hot Lebanese sun, in shocking disrespect for the dead, before unceremoniously leaving their little bodies sprawled and uncovered on gurneys as they waited for burial.
Wise media spinners rush to fill the immediate news vacuum. Indeeed, they are "miraculously" on the spot when the story breaks. To gain their PR advantage, they are willing to stage events and manufacture stories, which they spin into sensational, headline-grabbing sound- and sight-bites. Then they rush to get their first story out to the broadest possible audience.
Another recent example: The Palestinian family of seven killed on a beach in northern Gaza on June 9, making headlines around the world. Hamas was immediately on the scene; its people selectively filmed the site, then quickly sanitized it so no other pictures could be taken.
As Hamas told it, an Israeli gunboat had fired on the family, creating a massacre. That story hit the airwaves like a rocket and reverberated around the world for days. The British newspaper The Guardian, for one, reported, "A barrage of Israeli artillery shells rained down on a busy Gaza beach yesterday, killing seven Palestinians, three of them children."
But the IDF tested shrapnel fragments removed from the body of one young girl, who was treated in an Israeli hospital - and found that its materials were inconsistent with Israeli ordnance. Further examination of the site from aerial photographs by international explosives experts showed that the explosion's crater wasn't of the kind caused by a rocket or artillery fire. In the end, the most likely scenario was that the explosion was caused by an IED, probably planted by Hamas to protect the beach from Israeli incursions from the sea.
But the first version of the story is what is remembered - indeed, has become a staple of anti-Israel rhetoric, supporting Hamas' charges of Israeli brutality.
The classic case is Jenin, the Palestinian town subjected to an April 2002 Israeli military operation. Acting to stem the flow of suicide bombers that had killed 151 Israelis in three months, Israeli troops fought door-to-door to avoid harming civilians. But the Palestinian news agency, Wafa, rushed to tell the world that the Israelis had massacred more than 500 innocent civilians - and again, the story stuck.
In fact, an independent United Nations commission later determined that Israeli soldiers had killed just 56 Palestinians, most of them combatants.
CNN's Nic Robertson, to his credit, has admitted that his July 19 report from Lebanon was influenced by Hezbollah-imposed constraints. "They designated the places that we went to," he said.
"Hezbollah has a very, very sophisticated and slick media operation," Robertson has noted. "They can turn on and off access . . . You don't get in without their permission." CBS correspondent Elizabeth Palmer adds, "Hezbollah is determined that outsiders will only see what it wants them to see." In other words, if you want to capture the sights and sounds of the war in Lebanon, it is Hezbollah who will provide your admission ticket.
The strategy has been used for many years. The American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, for example, long served as an ad hoc press center for the Palestinian Authority. Any journalist wanting access to a sensational story knew that if he didn't write his copy in a way that promoted the Palestinian cause, he would never get another chance. I've heard first-hand from reporters from four countries of journalists who were threatened or forced to leave the region after reporting events in a light unfavorable to the PA.
The better we in the West understand how the enemy uses the media, the more effectively we can defend ourselves from the impact of its message. The stories of Qana and Jenin are only two among many. But they send a strong message that our media, which provides instant news coverage around the globe, can also be a force multiplier for misinformation. We must view it with a critical eye, and measure the message with intelligent skepticism and a clear understanding of the dynamics that lie behind it.
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