Media Self-Censorship Hides Truth
Published on Tuesday, July 25, 2006 by the Toronto Star (Canada)
Media Self-Censorship Hides Truth
by Antonia Zerbisias

They were gruesome lunchtime images, and totally unexpected.

Yesterday, on CNN's Your World Today, correspondent Becky Anderson in Beirut introduced a report by Karl Penhaul who told of a Tyre family devastated by an Israeli air strike.

"Let me tell you, some of these pictures are disturbing," Anderson warned. "Please be aware."

Then came the sights and sounds of screaming children, their faces and bodies barbecued by what the doctor maintains are chemical weapons which, stunningly, are legal.

Finally, some reality in reality programming.

Oh sure, CNN attempted to balance out this story by preceding it with a lengthy report by the fatuous Miles O'Brien. He led us up and down the streets of Haifa playing war correspondent in a melodrama mostly of his own making, unwittingly mocking the suffering of the people there.

"Those Katyusha rockets just keep raining down," he said. "We're told upwards of 100 came down today. Once again, as we say, Haifa spared the worst of it today, unlike yesterday, with all those rockets that came in and a couple of deaths. In this case, no damage or injury to report. And a lot of people here, I'm sure, breathing a sigh of relief. Having said all that, there aren't as many people here as there should be."

All of which is why, no matter how many bombs it rains down on Lebanon, no matter how many villages taken, no matter how battles won, Israel will lose the war of world opinion.

That despite how Hezbollah launches its rockets from downtown Lebanon, ostensibly using civilians as shields. The point is, Israel still fires back, killing those civilians. And it does it with superior might and firepower, with the backing of the world's greatest superpower and, sadly, Canada.

It doesn't play well on TV, no matter how much the news nets try to balance it.

What's different in this war, unlike that in Iraq or Afghanistan, is that the journalists in both countries are free to roam and report, unencumbered by embedding and unconfined to army briefings miles from the theatre of operations.

Oh sure, the Israelis have a censorship apparatus in place, and Hezbollah has its media minders, but the pictures tell their own stories. Too bad the mainstream media are not publishing them.

For example, all last week, the ghastly photos of torched children who were part of a civilian convoy trying to escape southern Lebanon were making the rounds on the Internet.

None were used, as far as I can tell, by any North American news organization, including this one.

At the same time, other photos were circulating on the Web. These depicted young Israeli girls scrawling messages on missiles bound for Lebanon. The messages spoke of love, but in the ironical sense.

Except for the Philadelphia Inquirer which was singled out for a scolding by the pro-Israel media watchdog CAMERA I am not aware of any other paper that used the AP photos.

(Just for the record: Yesterday the Jerusalem Post confirmed their authenticity: "Although an officer was present during the incident, the soldiers, and the IDF as a whole, did not condone or condemn the incident.)

So, for all the freedom of journalism in this conflict, there's a lot of self-censorship.

We see, as associate professor Richard Fung of the Ontario College of Art emailed me, "mostly atmospheric shots of Israeli soldiers and military hardware; they could be ads for arms manufacturers they are so beautiful, generic, and `neutral.'"

We see bombed-out bridges and buildings, as if no drivers or inhabitants were killed.

But the truth will come out, with the help of the Internet, mobile phones and all the tech advantages that are widely available on both sides.

Meanwhile, most news organizations are trying to be as even-handed as possible, as if not to offend any of their constituencies.

Trouble is, while they're minding their pictures, they're slipping up on their language.

Example: On CBC-TV's Sunday Report, Israel had "moved into" Lebanon as if it had taken possession of a new condo instead of a chunk of the country.

Soldiers are "kidnapped" and not "captured."And so it goes.

The war is such a media minefield that even bloggers and I'm talking the bigtime US guys are reluctant to tiptoe through it.

They're afraid of the hate mail.

"I, for one, sure as heck have no desire to get sucked into that no-win situation," wrote Markos Moulitsas, the guy behind Daily Kos, the biggest progressive blog in the US.

The almost-as-popular Kevin Drum (the Washington Monthly) wrote: "As near as I can tell, most conservatives simply take the uncomplicated stance that Palestinians are terrorists and that Israel should always respond to provocation in the maximal possible way. The fact that this hasn't worked very well in the past doesn't deter them. Liberals don't really have a similarly undemanding position that's suitable for the quick-hit nature of blogging."

Cop-outs, both of them.

This is a time for truth telling, no matter how gruesome it is.

Antonia Zerbisias has more articles at

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