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Shooting Messenger Diminishes Truth
Published on Thursday, October 24, 2002 by the Toronto Star
Shooting Messenger Diminishes Truth
by Antonia Zerbisias
 

TRUTH HAS yet to be killed in the war on terror. Sure, sometimes it goes AWOL, especially in the United States where, still, not enough journalists are asking the tough questions of the White House.

Often it gets taken hostage. That's what's happening now, as news organizations, including ABC, NBC, CNN, The New York Times and the Washington Post, are un-reporting facts they reported four years ago. They're saying that U.N. weapons inspectors were "kicked out" of Iraq when, in 1998, they said that they were "pulled out."

Then there's how truth gets raped. President George W. Bush does that when, for example, he cites reports that say Iraq is close to having a nuclear weapon when the cited reports say no such thing.

Today's topic is how truth gets caught in the crossfire: Two recent incidents involving media coverage of Israel and its occupied territories made me lift mine eyes off SniperVision and back unto the Middle East.

The first involves The Star's Sandro Contenta who, in August, left Jerusalem to become our European correspondent. No sooner is he gone than Daniel Seaman, director of Israel's Government Press Office, tells the magazine Kol Ha'Ir that he engineered Contenta's departure, along with that of three other journalists from other organizations, because he "boycotted" them.

"The(ir) editorial boards got the message and replaced their people."

Without a grievance from reporters' unions? Astonishing.

Of course, this ridiculous charge was denied by all.

In the same piece, Seaman also claims that reporters for the BBC, CNN, Reuters, Associated Press, ABC and CBS are all under the direct control of the Palestinian Authority.

As if AOL Time Warner, Viacom, Disney etc. take their marching orders from Yasser Arafat. (Mind you, right now they're taking direction from the Beltway Sniper, a master media manipulator — at least until his ratings drop.)

Seaman presents himself as a man concerned with the truth. But he hurts his cause more than he helps it. At a time when the pro-Israel side says it needs all the positive coverage it can get, the guy dealing with the very people — journalists — who can make or break that coverage, needs to freshen up his media relations skills.

Which brings us to incident number two: Once again, CBC-TV's Neil Macdonald is the target of a concerted e-mail attack by a pro-Israeli watchdog group objecting to his Oct. 3 report about Palestinians being harassed out of their olive groves by Jewish settlers.

"In the report, the Jewish settlers were portrayed as callous usurpers and oppressors, the Palestinians as innocent victims of Israeli oppression," complains the Vancouver-based Israel Action Committee. "This one-sidedness is irresponsible journalism and a betrayal of public trust."

Cautioning its members not to reveal the source of the campaign, the committee asks them "to flood the CBC" with missives "protesting this bias and informing the CBC that we will continue to bombard their offices with messages of protest until their Middle East coverage improves."

And so it came to pass that CBC had e-mails from Alabama, Arizona and Arkansas, places where the network can't be seen.

"So many of these campaigns are just so totally fabricated and organized on the basis of very misleading information," says CBC chief journalist Tony Burman. "We're aware of the incredible emotions this story generates. But there are parts of this debate that crossed the line into total hysteria."

In the Internet age, these e-mail campaigns are common. CNN, for example, has received thousands in a single day.

According to The Star's letters page editor Gabe Gonda, this paper has also been targeted.

"I've had, in specific campaigns, hundreds of letters emanating from links on a bias-in-media site — and they've come from both sides, pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian," he says.

"What happens is, organizations whose job it is to monitor so-called accuracy in media, which means monitoring for your own bias or for your own cause, are set up."

And many of them are being set up all the time. So many charges of bias are being hurled almost indiscriminately, perhaps obscuring the legitimate complaints that may arise.

"I agree," says B'nai Brith's Frank Dimant, who has often criticized The Star's coverage in The Jewish Tribune. "If there is a campaign over everything, it diminishes the value of a real campaign."

It also diminishes the truth.

That's because, if media are expected to act as nothing more than megaphones for the "official truth," the awful truth is that there will be no truth left standing.

Antonia Zerbisias appears every Thursday. She can be reached at azerbis@thestar.ca.

Copyright 1996-2002. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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