When civilians are killed, media reaction is often contingent upon who did the killing and why. Instead of blanketly condemning such attacks, the bombing of civilians can be implicitly justified if those civilians were in the wrong place at the wrong time—say, in a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, or, more recently, in a neighborhood in Lebanon.
Two ISIS suicide bombers killed at least 43 people and wounded more than 230 in attacks on a heavily Shia Muslim community in Beirut on November 12. This was the worst attack on the city in years.
The vast majority of the victims were civilians, not armed militants—but many media headlines obscured that fact.
“Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah Stronghold in Southern Beirut,” declared the New York Times (11/12/15). Absent from this headline were crucial facts—namely, that this supposed “stronghold” of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah is in fact a busy civilian area, and moreover that dozens of civilians were killed in the attacks.
The website NewsDiffs, which tracks changes to articles published in leading news outlets, documents how, in less than eight hours, the Times changed the headline of its piece five times.
The original headline, “Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah Area in Southern Beirut,” was apparently deemed too weak, so in the second headline the Times changed “Area” to the much more insidious-sounding “Stronghold.” After facing harsh criticism from journalists on social media for dubbing a civilian area a “Hezbollah Stronghold,” the publication changed the headline again, this time to “Deadly Blasts Hit Crowded Neighborhood in Southern Beirut.”
When ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombings, the Times chose a new headline: “ISIS Claims Responsibility for Deadly Blasts in Southern Beirut.” Finally, in its last iteration, the paper settled with “ISIS Claims Responsibility for Blasts That Killed Dozens in Beirut.”
The Times article itself exposes just how absurd the “Hezbollah stronghold” and “Hezbollah area” headlines were. Its second paragraph reported:
[ISIS] portrayed its motives as baldly sectarian, saying it had targeted Shiite Muslims, whom it views as apostates. It mentioned almost as an afterthought that it had targeted Hezbollah, the Shiite militant organization that backs the Syrian government in the civil war raging next door.
In other words, according to the extremist group’s own words, the primary reason ISIS targeted the Beirut neighborhood was not because it was a “Hezbollah stronghold,” but rather because it has a large concentration of Shia Muslims. Put more simply, this was not a military attack on a militant group; this was a religious attack on civilians of a different Islamic sect.
In the third paragraph, the Times adds that “the bombing seemed aimed at hurting the group by attacking civilians in an area where [Hezbollah] has many supporters. But the stricken area also typifies working-class Beirut, where Palestinians, Christians and Syrian refugees (mostly Sunnis) live, work and shop.” Later, it describes the supposed “Hezbollah stronghold” as a “bustling area with narrow streets, many small shops and vendors selling fruits and vegetables from stalls and pushcarts.”
ABC News (11/12/15) was one of numerous outlets that described ISIS’s target as a “Hezbollah stronghold” rather than as a civilian neighborhood.
Again, we see that the ISIS attacks targeted civilians, not militants. Most of the media ignored this crucial distinction.
- Reuters (11/12/15) and AFP (11/12/15) described the neighborhood as a “Hezbollah bastion.”
- Far-right website Breitbart (11/13/15) called the civilian area a “Hezbollah enclave.”
- NPR (11/12/15) dubbed it a “Hezbollah area,” as did CBC (11/12/15).
- Business Insider (11/12/15) said “There’s been a major bombing attack in Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold.”
- MSNBC (11/13/15) likewise characterized the neighborhood as a “Hezbollah stronghold.”
- Even progressive news outlet Democracy Now! (11/13/15) fell into the trap, describing the area as a “stronghold of the Lebanese political movement Hezbollah.”
Imagine the KKK bombed a predominately black neighborhood, killing scores of civilians and wounding hundreds more, and media outlets subsequently summarizing the horrific attack with headlines like “Deadly Blasts Hit Black Liberation Army Stronghold in San Francisco” or “Twin Blasts Claimed by KKK Kill 41 in San Francisco Black Liberation Army Bastion.” This is essentially what news outlets did in response to the ISIS attacks.
Some publications did manage to preserve the nuance. BBC (11/12/15) described the bombed area as a “Shia suburb.” Others simply did not mention Hezbollah in the headline.
Journalist and foreign policy analyst Rula Jebreal remarked that the Times‘ use of the term “‘Hezbollah stronghold’ shows dehumanizing and flawed facts.” The newspaper needs a “‘mindset’ reset, not headline reset,” she added.
The language used in these reports is strikingly similar to that used to refer to Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Reports by the United Nations and numerous human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, showed how Israel intentionally targeted civilians in its summer 2014 war on Gaza, which killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians. During the assault, the Israeli government frequently characterized the civilian areas it was targeting as Hamas strongholds (Hamas is the democratically elected government of Gaza), arguing that the civilians there were effectively “human shields.” Media frequently uncritically echoed these talking points.
The media logic in this case is almost identical. Civilians in Beirut are written off as Hezbollah “human shields”; their deaths are seen as inevitable.
Typically, when ISIS bombs civilian areas, the media and their network of pundits are quick to condemn the attacks—and rightfully so. In this case, however, because of this troublesome logic, some figures went so far as to even defend the ISIS bombings.
Everett Stern, a Republican candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, flatly stated: “I support any attack made against Hezbollah or ISIS. That includes the attack launched today against Hezbollah in Lebanon.” That is to say, in his own words, Stern literally “supports” ISIS’s attacks, because the violent extremist group was targeting Hezbollah.
This is the most chilling consequence of this flawed reporting. In some ways, media can be seen as almost rationalizing or even defending ISIS’s brutal attacks on civilians. As long as ISIS is targeting the “right” people—namely militant groups that are enemies of the US and Israel, like Hezbollah—the attacks are rhetorically justified. This is manufacturing consent in action.