Watching the Watchdog

The media’s role is to be the watchdog of democracy. But what happens when the watchdog falls into an unexpected trap? What happens when it is betrayed from within and maliciously manipulated in order to create a skewed picture of reality?

by Nir Boms and Elliot Chodoff (10/25/2007) – published in

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?“Who watches the watchmen?” asked the Roman poet Juvenal, paraphrasing a central problem discussed by Plato in The Republic.

The pursuit of “Justice” is a tricky business in a complicated world demanding that we make judgments about critical issues beyond our immediate perception like global warming, foreign policy, peace and war.

Fortunately -at least in the democratic world – we have a tool meant to facilitate these difficult judgments: the media, a free and open marketplace of ideas; a platform for information and views helping formulate wise and fair judgments.

The media’s role is to be the watchdog of democracy. But what happens when the watchdog falls into an unexpected trap? What happens when it is betrayed from within and maliciously manipulated in order to create a skewed picture of reality?

The media should be immune to such pitfalls. Ethics mandating honest reporting, due diligence and corroboration of facts should prevent facile manipulation attempts. Consequently, recent remarks of a France 3 TV journalist on the sidelines of a French lawsuit are cause for considerable concern.

French journalist Clement Weill Raynal’s comments followed a defamation suit hearing in France. The defendant, a colleague, was sued for accusingFrance 2 TV of broadcasting a staged story, inciting unnecessary violence in the Middle East. The story occurred in 2000 and purported to show Israeli soldiers intentionally shooting a 12 year-old Palestinian boy, Mohammad al-Dura. The defendant, Philippe Karasenty, argued that the infamous report aired by France 2 was highly inaccurate and probably staged. Responding to the case, Raynal wondered about all the fuss:”Karsenty is so shocked that fake images were used and edited in Gaza, but this happens all the time everywhere on television and no TV journalist in the field or a film editor would be shocked.”

Does Raynal’s observation reflect the prevailing norm of French TV? Is this mainstream media’s dirty little secret whose revelation France 2 and its reporter, Charles Enderlin, whose voiceover of the original news report blamed Israeli troops for targeting the boy – despite the fact that he was not present at the scene and considerable evidence to support its staging has emerged – seem determined to quash in court?

Enderlin claimed that he deleted footage of the boy’s death from his report because the death agonies were too painful to watch. This assertion is contradicted by the few outsiders permitted to see the raw footage (that France 2 still refuses to make public) who deny the existence of the scene. Furthermore, in a segment cut from the TV report, long after his “death” the boy lifts his arm and looks toward the camera, before returning to the “dead” position.

The truth about this incident is not merely a philosophical issue. These images inspired many revenge seekers, including Osama Bin Laden and the murderers of Daniel Pearl. Others were inspired as well. Two 14-year-old sisters were arrested for allegedly planning a terrorist attack in the Moroccan capital of Rabat. They claimed that their decision had been motivated by images of al-Dura’s death, replayed endlessly on the Internet and Arab satellite channels.

Raynal’s words must be considered in the context of other troubling examples of severe media manipulation in Middle East conflict reporting. For example, in April 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, launched against terrorist organizations in the West Bank, the media initially uncritically repeated the Palestinian claim of 500 civilians killed by Israeli troops, coining the enduring phrase, “The Jenin Massacre,” with reporters repeating the reference long after the Palestinian casualty count was confirmed at 52, including combatants.

Bloggers had a field day during the Israel-Hizbullah War of July-August 2006, criticizing the reporting from Kafr Kana, a South Lebanese village in which dozens of civilians were reported killed in a collapsed building. Image-hungry photographers devoured staged scenes of the same “casualties” being removed from the rubble as their bodies were recycled for late-arriving photographers by a would-be rescue worker.

Additional examples include Adnan Hajj, who was fired by Reuters after admitting that he altered photographs, published on the front page of the NY Times, to increase the perception of damage caused by an Israeli attack on Beirut. Other stories included that of a Lebanese woman, pictured lamenting the destruction of “her” house in 4 different locations, and an ambulance, reportedly “hit” by an Israeli missile that never was.

The conflict in the Middle East is sufficiently ruthless and bloody without artificial incitements. The circumstances of that war, pitting a modern army against terrorists who hide among civilians, can, unfortunately, easily result in the killing of noncombatants. This complex reality is magnified by media interest unparalleled in any other conflict in the world. If, however, the media can bring real massacres in Serbia, Darfur and Somalia to the forefront of world opinion – resulting in efforts to alleviate further suffering – it seems to be playing the opposite role in the Middle East, exacerbating the intensity of conflict and hatred. During the next few weeks, a French judge will rule on the role of France 2 in doing just that. Let us hope that his ruling will set higher standards for Middle East coverage, in order to help reduce the flames of war rather than fan them.

Nir Boms is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Elliot Chodoff is a military and political analyst for MidEast-On Target

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