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Tuesday, 01 August 2006 02:34

Danny Schechter: How to Watch the News in a Time of Crisis

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by Danny Schechter, Mediachannel.org

New York, New York, August 1: Here is a lesson learned in a lifetime of watching wars on TV and reading about them in the press:

You can't trust the media -- and you can't necessarily even trust yourself.

It's the rare person who approaches a conflict like the one in Lebanon that we are watching every night with the background information to understand what's in front of our own eyes. Like in baseball, you can't know the players without a scorecard. Having opinions are easy, developing an analysis is not.

Sometimes you don't need to know much when you watch the bodies of dead babies being extracted from a building that's being bombed.

It's easy to get indignant about atrocities, and if human carnage doesn't enrage or sadden you, you have a lot of work to do on your humanity.

At the same time, the real world is so much more complex than the dumbed-down version we get in the media. Take the current conflict.

There is no doubt that the massive media coverage has elevated it from a regional conflict into a world issue. It influenced and aroused public opinion in the Arab world, and has now impacted in the west as well.

At the start, the issues were framed narrowly. It appeared to be about the kidnapping of soldiers and the Israel government's reaction. The gist was simple to understand: a crime had been committed, hostages were held, and some response seemed warranted.

As the fighting began, Israel's concerns dominated the news and its spin was more or less accepted as gospel.

But then, it became clear that there was more to it, much more.

First there had been a killing of a family in Gaza by Israeli warplanes that fed the first fires of revenge and retribution. To the Palestinians, a soldier of the occupation is a legitimate target. Incidents like this have happened before. Even the soldier's father seemed to understand that, and was critical of his own government for what happened next.

To everyone's surprise, Israel launched a massive display of firepower with an escalation of aerial bombardments. Suddenly an incident had morphed into the start of a war. Palestinian politicians were seized. Gaza was invaded again. The Parliament and government buildings were attacked.

Even as the day-by-day events were being reported, it became clear that this was not just a reprisal but also a pretext for a well-planned escalation. NBC's Martin Fletcher reported that Israel's military "work plan" had been five years in the making.

No one picked up on his scoop.

And then came Lebanon. Same scenario. Soldiers captured. We are still not clear if they were in Israel or Lebanon when taken. Israeli bombers screamed into retaliation mode. Even Hezbollah said they were taken by surprise. They saw the issue as part of an ongoing series of prisoner exchanges because many of their soldiers has earlier been "kidnapped" and held in Israel.

Once the bombing of Lebanon began, Hezbollah retaliated with its rocket attacks. The Bombing intensified -- often without precision or proportionality. People began to die.

Israel regretted the loss of life but claimed Hezbollah was using civilians as shields. Hezbollah responded, they said, in self-defense.

The war blew up into a crisis.

In the early days, the US media did not fully report on civilian suffering but as the war wound on, the coverage wound up. Suddenly the world was seeing the horrors of a country being destroyed.

But there has been more than this going on, and that's where the biggest media failures are -- in closely examining the role played by the United States, Israel's prime benefactor in all this. Was Washington in charge, and to what degree? Who was using whom? Is this little war setting the stage for a bigger one? We know this is an issue, but what about the interests behind it?

Is this a case of today Lebanon, tomorrow Iraq? What are the goals of each of the many parties to the conflict? Do we even know? Is it even being reported?

And that's where the media failure is most blatant. It too often lacks context and background -- and so do we. Many of us don't know the history but still rely on well-conditioned images, impressions and ethnic loyalties. Many Jews take an "Israel, always right, never wrong" posture. Some Arabs have deep hatreds that cloud an understanding of how and why the United States is often stage-managing the conflict from the shadows.

Even the left is divided. A leader of Boston Mobilization writes, "I have never seen anything split the progressive community like the current situation in the Middle East.... I believe that if dialogue is shut down now, in the name of support for Israel, just as it was after September 11th, in the name of patriotism, then we are playing into the hands of the Bush administration's war games." And so this crisis challenges all of us to go beyond the superficiality of the ever-updating "breaking news" and study the background. Who are the players? Who is running the show in Israel? In Washington: what is the real game plan?

Watch what politicians do, not just what they say.

Don't become a prisoner of the mainstream press either. Take responsibility for your media choices. Read widely and seek out diverse opinions: the Israeli Press, The Lebanese Press and Al Jazeera.net are all on line with many other online sources including GlobalVoicesOnline, JuanCole.com and Mediachannel. Independent reporters like Dahr Jamal are often closer to the truth on the ground than big media. Programs like MOSAIC on Link TV and Democracy Now often have more accurate and well-sourced news. Call on your favorite bloggers to stop ignoring the issue for fear of alienating readers.

Don't be lazy and let others think for you.


News Dissector Danny Schechter is "blogger-in chief" at Mediachannel.org. His film WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception) critiques media coverage of the Iraq War. See WmdtheFilm.com Comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.