Watching American TV in Beirut
War in Lebanon has once again become breaking news on television screens across the world, but a growing body of distorted reporting is being disseminated just as rapidly as the country is being destroyed
By HABIB BATTAH*
(31 July 2006) - IN recent days, many American news programmes have demonstrated an exceptionally weak knowledge of Lebanese politics, skewed further by a lack of access to areas that have been attacked in the country and their victims.
Take Monday's coverage of the conflict on NBC's popular Today Show with anchorwoman Nathalie Morales, who in introducing a report on Hezbollah, rhetorically asks: "So just who is Israel at war with in this latest chapter of an ancient conflict?"
Not only does the reporter assume that Israel's war targets only Hezbollah (and not the Lebanese civilians, government, private businesses and the military, which have all been attacked) but even contradicts earlier reports on her own network indicating Hezbollah's founding to be in the early 1980s; hardly considered "ancient" times.
Equally misleading were reports on the Today Show defining Hezbollah solely as the mastermind of the 1982 attacks on US marines and possessor of long-range missiles.
Absent in the reporting was any reference to Hezbollah's role in defeating the 22-year Israeli occupation of the country and its support among up to a million Lebanese, with many benefiting from an intricate network of social services and political representation.
Of course, failing to report such details contributes to the view that Hezbollah acts as merely a renegade organisation rather than a movement that encompasses roughly a quarter of the country's population.
On the other hand, when it comes to reporting the situation in Israel, anchors on sister network MSNBC seem to boast an intimate knowledge of the population, even a bit of psychoanalytical skill.
During his show Hardball with Chris Mathews, the host describes the Israeli town of Haifa as being similar to a city in California, "very modern, very debonair".
Anchorwoman Rita Cosby, who freely dubs Hezbollah as "rag-tag" terrorists, would later describe an attack on "Holy Nazareth" as an assault on "the home town of Jesus", and erroneously as his birthplace - of course no reference to the multitude of biblical cities in Lebanon.
Later in the show there is analysis with field reporters and political pundits, many blatantly supportive of Israel's fight against "terror acts" and the "worldwide Islamic threat" - still no mention of the widespread devastation and human loss in Lebanon.
Mathew's questions include: "How do you get Hezbollah to stop? Will Israel get the job done? How broad a goal is Israel setting?" And finally: "What's a bigger threat to the United States? Al-Qaeda or Hezbollah?"
Mathews makes reference to the plight of the Lebanese only once during his show, when a reporter raises the possibility of a "bloody mess" for Israel.
Hours later, early on Tuesday, the casualty count in Lebanon stands at around 200 as cities and towns across the country are systematically pulverised, leaving hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians trapped and unable to escape the fighting.
A massive refugee crisis looms large while the country lies in complete disarray with its arterial roadways and bridges completely destroyed. Meanwhile, around a dozen are dead in Israel, with the last large attack occurring at a train depot on Sunday.
On Tuesday, 11 Lebanese soldiers are killed and a handful of rockets are launched at northern Israel with no casualties reported.
Over a live video feed, MSNBC anchorwoman Chris Jansen asks a reporter in North Israel about how average citizens there are coping with the short time lag between rocket attacks and air-raid sirens. The reporter describes a "quite frightening" situation for locals.
Jansen then speaks to a reporter in Lebanon over the phone, with a focus on the latest developments in the evacuation of foreign nationals. We are never told that average Lebanese citizens across the border have absolutely no warning of attacks and little access to well-fortified bomb shelters.
Before a commercial break there is footage of destruction across Lebanon, with swaths of the capital reduced to rubble. However, the graphics indicate that these are images of "Mideast Crisis" and not the result of round-the-clock Israeli air strikes.
Unlike the static clip of masked gunmen stomping on Israeli flags - images repeatedly attributed to Hezbollah and the Lebanese side - we see no equivalent attribution of burning cities and residences to Israel and its people.
The media myths continue unabated on Wednesday when an NBC reporter stationed on Cyprus tells a studio anchor that the American evacuation from Beirut will begin shortly and that the US embassy is providing a "safe haven" or "bomb shelters" for the thousands of US citizens as they wait.
One US citizen, who gave her name only as Liliane, decided to return to her apartment after waiting out in the heat for several hours, disgusted she said by the disorganisation and curt attitude of US military personnel.
She described the plight of a woman with a newborn child sitting on the pavement with other children, pleading for help.
"They just didn't care," she said, drawing a contrast with television pictures of a smiling US ambassador escorting evacuees on to helicopters and while others were ferried away on chartered ships.
"They didn't show what was happening outside the boats. On TV it looks like the situation is under control."
*Habib Battah is the managing editor of Middle East Broadcasters Journal
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