August 4, 2010

Reporting on yesterday's israel-lebanon clash

I was very frustrated yesterday when I read the account of the clash at the Israeli border with Lebanon in the New York Times. Even as more and more information was filtering out showing that the firing had clearly started on the Lebanese side, Isabel Kershner, the reporter for the Times presented her report in a maddingly balanced "they said - they said" format.

I guess as the story evolved the report in the Times did too. At the same URL. The result now is somewhat better than the original report, which can no longer be found.

Now the Times includes this:

Each side blamed the other, trading accusations of violating the United Nations Security Council resolution that underpins the four-year-old cease-fire.

A senior American official in Washington said that, based on what had been learned so far, the Lebanese military appeared to have been responsible for starting the gunfire.

Later on we learn:

After the first Israeli response, Colonel Leibovich said, the Israelis were asked to hold their fire so that the Lebanese could evacuate their wounded. She said that Israel acquiesced, but that 30 minutes later, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired toward an Israeli tank.

Where the Times really fails, is to provide the context that would support Israel's charges.

Israel said its foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, had instructed the Israeli diplomatic delegation to the United Nations to file a protest with the secretary general and the Security Council, calling the clash "one of many violations" of the United Nations resolution on the border, No.1701.

Anyone who's been paying attention, knows that there's been an arms buildup in Lebanon supported by Syria and Iran. Yet it's not part of the reporting, but rather reported as an Israeli claim.

The Washington Post's Janine Zacharia (whom I've been very critical of lately) handled this aspect of the reporting much better.

Israel has anxiously watched the Hezbollah militia, which pummeled Israeli towns with Katyusha rockets in 2006, rebuild an arsenal of tens of thousands of missiles of various range.

That buildup has led Israel to complain to the United Nations that its peacekeeping force, which was ramped up after the 2006 war, hasn't stopped the flow of war material to Hezbollah.

Israel says rockets, supplied mostly by Iran, are being trucked across the Syrian border into south Lebanon. The Lebanese government has complained to the United Nations about Israeli reconnaissance flights that violate Lebanese airspace and has accused Israel of trying to foment tensions in the region.

Plus the Post linked to a report about Syria supplying SCUDS to Hezbollah. The Post gives enough background and context to support the Israeli side of events yesterday.

True some of the advantages of the Post's reporting result from it being later. But given that one of Israel's claims was that the tree pruning was done in coordination with UNIFIL, even the earliest reports should have involved a call to UNIFIL, like what Just Journalism did.

Andrea Tenenti, deputy spokesperson for UNIFIL, told Just Journalism that while 'all activities' that take place along the Blue Line have to be coordinated with UNIFIL, he could not at this stage confirm whether this particular maintenance work had been:

'What we are trying to do is ascertain the circumstances of the incident and why it occurred. We have a lot of activities that we coordinate with both parties along the Blue Line. Concerning this specific activity [Israel's maintenance operation], we have to check if that's the case.'

However, Tenenti did agree that along the Blue Line there are gaps between Israel's border fence and the actual, UN-mandated border:

It's true that this comment was not conclusive, but there was no evidence that Kershner even tried to contact UNIFIL. In the end, as the Washington Post reported:

The U.N.'s peacekeeping force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL issued a statement Wednesday corroborating Israel's assertion that Israeli troops operated inside Israeli territory.

I don't knwo why Tenenti was non-committal at first, but my suspicion is that Israel's coordination with UNIFIL is what made the Israeli troops vulnerable. As David Frankfurter writes:

It is clear from the photographs and videos issued by international news agencies very quickly after the clash that the incident was prepared for and staged. Photographs and footage was prepared to be sent out within minutes before the truth surfaced, leaving an indelible media impression. It is also clear from the photographs that as the scene unfolds, until seconds before the actual firing takes place, the UNIFIL forces were relaxed and at ease with the snipers and RPG gunners taking careful aim at the Israelis. Then something strange happens. A video shown on Israeli TV, taken and directly translated to Hebrew from first footage gives the Lebanese version. From about 5 seconds into the video, UNIFIL soldiers start waving and shouting at the Israelis to "stop", "stop everything", "get down" and "go back". Were they staging a show for the cameras? Given that UNIFIL knew that the IDF was in Israeli territory and that there was no reason for the Lebanese to fire, why did they shout at the Israelis to stop? Wouldn't it have been their job to uphold UN resolutions and tell the Lebanese to hold their fire?

All the pictures we see show the Lebanese troops and UNIFIL in relaxed postures. They're comfortable with each other. Even if, at the last minute, some UNIFIL soldiers tried to do the right thing, it's easy to conclude that someone in UNIFIL gave the IDF's plans to someone in the Lebanese army who intended to attack.

But it isn't just the behavior of UNIFIL that's troubling. Honest Reporting notes that Reuters had reporters at the scene of the ambush in Lebanon. Had reporters been given advanced warning about what happened?

These are questions that need to be answered. I hardly expect the media to dig too deeply. However, in the case of yesterday's ambush of an IDF patrol, the Washington Post did an excellent job; the New York times not so well.

One last question: when the substance of a report changes significantly shouldn't a media outlet acknowledge that there was an earlier report instead of pretending that the first report didn't exist?

Crossposted on Yourish.

Posted by SoccerDad at August 4, 2010 6:23 AM
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You ask: "Had reporters been given advanced warning about what happened?". Another question is why did not Israel take care that the media would be there observing and if they will make sure next time so that incidents that are not secret military operations will be covered.

Posted by: Yisrael Medad at August 4, 2010 1:00 PM

Yisrael Medad raises a good point. Where were Israeli reporters to provide Israel with its own input into the story?

Chalk it down as another failure of Israel's vaunted hasbara machine. The Arabs always seem prepared to win the propaganda war even when they lose a military battle.

Posted by: NormanF at August 4, 2010 2:44 PM

I'm not sure I agree. Why would israel call media out to a brush clearing on the border to cut down a tree?

Israel has much effort to do because our Hasbara is not vaunted in any way, but expecting the IDF or Israel to rally media for what should be non-events is asking a bit much imho. We did not have hindsight something was going to happen like those who planned this & arranged for media.

Posted by: saus at August 4, 2010 4:28 PM

I think it was here regarding the flotilla situation that I first read the opinion that Israel has a public relations problem. I've heard the opinion elsewhere since then. Thanks to Yisrael Medad for pointing out what may be another example of such a problem.

Posted by: trn at August 7, 2010 11:21 PM
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