Sunday 23 October 2016, 21 Tishrei 5777


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Battle that is already lost: the media one
Norman Lebrecht
ON SEPTEMBER 29, the New York Times carried the hot, now-notorious picture from the then-unfolding Middle East crisis showing a riot-clad Israeli soldier standing over a cowering, blood-streaked riot victim, whom the caption identified as "a Palestinian."

Within hours, e-mails were winging their way around the lands of our dispersion. "That Palestinian is actually my son, Tuvia Grossman, a Jewish student from Chi-cago," wrote Dr Aaron Grossman, of North Richmond. "He, and two of his friends, were pulled from their taxi-cab while travelling in Jerusalem by a mob of Palestinian Arabs and were severely beaten and stabbed." A second letter from Tuvia's uncle, Howard Gissinger, pointed out the Israeli soldier "was actually saving my nephew's life."

Last Saturday, the newspaper published a correction, accompanied by a news story explaining how the picture, from the Associated Press news agency, came to be mis-captioned.

These things happen under pressure in the best of publications. Maybe the picture editor was struck momentar-ily colour-blind or fashion-proof by an approaching Yom-tov deadline, rendering him or her unable to distinguish between a white-shirted yeshivah boy and a black-T-shirted Palestinian rioter.

Let's be charitable to the picture desk, it's that time of year. Nevertheless, the episode confirmed in the minds of many Jews, and certainly of the Israeli government, that the Western press is inherently pro-Palestinian, if not actively anti-Semitic. This impression was reinforced by the widespread coverage given to pictures of a 12-year-old Gaza boy, Mohammed al-Durrah, cowering beside his father in a hail of crossfire at Netzarim Junction, moments before he was fatally shot by an Israeli soldier.

It is an image that is destined to appear in every pic-torial anthology of the 21st century, just as the conquest of Iwo Jima and the Tiananmen anti-tank protester did in 20th-century histories. The picture evokes a heartless brutality, putting the viewer into the mind of the soldier and asking him: why shoot an unarmed child?

The Israelis, having initially announced that the boy was a probably closet stone-thrower with a 10-year history of anti-Zionist agitation, wilted under media pressure and announced one of their official inquiries, which seldom result in punitive action. I have heard it suggested that they would have done better to shoot the AP photo-journalist than the child.

It is hard to recall any image since the Sabra and Shatila massacres that has done more damage to the moral foundations of the State of Israel and the self-righteousness of the Jewish community. It cannot be erased.

Israelis have also complained of allegedly distorted riot coverage on the BBC and CNN, where studio-edited footage made the Israeli response seem disproportionate and unprovoked. Unedited coverage, shown on Israel Television and Sky, reportedly made the odds look less formidable. Be that as it may, a mounting sense of paranoia has gripped the Jewish world, and with it a conviction that the mighty media have ganged up against defenceless little Israel.

The outgoing Israeli ambassador, Dror Zeigerman, has outgone from pulpit to pulpit, imploring congregants not to believe what the press reports, but to trust the word from Zion. The resurrected Bibi Netanyahu told the BBC that he grieves for every dead child, but the true killer is Yasir Arafat. Lines of perception are being blurred on both sides. In times of war, truth is the first casualty.

As far as British media are concerned, inasmuch as one can judge collegial currents, the only serious charge to be laid generically against them is one of boredom rather than bias. Apart from one or two known PLO sympathisers, most British correspondents in that part of the world are fairly even-handed. They are inevitably drawn to extraordinary events, which can be stage-managed by Palestinian ringmasters. Writers, however, are less likely to be manipulated by a rioting image than cameramen and their picture editors back home.

Among their many recent defeats, the Israelis have lost the upper hand in handling the media. They used to win the trust and affection of seasoned foreign correspondents by treating them professionally and talking candidly over a drink or two. The atmosphere in Jerusalem's foreign press centre when I used it 30 years ago was seldom cooler than cordial and the chief government censor was easily persuaded to release key members of his staff for an important cricket match.

Now, the Israelis have turned hostile and lost credibil-ity as they struggle to explain, with fantastical excuses, how a cowering child was shot by one or more of their soldiers. I seem to remember that when they downed a Libyan passenger plane over Sinai in 1972, Moshe Dayan was on air within minutes to apologise for the mistake. Today, ministers would probably claim it had been a kamikaze nuclear flight.

If the Israelis have lost press sympathy, it is because they have forgotten how to admit error and, where possible, make good. I bridled at Netanyahu's crassness in blaming Arafat for the boy's death. It was an Israeli bullet that killed him, just as it was a Palestinian knife that stabbed the yeshivah boy.

The press does not always get these details right, but it does correct them when wrong -which is more than we have come to expect from Israeli spokesmen.

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