Manipulating the Media
One effective component of Hezbollah’s attack on Israel was its canny media campaign. One must not overlook the efforts the Islamists invested in their propaganda operations, nor underrate the success these efforts achieved. They did much to swing international opinion against Israel and to their own favor—a crucial key to Hezbollah’s victory.
The roots of Hezbollah’s manipulation of the media actually trace back to Vietnam. There, in plain view of the world, a peasant army put the United States military to flight. This was a monumental geopolitical event that, in the eyes of Islamists, was worthy of thorough study. With help from the Soviet Union, Islamists focused particular attention on the successful role of the antiwar movement in the U.S., amplified by the anti-military media, in applying political pressure on Washington.
During the 1970s, as the Soviet Union became more involved in the Middle East, it began to exploit the Palestinian revolutionary movement. “To further their joint aims, Moscow advised the [Palestinian Liberation Organization] to develop a political image that would gain support from Western elites,” wrote Yossef Bodansky in The High Cost of Peace. Thus, Arafat sent a delegation to Vietnam to meet with the Communists there. “[T]he Vietnamese told their Palestinian guests about their success in manipulating the Western media, to the point that they had a direct impact on the United States’ ability to wage war against North Vietnam and the Vietcong.”
The chief of the PLO delegation, Abu Iyad, bemoaned the discrepancy in the West’s attitudes toward the Vietnamese and the Palestinian armed struggles—regarding one as a noble endeavor and the other as rank terrorism. The Vietnamese suggested it was just a matter of packaging. They then coached the PLO to develop a more media-friendly program—one that, while retaining the ultimate objective of eliminating Israel, acknowledged the fact that “in the near term it would be politically advantageous to accept transient phases and even interim solutions. … The Vietnamese team in Hanoi introduced the Palestinians to such issues as dealing with the U.S. media and with liberal political circles and institutions, and they provided insight on the power of the Jewish community. Disinformation and psychological-warfare experts assisted the Palestinians in formulating a ‘moderate political program’”—one that used “moderate, even vague” language that appeared nonthreatening to Israel. According to Abu Iyad, the PLO adopted the Vietnamese plan straight away. Soon after, at the Twelfth Palestinian National Council on June 19, 1974, it began its Phases Program/Phased Plan that accepted—implicitly as only an interim step—a Palestinian entity existing on less than the totality of the present State of Israel.
As a measure of the strategy’s success, Yasser Arafat spoke before the United Nations for the first time that November, accepted by the international community as a legitimate head of state.
Time and again, Western nations have demonstrated a deep desire to believe that, deep down, all men are reasonable—not so different from us. Neville Chamberlain saw a fundamentally good man in Adolf Hitler. Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton were convinced that Arafat, despite all his rhetoric to the contrary, in his heart, wanted to live harmoniously alongside Jews; this naive view was shared by the Nobel committee members who gave Arafat a peace prize.
Over the last 50 years, the ideals of political correctness have so saturated the Western intellectual world—including the realms of international diplomacy and newsmedia—that the fault for virtually all problems and grievances on the planet has been laid at the feet of the U.S., Britain and Israel, while ruthless villains have come to be routinely excused for whatever vile behavior they may choose to engage in simply because they are “victims.”
The forces of Islamist extremism have long been taking notes on this deep-seated weakness of Israel’s and America’s, determined to exploit it in every way possible. In Hezbollah’s case in its war on Israel, this effort took various forms.
As we reported last month (“Hezbollah’s Propagandists”), terrorist “press officers” chaperoned reporters through bombed-out wreckage in Lebanon showing apparent evidence of destroyed civilian life in an effort to undermine Israel’s claim to be targeting only military sites. In some cases, they opportunistically boosted these images’ emotional value, parading dead bodies of children before cameramen for hours at a time. The truth is not that Israel bombed indiscriminately—in fact, it scrupulously tried to avoid civilian deaths—but that Hezbollah deliberately launched its attacks from civilian areas, purposefully endangering and sacrificing Lebanese citizens (which is a war crime) in order to garner international sympathy when Israel retaliated.
cnn’s Nic Robertson, who created a widely broadcast piece that was quite sympathetic to Hezbollah after receiving one of its “guided tours,” admitted, “[T]here’s no doubt about it: Hezbollah has a very, very sophisticated and slick media operations. … They had control of the situation.” Alternatively, journalists who reported the “wrong” information were harassed. Time magazine contributor Christopher Allbritton, in his blog while reporting from southern Lebanon, wrote, “To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loathe to say too much about them. The Party of God [Hezbollah] has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”
A primary formula Islamist terrorists use is what Ilana Freedman, who has worked in counter-terrorism for two decades, calls “The first story out wins.” A classic example was the infamous “Jenin massacre” of 2002, when the Palestinian news agency ran to the world’s newsmedia describing an Israeli door-to-door raid as an Israeli “atrocity” in which 500 innocent civilians were massacred. Despite the fact that an independent UN commission later found that only 56 Palestinians, mostly terrorists, had been killed, the story stuck. In June, Hamas charged that an Israeli gunboat had fired on a Palestinian family on a Gazan beach, brutally killing seven people. Though that version of events made headlines around the world (for example, the Guardian reported, “A barrage of Israeli artillery shells rained down on a busy Gaza beach yesterday, killing seven Palestinians, three of them children”), an investigation ruled out rocket or artillery fire causing the event. Rather, evidence pointed to an explosive device planted by Hamas. “But,” as Freedman noted, “the first version of the story is what is remembered—indeed, has become a staple of anti-Israel rhetoric, supporting Hamas’s charges of Israeli brutality” (New York Post, August 8).
Hezbollah used this technique with precision during its war with Israel. Case in point: Qana. Seven hours after an Israeli airstrike, Hezbollah reported 56 Lebanese, including 34 children, had been killed. Yet, the actual number, as reported by the International Red Cross, was 28 deaths, 16 of them children. “Wise media spinners rush to fill the immediate news vacuum,” wrote Freedman. “Indeed, they are ‘miraculously’ on the spot when the story breaks. To gain their PR advantage, they are willing to stage events and manufacture stories, which they spin into sensational, headline-grabbing sound- and sight-bites. Then they rush to get their first story out to the broadest possible audience.”
Naked media support for Hezbollah emerged in some bizarre ways. A Reuters photographer was caught doctoring photos in order to increase their sensational appeal and cast Israel in a negative light; evidence that surfaced on the blogosphere forced Reuters to fire him and pull over 900 photos from its database—after, of course, a number of them featured in some of the world’s most prominent dailies, including an August 5 front-page photo for the New York Times. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America suggested other questionable images from Associated Press and Agence France Presse could also have been staged and distributed for use around the world.
It is impossible to calculate the effects of this media trickery on global opinion, but it should not be underestimated. In the end, a sovereign nation was roundly castigated for trying to defend itself against acts of war that threatened the security of its citizens, while a group of terrorists emerged, in many circles, as martyrs and heroes. Arab nations raged with indignation over Israel’s supposed ruthlessness; even traditional allies of Israel condemned its actions as “disproportionate.” An increase in anti-Semitic acts cropped up in nations all over the world during Israel’s campaign in Lebanon. The longer the war raged, the wider the gap became between Israel and most of the rest of the world.
British author Melanie Philips made this poignant comment on her website: “If, heaven forbid, this does turn into a second Holocaust, we can now discern the key difference from the first one. This time the Jews will be blamed for their own destruction.”
Surely Hezbollah and its sponsors, as they sit back and assess the results of their efforts, are congratulating themselves for their success in manipulating global opinion by using the media to their best advantage.