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Battles Lines: The America Media and the Intifada.

Five years from now, when the 1.7 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza have declared themselves independent and established their own mini-state along the Jordanian and Israeli borders, they will owe a debt of gratitude to the American media, particularly network television, for having "discovered" the intifada and promoted the sponrtaneous Palestinian uprising to the status of a major international crisis. In the process, Palestinians, who after 1948 had lived more or less quiescently under Jordanian occupation and since 1967 under Israeli occupation, traveled a road of self-discovery that gave them increasing pride in their sacrifices and, more important, a genuine sense of self-awareness or "peoplehood," as they were no longer caught in the vise between the Israelis and abject subsservience to the PLO. Risking their lives, they formulated their own demands, created their own incipient political leadership, and even imposed a brutal system of justice on those who dared to flout their orders. In the five years from 1987 to 1992, the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza became something that most of the world had denied them throughout the 44 years of Israel's existence: a nation.

Jim Lederman's superb study (*) at first appears to be yet another book bashing the press for having been unfair to Israel and for giving disproportionate coverage to a story that in any other country would have warranted at most a minute or two each week on the evening news. Indeed, in a press blurb from New Republic editor-in-chief Martin Peretz, the Harvard don lavishes unusual praise on this "seasoned and savvy newsman" (Lederman was the correspondent for National Public Radio in Israel for 14 years) for showing "how the American media misreports the Arab-Israeli conflict" and has "turned a complex historical problem into a simple morality play."

To Lederman's credit, he does much more. By depicting the Palestinian uprising as a struggle for national identity and independence that was waged as much against the external diktats of the PLO as the internal harshness of Israeli rule, he validates the story as one that deserved the attention it received. As he points out late in the book, the test that should be applied to media coverage of the intifada is one of "balance," not "fairness," because fairness is an emotional yardstick that will always be skewed in the eyes of each beholder. Lederman faults the television media for frequently being unbalanced in its coverage, but he is too sophisticated a newsman to blame the messenger for the message, however unpleasant it may be. Early in Battle Lines, he dispenses with one of the most widely held shibboleths, telling us: "Contrary to the complaints of many Israeli apologists that many or most foreign press corps members are inherently anti-semitic or anti-Israeli, a good number of the attitudes prevalent within the foreign press corps were shaped by the Israelis themselves." And later in the book, he points out that "whatever [journalists'] personal political beliefs, their loyalty at the tape machine or the film editing table was not to one side or another in a political dispute. It was to the story and to the drama contained within it."

Rocks and roles

It is that drama Lederman studied, viewing more than 800 nightly newscasts from December 8, 1987, to June 1988, watching some of them more than 40 times. (He limited his coverage of electronic media to the three major networks, omitting CNN because, unfortunately, he could not get ready access to its archives.) He also examined more than 2,000 dispatches from the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.

This book is unique in that while Lederman helps us understand why the media was so attracted to the plight of the Palestinians, he seldom accuses the media of playing fast and loose with the facts. The Palestinians, he contends, "blundered" into a great media victory and the Israelis into a great media defeat. The Israelis, however, could have reacted differently. They had choices that the Palestinians did not have. They could have developed a strategy for dealing with the media but instead "reacted like wounded animals, lashing out at the press indiscriminately," which, Lederman points out, may have helped assuage critics at home "but did little to counter perceptions elsewhere in the world of intransigent and incompetent Israeli behavior."

The intifada, Lederman notes, played to the proclivities of the television agenda--violence on an almost daily basis and a heartwarming David-and-Goliath): "It was combat reporting in a new form--rocks against guns, visual symbols like flags and graffiti pitted against the traditional signs of military power, like helmets and jeeps. And it had participants wearing clearly defined uniforms that enabled viewers to distinguish one side from the other very easily." Lederman also admits that "by any definition, the intifada was a crisis. It came unexpectedly. It had a major impact on many people and on public perceptions [and] it swept away much of the conventional political and journalistic wisdom of the time."

Lederman cites the Israeli failure to craft a coherent policy toward the foreign press regarding the unprecedented popular uprising as the major cause of Israel's public relations defeat. In an age when, Lederman writes, "cheap, user-friendly imaging technologies and high-speed communications have changed the nature of journalism." Israeli censors were still acting as if they could control press coverage merely by closing off access to the Palestinians or expelling foreign correspondents who disobeyed their ground rules. Lederman recalls the days when he first arrived in Israel and the Israeli censors routinely cut off his phone lines; when film had to be hand-carried out of the country, meaning at least a day or more would elapse before it could be broadcast; and when the newsmagazines had to fly in a special courier from abroad to pick up their correspondents' uncensored copy. Those, of course, were the days before the fax machine or the portable satellite dish.

Israel did not comprehend the "real-time revolution" that had occurred when videotape replaced film and the portable video camera could be inexpensively obtained or distributed to Palestinians. "The foreign press could not and would not play the role the Israelis wanted to assign it: that of a single mouthpiece," he writes. The information revolution meant that the Palestinians could see the front page of a newspaper on the same day it was published more than 10,000 miles away. Lederman writes that "it is impossible to underestimate the effect this feedback mechanism had on local Palestinians. They translated the enormous publicly they were receiving into a perception that they were winning their struggle for the first time."

Biased in Gaza

Despite his conscientious effort to remain even-handed, Lederman does target a few television correspondents and anchormen, notably CBS's Bob Simon and ABC's Peter Jennings, for being "prone to editorializing and putting spin" on their introductions. On March 1, 1988, for example, Jennings told viewers that "the Israelis broke into a hospital, fired tear gas, and dragged out two boys and beat them," without ever mentioning what the Associated Press reported on the same day: that Palestinian youngsters had been using hospitals for six weeks as hideouts and staging grounds for rock and firebomb attacks. And Lederman faults Simon for not being present when, on February 25, 1988, a CBS camera crew took "its famous pictures of Israeli soldiers beating Palestinians with rocks near Nablus," and yet going on the air with a detailed, first-person account of the beating.

Simon is quoted as saying in his voice-over: "This seemed cold, deliberate, methodical. It went on for 40 minutes.... Hospitals in the West Bank and Gaza are full of young Arabs with broken arms. This is how it's done--multiple fractures with a rock. The boys did not scream. They did not beg." Lederman notes that nowhere in his piece did Simon mention that the Israeli soldiers had been subjected to several hours of taunts and rock-throwing and that "the Palestinians in this case did not have their arms broken; the next night, they were seen walking without casts or slings."

In analyzing why such veteran newsmen as Simon and Jennings took it upon themselves to become actors in this international drama, Lederman makes his most important contribution. He describes an "information loop" that made natural allies of the media and the Palestinians, with rock-throwing incidents virtually staged for the cameramen. "By early February, journalists had learned to anticipate that there would be riots following Friday services in the mosques. The therefore positioned themselves, in advance, at the mosques.... On the days in between, journalists' activities were guided to a remarkable degree by the leaflets that the underground leadership had begun to issue. Those leaflets, aimed primarily at the local Palestinian population, set out the days on which general strikes or particular protest demonstrations were to take place." And in making themselves readily available for on-the-record interviews, the Palestinians were offering the media both instant accessibility and an uncensored story that was violent and moving (often at the same time). Meanwhile, Israeli officials refused to be quoted and instituted an access system that demoted the foreign press to the rank of second-class journalists, making the Palestinian leaders seem even more attractive.

Be the early spring of 1988, less than four months after the intifada had begun, it was clear that the alliance had created, from the viewpoint of both the Palestinians and the media, the desired loop. It was fueling the uprising itself, igniting more violence and thus forcing more and more journalists to cover the story; it was making American Jews more skeptical about Israeli government policy; it was uniting Arab Americans behind a common issue and forcing Israeli leaders "to hunker down in defense." But most important, it was creating a new dynamic in which it was impossible for the U.S. government to remain on the sidelines.

"By taking a leading role as a participant and not merely being a neutral mediator between the parties to the conflict and the American public, [television] had its own stakes and therefor could not, despite pretensions to the contrary, be a disinterested party in presenting all of the facts to the public in a sober manner," Lederman writes. The Palestinians had discovered that in the United States, the media serves as a separate, quasi-branch of government with rights and privileges enshrined in the Bill of Rights but without the responsibility (other than ratings and advertising revenue) to answer to its critics. Lederman adroitly points out that before the intifida was four weeks old, television was not only covering the news; it was helping to set the national and international agenda. "When the secretary of state said today that violence has never brought peace to the Middle East," Jennings reported in his introduction to an eight-minute segment on January 7, 1988, "he was repeating what hundreds of politicians and statesmen have said before him for as long as anyone can remember. Today, the Israelis have shot and killed another Palestinian. The Israeli prime minister is thumbing his nose at the United Nations. The Israeli government and the Reagan administration are getting on each other's nerves." How could anyone, in the wake of such a broadcast to millions of Americans, remain disinterested? The battle lines were drawn--not merely between Israel and the Palestinians but between Israel and the United States. And the media was drawing those lines.

Media diPLOmacy

In his well-researched book, the author seems to be experiencing an internal struggle between his allegiance to his profession as a journalist and his sympathies for Israel as the victim of often biased coverage. In perhaps the most telling observation of the book, Lederman hints that the intifada itself might have been avoided if Israel had been more responsive to genuine Palestinian efforts to create an indigenous leadership in the West Bank and Gaza both before and immediately after the signing of the 1978 Camp David accords. It was Israel's obsession with destroying the PLO that blinded the Jewish state to efforts that might have succeeded in supplanting it. "The Israelis, preoccupied with their single-minded policy of control in the occupied territories, failed to recognize the true nature of these political developments," writes Lederman. He cites Israel's firing of mayors and other municipal officials who had been elected on pro-PLO slates in the only free elections ever held in the territories. He points to the government's policy of encouraging mosques to be built in Gaza so that the fundamentalist Moslem Brotherhood could be strengthened as a bulwark against the PLO (a policy that resulted in the creation of a far more radical Islamic group, HAMAS, formed immediately after the intifada began). He also cites the Israeli effort to destroy the National Guidance Council. "Any hopes that West Bankers may have had about being on the verge of achieving some sort of representational government were buried. . . . Stonings were almost the only means left to the Palestinians for political self-expression, and what they expressed was continually building rage and frustration. They were both the final warning signals and the final rehearsal for the intifada."

Battle Lines does not quite close its own loop by concluding that Israel's hardline Likud government not only lacked a policy for dealing with what it saw as the foreign media's threat to its security, but also was bankrupt when it came to policies for dealing with the causes of the intifada itself. In an epilogue, Lederman compares the almost ideal conditions under which American reporters worked in Israel with the restraints and censorship they readily accepted in covering the Gulf war. In the latter, he writes, "both sides recognized that this was as much a media war as a war on the battlefield." Battle Lines succeeds when it examines the Israeli failure to come up with a strategy for fighting the media war, and in detailing the American media's penchant for covering itself in glory when it sees an opportunity to fight for the underdog and simultaneously set the national agenda. It falls short by failing to recognize that the Palestinian uprising, like the earlier underground Zionist struggle against British rule, is a legitimate popular revolution and therefor warrants the coverage, even if biased, that it received. Exhaustive and cogently written, Lederman's study should be read by anyone who is concerned with Israel's survival in the information age.

John P. Wallach is foreign editor of the Hearst Newspapers and the author of Arafat: In the Eye of the Beholder.

(*) Battle Lines: The American Media and the Intifada. Jim Leaderman. Holt, $29.95.
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Author:Wallach, John P.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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