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Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

December 31st, 2008  |  Published in Reporting commentary

Haviv Rettig Gur  in the  Jerusalem Post writes Coordination is Putting Israel Ahead in the Media War looks at how the the Israelis are fighting the media war in the present conflict.

Unlike in previous military crises, “we have close coordination and unified messages between agencies,” says Yarden Vatikai, the director of the National Information Directorate, which is seeing its first trial by fire.

Established in the wake of the Winograd Report’s criticism of insufficient coordination in the media effort during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the NID’s purpose is to synchronize the content and tone of Israel’s message across the many organizations that carry it to the world, whether official or unofficial.

What strikes me is that the established media have a very hard time understanding that there is an entirely new theater of operations – aka the Internet – in the media war. Richard Landes addressed this issue extensively at the Herzliya Conference  in 2006 which, like the Winograd Report, also reviewed the impact of media in the 2006 war. The impression of some bloggers who attended the conference  – if I recall correctly Michael You and Michael J Totten were among them – was that the Israeli government officials simply did not get the idea that the media arena had changed. Two years later what I see is a Jerusalem Post report describing an industrial age PR effort. This lack of recognition of the new circumstances is exactly what McLuhan meant when he talked about numbness to the new – or driving into the future with our eyes firmly fixed on the rear view mirror. All this is not to say that the Israelis haven’t learned a great deal. In part the new effort is avoiding feeding the media material that ends up backfiring. (‘Shock and Awe’ anyone?)

“We’re not seeing the grandiose military press conferences or the nonstop video footage from air force strikes” so familiar to Israelis and foreign journalists from the Lebanon conflict, says Vatikai. Instead, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit is one of the agencies using a more nuanced and prepared approach, investing its efforts in getting multilingual officers on the air on as many foreign outlets as possible.

And to be fair the new effort is getting some results:

Using figures taken from a Foreign Ministry media tracking operation run out of the television studios in Neveh Ilan, Shir-On cites an eight-hour period between 4 p.m. and midnight Sunday during which tracking of CNN, the BBC, Sky News, Fox, Al-Jazeera English and France 24 yielded 335 combined minutes of Gaza coverage.

Of these, 58 minutes were given to Israeli representatives, while only 19 were given to Palestinian ones.

Elsewhere, a survey published by French newspaper Le Figaro on Sunday showed that 55 percent of French respondents were understanding toward the Israeli operation, while 45% were critical of it.

“When you have a 10% lead in France, that’s better than we could have expected,” notes Shir-On.

But we are still deep in the 20th century here.  What I see is a centralized industrial age solution to a centralized industrial age media problem. Television people have known that war is ugly on TV since Vietnam. It is time that the military and governments got better at dealing with that built in quality of the medium. The counter move by television is obvious and predictable:

The relative success in conveying Israel’s message “won’t last for long,” predicts Shir-On, if only because “the pictures are not good. We’re finding the problem that whenever a television station puts on an Israeli spokesperson, they put alongside him in split-screen pictures of carnage in Gaza.”

Seeing is believing. We accept visual evidence at face value and subject verbal information to scrutiny. The pictures win almost every time. It is the nature of television  that it is first and foremost a dramatic medium dealing in story and good guys and bad guys.  As a medium it is particularly deceptive in documentary and news reporting modes because it uses the tools of drama and storytelling while posing as a transparent conveyor of information.

I have been arguing in recent posts that the numbness is wearing off and indeed as the article continues I was overjoyed to read that the nature of TV is finally becoming visible to official charged with dealing with it.

“It’s hard to wield words against terrible pictures,” agrees Gillerman, but insists “our hasbara is working correctly” in the face of difficult odds.

“Television is inherently a medium that likes drama, blood and tears,” says Government Press Office Director Danny Seaman. “This means we’re behind before we’ve even started. To understand us, you have to speak to people suffering quietly over many years. The pictures [from Gaza] are much more dramatic.”

Still, nowhere in the article is the role of the Internet mentioned. It remains numb in the sense that the industrial age media are seen as the only source of information. It is these obsolete terms that the article closes discussing the merits of allowing foreign journalists into the Gaza strip.

Some Israeli officials are skeptical of allowing such access over the Israel-Gaza border. According to Seaman, “Hamas won’t let them report honestly.”

In Israel’s experience, he said, “the foreign journalists don’t have the backbone and courage to speak against Hamas in Hamas-controlled territory. So they become the fig leaf placed over Hamas propaganda. Now that only Hamas is reporting from Gaza, people understand the report is biased.”

Not so, says Tim Butcher, Middle East correspondent for the London-based Daily Telegraph.

“Israel’s barring of foreign journalists is counterproductive. It allows a vacuum of information to build up in the Gaza Strip into which propaganda, bias and bigotry is poured.

“The only way for Israel’s narrative to be credible is for objective assessors, among them foreign journalists, to have access to the area,” Butcher said.

What I notice is that both sides of the argument sound as if the established media still had a monopoly on reporting. This to totally ignore the 21st Century information war being waged on the Internet. It is beyond the scope of this post to deal with the political debate on the Internet about this conflict, but here are some links to get a sense of how bloggers  erode the numbness by exposing misleading photography and suppression of information.

Here Richard Landes looks at the controversy over the number and kind of casualties that resulted from the initial Israeli bombings in the Gaza strip.

A sub debate about the NY Times dropping the words “The vast majority of those killed were Hamas police officers and security men, including two senior commanders” from this article are found at these pro Israeli sites here and here and quoted by an anti Israel site here. It looks like the words quoted were there and then were not. However, checking the  article as I write this post – Jan 31, 2008 – I find the information not ‘disappeared’ entirely, but back in this revised form:

Palestinian officials said that most of the dead were security officers for Hamas, including two senior commanders, and that at least 600 people had been wounded in the attacks.

While I trust that the original words were published and then removed for whatever reason the Newspaper of Record seems somewhat exposed to suspicion of covertly shaping the record. I don’t have the expertise or clairvoyance to feel certain if this kind of revision is an example of normal editorial processes or a response to getting caught out. I am certain that text becomes more malleable in the electronic environment and that our printing press based notion of a reliable record needs not to be just revised, but re-visioned. As the NY Times faces possible bankruptcy the question arises do we need a newspaper of record or new kind of web based repository to serve this purpose? Also how do we guarantee the integrity of either in an electronic environment?

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