[NY Sun title: "Press Bias Exposes Strange Logic of War"]
As staff at some of the world's most prestigious press organizations effectively take Hezbollah's side in its war with Israel, they inadvertently expose a profound transformation in the logic of warfare.
Some examples of their actions:
Reuters: Adnan Hajj, a freelance photographer with more than a decade of experience at Reuters, doctored his pictures to make Israeli attacks on Lebanon look more destructive and Lebanese more vulnerable. His embellishments created thicker and darker plumes of smoke from bombing raids and posed the same woman bewailing the loss of her bombed-out residence in three different locations. Reuters fired Mr. Hajj and withdrew 920 of his pictures from its archive. Further research by bloggers uncovered four types of fraudulent pictures by Reuters, all exaggerating Israeli aggressiveness. The bloggers even documented how a Reuters picture was staged.
The BBC: Editors actively trolled for personal accounts to demonize Israel, posting this request on its news pages: "Do you live in Gaza? Have you been affected by violence in the region? Send us your experiences using the form below. If you are happy to speak to us further please include contact details."
CNN: An anchor on its international program, Rosemary Church, implied that Israeli forces could shoot down Hezbollah's rockets but chose not to do so when she asked an Israeli spokesman, "would Israel not be trying to shoot them out of the sky? They have the capability to do that."
The Washington Post: Similarly, a military affairs reporter, Thomas Ricks, announced on national television that unnamed American military analysts believe that the Israeli government "purposely has left pockets of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, because as long as they're being rocketed, they can continue to have a sort of moral equivalency in their operations in Lebanon." Having one's own people injured, he explained, offers "the moral high ground."
All these press and broadcast activities stem from a perception that taking casualties and looking victimized helps one's standing in the war. Mr. Hajj's distortions, for example, were calculated to injure Israel's image, thereby manufacturing internal dissent, diminishing the country's international standing, and generating pressure on the government to stop its attacks on Lebanon.
But this phenomenon of each side parading its pain and loss inverts the historic order, whereby each side wants to intimidate the enemy by appearing ferocious, relentless, and victorious. In World War II, for instance, the U.S. Office of War Information prohibited the publication of films or photographs showing dead American soldiers for the first two years of fighting, and then only slightly relented. Meanwhile, its Bureau of Motion Pictures produced movies like "Our Enemy – The Japanese," showing dead bodies of Japanese and scenes of Japanese deprivation.
Proclaiming one's prowess and denigrating the enemy's has been the norm through millennia of Egyptian wall paintings, Greek vases, Arabic poetry, Chinese drawings, English ballads, and Russian theater. Why have combatants (and their allies in the press) now reversed this age-old and universal pattern, downplaying their own prowess and promoting the enemy's?
Because of the unprecedented power enjoyed by America and its allies. As the historian Paul Kennedy explained in 2002, "in military terms there is only one player on the field that counts." Looking back in time, he finds, "Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing." And Israel, both as a regional power in its own right and as a close ally of Washington, enjoys a parallel preponderance vis-à-vis Hezbollah.
Such power implies that, when West fights non-West, the outcome on the battlefield is a given. That settled in advance, the fighting is seen more like a police raid than traditional warfare. As in a police raid, modern wars are judged by their legality, the duration of hostilities, the proportionality of force, the severity of casualties, and the extent of economic and environmental damage.
These are all debatable issues, and debated they are, to the point that the Clausewitzian center of gravity has moved from the battlefield to the opeds and talking heads. How war is perceived has as much importance as how it actually is fought.
This new reality implies that Western governments, whether America in Iraq or Israel in Lebanon, need to see public relations as part of their strategy. Hezbollah has adapted to this new fact of life, but those governments have not.
Aug. 15, 2006 update: In an undated posting, Alex Safian of CAMERA posts this sort-of retraction by Thomas Ricks in a note to the Washington Post ombudsman, referring to his comment quoted above:
Ugh. I wish I hadn't. I'll attach a transcript at the end. What I said was accurate: that in an off-the-record conversation with military analysts, a couple had suggested that the Israeli strategy involved leaving Hezbellah 'rocket pockets' in place so as to shape public perceptions and give their forces more freedom of maneuver in Lebanon. Such a strategy might be considered logical and even moral, in that while suffering some short-term casualties, it would provide more protection for more Israelis in the long run.
But I've since heard from some smart, well-informed people that while such a strategy might be logical, that the Israeli public just wouldn't stand for it. And they were pretty dismayed that I has passed on the thought.
My comments were based on a long conversation I had with a senior Israeli official a couple of years ago …
Safian finds an inconsistency and thus a "serious problem" in this note:
on CNN's Reliable Sources Mr. Ricks described his source as "some U.S. military analysts," while in the note he describes his source as "a senior Israeli official." Which raises the question of whether Mr. Ricks had any source at all – besides himself, that is.
Aug. 18, 2006 update: The New York Sun reports in "Washington Post Editor Rebukes His Reporter for Television Comments on Israel" that
The executive editor of the Washington Post, Leonard Downie Jr., has rebuked one of his Pulitzer-Prize winning reporters for suggesting on television that Israel was purposely leaving Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon "because as long as they're being rocketed, they can continue to have a sort of moral equivalency in their operations." ...
"I have made clear to Tom Ricks that he should not have made those statements," Mr. Downie. ... Mr. Ricks told The New York Sun, "The comments were accurate: that I said I had been told this by people. I wish I hadn't said them, and I intend from now on to keep my mouth shut about it."