Consumers of Western Media are by now familiar with many of Hizbullah's despicable tactics in its ongoing fight with Israel.
As the latest villain in the War on Terror - having inherited the role with breathtaking suddenness from, in very particular order, Osama bin Laden (need him), Saddam Hussein (got him), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (got him) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (need him) - Hizbullah, we are told, is a seasoned practitioner of just the kinds of dirty moves that you would expect from a maniacal Muslim fighting force.
The militia is accused of conniving to blend in with the civilian population and of using children and UN observers as "sandbags" against Israeli ordnance fired in good faith (and with all due concern for innocent life) at the enemy.
And now, in a particularly insidious development, Hizbullah turns out to be devilishly good at manipulating public opinion. In the words of CNN correspondent Nic Robertson, the Lebanese militia "has a very, very sophisticated and slick media operations."
Robertson would know. As part of a group of journalists who went on a Hizbullah-guided tour of Beirut's now-decimated southern suburbs, he was subject to one of the militant group's shrewdest techniques for manipulating the media: Show the cameras what Israel has done to Beirut.
Talk about spin. What better prop than a two-dimensional wasteland of smoking concrete for Hizbullah to make its wily case that Israel's response to the attack of July 12 has been disproportionate?
How I came across Robertson's assessment is rather a long story. It was not by watching CNN. Local stations - notably the Christian-affiliated Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation and the Sunni-affiliated New TV - have throughout the current hostilities in the Middle East reported circles around the Time/Warner-owned Cable News Network, whose reporters generally do not share the locals' advantage of speaking Lebanese Arabic and knowing the local terrain. Adding difficulty to CNN's job is the fact that the network is understaffed in Lebanon, with five correspondents working here as of earlier this week (as opposed to 11 in Israel).
I started reading about CNN because I was invited to appear this Sunday on the network's program "Reliable Sources" with Howard Kurtz. The idea as it was presented to me was that I would share my views on blogging in time of war, on the quality of media coverage here and at home, that kind of thing.
Never having caught "Reliable Sources," it occurred to me - unfortunately after I had already accepted the invitation to appear, which I subsequently had to unaccept - to cast around a bit on the Internets and find out a little about what I was getting into. First I checked out the site of the Israeli blogger who was to appear opposite me on "Reliable Sources." Who was this fellow Internet diarist who would, I supposed, provide point to my counterpoint, parry to my thrust?
From reading her blog - http://allisonkaplansommer.blogmosis.com - Allison Kaplan Sommer seems like a nice family person and I wish her nothing but the best. With equal avidity I wish never again to be subjected to her prose. What is one to make, for example, of her reaction to the death of the four unarmed UN military observers whom Israel killed on Tuesday on accident after being warned 21 times that they were about to kill four unarmed UN military observers?
"What Is Kofi Annan Smoking?" muses the blog of Allison Kaplan Sommer. "The man has got to be on drugs to accuse Israel of deliberately targeting UN observers in Lebanon."
//quoting Allison Kaplan Sommer//
I know it's not a joking matter, but still, I can't help wondering what exactly the UN "observers" were doing as they were sitting in the middle of the fray. Peacekeepers I would understand (mind you, they'd be failing at their mission, but at least they'd be doing something. But observers? I'm picturing something like this:
"Hey, Sven, I think I observe a Hezbollah rocket headed over the border for Haifa."
"Nice observation, Jonas. You know, if I look carefully, I think I am observing several Israeli aircraft headed for Beirut. Or is it Tyre. Hmmmm. Wait a minute, I think I need to observe this more carefully. Where are my spectacles?"
//end quoted material//
Observers with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) - which has been in place in South Lebanon for four months and 28 years, since March of 1978, and which has vowed despite being deliberately targeted by Israel to uphold its mandate and not to move an inch - said yesterday, on Friday July 28, that due to heavy Israeli shelling and "intensive aerial bombardment" on several nearby towns, "there are a number of civilians who are still stranded in these towns."
"Stranded" meaning in trouble, may not have water or food, don't have access to medical care, may soon suffer the brunt of the "intensive aerial bombardment." The UNIFIL observers are powerless to intervene in such situations, of course, but they can get the word out to someone who may be able to help (please?).
When CNN first approached me I was flattered to think that I had been sought out as a commentator who might provide a special vantage on the current hostilities in the Middle East, as a person familiar with Western Media who is living in Lebanon, gaining proficiency in Arabic, reading Lebanese newspapers, watching Lebanese TV, talking with Lebanese people.
Then I read the blog of Allison Kaplan Sommer - my prospective counterpart, my presumed coequal - and realized that in fact CNN had simply set out to recruit, from the morass of stupidity that is the blogosphere, the two stinkingest idiots to be found, one of whom, apparently, alas, was I.
Embarrassing, yes. Still, I held off on bowing out of the broadcast. A lot of people watch CNN, and wasn't there some chance that, if I went in well-rested and with a share of moxie and good humor, I might still be able to provide a special insight on the current hostilities in the Middle East?
I decided to explore the thing further by reading what I could about the host of "Reliable Sources," Howard Kurtz. Howard Kurtz, it turns out, is an extremely prolific journalist who grew up in Brooklyn and graduated from Columbia J-School and who seems to have worked everywhere and with everyone and I quickly gathered that if you have not heard of Howard Kurtz then it is your fault not his.
And yet Kurtz, like a fevered denizen of deepest Congo, remained an enigma to me. Handily, part of the transcript from a recent episode of "Reliable Sources" - an episode featuring CNN Correspondent Nic Robertson - was posted on the blog of Allison Kaplan Sommer, who was in the thick of illustrating to her faithful readers that "Hizbollah is controlling the message over there":
HOWARD KURTZ: All right. I want to go now to CNN's Nic Robertson, who joins us live from Beirut.
Nic Robertson, we were speaking a moment ago about the way journalists cover Hezbollah and some of these tours that Hezbollah officials have arranged of the bomb damage in the areas of Southern Lebanon. You, I believe, got one of those tours.
//end quoted material//
Actually the tour Robertson took was in Southern Beirut, not Southern Lebanon. Nitpicking aside, what is Kurtz going to ask, I wondered. His is a media criticism show, so he won't ask Robertson to estimate how many square acres of residential buildings were leveled in the two weeks of Israeli air strikes on the Dahiyeh, or to estimate how many hundreds of civilians died in the strikes, or how many hundreds of thousands were displaced. There must be a media issue at stake here somewhere ... but what?
KURTZ (cont'd): Isn't it difficult for you as a journalist to independently verify any claims made by Hezbollah, because you're not able to go into the buildings and see whether or not there is any military activity or any weapons being hidden there?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Howard, there's no doubt about it: Hezbollah has a very, very sophisticated and slick media operations. In fact, beyond that, it has very, very good control over its areas in the south of Beirut. They deny journalists access into those areas. They can turn on and off access to hospitals in those areas. They have a lot of power and influence. You don't get in there without their permission.
But there's no doubt about it. They had control of the situation. They designated the places that we went to, and we certainly didn't have time to go into the houses or lift up the rubble to see what was underneath."
//end quoted material//
An applause-worthy pas de deux. But what are Kurtz and Robertson implying here?
Kurtz and Robertson are implying that members of Hizbullah - by preventing Western reporters from roaming freely in the ashen moonscape that used to be the neighborhood where they, the Hizbullah members, probably grew up - are enacting a cover-up, hiding some detail that would, if revealed, change the perception that the destruction of the Dahiyeh was a criminal act.
Now I personally happen to think that Hizbullah probably did or does have some weapons stashed away somewhere in the Dahiyeh. I also happen to think that the attempt to explode those weapons was not worth exploding so many of the neighborhood's inhabitants.
I certainly don't think that CNN's correspondents, but for the zealous attention of a few Hizbullah minders, are on the verge of uncovering any clandestine "military activity" or "weapons being hidden" of any kind, anywhere in Lebanon, no matter how much rubble they are given unsupervised access to.
When's the last time you saw this? A camera following a CNN correspondent through a creaky steel door half-off its hinges; the spotlight illuminating a pile of Kalashnikovs and Katyushas hastily abandoned in one corner; and the correspondent turning to the camera guy: "Oh, snap! Weapons cache, yo! Are you getting this??"
Earlier today I had lunch with a friend, Hussein, whose family lost two homes to the Israeli strikes, one in the South and one in Beirut. His brother was wounded in the strikes on the Dahiyeh. And yet Hussein is not particularly mad at Israel. Instead he is frustrated at the prospect of a newly strengthened Hizbullah following this war. The Lebanese government, he told me, will not be able to do anything for the people who have lost their homes and livelihoods. (The government of Lebanon is $36 billion dollars in debt, a figure equivalent to 180 percent of GDP. In other words, the government of Lebanon is super, super broke.)
What will happen, Hussein told me, is that Hizbullah, using money from international donors such as Iran and Syria, will provide for these people and rebuild their homes. And a new cycle of loyalty will be created.
Which sets Lebanon up (and this is me talking now) for misery without foreseeable end. Because Hizbullah will continue to take potshots at Israel. And Israel, with US endorsement, has shown itself willing to hold the entire country - its economy, its people - responsible for the actions of the extreme fringe.
As others have pointed out, the Israeli strikes not only crippled Lebanon's airport and all major highways but also destroyed manufacturing targets such as the dairy producer Liban Lait that have nothing to do with Hizbullah. Not the least of Lebanon's assets to be destroyed in the strikes was its tourism industry, which had been described as "resurgent."
But back to CNN:
KURTZ: To what extent do you feel like you're being used to put up the pictures that they want - obviously, it's terrible that so many civilians have been killed - without any ability, as you just outlined, to verify, because - to verify Hezbollah's role, because this is a fighting force that is known to blend in among the civilian population and keep some of its weapons there?
ROBERTSON: Absolutely. [...]
//end quoted material//
What Kurtz is driving at here is not wholly clear, but I take him to mean that the "terrible" loss of civilian life under the Israeli bombs was justified, if only in part, because maybe some Hizbullah fighters or an arsenal was taken out in the process. As I perceive it Kurtz is not out of line with the American consensus here.
It is my opinion that this consensus is the product of a broad indifference to the loss of Lebanese life. Nothing less, I believe, could generate such disregard for what happened to the residents of southern Beirut beginning on July 12 and for what is still happening to the residents of South Lebanon. What happened in Beirut was the targeting with heavy ordnance from air and sea of a sitting-duck civilian population. It was a bad deal.
Anyhow for interested viewers Allison Kaplan Sommer takes her star turn sometime around 10:45 am Eastern Time tomorrow. I'll be in the audience.