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ICG Risk Blog - [ Where imagery has the power of bullets ]

Where imagery has the power of bullets


Part 1

Media minefields await the unwary in any contentious issue but the Arab-Israeli divide is especially treacherous. In general terms, readers are referred to the previous A note on sources which I tried to separate bias and venom masquerading as fact:

I like to say that "Truth, beauty and contact lenses are all in the eye of the beholder."... The pro-Israeli HonestReporting is often not, but it is only modestly apologetic in comparison to the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), the velocity of whose text barely holds onto a claim of legitimacy in presenting an Israeli issue. In opposition, there is the Institute for Historical Review (IHR) and FrontPage which I place in orbit between HR and CAMERA. Moving right, Jew Watch claims it is "NOT a hate site" but while it is largely devoid of doggerel, its texts push too great a slant. Farther to the right are those who decry the Holohuggers and Holocaustomaniacs. There is much worse. That said, a bad or dubious site can post a solid item. Attention is required as one good paragraph does not guarantee that another will follow it.

One watched this tug of war played out over such events such as the Qana bombing and the accuracy of certain Reuters imagery. In trying to address the impact of genuine and doctored imagery in the Lebanese battle, a NYT item, In Wars, Quest for Media Balance Is Also a Battlefield, I believe, unwittingly opened with what I would call bias in its framing comments over "the role of images in fairly portraying the conflict incited nearly five weeks ago by Hezbollah’s raid into Israel and its kidnapping of two soldiers."  Neither Hezbollah or most any Sunni or Shia would say that they 'started' the affair and I am on record as criticizing the term 'kidnapping' for what was a peer-to-peer military POW capture effort as opposed to a criminal offense that kidnapping conotates. That aside, the NYT cites Max Boot:

"Hezbollah is winning the war of images because it’s not being pinned with immoral and unconscionable war tactics, not to mention the genocidal war aim to wipe Israel off the map." [Both Boot and Victor Davis Hanson] argue that civilian casualties, while regrettable, have never been a factor in determining the justice of a war. In their view, if the news media during World War II had displayed photo upon photo of the German and Japanese victims of Allied bombing raids, it would not have altered the morality of the cause.

Like it or not, asymmetrical opponents now have the tools to instantly rush emotional imagery to press in support of their cause. Arabs, and now increasingly Muslims of any stripe, are predisposed to believe Hezbollah's accounting and I think that Western media would face a Herculean task even if it wanted to redress the matter. All it can reasonably do is to present the issue to its readership without undue bias that does not pander to the predisposition of its readers. The pro-Israeli press, especially here in the US and UK, does not make it any easier as they tilt the opposite direction.

American Jewish friends sent me Tom Gross' Media Missiles. Working for the enemy even though their copy came via a conservative blog, Little Green Footballs, which, I think, that they would not otherwise read. Many of Gross' themes still caught my attention and are worthy of comment before delving into greater specifics:

  1. Controlled shepherding of journalists: This is not anti-Israeli propaganda - at least from the journalists' side - but miserable reporting, possibly fearful reporting. I could substitute parts of Russia, Central Asia, Africa and South America and get those paragraphs. Go into Tamil Tiger territory and write uncomplimentary material and your death can be arranged to appear as a government attack. Lebanon has attracted a stampede of unqualified video journalists seeking that 'special clip' most of whose work does not merit the word journalism. It is right for Gross to call it, but call it what it is.
  2. Bad, venomous cartoons: That sadness has not changed a bit. The venomous cartoons put out in the Arab, Patriot right and neofascist press are scathing towards Jews and were brought up as recently as the Danish Mohammed cartoons incident in which comparisons were made. The level of image assault on Israel is so high that I saw no significant up-tick over Lebanon.
  3. Image saturation: 24/7 coverage demands to be fed and in the absence of continuous new feeds will simply regurgitate the old, focusing on the most telegenic in a shock sense. Gross' words here could be Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian 2004 tsunami.
  4. BBC: Here Gross is closest to what I would call legitimate slant. I have observed that the beeb is a bit left of center on Arab matters. There is a joke among both beeb and al Jazeera staffs that it is 'only a matter of time before you work for al Jazeera'. Depending on your point of view, that can make the BBC more or less dangerous. There is at least more journalism in the beeb than in much of the opinionated talking head dross that passes for journalism here in the US, i.e., I will get more critical reporting from the beeb and it is up to me to position their cant. I don't even get that opportunity to filter the US talking heads who, when they are not shouting or making ex cathedra statements, are interviewing each other - a pure waste of bandwidth.
  5. Hezbollah: I think that Gross is appropriate in his flagging the historic understatement of Hezbollah in relation to al Qaeda as he notes that "You wouldn’t really appreciate that Hezbollah, far from being some rag-tag militia, is in effect a division in the Iranian revolutionary guards." From my view, Hezbollah certainly presents an equal threat to the US as does al Qaeda - and you are beginning to see that from thoughtful analysts.
  6. Hezbollah has proved itself skilled at propaganda and news control. All modern Sunni and Shia insurgencies have adapted to the medium superbly. People, journalist included, that do not recognize it are, I submit, more incompetent than provocateur. I read much on their organization and its military and civilian aspects and an continuously surprised as how much does not get into the high street press.

I have two general comments on the blogosphere's identification of journalistic errors:

  1. Valid discovery is itself asymmetrical in its impact as while there is likely to be a retraction effect in the Western press, an error goes largely unreported in the Arab press, thus widening the gulf of 'understanding' between parties.
  2. Conservative blogs primarily attack what they perceive as liberal sources while liberal sources return the favor. Both sides should, as both a defensive and corrective mechanism, examine their own side as well. A corrected source builds credibility, otherwise it is a game of journalistic smash mouth.

Moving to the specifics of the Reuters photos, the Qana strike and the UNIFIL strike:

Reuters: A tip to a conservative blog,
Little Green Footballs, resulted in an article rightly questioning of authenticity of a photo by Reuters freelance photographer, Adnan Hajj, purporting to show excessive Israeli bombing damage in Beirut. A usually reasonable Israeli feed, Ynet, bent that to Reuters admits altering Beirut photo while HonestReporting took no prisoners with Bold Distortions and Outright Lies that made Reuters out to be the villain, the perp, instead of the early stages of a process of discovery and correction by Reuters. It is that perpetually shrill, over the top, 'Israel is unquestionably right' take on matters that has long had me dismissing their work as even when they cite things that I believe to be accurate, they do so in a slanted manner that shifts the net direction of the piece. Also as noted, in temperament and twist, CAMERA is HonestReporting's Rottweiler.

Once alerted, Reuters "dealt with the matter within 18 hours", pulling the offending image by Adnan Hajj with a
picture kill notice (now scrolled off but mirrored here - scroll down to find), then pulling all of Hajj's work. In a largely honor-based system, a doctored image from a photojournalist slipped through on a day that Reuters "published 2,000 photos [and at least part of the process] was handled by someone [at] a more junior level than we would wish for in ideal circumstances."

USA Today noted that it
looks "for more than digital manipulation, especially in war zones where many American outlets hire local photographers because they can travel more easily than Americans. "We wonder, is he behind enemy lines?" [speaking] of the kind of scrutiny that goes into examining pictures to make sure they have not been staged. "Is he getting access that isn’t normal? How did he get there?" Sad to say, this process is not as widely followed as it should be. (Of course, Hezbollah is not going to follow it as they 'manufactured' much of the post-strike Qana imagery, but those who consume its output should.)

Qana: If Hezbollah did stage the second Qana attack, if by nothing more than firing at the Israelis from positions that would produce counterbattery collateral damage, it was a masterstroke as it cemented the turning of Sunni street opinion initially hostile to Hezbollah's border raid and it was a location of an earlier 1996 artillery strike that would incriminate Israeli action in 2006:

Then, as now, Israel accused Hezbollah of using the civilian population as human shields when they launched their attacks. However, a UN investigation reported in May 1996 that the deaths at the Qana base were unlikely to have been the result of an accident, as claimed by the Israelis. The UN report, by Maj-Gen Franklin van Kappen of the Netherlands, cited a shift in the fire patterns and the repeated use of shells with so-called proximity fuses over the small UN compound as evidence of an intent to kill people there.

The report also noted the presence of two Israeli helicopters and a drone in the skies over Qana, "contrary to repeated [Israeli] denials", which must have witnessed the bloodbath. "The pattern of impacts is inconsistent with a normal overshooting of the declared target (the mortar site) by a few rounds, as suggested by the Israeli forces," Gen van Kappen's report said. "While the possibility cannot be ruled out completely, it is unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors," the report concluded.

With the ground of discovery now well plowed, I refer readers to EU Referendum's The Corruption of the Media (which now supersedes the earlier Milking it?). While I find the title to be unnecessarily aggressive, it does offer one of the more extensive deconstructions of the staged Qana imagery. Readers could also look at Photos of the Qana Massacre.
Still frame event staging appears to be rising if not rampant. There is a delicious sequence of images around what is being called the "
Pieta image" in which a 'body is being staged in various poses by a 'helper' then all participants are shown scampering away. If you can look at that sequence and not demand that your preferred press adopt the USA Today guidelines noted above, then you have no business having an opinion.

I would like to comment on related
Israeli bombings on ambulances and trucks carrying medical and food supplies. As Hezbollah has previously transported fighters and ordnance in ambulances, Israeli targeting instructions can be hit anything that moves or hit things big enough to carry missiles. If an ambulance or truck is hit, Israel may interdict a weapons delivery but Hezbollah gains a major propaganda victory with post-event imagery. (One image of a missile strike through the middle of the red cross on a collapsed vehicle roof will power more resentment than the human losses involved in the strike.)

UNIFIL strike: I have already spoken of my
initial suppositions surrounding the strike on the UNIFIL observation post near Khiam (photo of post prior to strike, immediately after strike (click on image) and debris cloud rising from the strike). The size of the explosion indicates something as large as a JDAM round which tells me that the Israelis were quite serious. In reviewing the traffic leading up to the strike, I got the feeling of rising insistence on the part of the Israelis, but then time ran out and the Israelis moved to act. My first impression was that it was difficult to escape the binary options of gross error or intentional targeting. (One such gross error occurred in Afghanistan when a US forward observer reset his PDA which then defaulted to his GPS location rather than that of a recently entered target. Not knowing that the target coordinates had been erased, he pickled the JDAM onto his unit's position.)

I was not alone in that opinion as Kofi Anan, and the UN for that matter, who is generally diplomatic and is constrained to speak in the lowest diplomatic common denominator, was unusually direct in his accusations against the Israelis, using the word, "deliberate."  That indicated to me that there could be more info that had yet to reach the unclass arena, but it is not enough for prediction. But for the Lebanese and most Arabs, the die is forever cast.

Some relatively good things have nearly escaped reporting. For example, the Israeli airport runway bombings (intersections, midway points and active taxiways) were done with precision but did not use the French Durandal runway-busters, which Israel has in inventory and has used previously, but with smaller general purpose surface detonation bombs that can be filled in with relative ease.  Aerial photos which we call BDA (bomb damage assessment) show a quality of targeting missing in Hezbollah attacks which, except for the rarer attack on the Saar-class frigate with the radar guided Iranian/Chinese C-802 (Ying Ji-802 or CSS-C-8), are largely unguided.

The future: Few are saying it but it is only a matter of time before the poor man's nuke, a chemical weapon at a minimum, is put into one of those warheads. It may not be the Hezbollah of 2006, but it will happen by some greater or lesser group sooner than most think. I wrote long ago that the current Israeli security fence is at best a stopgap measure "until the Palestinians can throw something larger over it." That time is now and in the future it will be more than simple explosives. The future is not rosy for the Levant.

The reader is referred to these items that touch on jihadist integration of imagery and psyops into doctrine:

Part 3: What do you mean, "Israel lost"?

The Corruption of the Media
Progress board
EU Referendum
15 August, 2006

Part 1 - Introduction - rewritten.
Part 2 - The "set" - under construction.
Part 3 - Act 1: The dead baby - revised and updated.
Part 4 - Act 2: The Red Cross workers - first draft complete.
Part 5 - Act 3: The camera runs - Scene 1 - new material.
Part 6 - Act 3: The camera runs - Scene 2 - complete.
Part 7 – Act 4: Caught in the act! - under construction.

Hat Tip NYT- Roll the Audio
Sticky Notes
Posted on Wednesday, August 16, 2006 at 07:37AM

Hezbollah Fighters Limp Out Into the Light, Yet Manage a Bit of a Swagger
New York Times
August 15, 2006

In Wars, Quest for Media Balance Is Also a Battlefield
Wars in the modern media age often come complete with their own journalistic difficulties.
New York Times
August 14, 2006

Photos of the Qana Massacre
12 August 2006

Bloggers Drive Inquiry on How Altered Images Saw Print
New York Times
August 9, 2006

Reuters withdraws all photos by Lebanese freelance
07 Aug 2006 14:38:33 GMT

Bold Distortions and Outright Lies
Media Critiques
6 August 2006

Reuters Doctoring Photos from Beirut?
Little Green Footballs
August 05, 2006

Adnan Hajj isn’t even trying anymore
Jeff Harrell
The Shape of Days
August 5, 2006, 4:05 PM

Qana Casualties Only Half of Original Estimates
Kenneth R. Timmerman
Aug. 4, 2006

Media Missiles. Working for the enemy.
By Tom Gross
National Post (Canada) / Jerusalem Post (Israel) / National Review (U.S.) / Ma'ariv (Israel)
August 2, 2006

Qana Death Toll Cut In Half
Posted by AJStrata on Tuesday, August 1st, 2006 at 12:36 pm
The Strata-Sphere

Qana In Context
HonestReporting calls on the media to examine the Qana tragedy in context.
Media Critiques
1 August 2006

Milking it?
posted by Richard @ 12:46 AM
EU Referendum
Monday, July 31, 2006

Qana makes grim history again
By Martin Asser
BBC News, Beirut
Last Updated: Monday, 31 July 2006, 06:54 GMT 07:54 UK

U.N. observers asked Israel to stop bombing 10 times before their post was hit, UN report says
Associated Press

LEBANON: IDF told not to fire on unarmed observers, says UN
Source: IRIN
27 Jul 2006 01:21:14 GMT

Israelis Kill UN Peacekeepers
Halutz Commits to War Crimes
Israeli Airstrikes Kill Nabatiyeh Family
$150 Million Damage to Factories
Juan Cole
Informed Comment
July 26, 2006

U.N. observers asked Israel to stop bombing 10 times before their post was hit, UN report says
Associated Press

UN peacekeepers killed in Israeli air strike
By Adam Entous
Tue Jul 25, 2006 6:32pm ET

Israeli Missiles Rip Into Medics' Esprit de Corps
by Megan K. Stack
Los Angeles Times
Published on Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Mirror with photo

Red Cross ambulances hit
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
July 25, 2006

Ambulances fired on by Israel, says Red Cross
Ed O'Loughlin Herald Correspondent in Tyre and agencies
The Sydney Morning Herald
July 25, 2006

Gordon Housworth

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