How Europe's media lost out

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  May 22, 2002 at 9:59 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 22 (UPI) -- After the Israeli army launched its retaliatory strike into the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank in early April, the international media was filled with reports that the Israelis had possibly killed hundreds, even thousands, of Palestinian civilians. The reports were disproved and even the PA revised its official figure for Palestinians killed in the fierce fighting to 56. Here, United Press International traces the course of this "media myth" and the reasons it became so influential and was so widely believed.

Third of three parts

The U.S and Western European media covered the Jenin "Massacre That Wasn't" in radically different ways over the past month. The American media came out way on top and the European media, especially state-run broadcasting outlets, came out by far the losers.

This was not an anticipated outcome on either side of the Atlantic. It was, in fact, a further humiliation for Western European governments and left-leaning media leaders. They were already reeling from the humiliations of seeing a virtual fascist make the last two in France's presidential election and the assassination of radical political leader Pim Fortuyn in The Netherlands. That was the kind of violent political outburst that most Western Europeans have long comfortably believed could only happen in America, not to them.

Not every press or news organizations in Western Europe came out badly from the controversy over what the Israeli army did or did not do in Jenin. Media outlets like the London Sunday Times, Il Foglio in Rome and Le Monde in Paris that refused to be swept away by the hysteria gained in credibility greatly.

Even other media outlets like The Guardian of London newspaper or the Associated Press in the United States that at first reported the exaggerated claims, but then took care to present the counter evidence when it came in, showed their basic integrity. Papers like the London Times and Independent, which did not do remotely as much as The Guardian in running pieces documenting their own, and others, factual failings, fared far less well.

The affair of the Jenin "Massacre Myth" did not debunk the basic credibility of the Western media. The truth emerged at the end of the day. But the U.S. media overall were winners by far at the expense of the Western European ones.

Time magazine's in-depth reporting, for example, proved to be by the end of the day a model of how to reconstruct complex events far away under the pressure of intensely tight bylines. Its May 13 reconstruction of the battle of Jenin is likely to prove a major resource for future historians

The credibility of state-run or supported national broadcasting organizations took a huge hit. The principle of having a free market in broadcasting as well as print media outlets in order to ensure more fair and balanced overall coverage got a big boost. This was humiliating to the Europeans, who have long sneered in their dominant broadcast media culture at what they regard as the crass commercialism and vulgar pursuit of profits of competing U.S. broadcasting networks.

It was also a blow to those who would like to expand National Public Radio's small-scale radio news operation in the United States into a radio-TV news empire on the lines of the BBC or other European outlets. The reporters and editors of NPR appeared far more prone to swallow the wild allegations about Jenin than most of their U.S. media colleagues did.

The controversy also underlined the value of having widely read and circulated columnists who can act in the media like the Senate does in Congress or other "upper" houses of parliament do in Western Europe and Japan. Such columnists at their best can act like deliberative parliamentary chambers not subject to the pressures of repeated re-election campaigns. They can take a longer term view of things. They can act as cautious, more thoughtful voices expressing caution or doubt about emotional hysteria sweeping the news pages. William F. Buckley's May 4 editorial "Did the Israelis Do It?" serves as a model for this kind of writing.

Some European columnists did not do nearly so well. A.N. Wilson's willingness in the London Evening Standard to accuse the Israelis, without any credible evidence, of poisoning Palestinian water supplies showed the way columnists could break every restraint of decency and common sense. Wilson's article would have been at home in the pages of the Nazi propaganda sheet "Der Sturmer."

The U.S. and Western European media coverage of the Jenin Massacre Myth raises troubling and far-reaching questions about the reliability of mass media and press in conflict situations.

The practice of war reporting is a dirty, complicated business at the best of times. War, as wise figures from Carl Von Clausewitz to the fictional Capt. James T. Kirk of "Star Trek" have repeatedly noted, is a messy, unsure business. War is chaos incarnate both for those who wage it and for those who cover them. Military history flourishes, and no doubt always will do, by reflecting at leisure on events imperfectly understood when they were being experienced.

But even allowing for this inherent condition of uncertainty and chaos -- what Clausewitz called the inevitable and unavoidable "friction" of war -- Western media coverage of Jenin, especially in Western European newspapers, stood out for its wild and remarkably uniform hysteria. An overwhelming number of reports were published or broadcast in outlets, more especially of the left but also of the right, appearing to document in great detail the massacre of hundreds, possibly thousands of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli Army.

Official spokesmen of the Palestinian Authority supported and confirmed these estimates and fed these reports, yet PA spokesmen themselves later heavily revised these estimates downwards and eventually acknowledge that no massacre at all had taken place. The PA's final estimate of Palestinians killed in the Battle of Jenin was 66, while Israel said that 23 of its own troops were killed.

Given the disparity in firepower involved, the Palestinians understandably hailed this as a great morale-boosting victory for their cause, even though attacking forces normally suffer far higher casualties than defending ones in such intense street fighting.

But the small scale in casualties in Jenin, ultimately confirmed by the PA itself, underlined the remarkable loss in perspective across the European media in both reporting what was happening and then analyzing it. The initial decision of the Israelis to keep the media out of Jenin while the fighting raged does not account for this. The most hysterical and inaccurate accounts and the wildest, unsubstantiated claims came not while the international media was barred from Jenin but after it was allowed in.

Yet, compared with conflicts of the past half-century, and even of merely the past 10 years, the death toll on both sides, including Palestinians, in Jenin was tiny. Scores of thousands of people were killed largely at the hands of Bosnian Serb paramilitary groups from 1991 to 1995. The total death toll of that conflict, unquestionably Europe's bloodiest since 1945, has been estimated as at high as 250,000.

While it was ranging, 1 million people were killed in less than a month when majority Hutus slaughtered the generally more educated and more prosperous Tutsi minority in Rwanda in 1994. The killings were deliberately coordinated. The death squads usually had no heavier weapons than machetes but it ranks behind only the Cambodian Killing Fields of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge in 1975-78 as the biggest genuine genocide of the past half-century. And it was carried out without any advanced weapons or technology -- even machineguns -- at a rate of slaughter comparable to the operations of the Auschwitz gas chambers during the Nazi annihilation of 6 million Jews during World War II.

In each of these cases, the Western media were remarkably fast to record indications of what was going on, but Western opinion lagged far behind. The Clinton administration in the United States proved exceptionally indecisive, slow and inadequate to act in any decisive diplomatic or military way to deter the slaughters in either Bosnia or Rwanda, even though it could easily have done so.

The United Nations far from preventing either of the slaughters taking place, actually magnified them by the egocentric insistence of its officials in the region on approving deterrent military or rescue operations in Bosnia, most notably at Sebrenica.

They also catastrophically underrated the imminence and scale of the danger in Rwanda. Indeed, the U.N. official most criticized for his alleged incompetence in failing to prevent the Rwanda horror was one of the most outspoken critics of Israel in the case of The Massacre That Wasn't -- current U.N. Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan.

When these genuine massacres took place, there were certainly no mass rallies or protests across Western Europe and certainly no retaliatory physical attacks on Serb or Rwandan residents in Britain, France or Germany.

Yet media reports teemed in those countries with -- as it turned out -- highly exaggerated or just plain wrong descriptions of the violence allegedly inflicted by the Israelis on the Palestinians in Jenin. And as these reports ran, they were quickly followed by attacks -- largely, it appears, from young immigrant Muslim gangs -- on easily identifiable Orthodox Jews in both Britain and France.

Press reporting is far from a precise science and experienced reporters, especially war correspondents, have a universal contempt for pressure groups of both the left and the right that claim they are always inherently biased, corrupt, incompetent and just plain wrong. More often than not, the accusations of media bias made by such groups are discounted because they are either the result of unavoidable human error, insufficient data available, or the accusations themselves are just plain wrong.

Even when they are right, the multiplicity of media organizations with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of reporters competing to get the edge on each other on the same story has long been comfortably -- and usually correctly -- taken as the free media's equivalent of the free market. That competition serves as a healthy leveling mechanism in which self-interest serves as the motivation to expose incompetence or direct dishonesty on the part of others. But as this series has documented, it did not work that way in Jenin. And we have explored the reasons why this was so.

In an ideal world, the appropriate lessons would immediately be learned. But in practice, things may well go on very much as before. That is, as the legendary London Daily Telegraph columnist Michael Wharton, writing as Peter Simple, might have put it, "The Way of the World."

The already worrying gaps in politics, diplomacy and mutual perceptions between the United States and its old European allies is likely to grow in the media field as well. The common media culture and dialogue across the Atlantic may be another loser of the Jenin Massacre Myth.

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