Three days after the war in the north broke out, David Witzthum traveled to Hamburg, hoping to complete an academic paper on the Israeli media's image of Germany in peace. "I planned to spend three weeks there, but I couldn't focus on anything. Five days later I boarded a plane back home," says Witzthum. "When I arrived, I was put on schedule to anchor for Channel 1. In the first shift, I sat in my suit and tie ready to come down to the studio as soon as a report of a Katyusha came in. But in sharp contrast to all the previous shifts, in which the studio opened [for broadcasting] over and over again because of launches, my shift passed peacefully. For a moment I almost felt like Israel's secret weapon."
By sheer chance, a new book by Witzthum in the spirit of the times is now being published by Keter. The book, "Mahadura Meyuhedet" ["Special Newscast"] recounts the Israeli and worldwide television coverage of the many terror events of past years, and the central social role of the coverage. "The thought of putting things in writing," writes Witzthum in the introduction, "probably began during the long months I was scheduled for 'terrorist attack duty' - Tuesday mornings to afternoons. I was hoping that those hours, the longest I experienced in recent years, would go by peacefully. At times, so it was. At other times, the phones started ringing, and then life stood still while everyone ran into the studio to begin broadcasting."
In his book, Witzthum claims that a special newscast following a terrorist attack is like a well-known ritual whose secret purpose is to restore public order. Even if the broadcast seems frantic and hysterical, it always opens with a hasty and broken report from the scene of the attack, followed immediately by interviews with the first eye witnesses and continuing from there to the hospitals. Gradually, commentators will assemble in the studio, after which reporters arrive at the victims' houses. Finally, the camera will film the street being cleared and the renewal of traffic. "The attacks crack a fissure in our consciousness, and the principal instrument to show the size of the fissure and dramatize it is the TV", says Witzthum. "Still, it has also taken on the role of comforting and curing us."
Withdrawing into myself
The role of TV after an attack fascinates Witzthum, even if during the broadcast he's not happy to be a part of it.
"Often I ask myself what right we have to be in this position," he says, "but ultimately we fill a social function. I reported once from the Jerusalem Zion Square after an attack. I stood there and described again and again what had happened, and also tried interviewing some young women who didn't have much to say.
"It is interesting how the more extreme you are, the more clearly you can express yourself. But the common man will always say 'suddenly I heard a bang' or 'it was terrible and I didn't know what was happening to me.'
Almost every time, during the initial report, the attack is related to the general story of our existence. The Dolphinarium attack instantly became the 'Russian attack,' in the Park Hotel there were Holocaust survivors among the casualties, and so on and so forth."
Witzthum says that soon after an attack, reporters and anchors peel off their masks of journalistic objectivity, and act out of a feeling of identification with the Israeli collective. "There is no other option, because the journalist is also part of the drama taking place", says Witzthum. "After a Tel Aviv bombing, I remember interviewing a woman who stood right next to the bomber. I was accused of not having enough empathy, but this wasn't because I didn't identify with her, but rather because of my own personal reaction after an attack. I withdraw into myself in those situations."
Most Israeli reporters are also identifying today with the national fight against Hezbollah, and Witzthum says there is nothing wrong with this.
"Of course there is a general rallying of support, but it doesn't stop us from airing other opinions. While the army is inside enemy territory, people go on the air and talk about foul-ups and faults - not to mention the fact that Hassan Nasrallah is the media' number one hero. Obviously we tell the other side's story from our perspective, for war is a classic black and white story, and broadcasting proportions go accordingly. When you spread reporters over 20 locations, how much time do you have left to report on the other side?"
Do you find this problematic?
"Not necessarily. I still think we tell the other side's story much more than American networks tell of the United States' enemies, and more than what the Arab networks report on Israelis. There is no such thing as objective reporting. Take CNN for example, where there are no 'Foreign News' but only 'International News,' because we are all apparently citizens of the world. And this concerns an American network with American reporters and an American perspective. Their report on the International Newscast on the Spanish train bombing did in fact open with a report on the bombing, but it was shortly followed by a report that examined whether such a bombing could happen in trains in the U.S."
Witzthum does not find fundamental differences in the three Israeli channels' coverage of the fighting in the north. "Channel 1 definitely handles the competition well," he says, but adds that at home he mostly watches foreign channels - and what he sees troubles him very much. "I see extremely biased journalism, which is very problematic for us," he says. "You don't have to be a great patriot to understand that the humanitarian situation in Lebanon is only one aspect, but the humanitarian coverage has become the bon ton these days. Reporters compete among themselves to come up with the most gut-wrenching story, in the most graphic and emotional manner."
Foreign reporters in Lebanon do not get high marks from Witzthum, who was a European correspondent for three years: "An intelligent reporter in Qana should have asked himself exactly who has something to gain from those difficult images, would Israel have bombed had it known the house was sheltering people, and who is leading him to all of the disaster sites. But he doesn't ask such questions because the images are too strong, because he has to broadcast them with haste, and also because when you are in a dangerous place, you develop a sort of empathy for the person guiding you."
But it is not only their shock at what they have witnessed and deadline pressures that lead reporters to air one-sided reports from Lebanon.
"Reporters around the world try to prove to their inner circles that they have not sold out," determines Witzthum. "It is very possible that an American reporter knows that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization that instills fear in the population and uses it as a human shield. But since that is the position of the American government - not only will he not reflect that position, but he will also try to oppose it."
Can the gap between what we see and what the world sees be bridged at all?
"No. Everyone asks why Israeli PR does not work, but there is no reasoning that can compete with that imagery. When heads of news departments tell field reporters that they want to see human suffering, that they want involved - not neutral - journalism, even if we assume we are 100-percent right, no one cares. As far as the journalists are concerned, we should be wise and not necessarily right. They don't see themselves as educators, but as deliverers of harsh images to bring about a moral shock. The journalists, especially the Europeans, don't want to be in wars, they see it as something that should have passed already from the face of the earth."
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