The Cycle of Blood

The Israeli media would do well not to forget its own part in the systematic fanning of the flames.

"Mommy, what happened to my leg?" screamed the headline in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily above a photo of the boy from Sderot whose leg was severed by a Qassam rocket. In the horrifying photo he is seen being carried on a stretcher and presumably shouting the words in the headline. But a report in the inside page shows that the headline is actually a synthesis of words said by his older brother, who was also wounded ("Mom, what happened to me?" he said to his mother on a cell phone, "My legs hurt.")

You may say: a slight inaccuracy, which cannot lessen the shock and sorrow of the incident (Lessen? On the contrary: It intensifies them). And what is a slight adjustment for the purpose of upgrading the horror? A small "touch" to intensify the emotions, part of that same art of taking words out of their context, at which sensationalist journalism in Israel has recently become expert.

The work of embellishing reality, or coloring it in blatant war paint and horror, is an accepted practice in yellow journalism round the world. And still in Israel, with its unique political and security conditions, it is a method and tradition that have proven to have far-reaching consequences for our lives.

This was also seen in the way television's Channel 10 covered the incident. The cameras frenetically followed the parents, focused on their wailing and their trembling hands, and even invaded the beds of the wounded and were halted by force only next to the operating table itself.

"A little blood/ only a little blood to top off the honey," wrote poet Yona Wallach. The cameras seemed just to be waiting for such a moment; a fraught and predictable moment (and judging by the reactions of several politicians, even hoped-for); after all, the same media recently declared this is a crucial moment that may serve as a reason for a new cycle of warfare.

This media pornography therefore has a reason and a purpose that goes beyond the need "to tell a story" or "to inform the public." And this role is not journalistic: It is political, whether intentional or not. The fact is that this coarse and hysteria-fanning invasiveness is used in this manner only for "security" incidents (as opposed to "criminal circumstances" or accidents).

In such cases we, of course, cannot expect chilly coverage that lacks empathy; but in Israel victims of terror attacks and wars (including attacks on soldiers) are not simply reported or covered: They are hurled. Not as an unfortunate fact, but as a decisive argument, as tear-jerking evidence on behalf of some "demand" (against the political rival, against "the government"), as "proof" for some agenda at the expense of another and primarily as an insistent demand. A demand for an immediate response, which terrorizes the decision makers and drags them into deeds against their will and their better judgment.

For the most part this is a vehement demand for revenge, which usually means another round of warfare. And thus a kind of "cycle of blood" is created, in which the nurturing and enhancement of victimhood on the part of the media and of politicians with vested interests lead to hasty military operations, which claim casualties whose number is far greater than that of the initial victims.

The media will go after their blood, too, with the same upgraded and intensified sounds of lamentation, only will do so to get to the stage of demanding at least the political blood of the decision makers; those who were enticed and dragged by the media in the first place into a dance over the blood.

William Randolph Hearst, the yellow journalism tycoon, engaged in warmongering between the United States and Spain (among other reasons to compete with Joseph Pulitzer) on the backdrop of events in Cuba, a situation climaxed by the mysterious sinking of the battleship Maine. In his newspapers Hearst inflated incidents to hysterical dimensions and even sent a special illustrator to draw "the harsh sights of the war."

When the illustrator reported that "everything is quiet here, there is no war," Hearst telegraphed back: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war." And that's what happened.

The Israeli media may not be quite that cynical, but when it demands the investigation of impassioned useless wars, which cost a great deal of blood and did not accomplish a thing, it would do well not to forget its own part in the systematic fanning of the flames: in working up passions and emotions, in nurturing the fury, the hysteria and the blind revenge. Far more journalistic responsibility is required in places where it is not always clear whether war brings about the "harsh sights" or the "harsh sights" bring about war.