The Scoop Is All

The media coverage of this war was unlike that of previous wars. Unless we understand how reporting methods have changed, we won't be prepared if something like this happens again.

The media is one of the casualties of the Second Lebanon War. The public's fury has reached a peak. A Haaretz editorial, published in the wake of the findings of a special committee (of which I was a member) headed by president of the Israel Press Council and retired justice Dalia Dorner, elicited a barrage of hostile letters to the editor. The major allegation is that the media coverage helped Hezbollah choose targets in Israel, supplied the Katyusha rocket launchers with pertinent data, divulged information on where the Israel Defense Forces were planning to attack, and demoralized the public and the soldiers. The military censor was accused of allowing the media to run wild.

IDF experts say that the charge about the media supplying Hezbollah with operational data is not true. Many leaks about IDF operations came from soldiers' cell phones and the SMS messages they sent from the battlefield, which their families then put on the Internet. On the whole, the army's secret objectives in the war remained secret, and if there were any leaks, the media's responsibility was almost nil.

On the other hand, the media was very much to blame for the despondent atmosphere that prevailed during the war. Most of the images were of families returning from funerals and casualties being transported to hospitals. Journalists stationed themselves at cemeteries and were sent out to interview rabbis delivering eulogies. The media coverage was influenced by newspaper and television ratings. Competition focused not on the quality of the material, but on blaring headlines. Everyone was on the lookout for the most sensational, shocking scoop, for some daily scandal associated with the war and the IDF. Mostly, they fought to be the first to report on the IDF's latest failure, or on tragedies.

So the media did play a part in increasing the public's fears. Journalists did not look for stories of heroism and courage, as they did in the past. During the war, these stories were pushed completely to the sidelines. The media made up for this only recently, on Memorial Day.

Israel is a democratic country with an open society, and its army is a people's army. That does not mean the country is obligated to throw open its doors, irresponsibly, to Arab media from enemy countries while a war is going on. It is hard to believe, but during the war, Al-Manar, a television station owned by Hezbollah, had a crew operating in Israel. An Arab television crew was allowed to cover the war for Alalam Iranian TV. Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and Al-Hurra reported from Israel during the war, as did crews from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Lebanon. Most of their accounts of the war were full of Nazi-style propaganda. Not all of them bothered to submit their footage to the censor. One can only imagine what would have happened to an Israeli television crew if it had showed up in Lebanon.

The media coverage of this war was not like that of previous wars. Unless we understand how methods of reporting have changed, we will not be prepared if something like this happens again. This war was covered around the clock, 24 hours a day. Sometimes the broadcasters had nothing new to report, but the patter went on and on, for fear that competitors from other news media would get ahead. This patter turned into an acute case of verbal diarrhea. The hunt began for people to interview, anybody they could get their hands on which only created more emotional distress.

Internet sites and personal blogs added to the deluge of information. On top of that, there were satellite services operated by the foreign media. Some 1,500 foreign correspondents reported on the war from Israel. We tend to forget that armies are not the only ones equipped with advanced technology. The news media has equipment it never had in the past, which makes it possible to relay information even before it reaches the General Staff.

Senior military officers, most of them retired generals, sat in the television studios dispensing advice about what should and should not be done. This is probably more than any future censor will be able to cope with. The answer cannot be panicky efforts to tap the phone conversations of officers who talk to journalists, as in fact happened. We need to prepare for future exigencies, and not rely on superficial plans.