The Dangers Of TV's Tunnel Vision
Those of us outside the war zones are all bystanders, TV witnesses of the tragedy as it is unfolding. We are watching the deadly game of tit for tat slowly ratcheting up the crisis in the Middle East. It has become, in network parlance, BREAKING NEWS, with images that are sickeningly familiar to us all. Unfortunately, TV coverage focuses on violence and action more than politics and peacemaking.
Image #1: People are running. Ambulances are arriving. Squadrons of bearded men wearing the vests of emergency personnel are on the scene looking for bodies and body parts. It is the aftermath of a suicide bombing. The crime scene is confused. We hear a body count, which is certain to rise when everyone is accounted for. The event seems beyond rational explanation, the work of mad people. The horror is numbing and infuriating at the same time.
Image #2: Tanks roar through a Palestinian camp. Planes streak overhead. We hear the sounds of war, of bombings, and occasionally see people running through the streets and bodies being lifted into ambulances. From time to time, there is a soundbite from some often unintelligible and unidentified victim. Images this week have revolved around the escalating violence and Israel's invasion of Arafat's compound. We rarely see what happens to ordinary people.
Image #3: A meeting of Israel's cabinet. Ariel Sharon is sitting like a bullfrog, sometimes scowling at the cameras. This is a photo-op, a staged few seconds of footage before the actual meeting begins. Later we learn what did happen with voiceover narration explaining why government leaders say they must retaliate. Occasionally a government spokesman is heard briefly. He is denouncing Arafat and demanding an end to terrorism.
Image #4: Palestinians are marching through the streets. A few men are holding a flag-draped coffin. There is chanting and singing, and talk, when we hear it, of martyrs and the need for revenge. The scene cuts to images of young people throwing stones and soldiers firing guns.
Cut to: Washington. A State Department official or senior government leader denounces the violence. Indicts Arafat and suicide bombers. Announces no new initiatives.
Cut to: The U.N. Security Council appeals for a ceasefire. Men around a table raise their hands to support one motion or another. No one refers to the decades of unimplemented resolutions.
Day after day, night after night, the same imagery, often offered up without much information of context or explanation.
I can hear Americans saying: "There they go again." "When will they ever learn?" "How horrible!"
And: "What else is on?" On Sunday night, Easter, it was the "Ten Commandments," a film that many take as literal history. "Behold the > >will of God," says actor Charlton "Moses" Heston (now the gun-supporting president of the National Rifle Association). Perspectives about this conflict seem shaped by images. Many supporters of Israel refer to films such as "Exodus," chronicling the formation of the Jewish state, or "Schindler's List," which exposed the horrors of the Holocaust. The Palestinians identify their battle in Third World terms, like the guerilla uprisings depicted in the "Battle of Algiers." On each side, histories of oppression and dispossession fuel anger and righteousness.
Media analyst Eric Alterman, writing on MSNBC.com has a point when he speaks of the coverage in terms of "competing narratives. Both sides inflict inhuman cruelties on one another. Both sides blame the other for forcing them to do so. ... In most of the world, it is the Palestinian narrative of a dispossessed people that dominates. In > >the United States, however, the narrative that dominates is Israel's: a democracy under constant siege."
A Roller Coaster Of Images And so it goes, a roller coaster of endless conflict and conflicting images, with the American public often tuning out and turning it off in part because little of the coverage encourages viewers to get to know why the conflict continues or to become more empathetic to the people caught in the crossfire.
It is hard to find dispassionate discussions or even dialogues among the warring parties. The pundits on each side talk past each other, each clinging to "facts" and political demands. The Israelis want security but their policies tend to have the opposite effect. The Palestinians demand justice but seem unable to contain their violent "martyr" brigades. Ideas for a breakthrough are rare to find in a TV discourse suffocating from bluster and sloganeering.
It is no wonder that many of us have moved this issue in our minds from a problem that can be solved to a mess that can only be managed, and badly at that. Particularly on U.S. television, coverage rarely offers information on ways to resolve this conflict. Positions on every side harden when viewers are only offered familiar information that is only challenging or insightful. The truth is that there are many proposals - plans for ceasefires and peace - on many tables. And more agreement than you might think with the principles enunciated in meetings at places like Taba in Egypt or even from the Saudis recently in Beirut.
All have been covered, but the chronology of the events is hard to keep straight. Example: The Israelis say Arafat backed away from a peace proposal at the Camp David meetings that President Clinton convened between him and then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. They were reported widely here because the meetings took place in the States, but remember, the dominant image had less to do with substance than symbols - like Barak and Arafat kidding around about who would go through the door first. And then, the stories about Chelsea Clinton being present. As Bill Clinton acknowledged later, no written proposals were on the table at Camp David. It was only later, at a followup meeting in Taba, Egypt, that the two sides got specific and came close to agreeing. Since those meetings took place overseas, they rated less U.S. airtime.
Finally, the rug was pulled out from the under the process when Barak was replaced by Sharon, who has never seen a peace agreement he likes - or, from another point of view, when some Palestinian factions chose terrorism over efforts for compromise or coexistance with Israel. I haven't seen any TV news reports or documentaries that explained this. Absent explanation - and it is complex - we are left with easily manipulated perceptions that lead to simplistic assessments such as that Israel wanted peace but Arafat did not. Or vice versa.
Time and again, voices of sanity are neglected, as if the two old men, Sharon and Arafat, are the whole story. They are not. There is a large peace camp in Israel and many sensible and responsible voices in the Palestinian community. With war escalating, many of > >these have been muted, just as criticism of the U.S. "war on terror" was stilled in the environment of a national security emergency. These third parties and critical movements have rarely had much of a media megaphone, although the recent activism by foreign NGOs - the so-called Internationals - have become part of the story, and this can't be totally ignored. Few critics, however, get a chance to frame the issues or structure the debate on TV. In a sense, many media organizations, by allowing the governments to define what is at stake, promote the worst possible outcomes. When people don't know there are alternatives, they don't fight for them. And they are not being told about them.
Alternatives Do Exist What can the media do? For one thing, they can consider adopting the tactics and goals of peace journalism. MediaChannel has featured > >many proposals originating from Reporting the World in England, led by TV journalist Jake Lynch. These specific and sound ideas demonstrate that "blood and guts" stories can be presented from a different perspective - one that plays up the views of other actors, such as the U.N., Israeli peace camps, independent analysts and leaders of Palestinian community groups who have been working to build a viable alternative to the likes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
This came out clearly in one of the conferences that Reporting the World sponsored on these issues. More than 50 top journalists and experts took part. As one of their reports explained, "One key issue was the understanding readers and audiences may form of the reasons for the violence, and how this arises out of 'framing decisions' about what to include in reports of the conflict. Are there certain explanations that prevail by default? Or do they result from choices made by journalists? Is all the responsibility of ill-intentioned leaders; or an expression of 'ancient hatreds' welling up from within? Key contributor Lyse Doucet of BBC World recalled that peace actions were generally ignored by journalists in favor of 'running off to the front-line;' but that meant 'we never probed why the violence was there in the first place.'"
Clearly the situation in the Middle East is a tragedy with deep roots and a complicated history. It is not black and white, and won't be readily resolved.
My question to my colleagues is this: Are we inadvertently helping perpetuate this cycle of violence, or can we do more to transcend its terms, structure our own dialogues between the parties and help audiences understand the imperative of finding just solutions?
And to the public and politicians: Please speak out against the growing violence against journalists on both sides, as well as Israel's announced intention to bar media from the current "closed military zone" of Ramallah (and in support of those brave war correspondents who at this writing are ignoring these orders). We need to know what is going on. The situation is bleak enough without adding a media blackout, which is often a cover for human rights crimes.
Your answers and thoughtful suggestions are welcome.
Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org, most recently directed "We Are Family" as a Globalvision production for Tommy Boy Films.