I have explained elsewhere why selling “news” — industrially packaged information — is a doomed business model in the digital age. The response to his argument is usually shock and horror. Nobody would grieve if, say, McDonald’s or Walmarts went bust — but somehow the NYT and the WaPo and BBC stand on a higher moral and spiritual platform, at least according to themselves.
Democracy, we are told, depends on an informed electorate. I don’t really believe that having an opinion about the subprime crash makes me a better or worse citizen — but let’s grant the point. If being informed is my duty, would I dispense this obligation by a faithful daily reading of the news?
Consider this event. Earlier this month, a Palestinian went on a rampage with a bulldozer in East Jerusalem, murdering three Israelis and injuring many others, before being shot dead by the police. The initial headline by the BBC, probably the most prestigious news organization in the world, was this: “Israel bulldozer driver shot dead.” It was later corrected, but why would the death of the killer ever take pride of place on any sensible account of the killings in East Jerusalem?
Well, it turns out BBC headlines show a consistent pattern when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians. This study offers a series of rather depressing examples. In each case, the Israelis perpetrate horrors on helpless victims (“Children killed in Israeli strike“). Conversely, bad things happen to these same Israelis, but in an inexplicable, impersonal way (“Rocket injures dozens in Israel“). And when Palestinians kill other Palestinians, the BBC headline writers again takes a lofty, impersonal tone: “Gaza explosion kills two children.”
Israelis kill children. Rockets kill Israelis. The information-seeking citizen will have to make do with this. But isn’t Israel an ally and a democracy? Haven’t Palestinian groups, like Fatah and Hamas, frequently embraced terror against civilians? If the BBC stoops to mention such distateful possibilities, it’s to offer “Palestinian militants” a bizarre backhanded — and immediately contradicted — compliment:
Attacks by Palestinian militants in Jerusalem have been a rare occurrence in recent years, with none of their trademark suicide bombings since September 2004.
The last deadly attack was in March this year when a gunman killed eight students in a seminary before he was shot dead.
Increasingly rare — eight killed last March. In forming my own personal, informed citizen’s Middle East policy, which way should I incline?
Now consider this event: news about news. On September 30 2000, Palestinians in Gaza staged a demonstration to protest Ariel Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount. The official French TV network, France 2, transmitted heart-rending footage from the location, showing a young boy and his father being gunned down while cowering against a wall. The boy was said to be Mohammed al Dura, and the killers, according to Charles Enderlin, the France 2 correspondent, were Israeli sharpshooters.
The killing of Mohammed al Dura helped spark the second intifada, in which hundreds died on both sides. The boy’s name was shouted by Palestinian mobs when they lynched and mutilated two Israeli reservists. It was invoked by the thug who decapitated Daniel Pearl. It was repeated by Osama bin Laden in justification of 9/11. Postage stamps with al Dura’s picture have been issued by several Arab countries. He became, quite literally, “the poster boy for the Palestinian and Islamist war against the West.”
One small problem: the death never happened. As this article by Melanie Phillips relates, Enderlin, who wasn’t on the scene at all, relied on a Palestinian cameraman. The full footage of the supposed shooting of Mohammed al Dura has now been released, due to a court case brought by Enderlin against a French critic of the France 2 report. Anyone can watch the footage: after the death scene, the boy miraculously starts moving again.
You see the boy slumping to the ground. But before he does so, while he is still hanging on to his father and screaming, a voice shouts in Arabic: ‘The boy is dead! The boy is dead!’ Asked to explain this astounding prescience, Enderlin’s team replied that the Arabic in fact meant: ‘The boy is in danger of dying.’ At this, the courtroom laughed out loud.
After Enderlin pronounces the boy to be dead, the corpse mysteriously assumes four different positions. You see the cameraman’s fingers making the ‘take two’ sign to signal the repeat of a scene. And then you see the lifeless martyr raise his arm and peep through his fingers — presumably to check whether his thespian services are still required or whether he can now get up and go home.
The Paris court ruled against Enderlin. The ruling cited “the ‘inexplicable incoherence’ of footage, whose images did not correspond to Enderlin’s commentary; the ‘inexplicable inconsistencies and contradictions’ in Enderlin’s explanation; and the lack of credibility of France 2’s Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu Rahma,” who was obviously and successfully shilling for a cause rather than reporting the news.
So, here is a colossal scandal — right? The symbolic event and probable cause of much Arab mayhem and slaughter was almost certainly faked. The TV network owned by the government of France was duped at best, complicit at worst. The news, informational bedrock to democracy, can be staged just like a Viagra commercial.
One would expect the most respectable news outlets to be all over such a juicy scandal. Not in France, however. Zero reporting on the matter. So maybe the French feel a certain reticence about exposing their mistakes. How about BBC — surely the Brits will rejoice over a Gallic blunder? Nope. Nothing from BBC, either. They have their headlines all prepackaged, and this story runs against the grain.
How about America, home of the NYT, WaPo, and the information-starved citizen? Again, nothing. The Mohammed al Dura scandal is like a tree that falls in the media forest: the sounds of silence. The NYT can be excused: no doubt its resources are fully engaged, reporting the inequalities in the women’s grill of the Phoenix Country Club.
What about the WaPo? Lo, I have read the WaPo, my hometown newspaper, and I have rejoiced. Was there (you ask) a hard-hitting investigation of the al Dura mess? Lord, no. But it doesn’t matter. The jihad is over. Iraq and Afghanistan — over. The US has won. The world is calm.
How do I know this? Chandra Levy is back on the front page — this is the news that gets the hard-hitting investigative treatment at the WaPo. Can shark attack stories be far behind?