Governments donít like dead people in the street. Itís bad for business and scares off the tourists.
The first job is to bury the dead. The second job is to make sure that no one sees. Or maybe thatís the first job.At the current Senate committee hearings on the nomination of Dorrance Smith to be assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said of the war on terror, ìMore than half this battle is in the media. They [the terrorists] are winning that battle, and we have to do something about it.îMany Jews say the same thing about Israelís war. Of course, if the United States or Israel was winning the half on the ground, the media half would be all the easier.
At the hearings, Smith was confronted with an article he wrote in The Wall Street Journal (April 25) in which he complained that the top six American television news networks all ran footage (April 11), obtained from Al-Jazeera, of Jeffrey Ake, an American taken hostage in Iraq.
Smith wrote, ìWhat if one of the networks had taken a stand and refused to air [that video] on the grounds that it was aiding and abetting the enemy, and that from this point forward it would not be a tool of terrorist propaganda? The terrorists know that the airing of such video creates pressure on the government to negotiate a release. It also sends a signal to Americans about the perils of being an American working in Iraq.î
The Israeli media and American Jewish newspapers, and the Israeli government itself, have gone back and forth over the past dozen years essentially debating Smithís argument. Israelís Foreign Ministry at times would disseminate explicit footage of severed limbs from a bombing. But another time, on the ministryís Web site, the government blurred the image of a dead woman even though her body was intact. That same image ran unblurred in The New York Times. Yet another time, only the Internet showed a photo of a head ó just a head ó in the bombed remains of Maximís cafe in Haifa.
A photo of the Oct. 26 bombing that killed six in Hadera, shown on this page, was printed in The Jewish Week and the Gulf News in the United Arab Emirates.
From the beginning of the killings in the wake of Oslo, good people in and out of the media made the point that the dead were ìsacrifices for peace,î and dwelling on the horrors was politically motivated to derail contacts with the Palestinians rather than to simply tell the tale of what happened. There never was a consensus or consistency in the Israeli media or among its citizens on these points.Perhaps in a smaller country death is too intimate, and the war is just around the corner at the neighborhood falafel stand, as it was in Hadera, so that sensitivity really does get the better part of censorship.
Over the course of Israelís war, there have been times that Israeli and Jewish journalists made a righteous case against showing pictures of the dead, and explicit photos of terror scenes rarely have made the front page of American Jewish papers. However, when consensus develops that the government has failed, journalists can get equally righteous about why the dead deserve a showing.After Hurricane Katrina, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency tried to stop the media from showing dead people in New Orleans, explaining at the time that it was because the dead deserved to be ìtreated with dignity and the utmost respect.î But with the national rage about the Bush administration leaving Americans so unprotected, dead bodies were leading off the evening news and being seen on front pages across the United States in ways that victims of terror rarely have.According to Editor & Publisher, American journalists were outraged by FEMAís attempt at censorship:ìItís impossible for me to imagine how you report a story whose subject is death without allowing the public to see images of the subject of the story,î Larry Siems of the PEN American Center told Reuters.
Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press said: ìYou cannot report on the disaster and give the public a realistic idea of how horrible it is if you donít see that there are bodies as well.î
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a part of Columbia Universityís journalism school, told Reuters that FEMAís censorship ìis about managing images and not public taste or human dignity.îAnd while many Jews applauded the media rage, activism and explicitness in New Orleans, the internal Jewish attitude toward covering the war in Israel still seems to be on the side of dignity and respect.n
The Israeli media is running way ahead of its American Jewish cousins in castigating Israel for its string of recent security disasters, which included rockets landing with regularity in Negev towns and shootings near Gush Etzion.ìIsraelís government is sure to be criticized for the way it protects its citizens,î went an editorial in the Jerusalem Post (Oct. 27).
In Yediot Achronot (Oct. 27), Nahum Barnea, one of the deans of Israeli journalism, pointed out what most American Jewish newspapers have not: Israelís security fence is about as useless as the Maginot Line.It is unclear where the [Hadera] bomber crossed the fence, Barnea wrote, but ìthe fence was breached. The security establishment tries to hide this scandal for political reasons. The fence has cost billions of shekels. Crossings for the Palestinians have cost hundreds of millions, and are fitted with the newest, most modern security equipment in the world. At the same time, Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike continue to cross the fence in and out of the West Bank without real security checks.îBarnea said he was told by an IDF officer, ìWe built a concrete wall but we fitted it with paper doors.îIn that same Yediot (Oct. 27), an analysis by Alex Fishman added, ìThe fact we do not see attacks within the Green Line at least twice a week stems from the regular military activity. The Palestinians have learned that the fence security checks are terrible, unprofessional.ì
Thereís no need to look for breaches in the fence ó one can just take the main road. A day will come and someone will have to go to jail for this failure, to pay for the dumb decisions that led to the fact that even after four-and-a-half years of huge investment, residents of Israel still do not enjoy reasonable protection from terror.îIf that failure continues, and if a new ìcategory 5î intifada develops as some predict, it will be interesting to see if the Israeli media will continue to offer ìreasonable protectionî of the images of the dead.