Al-Dura and the "Public Secret" of Middle East Journalism
In the summer of 2006, Reuters News Agency, humiliated when bloggers caught them duped by obvious photographic manipulation, fired both the photographer and the chief of their photographic bureau. They then removed all the photographer's photos from their news archive. In so doing, they acted decisively in punishing two of the cardinal sins of modern journalism: "creating evidence" and getting duped by created evidence.
These principles - i.e., the ethics of a free press - go so deep, that Westerners apparently have difficulty imagining that others might not share our commitments. Thus few people believe claims that footage of Muhammad al Dura, the twelve year old boy allegedly gunned down by Israelis at Netzarim Junction on September 30, 2000, was staged. Charles Enderlin, the correspondent for France2 who presented the tale to the world, derisively and successfully dismisses such claims as a conspiracy theory as ludicrous as those about 9-11. How absurd: Palestinian journalists would not do such a thing; and if they did, the Western media would catch it. To this day, most journalists still ask, "Who killed al Dura?" not, "Was he killed in the footage we see?"
The last time we see al Dura on Talal's camera: He holds his hand over his eyes not his allegedly deadly stomach wound. He lifts his up his arm and looks around. Enderlin had already declared him dead in an earlier scene, and (therefore?) cut this scene from his broadcast.
And yet, one of the major differences between Western journalism and self-styled "Islamic media men" emerges on just this issue of the permissibility of staging the news and attitudes towards what constitutes honest information. According to the Islamic Mass Media Charter (Jakarta, 1980), the sacred task of Muslim media men [sic], is on the one hand to protect the Umma from "imminent dangers," indeed to "censor all materials," towards that end, and on the other, "To combat Zionism and its colonialist policy of creating settlements as well as its ruthless suppression of the Palestinian people."
So when asked why he had inserted unconnected footage of an Israeli soldier firing a rifle into the Al Dura sequence in order to make it look like the Israelis had killed the boy in cold blood, an official of PA TV responded:
These are forms of artistic expression, but all of this serves to convey the truth... We never forget our higher journalistic principles to which we are committed of relating the truth and nothing but the truth.
When Talal abu Rahmah received an award for his footage of Muhammad al Dura in Morocco in 2001, he told a reporter, "I went into journalism to carry on the fight for my people."
These remarks serve as an important prelude to considering the France2 rushes that will be shown in court in Paris on November 14 in the Enderlin France2 vs. Philippe Karsenty defamation case. These tapes were filmed by Talal abu Rahmah on September 30, 2000, and for seven years, Enderlin has claimed that the tapes prove him right and show the boy in such unbearable death throes that he cut them out of his report. But several experts who have seen the tapes (this author included) claim that the only scene of al Dura that Enderlin cut was the final scene where he seems alive and well; and still more disturbingly the rest of the rushes are filled with staged scenes. Indeed there seems to be a kind of "public secret" at work on the Arab "street": people fake injury, others evacuate them hurriedly (and without stretchers) past Palestinian cameramen like Talal, who use Western video equipment to record these improvised scenes. Pallywood: the Palestinian movie industry.
Which brings us to a problem more complex than the fairly straightforward observation that Palestinian journalists play by a different set of rules in which this kind of manipulation of the "truth" is entirely legitimate. What do Western journalists do with these products of propaganda? Do they know these are fakes or are they fooled? Do they tell the cameramen working for them and using their equipment that filming such staged scenes is unethical and unacceptable? And if they do, why do cameramen who have worked for them for years - Talal worked for Enderlin for over a decade when he took these rushes - continue to film these scenes. And how often do our journalists run this staged footage as real news?
Here the evidence provided by the Al Dura affair suggests that, in some sense, journalists are "in" on the public secret. When representatives of France2 were confronted with the pervasive evidence of staging in Talal's footage, they both responded the same way. "Oh, they always do that, it's a cultural thing," said Enderlin to me in Jerusalem. "Yes Monsieur, but, you know, it's always like that," said Didier Eppelbaum to Denis Jeambar, Daniel Leconte, and Luc Rosenzweig in Paris.
As an echo of this astonishing private complacency, Cl√©ment Weill-Raynal of France3 made a comment to a journalist that he meant as a criticism of Karsenty: "Karsenty is so shocked that fake images were used and edited in Gaza, but this happens all the time everywhere on television and no TV journalist in the field or a film editor would be shocked."
The implications of this remark undermine its very use in his argument: How can Karsenty defame Enderlin by accusing him of using staged footage when, as Cl√©ment Weill-Raynal here admits, everybody does it? Is it wrong to do this? And if so, why does Weill-Raynal criticize Karsenty for blowing the whistle? If not, where's the defamation?
We may have stumbled here onto the very nature of public secrets and the value of a good reputation: everyone can cheat so long as no one is caught. It's okay for the insiders to know, but the effectiveness of the (mis)information depends on the public not knowing. As Daniel Leconte reproached Eppelbaum: "the media may know [about this staging], but the public doesn't." Indeed, the public must not know. CNN advertises itself as "The Most Trusted Name in News," not because it struggles against the influences, like access journalism, that destroy trustworthiness, but because it knows how important trust is to their audience public consumers of news. Thus, even if Western journalists use staged footage regularly, they cannot admit it. And, if denial doesn't work, then, apparently, the next move is to say, "it's nothing; everyone does it."
An incident at Ramallah, however, suggests that Western journalists have systematically submitted to Palestinian demands that they practice Palestinian journalism. On October 12, 2000, to cries of "Revenge for the blood of Muhammad al Dura," Palestinian men tore to pieces the bodies of two Israeli reservists. Aware of the potential damage, Palestinians attacked any journalist taking pictures. And yet, one Italian crew working for a private news station, at great risk to their lives, smuggled out the footage. Eager to avoid being blamed, the representative of Italy's "official television station RAI" wrote to the PA that his station would never do such a thing,
...because we always respect (will continue to respect) the journalistic procedures with the Palestinian Authority for (journalistic) work in Palestine...
Just what are these "journalistic procedures"? Do they resemble the rules of the Jakarta charter, including the censorship of anything damaging to the Palestinian cause (no matter how true), and publication of anything damaging to the Israeli cause (no matter how inauthentic)? The PA, apparently unaware that this is not how journalism should be done in the West, published the letter.
But on the side where modern journalism allegedly reigns, such revelations were profoundly embarrassing: even the normally timid Israeli government "temporarily suspended" the press card of Roberto Cristiano, and no one in the normally aggressive Western media objected. Cristiano had violated the basic rule of Western journalism's omerta, and openly admitted shameful practices. The public consumer of Mainstream Media (MSM) "news" needs to ask, "How many journalists adhere to these Palestinian rules, and how much does that adherence distort, even invert, our understanding of what goes on in this interminable conflict? Can we afford this "public secret"?
Nor can we expect the MSM to discuss this willingly. On the contrary, awareness of the importance of trust often enough leads journalists to hide their mistakes rather than admit and learn from them. As a French friend put it to me: "No one admits publicly to mistakes in France. It's a sign of weakness." While these are the rules of honor-shame culture, civil society depends on having people prefer honesty to saving face, no matter how painful that may be. And while we cannot expect people to volunteer for public humiliation, we can and must insist that there are limits to both individual and corporate efforts to resist correction.
This is Charles Enderlin's problem with the al Dura case. He has, with his eagerness to get the scoop, foisted upon an unsuspecting world, a nuclear bomb in the world of information warfare. As Bob Simon put it (wmv file), to the background of a medley of Pallywood images: "In modern warfare, one picture is worth a thousand weapons." And no image has done more to inspire the desire for violent revenge and global Jihad than this "icon of hatred" (wmv file) To admit his mistakes, to release the public from this image's thrall and alert us to the possibility that such colossal errors not only occur, but go years without correction, would destroy Enderlin's career.
Moreover, Enderlin's failure, at this point, seven years later, implicates the larger MSM who, with their refusal to even allow the critique to air, protect him. This dilemma may partly explain why the MSM in France has scarcely mentioned this case; why they had nothing to say about the initial trial until Karsenty lost, at which point they leapt into print to reassure the public that the image choc of the Intifada "was not staged." Enderlin, after all, is not some Palestinian hack, even if he trusts and therefore regularly channels the work of such "journalists." He is perhaps the best known and most widely trusted European correspondent in the Middle East. Surely, as a Jew and an Israeli, he would not report false stories that blackened his own country's name. They must be true.
More ominously, just as Al Dura represents a "higher truth" for Muslims -- a justification for hatred, a call to revenge -- so does it carry symbolic freight with Europeans. Catherine Nay, a respected news anchor for Europe1, welcomed the image:
The Death of Muhammad cancels out, erases that of the Jewish child, his hands in the air from the SS in the Warsaw Ghetto.
From Ramsey Clark's International Action website.
How ironic! The Europeans use an image produced by those who admire the Nazis and dream of genocidal victory over the Jews, to erase their own guilt over the Holocaust. In so doing, Europe has "atoned" for its sins against the Jews by empowering its Muslim extremists.
So not to admit such mistakes, destroys the very fabric of the civil society that allows a free press. In the long history of blood libels, no people have benefited from embracing the twisted hatreds they evoked.
At what point does self-protection become self-destruction, not only for the journalists who deny their errors no matter how costly, but for the public that believes them? As an Israeli journalist remarked: "Every day I have to walk the fine line between loyalty to my sources and loyalty to my audience." How grievously have our journalists betrayed us, their audience, for the sake of finding favor in the eyes of their sources?
Palestinian journalists, in their own ethical declarations, argue that their role is to defend their cause and weaken its enemies. Journalism for them is war by other means; the media, a theater of war. Honesty and fairness do not intrude on this ethical prescription, but merely present a requirement for versimilitude designed to deceive susceptible Western audiences and incite Muslim rage.
In this clash of journalistic cultures, how often has the Western media played the "useful idiots" to Palestinian demands. How often have they presented Palestinian "truths" to us as "news"? And if they have done so as often and as destructively as Pallywood and its greatest success, the Al Dura Affair, suggests, how much longer will they persist?