How hard is it for the Israeli military to launch an unprovoked war with its neighbor by casting itself as a victim of barbarianism, rallying international support and even apologizing in advance and exonerating itself for killing innocent civilians? It seems it only takes one phone call to the New York Times.
That’s right, the world’s most powerful newspaper has just published an article wholly inspired and almost entirely narrated by the unverifiable and belligerent claims of Israeli military sources. The article “Israel Says Hezbollah Positions Put Civilians at Risk” casts no serious journalistic or responsible doubt on these Israeli claims made by a military institution that has engaged in wars that have killed tens of thousands of civilians in the past.
The author, Isabel Kershner warns that Israel says “…many Lebanese civilians will probably be killed, and that it should not be considered Israel’s fault.”
But there is more. By embedding these unverified military claims into a reporting narrative, The Times writer further legitimizes such claims as newsworthy content that many readers will believe is vetted and balanced.
However a basic deconstruction of the article reveals Israeli official claims underlie the vast majority of its content and are cited as the source of 25 out of 35 paragraphs, including the caption on the photographic “evidence” which is provided directly by Israeli intelligence without question or explanation. It is not until the 13th paragraph that a vague opposing view–that of a so-called ‘Hezbollah sympathizer” is heard and only briefly. Meanwhile only one paragraph cites a Hezbollah official.
By paragraph count alone, this means over 70 percent of the article relies directly upon unquestioned Israeli claims. This does not include the headline–the most powerful narrative construction in the article, which is also based entirely on Israeli military propaganda:
So what’s the big deal? What happens when a military gets to virtually narrate a news story published and widely circulated by one of the world’s most respected newspapers?
Like all militaries, the Israeli army must perpetuate myths about the enemy to increase its success on the battlefield. Chief among these is the claim that its enemies use “human shields” — an allegation that portrays Israel at war with a barbarian enemy that does not respect human life and thus cannot be reasoned with.
The reporter, Kershner, perpetuates this myth as journalistic fact, first by paraphrasing the Israeli military claim:
“Maps and aerial photography provided to The New York Times by Israeli military officials this week illustrate, they say, that Hezbollah has moved most of its military infrastructure into the Shiite villages… Israel says this amounts to using the civilians as a human shield.”
Kershner then reinforces this claim with a quote from an unnamed Israeli official:
“The civilians are living in a military compound,” a senior Israeli military official said at military headquarters in Tel Aviv…”
Finally Kershner codifies the myth by using her own words–not a quotation– to record it as what readers will believe is a fact.
Hezbollah has sheltered in villages to some extent for many years. But Israel says the group has increasingly moved into built-up areas
Again a quote to reinforce the claim:
“At the end of the day, it means that many, many Lebanese will be killed,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser now at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
Did you see what just happened? The reporter has quoted the Israeli source so many times she has begun to use the claims as fact: “Hezbollah has sheltered in villages to some extent for many years.”
Half-way through the article Kershner briefly states that “the Israeli claims could not be independently verified.” But this does not stop her from making the claim herself, a few paragraphs later. And as she sat and listened to Israeli sources, poring over their words and pictures for hours, did she so much as lift a finger to do a basic internet search to question or verify those claims?
If she did, she might have stumbled upon quite a few articles that note the Israeli military is well-known for its documented use of human shields. It’s not just Western journalists and activists that have reported extensively on this Israeli media reports also indicate their own military used human shields last year in Gaza and the Israeli high court has even ruled against the practice, with Israeli defense sources saying “human shield procedures” were used over 1,000 times by Israeli soldiers. In fact, just a few days ago, the Israeli defense minister reportedly promised to “harm” Lebanese civilians, including children.
Amazingly, absolutely none of this figures into the New York Times article as basic background, thus perpetuating the myth that Israel stands on a moral high ground against those who hide among civilians.
But the opposite seems to be true. Israeli soldiers and military bases are actually embedded physically in civilian areas and civilians make up a huge part of the fighting force. Reports also indicate that Israel constructs military compounds nearby Arab villages in what can also be seen as a “human shield” to prevent attacks from Hezbollah.
Yet instead of questioning Israeli officials, the New York Times simply propagates their rhetoric. The idea that Israel is fighting an immoral enemy is further emphasized by Kershner quoting Israel’s former chief of intelligence who says “…Hezbollah fires rockets indiscriminately.”
Again the reporter simply parrots this claim and fails to question it. Had she done some research she would find that the majority of those killed by Hezbollah in the last war were mainly Israeli soldiers while the majority of over 1,000 killed by Israel were Lebanese civilians. Wouldn’t this indicate that Hezbollah is actually targeting the military? Wouldn’t it be worth posing that question to Israeli officials when they claim Hezbollah acts “indiscriminately” and letting readers know about it?
It is a basic journalistic tenant to question the claims of those in power, to approach them skeptically not to just to parrot or paraphrase what they say.
Yet at journalism schools across the United States, students are trained to cherish and buy a copy of the New York Times every day, hailing as the “Bible” of journalism. Unfortunately I have found time and again that the paper has either misreported or completely invented stories coming out of Beirut. (See: “New York Times changes sectarian headline“). And while reporting on Palestine, the glaring unbalance–as I have reported on repeatedly– seems to be the rule not the exception.
In the Middle East, the Times also seems to routinely violate its own ethics rules on conflicts of interest. The reporter who wrote this story is actually married to a member of an Israeli think tank and their son is a soldier in the Israeli army. At least two other prominent New York Times writers also have children fighting in the Israeli military.
I wonder if The Times would ever hire someone whose spouse or child fights for Hezbollah? Would the Times ever even consider writing a whole story based on Hezbollah’s intelligence on Israel? Mrs. Kershner would only have to sit down and watch Hezbollah television for one day to come up with plenty of stories.