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The Other Middle East Conflict


JERUSALEM — The subject is coverage of the West Bank and Gaza Strip turbulence--and the censure of some American news media for allegedly distorting and exacerbating the story.

"I'd say our credibility is on a par with Tass," said Robert Wiener, bureau chief here for Cable News Network.

Tass should sue Wiener for giving it a bad name. Even the Kremlin-serving Soviet news agency hasn't been hit by the number of critical salvos that legions of irate Israelis and American Jews have lobbed at media covering the violence in the once-Arab territories where Palestinians are protesting Israel's occupation.

American television--with its awesome reach and visual impact--is labeled the main villain in this clobber-the-messenger scenario. But the Los Angeles Times and other American publications have also been heavily criticized at home for their reporting here.

Network bureau chiefs claim it's unfair, given the time limits of TV news, to judge on a daily basis whether coverage is balanced or unbalanced or in historical context. NBC Bureau Chief Mauri Moore speaks for her counterparts when she says: "If you took our coverage and strung it together, you'd find it fair."

That presupposes, of course, that a typical viewer watches all of a network's newscasts. And the time restrictions under which the networks operate are of their own making.

Charges against the media range from anti-Israel bias to TV cameras causing disturbances and violence merely by their presence.

Central to the rap against TV is the character of the medium itself and the relationship of pictures to words.

When applied to an arena as fluid, volatile and complex as today's Israel, in particular, TV tends to omit nuances and shadings in favor of blacks and whites, elevating the immediate and superficial above reflection. There are times when TV seems to move faster than conscious thought, dishing up crises on electronic flashcards that are crammed into 22-minute news holes, leaving an impression only with their visual images.

Consider one of the major accusations against the news media here, TV especially: that they create the impression that Israeli soldiers are shooting, tear-gassing, roughing up and generally abusing Palestinian demonstrators without provocation.

There is provocation in most cases. Those stones that Palestinians have been heaving at Israeli soldiers and some of the media can break heads as well as car windows. And the media insist that they have pointed that out.

"The most erroneous claim made against us is that we don't show the provocation," said ABC correspondent Dean Reynolds. "But I have done that on every spot. It's the visualization they (critics) object to. It's stones against guns."

Added CNN correspondent Mike Greenspan: "Even if you mention the provocation, Palestinians are the underdogs, visually, and the Israelis look like they're brutal, trampling on defenseless people."

Watching American TV, some viewers have gotten the wrong impression, too, that the occupied lands--if not all of Israel--are ablaze.

"I have gotten calls from friends at home who say it looks like the whole place is exploding," Wiener said. "If that's true, then someone is not doing their job."

"Even if you say that most places are quiet, the viewer will not remember those words," Greenspan said. "He's going to remember those stones flying."

"It's the nature of TV that you don't remember any images but the active images," according to NBC's Moore. "So we in TV go out and get the images that people remember. But we also put in those thoughtful sound bites."

Which people don't remember?

"What people remember is the bang-bang," Moore said.

That wouldn't be so if there were less bang-bang on the screen. But TV--which rarely devotes more than two minutes to any story--is tailored to action, not serenity or thoughtfulness, be the subject Central America or the Middle East.

"The violence is the story, and not the calmness," said Bill Seamans, who heads ABC's Jerusalem bureau, which he opened in 1967.

In any event, if TV has its peculiar nature, so do TV viewers and newspaper readers.

We all tend to approach situations subjectively, with preconceptions drawn from our biases and life experiences. In other words, we often see what we want to see and read what we want to read regardless of the reality.

That has surely been the case with some critics of West Bank and Gaza Strip coverage.

ABC's Seamans recently held a consciousness-raising session for some Israeli army officers upset about TV coverage of the uprisings. "They said we didn't show the Arabs throwing stones and firebombs at the Israelis," Seamans said.

He proved them wrong, he said, by showing them samples of ABC's coverage.

"You know," Seamans said, "I have been on the scene of every major terrorist attack (in the Middle East) since 1967. And we did nothing differently then (in coverage) than what we're doing now. But nobody ever complained then the way they are complaining now."

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