It's like watching two different wars

by Julian Borger, Guardian

The US and European media have always covered the Middle East from different perspectives, but flying back to Washington from a stay in London at the height of the Lebanese conflict made it clear to me how wide the gulf has become. Britons and Americans are watching two different wars.

The overwhelming emphasis of television and press coverage in the UK was the civilian casualties in Lebanon. Day after day, those were the "splash" stories. The smaller number of civilian casualties from Hizbullah rockets in northern Israel was also covered but rarely made the top headlines or front pages.

Back in DC, watching Lebanon through American camera lenses, the centre of the action seemed to be Haifa. CNN, for example, sent two of its top anchors, Miles O'Brien and Wolf Blitzer, to the Israeli port city. Much of the morning news was devoted to showing O'Brien scurrying in and out of shelters when the air raid sirens sounded. Another correspondent was sent on patrol with a Haifa ambulance crew to look for casualties. On the morning I was watching, the crew only came across a man who had a fatal heart attack as a result of the rockets. The paramedics' attempts to save him were shown.

This emphasis on Israeli casualties relative to Lebanese was taken to its breathtaking extreme by Charles Krauthammer, a conservative columnist on the Washington Post, who described the Hizbullah rocket attacks as "perhaps the most blatant terror campaign from the air since the London blitz."

From Haifa, the television news typically shifts to the border and to correspondents covering the Israeli army (CNN has another of its leading men, John Roberts, stationed there), who have supplied most of the news on the fighting in south Lebanon.

There have been reports out of Lebanon itself, but they have usually come further down the running order, and reports on civilian casualties there are almost always contextualised, emphasising the Hizbullah tactic of launching rockets from populated areas; in British reporting, that context has often been either missing or weighed separately in analytical pieces.

British journalism generally celebrates eyewitness accounts with a consistency in emotional tone that discourages cool asides to discuss mitigating circumstances; US television reporting out of Lebanon, by contrast, has occasionally been in danger of becoming all context, focusing on Hizbullah tactics to the exclusion of the humanitarian tragedy. Fox News, in particular, has sought to bolster Israeli public relations. An anchor at one point asked Ehud Barak what he would like the world to know about Hizbullah and Hamas.

Qana has changed the tone, at least for the time being. The account of families huddled together in a building in a doomed bid to keep their children safe and the sight of the small bodies being carried out of the rubble has had the emotional force to break through the usual rules of the game, and has mostly been given comprehensive coverage. But one Fox anchor still expressed concern that any pause in the Israeli offensive would allow Hizbullah to regroup.

There is a circular relationship between media coverage of the Middle East and public opinion. Correspondents and editors are often fearful of the avalanches of hate mail that can descend in a heartbeat on matters Middle Eastern, and their reports consequently serve to deepen entrenched points of view.

The difference between British and US polls on the current conflict are striking. Just over a fifth of Britons polled pre-Qana, compared with nearly half of the Americans questioned at about the same time, said they thought the Israeli use of force was proportionate; and another 9% of American respondents thought the Israelis were not being tough enough.

Some of that extraordinary divide must be attributable to the very different realities on British and American television screens.

Meanwhile, more Iraqi civilians are dying every day than Lebanese, but the horror of that war barely appears on television screens in either country any more. Lebanon is newer and much safer to cover. Anyway, Iraq fatigue set in long ago.

article originally published at http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/julian_borger/2006/08/post_279.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey