A CASUALTY OF WAR

By Avi Davis

As the smoke begins to clear in Baghdad the world will soon be able to assess the damage of a short war. The final toll will no doubt include thousands of Iraqi dead and many Allied troops. It will include billions of dollars of damage and shattered relations between a number of nations. It is as sad as it is tragic. War, no matter whereor why it takes place is always heartbreaking - destroying lives and leaving scars that do not easily heal . Yet heal they will. Investments of time, money and goodwill, though unable to bring back the dead, will lead the way toward an eventual reconciliation.

But not for everyone. These are wounds of this war that will not be nursed back to health. And the most permanent disfigurement of them all is media credibility. The coverage of the war in Iraq has proven that experience is no barrier to either ineptitude or scurrility. The litany of malfeasance is long. Well known photographers doctored photographs in order to project the Allied effort in a negative light. Commentators, analysts and newsroom anchors turned the war into a replay of the Super Bowl with bombastic play by play commentary that embarrassingly revealed more ignorance than expertise. And many reporters - such as glory seeker Geraldo Rivera - chose to project themselves as the story, rather than the military conflict they were supposedly covering.

Perhaps the most egregious example of an experienced reporter/celebrity transforming into a neophyte military analyst was Peter Arnett. A veteran of the first Gulf War, Arnett was fired by NBC for giving Iraqi television an interview, in which he derided the Allied military campaign and insisted that continued Iraqi resistance would inspire opposition to the war in the United States. Why Arnett was giving interviews and not actually conducting them is a disturbing question. But the more relevant issue and, for that matter, far more worrisome development, is his evident conceit that he possesses either the power or influence to change the outcome of a military encounter.

Many foreign correspondents feel that their elevated status gives them the latitude to operate their own private news services, almost independent of the networks they represent. This shouldn't be surprising, given that since from the mid-70s onward, journalists throughout the world have veered from objective reporting of facts, the traditional role of a journalist, to adopt more proactive positions as advocates. The bestowal of a Pulitzer, the adulation of the television audience, the rapid rise in salary, cloaks a correspondent like Arnett in an aura of invincibility. In the rarefied world of sucha celebrity, truth is easily displaced by the journalist's own brand of justice which thereafter colors everything he either says, writes or presents.

Yet even Arnett's capriciousness is dwarfed when compared to CNN chairman Eason Jordan's admission this week that CNN had ignored or soft pedaled some of Iraq's most terrifying episodes of brutality. Jordan excused this lapse on the pretext that his staffs' lives would have been endangered if full reporting had been permitted. He was quietly attempting to divert the rancor that would follow a discovery that CNN's pre-war coverage of Saddam's crimes had been less than candid. But what it has in fact accomplished is the reverse - an expose of the news networks themselves whose dedication to truth (with notable exceptions) will always be subordinate to their personal, corporate and financial interests.

None of this will come as any surprise to media watchers in Israel. Foryears the foreign press has played a two faced game in that country, feigning objectivity while attempting to mollify Palestinian handlers with " balanced" reporting. But from the events in Ramallah in October 2000 - where an Italian News agency deliberately destroyed footage of the lynching of two Israeli reservists (lest the agency be denied future access to the territories), to the manifestly wrong coverage of the non-massacre in Jenin in April 2002, the media has used such balance to distort facts by pandering to a corrupt, totalitarian regime, casually ignoring its most brutal excesses. Half truths, distortions, misplaced loyalties, bias - the verisimilitude so rampant in the media today is enough to inspire caution. It should certainly be enough to lend Mark Twain's admonition "Don't read the press and you are uninformed; do read it andyou are misinformed," the resounding toll of truth.

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Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies in Los Angeles and senior editorial columnist for the on-line magazine Jewsweek.com



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