The Jerusalem Post, October 17, 2003

WHY THE MEDIA BOTCHES IT

Bret Stephens

In 1962, an American historian named Roberta Wohlstetter wrote a book that is required reading at Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon. It ought to be required reading for every foreign correspondent, too. The book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision was an effort to explain why the United States had failed to anticipate the Japanese attack, despite quantities of intelligence indicating that an attack was soon coming. For years, Americans had known of this failure, and that knowledge spawned the view that Franklin Roosevelt had taken the U.S. to war "through the back door," or, as Clare Booth Luce put it, that he had "lied us into a war because he didn't have the courage to lead us into it."

Wohlstetter saw it differently. In the run-up to December 7, she noted, U.S. intelligence knew not only that Hawaii was a potential target for the Japanese, but that Siberia, the Panama Canal, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies were, too. All this information created what she called "noise," an overwhelming barrage of signals in which significant information tended to be drowned in trivia.

The analysis holds good in other situations. In the spring of 1941, Stalin had ample information that Hitler was massing troops on their shared front. In the fall of 1973, Israel knew the movements of the Egyptian and Syrian armies. The Soviets and Israelis were taken by surprise not because of faulty information. The problem was one of faulty interpretation, which in turn came from faulty assumptions about enemy motives. Stalin was convinced Hitler was maneuvering toward negotiation, not war; Israel thought the Arabs would never launch a war they were bound to lose.

Now fast-forward to August 3, 2000. On that day, The New York Times published a story by reporter John Burns, headlined "Palestinian Summer Camps Offer Games at War." "Last summer," Burns wrote, "some 27,000 Palestinian children participated in the camps, where they receive weeks of training in guerrilla warfare, including operation of firearms and mock kidnappings of Israeli leaders. A common theme in the camps was preparation for armed conflict: 'slitting the throats of Israelis' is one of the children's exercises at these camps."

To its credit, the Times ran this piece on the front page. [But] within a month the story was pretty much forgotten. When fighting broke out on September 30 most of the news media were prepared to believe that it was Ariel Sharon who had started it by taking a walk on the Temple Mount.

To me, Burns's reporting is of a piece with the early warnings about Pearl Harbor. Who, reading his dispatch now, can fail to see that it foretold the coming war? Yet with a few exceptions, everyone failed to foresee it, certainly everyone in the foreign media. As late as September 27, two days before the beginning of hostilities, Burns's colleague Deborah Sontag was writing that Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat had succeeded in "breaking the ice" over dinner, thereby providing "fresh momentum" for negotiation.

Now consider all this in the light of Wohlstetter's analysis. During the Oslo years, the dominant framework was roughly this:

First, Yasser Arafat, a reformed terrorist, had made a strategic decision for peace based on the calculation that a state in Gaza and the West Bank was the most he would ever get. Second, Yitzhak Rabin [had] concluded that the Jewish state was more secure with the majority of Palestinians outside smaller borders than it was with those Palestinians inside larger borders. He too wanted to cut a deal, and the PLO was the only really credible partner for it. Third, this new political center represented by Arafat-Rabin was threatened by Palestinian fanatics who would not abandon their claims to Haifa and Jaffa, and by Jewish fanatics who would not abandon theirs to Hebron and Shechem (Nablus). Fourth, the solution lay in strengthening the center, chiefly by supporting Rabin diplomatically and Arafat financially and militarily. Israelis would be moved to withdraw from their territories to the East if they felt more secure in th! eir friendships with the West. As for Arafat, he needed guns and money to suppress "militant" Palestinian factions and establish the institutions of statehood.

That was the compelling logic of Oslo, and it was a logic to which most of world media subscribed. How often did we hear it said [that] peace was threatened by "extremists on both sides"? How much ink was expended on the question of Arafat's personal chemistry with Rabin/Peres/Netanyahu/Barak? And how little attention was devoted to countervailing data: for example, Arafat speeches that reaffirmed, in Arabic, his commitment to the PLO's old "plan of stages"?

No wonder, then, that Burns's August 3 dispatch did not cause the upset is should have. The idea that the Palestinian Authority was not part of the vital center for peace [was] information that could not be adequately explained within Oslo's interpretive framework.

The media was dutiful in reporting the terrorist summer camps. But it was not dutiful in asking the necessary follow-up questions about why these camps were there and what they betokened. Instead, we had what Thomas Schelling, in the foreword to Wohlstetter's book, described as "a routine obsession with a few dangers that may be familiar rather than likely"--settlers, terrorists, Sharon and so on.

Since then, things have changed somewhat. Whereas once there was one dominant interpretive framework, now there are three competing ones.

The first of these is the "occupation" framework. Its subscribers include all the Arab media, most of the European media, the BBC, the Economist magazine, and some U.S. news organizations. According to this framework, this is a conflict that began in 1967 when Israel "conquered" Palestinian land, attempted to settle it, and in the process dispossessed and eventually enraged the Palestinian people. Palestinian "militancy" is a consequence of this.

Then there is the "cycle-of-violence" framework. In this view, the conflict did not begin in 1967 or even in 1948 [but] sees Israelis and Palestinians as two tribes caught in a kind of blood feud, with each fresh assault demanding retribution.

Finally, there is the "Arab rejectionism" framework. Its votaries in the media include the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network. This framework holds that the conflict has its roots in the Arab world's refusal to accept a Jewish state in its midst.

From these separate frameworks identical headlines will often emerge. But the stories will read differently. Consider a hypothetical example: A Palestinian suicide bomber detonates himself in a Jerusalem bus and kills 20. Hamas takes responsibility.

A reporter from the "Occupation" school [discovers] that the bomber is from the Dehaishe refugee camp near Bethlehem; his family was originally from Ramle; his father used to work construction in Israel but has been unable to get to his job due to IDF closures. As for the bomber himself, he had a talent for carpentry but never found a job. He was recruited by Hamas after his brother was shot by the IDF; he hoped that his own martyrdom would bring honor and money to his parents and nine siblings.

Then there's the reporter from the "cycle of violence" school. [She notes] that a leading Hamas spokesman had recently been killed in an IAF helicopter attack and that the group had vowed revenge.

Finally, we have our reporter from the "Arab rejectionist" camp. He describes the scene of the bombing, interviews the families of the bereaved, attends the funerals. Little attention is paid to the personal circumstances of the bomber. Perhaps it will be noted that the bomber's brother was killed by the IDF while attempting to plant a mine on the road to a nearby settlement. Perhaps, too, the family expects to receive money from abroad. There's a story there about Saudi funding of terror.

My point simply is to illustrate how different interpretive frameworks put reporters on the trail of different sets of facts. All of these facts may be true. The question is, which of them are significant? To a certain extent, the answer is in the eye of the reporter. But the suicide bombings belong to a larger narrative, and it's important that readers not be consistently misled as to where this story might be going.

Few people anticipated the collapse of Oslo because few reporters bothered to ask themselves whether incitement in Palestinian schools, corruption in Palestinian officialdom, or the collusive relationship between groups like Hamas and the PA, weren't really bigger stories than, say, new construction in Gilo.

Similarly, had a moderate Palestinian leadership taken control of events in the past few months and stamped out terrorist groups, the Arab rejectionism camp would have a hard time making sense of things. It might have resorted to rationalization or conspiracy theories. By the same token, the persistence of Palestinian terror aimed at targets in pre-'67 Israelis should put a heavy onus on the "Occupation" camp to explain Palestinian motives. As for the "cycle-of-violence" camp, they ought to be puzzling out why the August 19 bus bombing in Jerusalem preceded Israel's targeted assassination of Ismael Abu Shanab, which Palestinian spokesmen now claim was what brought the hudna to an end.

Every reporter and editor needs at least some kind of framework to make sense of the news. I am certainly not coy about the framework to which this newspaper subscribes. I believe it is solidly grounded in historical fact, and I think its predictive record has been good. Still, I admit it's a sign of media vitality when no single framework dominates news coverage as it did in the 1990s. And I will try, at least occasionally, to pose the sorts of questions my colleagues in the other two camps so routinely ask. The wiser journalists among them will return the favor.



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