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AL DURAH AND 21ST CENTURY MEDIA

 

Richard Landes

 

Perhaps the single most shocking revelation of the al-Durah affair is the appalling condition of our media. That such a shoddy scene could get past a journalist eager for a great scoop, is perhaps understandable. That it could have gotten past everyone in the media for over four years is almost incomprehensible.

 

This bizarre situation is due to a variety of factors that we will explore in this section.

 

One of the lessons that our global culture needs to learn from this incident is how to reform the media - clean the Augean Stables - so that things like this, which contributed to poison the world with hatred and violence, cannot happen so easily. This page is dedicated to exploring how the A-Dura tale could happen, and what kinds of reforms need to occur in our media to prevent recurrences.

 

Although Charles Enderlin told anyone who would listen that he offered to give the Israelis the rest of cameraman's Talal Abu Rahma footage from that day, he has managed to keep it under the lock and key of France2. Only those that France2 allows get to see the footage, although recently their monopoly has begun to slip. Some of those who have seen this footage - the last 20 minutes of tape Talal shot that day - have been struck with the extensive evidence of staging in all the previous scenes. Although before going to France2 studios in October 2003, Shahaf had shown me the staging in his footage (see also here), I was not prepared for the ludicrous nature of the staging that Talal had filmed. This didn't take a trained eye.

 

Nor was I prepared for the answer that I got from Enderlin when I asked him about the evident fakes: "Oh they do that all the time." Leconte, Jeambar, and Rosenzweig got the same response from Enderlin's boss at France2 in Paris. "But these are all staged scenes," a journalist exclaimed after they had viewed Talal's rushes together, "you can see that yourselves." "Yes, replied a France2 executive, smiling, "oui, monsieur, but it's always like that." "Perhaps you know, but your viewers don't," replied the journalist.

 

Does this refreshing candor reach the viewers? On the contrary, Enderlin insists that Talal is a professional journalist, whose work is as objective and accurate as any westerner, Talal's material that I have seen (for the 30 September and the 1 October, 2000) is almost entirely staged, and very clumsy staging at that. Comments Enderlin, Talal "has never given false information." And what about the other Palestinian cameramen who, in all the raw footage I've seen, rush eagerly to film anything that looks like action? PC demands that we not ask such embarrassing questions.

 

It was the mind-boggling experience of seeing the France2 rushes that made me realize that there was film industry at work: Pallywood, the Palestinian contribution to modern cinema. And if I was surprised at both Pallywood and Enderlin's attitude towards it, I was also unprepared for the widespread indifference among other media folk to this travesty of journalistic standards. "We could argue about every frame," commented one Middle East correspondent for a major news program who had been stationed in Israel from 1999-2002. Asked if he had noticed anything like Pallywood in his three years there, at the height of the intifada, he replied "No."

 

So instead of detecting and rejecting Pallywood, I began to realize that these journalists didn't see it. On the contrary, they actually needed it. They hurriedly sifted through its productions, (often pre-sifted by grunts), looking for the most believable seconds of footage, so they could string together a medley of these sight-bytes. The accompanying narration of mayhem and death guaranteed attention: "if it bleeds it leads." Bob Simon put together one such pastiche while informing his viewers that Netzarim Junction saw "the fiercest battles" in which "more than thirty were killed, and hundreds wounded." The rushes from that day show Palestinians laughing and joking directly in front of the Israeli position, and only one genuinely injured person appears in the hours of tapes I have seen.

 

At the heart of this case, lies the problem of what we might call fictional news. The Palestinians claim that this is legitimate since it illustrates the real situation. When one PA TV official was asked to explain how his organization could take a shot of an Israeli shooting rubber bullets during the Nazareth riots and edit it into the sequence so that it looks like he shot the boy, he responded: "This is an artistic way to tell the truth and explain a situation. We never forget our journalistic commitment to tell the truth and nothing but the truth." As ludicrous as that might strike most Western observers, Enderlin seems to be in substantial agreement. When asked how he could present the boy as "the target of fire coming from the Israeli position" when there was no corroborating evidence for this in his tapes, he responded, "It corresponded with the situation in Gaza and on the West Bank." The rushes suggest precisely the opposite: Palestinians show no fear of enemy gunfire, and film Pallywood with their backs to the Israelis.

 

The tale recalls the NYT headline about the Rathergate forgery: False but Accurate. Justifiably, modern journalism rejects such artistic license, as in the case of Rather, Jason Blair and so many other authors and journalists who take liberties with their material. To not draw such a line, especially in our expectations of public figures, imperils civil society. Hitler, after all, acknowledged in Mein Kampf that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion might have been forged, but insisted that they told a higher truth, an argument one hears again today.

 

Enderlin illustrates the temptation posed by such arbitrary power over public belief and opinion. If it turns out, as a close examination of the evidence suggests, that Talal staged the al Durah scene and Enderlin "sold" it as news, then this affair has all the trappings of the emperor's new clothes, with Talal as the tailor, and Enderlin the emperor's chamberlain from whom we all took our cue. And by the standards of a free and responsible media, this constitutes a scandal of truly massive proportions.

 

Purely in terms of journalistic ethics, then, this case raises critical issues about the transparency of media practices and our ability to stop the arbitrary imposition of tendentious views "as if" they were accurate reporting. France2's response has been much like the response of the Church during the Dreyfus affair. Even after Dreyfus' innocence was pretty clear (as the "staging" of Al-Durah is not yet), the Church insisted that it could not admit as much for "honor's" sake, lest it lose credibility and hence, authority. Similarly France2 has circled the wagons, denied everything, and still refuses to let the public see the raw material and judge for itself. Invoking Enderlin's prestige and reputation, heaping scorn of the "groupes extrémistes" who dare to challenge him, the mainstream media in France have so far preferred to adhere to the public consensus, rather than to call for a release of the tapes.

 

So far. Of course France has a long and courageous tradition of a free and accountable press. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, 1789, no. 11, speaks of this "most precious right of freedom of the press" and the importance of not "abusing" it. The tale is not yet over. Unlike many observers of France's suicidal arrogance, and delusions of grandeur, I still hold out hope.

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