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Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV
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Gripping, heartrending Gaza images lead to shift in PR war

Television

The metaphoric phrase, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” took on a real and chilling meaning last week when high-caliber bullets were fired into the Al Jazeera offices in Gaza City.

Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news operation that has been doing some of the best reporting out of Gaza the last two weeks, blamed Israel.

“We hold the Israeli authorities fully responsible,” Al Jazeera said in a statement. “They have put the lives of journalists in danger.”

The Israel Defense Forces denied targeting Al Jazeera, according to Sherif Mansour, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is investigating. But it was noted by Mansour and others that the gunfire came one day after Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said he wanted to ban the network for broadcasting “anti-Semitic incitement, lies, provocation and encouragement to terrorists.”

There’s good reason for Israel wanting to shut down the kind of vivid coverage Al Jazeera is offering from Gaza City: Israel is losing the public relations war over its action in Gaza in a way I cannot remember seeing in any of its recent military actions. And part of that is due to the suffering of Palestinian civilians being depicted with an unprecedented sensitivity and prominence — at least, in American media.

More journalists in Gaza and more social media are among the reasons given for the change.

“There were only a couple Western journalists in Gaza when Israel invaded in 2008,” says Michael Calderone, Huffington Post senior media reporter. “Now, there are dozens covering every air strike in real-time through social media, complete with graphic images of Palestinian civilians, and even children, being killed and injured. So there's a disconnect between Israeli officials' repeated claims on TV about fighting terrorism and extensive footage we're seeing of Israel bombing schools, shelters and hospitals in Gaza.”

As Calderone sees it, such images have upended traditional packaging of stories out of Gaza.

“The American public may have seen a few stray images or video clips from Gaza in the past as part of a TV package, but such scenes would be interspersed with the views from experts and government officials,” he said in an email to The Sun. “A network correspondent now can take a heartbreaking video of a Palestinian mother grieving for her lost son, post it on Facebook, and the video will go viral several hours before the evening newscast.”

An online headline from New York Magazine last week put it this way: "'Telegenically dead Palestinians:' Why Israel is losing the American media war."

No one is doing a more thorough job of covering the death and destruction in Gaza than Al Jazeera. Social media are absolutely a driving force in the shift in coverage, but I also believe the heavy presence of Al Jazeera and the excellent work its correspondents and producers are doing have raised the games of all the news organizations on the ground.

There are several Al Jazeera channels on the story: Al Jazeera Arabic, Al Jazeera English and Al Jazeera America. I have been watching Al Jazeera America, which told The Sun this week that it has seen a 30 percent surge in viewership the past two weeks compared with the month before. That translates to the channel reaching 3.0 million unique viewers for the total day, according to a network spokesperson.

The channel is up 40 percent in prime time since the start of the Gaza conflict, which translates to it reaching a total 1.4 million unique viewers between 8 and 11 p.m.

That’s good news for the American brand that has been struggling in the ratings.

“When Al Jazeera America first debuted and was getting very weak ratings, my sense was that they needed a story they could own, that people would have to come to them for,” says Philip Seib, author of “The Al Jazeera Effect” and journalism professor at the University of Southern California. “Maybe this is going to be it.”

The Al Jazeera packages typically include three correspondents on the ground — two in Gaza and one in Israel each filing a report. Al Jazeera America’s Nick Schifrin and Stephanie Dekker, whose Al Jazeera English reports also air on Al Jazeera America, have been at ground zero in Gaza.

Their reports are followed by Gaza-related pieces, like a roundup last Sunday of protests against the incursion in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., London and Paris.

I saw none of the demonstrations elsewhere on any cable channel or network.

And those reports were regularly followed by discussions with an anchor interviewing Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. spokespeople.

Not that Al Jazeera is alone in showing the carnage — far from it.

NBC News correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin has been filing superb reports since the start of the month, when the bodies of three Israeli teens who had been abducted were found, and that discovery was followed by a Palestinian teen being burned alive, apparently in retaliation. Moyheldin’s coverage this past week of four Palestinian teens being killed by Israeli artillery fire while playing soccer on a beach was heart-rending.

“That’s the story that tipped the balance,” Seib said. “It was so moving, and journalists were right there to report it rather than recounting it third-hand after the fact.”

CNN’s Ben Wedeman has done outstanding work as well. As Israel stepped up artillery and air strikes, Wedeman filed a report in which he followed a Palestinian family of five trying to flee a neighborhood in Gaza City that had been served notice by the Israel Defense Forces that it was about to destroyed.

The CNN camera caught the panic and horror in the faces of two little girls as the first artillery shell rocked the ground on which they stood. The look on one girl’s face and the shriek of terror from her little sister at the sound of the explosion spoke volumes about the kind of emotional and psychological damage being inflicted on another generation.

And now comes Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, who on Wednesday filed as powerful a report as I have seen in the past two weeks. It featured him riding in Palestinian ambulances that were hopelessly trying to keep up with the injured and dying.

Graphic footage from the report included that of a 24-year-old Palestinian woman buried alive under the debris of a building. She looked like a corpse, with only her grime-encrusted head showing above the dust and dirt. Then her eyes opened slightly and lips moved — followed by a hand rising from the rubble.

Richard Vatz, a Towson University communications professor, sees such reporting as representative of a major shift in coverage — but he doesn’t approve.

“The change has been a coverage agenda that in the case of NBC eliminates in some cases and utterly limits in others the provocations of Hamas,” Vatz says in an email to The Sun. “But almost all networks focus primarily if not exclusively on the death and destruction in Gaza to Palestinians. This should be covered, but I do not recall such elimination in the past of a war's casus belli — in this case, the murders and the rocket attacks.”

Israel’s point of view is not being excluded anywhere on TV — Al Jazeera American included — based on my viewing. The Israeli claim that Hamas uses civilians as human shields has been sounded on every channel.

The “Telegenically Dead Palestinians” quote in New York Magazine, for example, comes from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying on CNN last Sunday, “All civilian casualties are unintended by us, but intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can … it's gruesome. They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead the better.”

But such words can no longer compete with the images of Palestinian suffering in driving the dominant narrative.

The images are so affecting, in fact, that the words of Israeli officials are often thrown back at them in a mocking fashion as the New York Magazine headline did. Or, as Secretary of State John Kerry did when caught on a hot mic between tapings of Sunday morning talk shows last week saying, "hell of a 'pinpoint operation,'" to mimic Netanyahu’s description of the incursion.

In the past two weeks, three media workers and journalists have been injured, while two were killed by Israeli air strikes, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Last Wednesday, the Foreign Press Association issued a statement strongly condemning “deliberate official and unofficial incitement against journalists working to cover the current warfare” in Gaza.

Shooting the messenger is never the road to better coverage.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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