While the war between Israel and Hezbollah raged in Lebanon and Israel last summer, it became clear that media coverage had itself started to play an important role in determining the ultimate outcome of that war. It seemed clear that news coverage would affect the course of the conflict. And it quickly transpired that Hezbollah would become the beneficiary of the media's manipulation.
A close examination of the media's role during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon comes now from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, in an analysis of the war published in a paper whose subtitle should give pause to journalists covering international conflict: "The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006: The Media as a Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict." Marvin Kalb, of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, methodically traces the transformation of the media "from objective observer to fiery advocate." Kalb painstakingly details how Hezbollah exercised absolute control over how journalists portrayed its side of the conflict, while Israel became "victimized by its own openness."
There were a number of very significant points in this paper that did not lambast the media so much as chide it for pretending that it is objective and does not take part in the war. In many respects, it points out that the very nature of competitive media forces it to abandon it's journalistic integrity for sensationalism. It did abandon these ethics and routinely published historonic stories and faked images as a true representation of the war. And, once the images and stories were out, repairing the damage was practically impossible. Images might be replaced or withdrawn from the internet with a few words indicating the problem, but it was not publicized as a hoax to the extent that, had the Israelis perpetrated such a hoax, it would have been front page news for days.
Inexplicably, or not, Hezbollah is given a pass. Whether it is because it is considered the "underdog" and given huge allowances, because the press sympathizes with their cause, the press cycle moves so fast that the story is lost, the press is hesitant to advertise it's own mistakes since it would harm their image as "objective" purveyors of the "unvarnished truth" to the public (and, thus, damage their pocket books and careers) or, as this paper alleges, sensationalism sales, the press has contributed to their own weaponization.
However, the paper also points out that part of the issue is the difference between closed and open societies as well as their ability to control message[pg 6]:
If we are to collect lessons from this war, one of them would have to be that a closed society can control the image and the message that it wishes to convey to the rest of the world far more effectively than can an open society, especially one engaged in an existential struggle for survival. An open society becomes the victim of its own openness. During the war, no Hezbollah secrets were disclosed, but in Israel secrets were leaked, rumors spread like wildfire, leaders felt obliged to issue hortatory appeals often based on incomplete knowledge, and journalists were driven by the fire of competition to publish and broadcast unsubstantiated information. A closed society conveys the impression of order and discipline; an open society, buffeted by the crosswinds of reality and rumor, criticism and revelation, conveys the impression of disorder, chaos and uncertainty, but this impression can be misleading.
It was hardly an accident that Hezbollah, in this circumstance, projected a very special narrative for the world beyond its ken—a narrative that depicted a selfless movement touched by God and blessed by a religious fervor and determination to resist the enemy, the infidel, and ultimately achieve a “divine victory,” no matter the cost in life and treasure. The narrative contained no mention of Hezbollah’s dependence upon Iran and Syria for a steady flow of arms and financial resources.
Another point that the paper makes is our (and essentially the media) refusal to accept that this is a propaganda war and that we need to fight it. We insist that an open society is inherently stronger than a closed society, can survive better and, ultimately, win the day with this "honesty". In some ways, this concept is correct. Yet, our refusal to embrace the media and all forms of information communication fully, leaves us doing a poor job, some where between concealing and releasing information. Many have advocated that the military and the government move faster on releasing information instead of slowing down or trying to enforce some aspect of information control.
Like Hamas and al-Qaeda, it appreciated the central importance of the communications revolution sweeping through the region. These three radical groups believe, according to Steve Fondacaro, an American military expert, that it is on the “information battlefield” that the historic struggle between Western modernity and Islamic fundamentalism will ultimately be resolved. “The new element of power that has emerged in the last thirty to forty years and has subsumed the rest is information,” he said. “A revolution happened without us knowing or paying attention. Perception truly now is reality, and our enemies know it.”3
The paper points out that the unbridled flow of information and rumor gives the appearance of chaos while the controlled information flow gives the appearance of control. This free flow of information has overtaken a key military strategy of secrecy and obsfucation. Yet, if information flow was so quick, the media might be unable to form a good picture and the enemy equally confused as to what is reality or on what to form an opinion. Or, in essence, the more information that is put out, the more likely we could control the message.
The paper, however, focuses on the media's changing role.
A key consequence of this new warfare is that the role of the journalist in many parts of the world has been dramatically transformed—from a quest for objectivity and fairness to an acceptance of advocacy as a tool of the craft.
It is not actually a new concept, it is just more prevalent and obvious. Journalists used their podium to push for civil rights, for women's rights and any number of other concepts deemed important. Still, many considered themselves "fair" and objective. Today, the populations of the world, including many Americans, consider journalists and many media outlets to be just what this paper alleges, advocates for one side or the other. The people recognizing or labeling journalists before journalists have recognized it or accepted it themselves.
It may still be that the media does this subconciously or that, in fighting this idea, they may yet recover. They will have to become even more vigilant and responsible for the information they release. Possibly, in future wars, they may actually have to decide whether they support a cause or not and act on that, open and obvious to all. Or, they may yet have to become even more "self-editing".
Read more about the media as a weapon.