A discussion among two Los Angeles Times editors, one historian, and a UCLA audience exposes gaps in expectations about how violence gets reported.
They follow a narrative, a narrative that other people seem to believe.
At a panel discussion Tuesday at UCLA on media coverage of the 2006 Lebanon War, two editors from The Los Angeles Times responded to charges of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias in U.S. reporting. The discussion capped a full day of talks—organized by the Comparative Literature Student Group at UCLA, with co-sponsors that included the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies—on the background and consequences of the 34-day struggle in July and August between Hezbollah fighters and the Israeli military.
"Frankly, I don't know how you cover a war that didn't make any sense from the beginning," said Ian Masters, a radio host at KPFK in Los Angeles and moderator of the media roundtable. "Ostensibly, Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, and Israel blew up a country."
Nicholas Goldberg, op-ed page editor at the Times and a former Middle East correspondent, said that this conflict presented hard challenges for American journalists, who first have to get a handle on the region's complex history. Then, in order to write about the 2006 war, reporters had to say why it happened.
"They follow a narrative, a narrative that other people seem to believe," he conceded.
"I know that's true in the editorial pages," he added, referring to newspapers' unsigned editorials, not to the op-ed articles that he solicits. Goldberg observed that editorial opinion shifted "suddenly" and within days of the first Israeli air strikes, from upholding Israel's "absolute right to respond" to scolding the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a "disproportionate" reaction.
Goldberg defended the notion that news reporters should aim for a neutral stance and neutral language that consider "both sides" of a conflict, rejecting the idea that "a cloak of objectivity" makes bias more insidious by hiding it.
On the panel as a media critic and author of the Angry Arab News Service weblog, CSU-Stanislaus historian As'ad AbuKhalil raised that objection and a series of specific concerns regarding coverage of the war. Stories highlighting the "anguish" and discomfort of Hezbollah fighters could never appear in the U.S. press, but that was exactly the treatment given to soldiers in Israeli units with embedded reporters, he said.
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For reporters who are not trained in "the language and the culture of the people they are covering," AbuKhalil said, "it is very easy to be manipulated." While offering that coverage by Megan Stack of the Los Angeles Times was "less harmful" than that of the vast majority of U.S. reporters, AbuKhalil said that it is "a major failure" for news organizations not to insist on previous knowledge of the region in the hiring process.
"We took a fair amount of heat from Israeli groups" for putting Lebanese casualties up front in stories, said Marjorie Miller, foreign editor at the Times, in defense of the balance of coverage at her paper. She said that civilian casualties in Lebanon compared with Israel were running "ten-to-one."
"I believe our coverage reflected that," she said.
Panels and talks earlier in the day had looked at the 2006 war in historical, cultural, and legal contexts.
"I learned about internal politics in Lebanon…. I think we know a lot about international politics," said Pouneh Behin, an undergraduate who studies French, biology, and the Middle East.
Organized by graduate students in comparative literature, "Covering Lebanon: Representations of the 2006 War" was co-sponsored by the Departments of Comparative Literature and French and Francophone Studies, CNES, and the Levantine Cultural Center.