First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
The News vs. the Truth?
On 29 September 2000, Muhammad al-Dura died. He was twelve years old. In life he was obscure, but in death he changed the world.
Would-be suicide bombers who are intercepted and interrogated by Israeli security forces have been known to say that their motive was to avenge the death of Muhammad al-Dura. Because that boy died, other Muslims feel justified in slaughtering as many Israelis as possible, even if they die in the process. Because his death proves to them that justice is on their side. It is a cause worth killing and dying for.
Why Muhammad al-Dura? Because we have the film.
A French television network (France-2) broke the story and ran the footage. It shows a man and a boy in Gaza, taking shelter behind a "concrete barrel or culvert." We have 55 seconds in which the man points toward an Israeli outpost; the camera pans to show it; then it returns and we see two gunshots hit a concrete-block wall far away from the man and boy.
The father shields the boy; they get down behind the abutment; then our view is obscured by a cloud of dust from more gunshots, and when the dust clears, the boy is stretched out at his father's feet.
That's what we see. The narration tells us what it means. The father and son were caught in a crossfire between Palestinians and Israelis -- along with other bystanders. A round of gunfire kills the boy and grievously wounds the father.
That was the initial narration. Later, though, more and more details are provided. We learn that, under oath, the cameraman, Talal Abu Rahmeh, "alleged that Israeli soldiers had intentionally, in cold blood, murdered the boy and wounded the father." He claimed that the initial exchange of gunfire had been about five minutes long, but it was followed by 45 minutes of shooting from the Israeli position only, aimed directly at that man and his son. The cameraman claimed to have caught 27 minutes of this shooting, at the risk of his own life.
The father, Jamal, was interviewed on Israeli television, where he recounted his efforts to let the Israelis know that he was just a civilian, waving to them -- but he was shot in the hand. "He tried to protect his son with his arm, but they shot him in the arm and shoulder. He tried to protect his son with his leg, but they shot him in the leg, smashing his pelvis."
The cameraman later told the BBC that Jamal tried to use his cellphone to call for help. An ambulance came, but the driver was shot. The boy bled to death because the Israelis prevented anyone from getting through to take him to the hospital.
Western journalists picked up the story and repeated it with all its growing details. The public relations damage to the Israeli government was terrible and nothing they said could make any difference.
Yet there were problems with the story from the start. First, the Israeli soldiers who were in that fortification denied knowing anything about the incident. Then investigators went to the fort, checked out where the film showed that Jamal and Muhammad were when the boy was killed, and concluded that theshots that killed him could not have come from the Israelis, because there was no direct line of sight -- or bullets -- from the Israeli position that could have reached them.
But the story kept on growing and spreading. People ignored the fact that the initial story did not even state that the Israelis had done the killing -- the first French report only stated that there was a crossfire. No one seemed to say, Wait a minute, why do more details keep getting added to the story? Why is it that the film we have is only 55 seconds long, and in those 55 seconds the only bullets seem to hit a wall far from the man and the boy?
Nobody demanded to see the rest of the footage. No journalist insisted on taking cameras to the spot and verifying whether the Israeli investigators were right, and their soldiers could not have done the killing.
And yet the answers to these and many other questions were readily available. In fact, there were journalists who absolutely knew the truth and declined to tell anyone; or if they did try to tell, it was deemed unworthy of air time or print space by their editors. A wall of protective silence came down around any information that might have exonerated Israel.
As a result, the story of Muhammad al-Dura's death went unrefuted as it increasingly became an atrocity story -- the deliberate murder of a civilian by Israeli soldiers.
Five years later, the hidden details did come out in America -- in an article in Commentary by Nidra Poller, a Jewish woman writing for an American Jewish publication. (It is from her article in the September 2005 issue that I have taken all my quotations and have paraphrased much of the rest of the story.) Well, what else would you expect of Jews, but to insist that it didn't really happen?
But Commentary is a magazine with a sterling reputation for accuracy in its reporting, regardless of what the opinions of the writers and editors might be. And what Nidra Poller reports are facts that are readily available to any journalist -- if they bothered to look.
Because, you see, there is other footage taken that day by other camera crews -- including France-2 itself. Footage that was never shown on television.
Footage that reveals that the entire event was faked from beginning to end. There was a real demonstration that day, near the Israeli position. But back around the corner, where the Israelis could not see -- or shoot -- there was a staging area for fakery. The cameras could pan from the faked scene to the real Israeli outpost, but what the viewer could not see was that the Israelis could not have seen what was going on.
In reality, in the area of the faked scene, civilian life was going on normally. It was a busy crossroads -- traffic was unimpeded.
The footage of the real events indicates that Palestinians threw rocks and Molotov cocktails and even dropped burning tires down on the Israeli position (to no effect, because the position was well protected). And through all of this provocation, the Israelis did not react militarily at all. They did not fire. They did not use tear gas. They just watched.
But around the corner, behind an abandoned factory, Palestinians who worked for major networks as their stringers and cameramen were filming fake battle scenes. It was like a Hollywood set. UN and Red Crescent ambulances load up fake casualties and take them away. Talal Abu Rahmeh himself, the cameraman who testified about the murder of Muhammad al-Dura, can be seen in some of the footage, filming an event that, from the perspective of the other camera, was obviously fake.
The Reuters footage, for instance, also shows the man and boy crouched for shelter behind the culvert. During this time, several ambulances involved in "rescuing" victims of various staged scenes are quite close to the man and boy, and no one is preventing them from offering assistance. There is no gunfire, and people pass by quite closely without showing any sign of alarm or danger.
In fact, every detail of Talal Abu Rahmeh's testimony is revealed in the other cameramen's footage to be utterly false.
Not only that, but his own satellite feed includes a shot of the "dead" boy "shifting position, propping himself up on his elbow, shading his eyes with his hand, rolling over on his stomach, covering his eyes." This footage was seen in France and edited out.
In fact, footage from the other cameramen at the faked scenes was used in various news reports -- but only clips that concealed what was really going on. And the accompanying stories used them as proof of Israeli atrocities and of civilian casualties from Israeli fire -- even though the outtakes made it obvious to anyone that none of the injuries were real; that there was no battle at all.
It is almost certain that later commentators had no idea that the incidents were all staged. But there were people at these networks who did know, and made no effort to correct the errors.
In fact, the real news story was the fact that Palestinian stringers for major western networks were faking anti-Israeli news stories in order to whip up hatred for Israelis.
But have you heard this news story? Anywhere? From anyone? Even though there is genuine film showing that this is precisely what happened? You're the public -- didn't you have a right to know?
We only know what the press and media tell us. When the media suppresses the truth or collaborates in a lie, how can we discover it? We depend on some other member of the press to expose them. Even if the only ones willing to do it happen to be supporters of Israel.
Why did otherwise respectable newspeople refrain from revealing the truth about those faked events?
Some were probably ideologically motivated -- they abhor Israel, for whatever reason, and so they regard it as morally good even to lie if it will hurt Israel's support from the West. How else can we explain news editors knowingly removing exculpatory footage and showing only the parts that were faked well enough to look real to the unsuspecting television audience?
Some, who did not know about the fakery until the story was already running, understood that if they told the truth, that news organization would be permanently cut off from any access to sources and locations in Palestine (and maybe in other Muslim areas as well). So they dared not be the only ones to expose the fakery, or they would then become the only news organization unable to report in that area in the future.
And, since they knew perfectly well that the people who had faked these scenes were part of a movement that had no qualms about committing mass murder, they might have feared retaliation -- terrorist incidents at Reuters or France-2 headquarters, for instance.
My point is this: Regardless of their motivation, news organizations around the world, some knowingly and the rest unquestioningly, accepted a lie as if it were truth -- and people have died as a result of that lie.
As for the real cause of Muhammad al-Dura's death, one can only speculate. It might help to know of the existence of photographs of the dead Muhammad al-Dura from Gaza's Schifa hospital, taken hours before his alleged murder, with wounds that do not match what "eyewitnesses" said happened, and whose face looks nothing like the face of the boy in the film.
Perhaps the Palestinians who staged the events went to a local hospital and found a real human tragedy -- a twelve-year-old boy who had died from one cause or another -- and then conscripted his grieving father into coming out and taking part in their charade, using a different boy as a stand-in for his son.
The funeral and burial of the real Muhammad would have been real enough; so would the grief of his family. And the father could easily be terrorized into keeping the lie going. If there's one thing the Palestinian leaders know how to do, it's terrorize Palestinian citizens into doing what they're told.
There were journalists who doubted the al-Dura story all along. One of them, a former Le Monde reporter, wrote a powerful article exposing and condemning the fraud. But the editor of L'Express decided at the last minute not to run the story. And France-2, which by now had been forced to admit it did not have most of the "proof" that had been claimed for their story, still went on denying that there had been any impropriety.
Now everyone knows the truth -- that is, everyone who cares to look. It is well-known among European newspeople, and few deny it.
But the fake story received far more coverage. And the correction, the true story, of course was given very little play, if any, in the Muslim world. The lie about Muhammad al-Dura's death goes on killing. Murder by journalism.
This is an extreme example, and while it certainly involves deliberate journalistic malfeasance, it was also exposed because of journalists with integrity. But the damage has been far greater than the slight attempts at a cure; as with such lies as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the lie keeps outliving and outspreading the truth. Lies, once told, are very hard to untell, as long as there are people who think it's to their advantage to perpetuate them.
But that was Palestine. And a French news organization. What does that have to do with America?
Let me give you another story. Not as dire by any means -- but in its own way reflecting the same mindset, that for some journalists, truth is secondary to ideology, and the public only has a right to know what the journalists think is good for them.
Take the New York Times story that ran under the headline "2,000 Dead: As Iraq Tours Stretch On, a Grim Mark." The story tells of one soldier in particular, Jeffrey Starr, who died in a firefight in Ramadi on April 30.
The Times story, reported by James Dao, quoted bits from the letter that made it sound as if Starr didn't want to be taking part in the war and was forced into a third tour in Iraq against his will.
Dao wrote (and quoted): "Sifting through Corporal Starr's laptop computer after his death, his father found a letter to be delivered to the marine's girlfriend. 'I kind of predicted this,' Corporal Starr wrote of his own death. 'A third time just seemed like I'm pushing my chances.'"
That's what appeared in the Times. But the very next sentence of the letter -- which Dao deemed unimportant and not worth quoting as he explained how young soldiers felt about the war -- says this:
"I don't regret going, everybody dies but few get to do it for something as important as freedom. It may seem confusing why we are in Iraq, it's not to me. I'm here helping these people, so they can live the way we live. Not have to worry about tyrants or vicious dictators. To do what they want with their lives. To me that is why I died. Others have died for my freedom, now this is my mark."
In a story about how the soldiers in Iraq feel about what they're doing, on the occasion of the 2,000th death, when the Times's reporter had this whole letter available to him, he chose to omit the ringing endorsement of the cause the soldier died for, and quoted only the part that sounds fatalistic and resigned.
When challenged, Dao insisted "there is nothing 'anti war' in the way I portrayed Corporal Starr." He even affirmed that the portion he quoted expressed "the fatalism that many soldiers and marines seem to feel about multiple tours."
Maybe that's true -- maybe other soldiers Dao talked to really were fatalistic. But then ... why didn't he quote them? Why did he quote from this letter and omit the very portion in which this young soldier expressed his own testament: why he was in Iraq, what he believed his death meant?
This letter was not staged -- Starr intended it for his girlfriend and, quite likely, his family as well. But once a reporter got access to it and decided to quote from it, was it not at least a close relative to a lie for him to stifle the clear meaning of Starr's words and excerpt only the part that would make the reporter's pre-determined point?
How is this different from the media people in France deciding to go with the portion of the footage that gave one impression -- the false one -- and omit the footage that revealed the truth -- that the "dead" boy continued to move after his "death"?
I hear people sneering at those of us who decry the bias of the media -- it's just "conservative paranoia." And in fact there must be some unbiased media for us to find out about this deceptions in order to complain about them.
Do you want to know my source of the truth on this story? Michelle Malkin, a columnist for Jewish World Review. ("All the News That's Fit To Omit," Nov. 2 2005).
How many such omissions and slants and, occasionally, outright fabrications are we exposed to without knowing it?
I recently saw the movie Good Night and Good Luck -- an excellent, honest film about Edward R. Murrow's confrontation with Joseph McCarthy.
A funny thing has happened in the years since McCarthy's brief reign of terror in the Senate. We remember that he was Bad, but we have forgotten why he was bad.
I remember back in the mid-1970s hearing a national radio network (not NPR) that led off a news story like this: "Twenty years ago, Joseph McCarthy accused many in the State Department of being Communists. Yesterday, Senator Barry Goldwater accused [some government organization] of having been infiltrated by Communists."
My memory is hazy on the details -- who was accused, the exact wording. But what was indelibly and correctly imprinted on my memory was the fact that it was the sheer act of declaring that Communist infiltration had taken place that was linked to McCarthy and thereby discredited.
Nowadays it is anti-Communism itself which is generally regarded as being "McCarthyism." But, as Good Night and Good Luck reminds us, everybody was anti-Communist in those days. This was not a hard thing to decide: Communists had taken over eastern Europe and China; we had fought a war against Communist aggressors in Korea; it took bitter fighting to prevent Communist insurrections from succeeding in Greece and Thailand.
McCarthy's sin was not being anti-Communist -- everyone was anti-Communist. Nor was his sin the act of accusing some individual or group of being led, funded, or controlled by Communists. Stalin's people had infiltrated and recruited in many areas of American life.
For instance: Franklin D. Roosevelt's right-hand man in his negotiations with Stalin at Yalta was a Soviet agent. Our nuclear secrets really were stolen by Communist spies. There really were Hollywood writers who took whatever position Moscow directed them to -- anti-Hitler until the Soviet-German pact in 1939, pro-Hitler from then until the German invasion of the USSR, then anti-Hitler again -- and these very Hollywood writers did indeed incorporate pro-Socialist and sometimes pro-Stalin content in at least some of their scripts. And our intelligence organizations were so thoroughly infiltrated that the KGB knew almost everything we were doing.
These things are documented. They're objectively true. And many of the people who exposed and opposed these Communists or Communist sympathizers were American liberals, not just conservatives. Anti-Communism was an American cause, not a conservative one.
So what was McCarthy's sin that makes him, deservedly, one of the genuine monsters of America's recent past?
He was a liar. He used our fear of a genuine Communist threat for his own personal political advantage. He accused people and organizations of being Communist without a shred of evidence, but lied and said that he had evidence. He staged televised hearings to smear people's reputations. Hiding behind his pose as a noble crusader and savior of America, he attacked people who had done no wrong -- people who acted wholly within their rights as Americans, and who were not agents of any foreign power.
In other words, he did exactly what was done by anti-Israeli conspirators in the al-Dura business: He claimed to have evidence that was either fake or nonexistent, in order to make a political point and gain notoriety for himself -- and for a long time people let him get away with it for fear that if they exposed him, they would be smeared in their turn.
McCarthyism is alive and well. But it doesn't consist of conservatives or liberals; it doesn't consist of anti-Communists or anti-terrorists. Every decent and rational person was against Communism, and every decent and rational person is against terrorism.
McCarthyism is going on whenever people lie or omit or twist or distort the truth in order to smear their rivals and opponents and gain advantage for their pet cause -- whether the cause is liberal or conservative.
It's bad enough when politicians lie for their own advantage, like a certain President who committed perjury in order to win in a lawsuit brought by a victim of his sexual harassment.
But we expect our news media to regard truth as their highest value. That's the business they're in -- telling us the truth. That's the solemn promise they make. And if they embrace McCarthyism -- if they knowingly or carelessly repeat lies, or omit truths that would transform the meaning of their story, in order to advance even the most righteous cause -- then where can we turn for the truth?
Edward R. Murrow had our trust because he earned it. Lots of later journalistshave copied his stern demeanor, his just-the-facts style, and thought that meant they were in his league. But to my distress, and to the great damage of our country, it seems that fewer and fewer of them have his stern commitment to telling only the truth -- and all of the truth -- and letting the public reach their own conclusions.
He took on a monster and helped set the stage for the monster's fall.
Shame on those who claim to be his successors, but in fact are really the successors of the monster.
I hope their numbers are few. But they do keep cropping up in the loftiest places, breaking down our trust in even our most reliable institutions. Who in America is surprised when anti-semites in Palestine and France conspire to tell lies about Jews? But when an American reporter omits a dead soldier's fervent testament about the war and spins the quote he does use to serve exactly the opposite ideological purpose, and does it in the news pages of the New York Times, then maybe McCarthyism isn't so very dead after all.
Copyright © 2005 by Orson Scott Card.
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