The recent withdrawal of Israel from Southern Lebanon in the face of a long and grinding conflict there with Hizballah prompted a familiar media phenomenon. A number of journalists rushed to put a friendly face on the Iranian-funded, Syrian-coordinated group, passing over its record of bloodletting and focusing on Hizballah’s work as a social service operation.
Under the almost lyrical headline “Helping Hand of Hezbollah Emerging in South Lebanon,” (May 31, 2000), New York Times reporter Susan Sachs led the way, recounting the quasi-governmental activity of the Islamic organization, including its provision of medical care, home reconstruction, fresh water and insecticide-spraying. In addition, Sachs’ only reference to Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s general secretary who regularly calls for Israel’s destruction, is mention of his respectful attitude toward Lebanese officials and the outpouring of affection for him.
Though Sachs admits that Hizballah is “still considered by the United States and other nations to be a terrorist group that bombed embassies and kidnaped Westerners in the 1980's” the reporter is misleading about the chronology of carnage. Hizballah did, indeed, specialize in deadly bombings in the 1980's, including two in Beirut on the same day in 1983 that killed 241 American marines and 56 French servicemen sleeping in their respective barracks.
But, contrary to Sachs, the bloodshed continued into the 1990's with multiple bombings in Argentina of Israeli and Jewish community facilities, one in March 1992 that killed 29 and another in July 1994 that killed 96. At the time this last event occurred it was one of the worst terrorist attacks ever in the Western hemisphere. (Notably, the New York Times did not report the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing on its front page). Hizballah is also credited with blowing a Panamanian airplane out of the sky the same year killing 21 people. None of the perpetrators of these crimes have been brought to justice.
National Public Radio eagerly picked up the New York Times’ theme of a rehabilitated Hizballah in its national call-in program, “Talk of the Nation.” Breathlessly, Jerusalem correspondent Jennifer Ludden reported:
...there is incredible [Lebanese] public support for Hizballah, especially at this point in time. In recent years, a wide range of Lebanese, not just Shiite Muslims but also Sunni Muslims and Christian Lebanese, have come to very much appreciate these guerilla fighters putting their lives on the line. The organization has had – under the leadership of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah – it has transformed away from kidnapings and bombings that really marked it in the 1980's (sic), and I think the Lebanese government does not provide social services across the board as much as people would like. Hizballah has been filling a lot of gaps.
When Ludden was asked by the program host whether Hizballah now accepts Israel’s “right to exist” she giggled slightly and responded:
Mmm. Well, they stopped at the border. I think that, again, they have been very, very cagey. You know, again, some of the foot soldiers will talk about liberating Jerusalem, but I don’t think that the leaders see this as a realistic goal.
These are some of the many “cagey” statements of Sheik Nasrallah: In a January speech he said:
When we speak about Jerusalem we don’t want anyone to misunderstand. We do not mean East Jerusalem. We do not mean the Holy Jerusalem...We do not mean Jerusalem, the city. When we say Jerusalem, we speak of it as a symbol of all Palestine and the entire nation that is under assault by the scheme of global arrogance and Zionism that throughout the past 50 years has been implemented on our land. ... Israel is a cancerous, usurping entity without legitimacy or legal character.
On June 2nd in a speech broadcast via telephone to a Palestinian rally in Gaza, Nasrallah called on the Palestinians to “fight the Zionists with stones, daggers, knives and bombs, expel them from the land, and make them return to whence they came...” He urged Palestinians to undertake suicide bombings such as the one perpetrated at Beit Lid in Israel where 22 young Israelis were murdered. In this particularly savage attack, bombs exploded at timed intervals in order to kill those who rushed to help the first victims.
When a caller to the NPR talk show challenged Ludden’s praise for Hizballah, noting that the group’s website contains language calling for Israel’s elimination, the reporter responded, “I haven’t logged onto the Internet site recently.”
At the same time Sachs and Ludden were deceptive about Hizballah, special credit is due Ray Suarez and Martin Himel for sound and balanced coverage of recent Lebanon events on the Public Broadcasting Service’s NewsHour. In a May 26th segment, the program gave a clear sense of the aims of Hizballah and the challenges faced by Israel, reviewing key history and current concerns. The broadcast served as a welcome reminder of what journalism can and should be.
Appeared in the Jerusalem Post on this date