WASHINGTON POST-WATCH: Failures in Coverage of Hezbollah Continue

One short — 11 paragraphs, 559 words — news article provides a case study of how the Washington Post continues to stumble in covering the Hezbollah-Israel war and its aftermath. “Rights Group Accuses Hezbollah of ‘Indiscriminate’ Killing,” by Post Foreign Service correspondent Kevin Sullivan, September 15, has four major flaws.

Says Who?

1) Sullivan writes that “the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel began after the militia group crossed into Israel and seized two Israeli soldiers on July 12.” No, the fighting began after the terrorist group crossed into Israel, killed three Israeli soldiers, seized two others, killed five more sent to rescue them, and fired scores of rockets more or less indiscriminately at Israeli targets, military and civilian.

Post inconsistency regarding descriptions of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization is inexplicable and unacceptable. The newspaper often refers to terrorist groups and leaders as such, for example al-Qaeda and its head, Osama bin Laden, as in “Taliban’s Gains Forestall U.S. Troops Reductions in Afghanistan,” September 22. But in coverage of anti-Israel terrorists, Post circumlocutions abound. Nevertheless, Hezbollah is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel and Canada; Australia makes it a crime to fund or otherwise provide resources for it. Hezbollah is funded, armed and trained by Iran – a major state sponsor of international terrorism, in part through its patronage of the “Party of God.” Hezbollah is responsible for, among other things, the 1983 and 1984 bombings of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon and the U.S. Marine and French military barracks there; the 1992 and 1994 bombings in Argentina of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community headquarters, respectively, and previous kidnappings and murders of Israeli soldiers and rocketing of civilian sites in northern Israel. In dispatches in which Hezbollah figures prominently, this fundamental information ought to be provided.

CAMERA has pointed that American readers are likely to understand militia as something akin to the National Guard — a legitimate governmental military organization. Calling Hezbollah a “militia” without further explanation is like referring to the Mafia as “a provider of goods and services.”

2-3) The superficial description of how “the fighting began” sets up the next two major flaws: “The Israel bombing raids and artillery strikes that followed killed as many as 1,200 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians, while Hezbollah’s missile attacks and other operations killed 158 Israelis, most of whom were soldiers.”

How many people in Lebanon were killed? According to the Associated Press (“Israel to pull troops out of Lebanon; Army chief says he expects the final withdrawal will be completed by sundown Friday,” Baltimore Sun, September 20) “more than 150 Israelis and 850 Lebanese were killed during the month-long war.” In “Cease-fire goes into effect in Mideast,” (August 14), the Sun itself reported that 763 people died in Lebanon, “mostly civilians.” The Post’s “as many as 1,200 people” has no attribution and may be inflated by 50 percent. Readers are not cautioned as to the possible unreliability of Lebanese sources fronting for or intimidated by Hezbollah.

Civilians? Questioning the Number of Civilian Casualties in Lebanon,” by CAMERA researcher Steven Stotsky, examines a variety of major news sources, includes Israeli military statements regarding identified Hezbollah casualties, and notes news reports of Hezbollah funerals. It indicates, among other things, that the organization lost between 500 and 700 combatants, not the 68 reported by Agence France Press or 74 by AP.

If total fatalities were closer to AP’s 850, or the Sun’s 763, it is possible that the majority of non-Israelis who died in Lebanon were not civilians but terrorist gunmen. If the Post’s unsourced “as many as 1,200 people” is correct, a large minority still may have been combatants. Readers are not informed that the figures may have been supplied to news agencies and aid groups by Lebanese sources fronting for or intimidated by Hezbollah and that actual casualties may be significantly fewer in number and different in nature.

4) The most important parts of a newspaper article, in terms of effect on readers, are headline, lead, and conclusion. Absent any compelling illustration — this article was unaccompanied by a photograph or other “art” — the conclusion is both literally and psychologically “the last word.” The Post gives it to Hezbollah:

“We do not deny that we have bombarded Israeli cities, settlements and infrastructure. But this was always a reaction,” Hezbollah legislator Hassan Fadlallah told al-Jazeera television, according to Associated Press. “It was a natural reaction. When a state is invaded, it must defend itself.”

Fadlallah’s claims — which The Post got from AP, which got them from al-Jazeera — are newsworthy as an example of Hezbollah apologetics, but not as the last word about Amnesty International’s accusations. To close the report with them may cast doubt on the facts that:

a) Hezbollah’s rocket attacks accompanied the killing and capture of Israeli troops on Israeli soil, Israeli attacks “were in response”; b) Israel did not intentionally attack civilians in Lebanon, Hezbollah (as Fadlallah acknowledges) intentionally attacked civilians in Israel; and c) Hezbollah’s aggression was not defending itself but attacking Israel and usurping the authority of the Lebanese state. To the extent Israel invaded Lebanon, it was a “natural reaction” to Hezbollah crimes and violations (including failure to disarm under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 [2004]) and Lebanon’s failure (also according to Resolution 1559) to extend control over all its territory. The Post doesn’t mention Resolution 1559, Hezbollah’s continuing violation of it as a “militia group,” and Lebanon’s failure to uphold its own sovereignty.

More problems

By uncritically accepting Amnesty International self-description as a human rights group, the Post gives A.I.’s secretary-general, Irene Khan, a platform to invoke “the suffering of civilians on both sides.” This supports the organization’s insinuation that there were “perpetrators of war crimes” on both sides.

In addition, the Post does not question why, in response to Israel charges that Hezbollah used the Lebanese public as human shields, “Amnesty said it would investigate those allegations in later reports.” Amnesty’s long-standing pattern of rushing to blast Israel while only tardily and then in limited fashion examining Israel’s attackers, passes unremarked even in this obvious case.

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