The War You See, and the War You Don’t

Editors and producers ought to put their foot down: ignore demands for censorship, and make judicious decisions about battle footage case by case.

On July 25, Fox News reporter Bill Hemmer stood on a balcony and pointed to a hilltop on the Lebanon side of Israel’s border. The camera zoomed in. “It’s possible the latest Katushya rocket round left that high point,” Hemmer said, the camera following his sweeping hand over the hazy landscape, “and went down valley to the lower point of the Golan Heights.”

Later, Fox News reporter Greg Palkot provided an update: Hezbollah had issued a directive to “the American media,” starting with Fox. “We have been advised by the Hezbollah militia here not to show the exact positions where those rockets are launched from.” Under Palkot’s long face, a graphic read, “Hezbollah’s Request.”

If it had been U.S. troops launching artillery from that hilltop, any reporter (other than perhaps Geraldo Rivera) would have avoided broadcasting the location so as not to jeopardize military operations. But while journalistic ethics regarding such details are straightforward when U.S. troops are involved, the issue is fuzzier when they are not.

Now that a cease-fire has taken effect in Lebanon, it’s worth looking back to answer an important question: do American news organizations extend their rule about troop movements to U.S. allies, but not to enemies?

Certainly, the safety of the reporters involved must weigh on the minds of editors and producers, as Monday’s kidnapping of a Fox News reporter and cameraman amply demonstrates. And if reporters look as though they’re helping one side, they might become targets; as Bill Hemmer reported on the hilltop in question, he said it had just been creamed by Israeli F-16s, and Hezbollah obviously didn’t want Israel getting field intelligence from a cable news network.

U.S. news organizations such as CBS and the AP cooperated with Israeli authorities when it came to reporting details about military operations. In order to get press cards in Israel, reporters must sign off on a set of rules laid out by an Israeli military censor to ensure that their reporting won’t help Hezbollah aim their rockets. CBS News Senior Vice President Linda Mason told CBS’s Public Eye, “If the AP reports something, we report it. If we get something unilaterally and we can’t get the Israeli military to confirm, we call the censorship office, which confirms, denies, or asks us to word it in a different way.”

Fox News has apparently decided that both allies and enemies get the same treatment — when they ask for it. After announcing “Hezbollah’s Request,” Greg Palkot said, “Not just us, but other Western media organizations are abiding by that [request]. And concerned about the safety of the media here, we’ll work within those guidelines. I think we can give you a pretty complete picture of the battlefield here from this side of the border.”

If news organizations are making compromises that affect their ability to make those calls, their audiences deserve to know. Fox owned up on air to following Hezbollah’s rules about outgoing rockets, but — citing the kidnappings earlier this week — declined to comment. Representatives from CNN, MSNBC, and NBC declined to comment about both Israel’s and Hezbollah’s demands. A CBS News spokesperson said the network “did not have cameras in specific locations that [Hezbollah] was talking about.” The spokesperson also said that although producers on the ground knew Hezbollah had made the request directly to other networks, CBS News never received a request directly from Hezbollah and made decisions about footage “on a case-by-case basis depending on what the story was.”

Meantime, ABC News claims to have remained independent through the conflict. Jeffrey Schneider, Senior Vice President of ABC News, claims his organization did not abide by Hezbollah’s request and did not submit any footage to the Israeli censor. Their policy, he said, “is to be independent of warring parties and report the news that is occurring.”

Broadcasting from war zones has always rendered the media a passive participant in conflict. However, by agreeing to Israel’s and Hezbollah’s demands — whether those of one or both — news organizations become a more active participant, and reporters have already noted how savvy Israel and Hezbollah have become in drawing the media into the battle. On the August 6 broadcast of CNN’s Reliable Sources, Thomas Ricks of the Washington Post remarked, “The Israelis are very sophisticated in their handling of the media. They consider it part of the battlefield, officially … And, in fact, there’s some belief from our reporters that they have occasionally targeted the media.” On the same program, NBC News correspondent Richard Engel related a harrowing interaction with Hezbollah. “On more than one occasion people from Hezbollah have come and said, ‘Do not film the locations of these rockets when they’re being launched,” Engel said. “At one time, when we were talking and having a conversation with this Hezbollah representative, he said, ‘Look, we’re serious, we will kill you if you film these outgoing rockets.’”

Seeing news organizations negotiating with foreign militaries isn’t that unusual — access always comes with a price, such as embedding — but it does seem escalated this time. If the next conflict involves more parties, say four or five, the negotiating calculus will be even more perilous.

Ideally, editors and producers ought to put their collective foot down: ignore demands for censorship, and make circumspect, judicious decisions about battle footage on a case-by-case basis. Rockets may look cool, but there is no need to amplify the risk to reporters in an already dangerous battle zone just for higher ratings. At the same time, battle footage is necessary to portray the reality of war; the sensitive details it betrays must serve journalistic values, clarifying and giving context for viewers and readers. If, in their decisions, editors and producers independently take into account the possibility of losing official access or angering reckless militias, they can remain sensitive to troop movements and civilian safety without signing off on anyone’s demands.

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Lawrence Lanahan is formerly an analyst with American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. He lived in Baltimore for five years and is now a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. The fifth season of The Wire premiered January 6, 2008 on HBO.