June 3, 2002







Israeli media to American journalists:
Where's the debate?

by Hadas Ragolsky

Why are they censoring the pictures?" I asked myself a few hours after the attacks. As an Israeli journalist, I'm accustomed to coverage of terrorist attacks with graphic pictures of the injured, of ambulances rushing to hospitals and of devastated families in their homes as they receive the horrible news. I waited, but the gruesome pictures never came.

"In the
Israeli press no one would have waited for the city workers to clean bloodstains before raising the question of an intelligence oversight..."

photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Rescue workers and vehicles move around the wreckage of the World Trade Center September 13, 2001. Israeli journalists, more accustomed to reporting on terrorist attacks, routinely show pictures of the injured or ambulances rushing to the hospitals. Many ambulances that arrived at the World Trade Center on September 11 dashed away when the towers fell.

In Israel, the media holds an ongoing debate about how to cover catastrophes: what should we show? How do we approach the grieving families? The prevailing guidelines are simple. The reporter must be as near as possible to the place where the terror attack occurred - even if the police don't like it - and the footage can't show the bodies of victims but can show wounded people at the scene and in hospitals. Funerals are covered unless the family objects. But in the aftermath of September 11, this type of discussion was missing from the American media, television and newspapers. They chose to censor themselves without debate.

In the Israeli press no one would have waited for the city workers to clean bloodstains before raising the question of an intelligence oversight and who should take responsibility for it. But the American media was silenced, awash in patriotism, stifled by the administration's friendly advice - which eventually took the bin Laden videotapes off the air.

Of course the Israeli press was not always independent. Like the American press, Israeli media used to be very nationalistic. But that was before the Israeli army and administration failed to predict the Yum Kippur War in 1973, in which more than 2,700 Israelis died. Today, Israeli journalists aren't expected to be patriotic, and officials are criticized for even suggesting the press kowtow to the government.

One possible reason for differences in American and Israeli terrorist attack coverage is culture: Israelis are emotional and skeptical; Americans are restrained and businesslike. There is also the matter of geographical size: In Israel, the size of New Jersey, everybody knows everybody. The public insists on being part of the bereavement. Or maybe it was the magnitude of the event. Although Israelis have faced many terror attacks in the past, none of them was as devastating as September 11.

In November, top Israeli columnist Nachum Barnea wrote, "Since Sept. 11 the American media is going through a fast course in coping with terror. It is a hard task, full of failures. We, who have lived in this reality for years now, find it hard to understand the scale of the shock, the difficulties to be learned, and the time that is required for establishing a new set of journalistic norms." Barnea's son, an Israeli soldier, was killed in 1996 when a bomb went off on a civilian bus. Barnea was sent to cover the story before he knew his son had been a victim.

In the hours after the attacks, Israelis agreed on one thing: now Americans will be more sensitive toward Israelis suffering from terrorism - and more understanding toward the Israeli military's subsequent response. But Israelis were wrong. The American media, as well as the Bush administration, condemn Israel for doing the same thing in the West Bank that America is doing in Afghanistan: fighting terrorism.

Apparently, terrorism against Americans is considered more tragic than terrorism against Israelis. It may be a matter of geography perhaps, but not one of definition: the word "terror" in Hebrew and English is the same.

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