Pre-constructing Reality

In a straight faced satire of contemporary reporting, Rob at The Better Part of Valour, pre-constructs a news item spinning away the likely damage to the credibility of the traditional media if the court ordered release of the 27 minutes of rushes of the 2000 al Durrah incident occurs in Paris later today. Here is a sample:

GAZA CITY, 15 Nov., 2007. Palestinians reacted yesterday with a mixture of sadness and anger to allegations in a French court that the death of 12-year old Mohammed al-Durah, killed by IDF gunfire at Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip in 2000, had been ‘faked’.

The allegations, which have not been supported by either the Israeli or French governments, arose from a little-known libel case in France, which involved a so-called ‘independent’ analysis of the seven-year old killing by pro-Israeli activists in France and the US. Some of them have been described by world-renowned US journalist James Fallows as fanatics.

The dead boy’s father, Jamal, reacted bitterly to news of the allegations. ‘My son was a martyr slaughtered at their hands’, he said angrily, ‘and now they smear and slander him in his death and dishonour his memory, and the memory of all the Palestinian children they have destroyed’.

Veteran Ha’aretz journalist Gideon Levy – regarded as one of the finest and most fiercely independent of Israeli journalists – agreed, though more cautiously. ‘Undoubtedly the allegations are designed to deflect attention from the IDF’s appalling human rights record in the Occupied Territories,’ Mr Levy said, ‘especially its proven history of killing innocent children.’

As with any good satire designed to out a dishonest methodology it follows the typical progression of its target so closely that it needs to be clearly labeled as fake. What I like best is that we know from the first paragraph where it is going. It’s like listening to the first few notes of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and then having to sit through the whole bloody thing.

On the larger issue I believe Rob, who frankly states he is a pessimist, is saying that even if the now iconic footage is discredited by the rushes the traditional media will close ranks and use every device in its arsenal to defend it. I tend to agree with that because Richard Landes, who has seen the 27 minutes of rushes and done more than anyone else in the English speaking world to make the case that the story was faked, says there is “no smoking gun” in those 27 minutes. At the very least the traditional media will minimize the impact of the story and move on as quickly as possible. On his website, The Augean Stables, today Landes critiques in great detail a real story from the BBC that sets the stage for todays’ scheduled screening in the French court. The BBC article preserves the appearance of objectivity better than Rob’s satire, but to Landes’s knowledgeable eye many concessions are already being made to what had previously been denied. By all means read the whole thing – it is an excellent introduction to Landes’s penetrating analysis of the controversy and should also be a good predictor of how the story will play out after the rushes are shown. What I want to deal with here is the charge that the entire questioning of the veracity of the al Durrah footage by defendant Philippe Karsenty and other critics like Landes is just a conspiracy theory. The BBC story cites France2 as making exactly that charge:

The plaintiff, state-owned TV channel France 2, says it is both fighting a smear campaign by conspiracy theorists and standing up for honest reporting.

As anyone familiar with conspiracy theories knows they are most vulnerable to Occam’s Razor – the principle that given two or more explanations of events the simplest explanation is the most likely to be correct. The whole point of screening the rushes in court is that they evidently show typical Palestinian behavior – faking incidents for the news cameras. That is exactly what those who have seen the rushes say they contain. Richard Landes reports that when he viewed the rushes France2 reporter Charles Enderlin dismissed the obvious staging by saying “They do that all the time – it’s cultural.” So showing the rushes is important precisely because it moves the claim that the story is faked from the realm of an unlikely speculation to the status of a highly likely explanation. There were other cameramen at Netzarim Junction that day and some of their footage is available. Richard Landes has it on his web site The Second Draft and it demonstrates that the Palestinians were indeed creating fake footage on that day and at that location as well as at other times and places.

It is well to remember that what actually happened that day to the 12 year old boy Mohammad al Durrah is not provable from the footage. Physical evidence – bullets, blood, even a body do not exist – it is all based on eye witness accounts by Palestinians who are unlikely to contradict the story. From the video evidence we don’t know if he was even killed, never mind by whom. In term of the Israeli Palestinian conflict the damage is mostly done – the report fueled the second Intifada, but the truth is still crucial. Outing the faking of footage and a dishonest willingness to pass off such material as genuine on the part of the media impacts both ongoing battles in ‘the information war,’ Israeli and otherwise, as well as the credibility of the traditional media in general. The argument that even if fake, the footage contains a higher truth that Palestinian children are being killed by Israeli forces, has been and will be resorted to again. The problem, in addition to the violation of commonly understood journalistic standards, is the charge made by the story that the ISF, or any trained modern army for that matter, intentionally and systematically targets children.

From a media theory perspective the case is the smoking gun when we are making the case that the Internet, because it eliminates the barriers to publication, has broken the the traditional media’s ability to control what we are shown and what we believe to be real. What is new is that persistent criticism from the Internet is already changing how the media is viewed and reducing its power to control our view of reality. I’ll just close with Rob’s summary of what he thinks actually happened because it is an excellent example of taking the better and far more copious information we have from both sides of the debate and applying Occam’s razor:

On the information available, I believe that on that day of 30 September, 2000, out of sight and out of the line of fire of a local Israeli police post, Palestinian kids and some adults were playing games. They were acting out a series of tableaux for the benefit of attendant cameramen, who wanted library footage to accompany stories of ‘violent’ clashes in (then) occupied Gaza — film which they could safely retrieve from their databases and include as real-life footage, without having to venture into harm’s way to get it.


2 Responses to “Pre-constructing Reality”  

  1. 1 Rob

    Thanks for linking and posting, Yankee Wombat.

    I think the issue is why did abu Rahmah, the Palestinian stringer (who is on record as saying his journalism is a means of advancing the Palestinian cause) provide the footage to Enderlin as a real event, when the other journalists there knew it was staged. I suspect it was quite cynical: he knew the impact it would have both on the Arab street, on the then still-nascent Intifada, and of course on his own reputation. He was right on all three counts.

    Cheers.

  2. 2 admin

    I agree that abu Rahmah is highly relevant. I thought of him and decided that if I started I would probably get lost on a typical Yankeewombat tangent and I wanted to post before the screening. I think you have abu Rahmah’s number just like you succinctly summed up media aspects of the situation in the quote I used at the end of my post – which I see I forgot to inset as a quote. I’ll fix that. Thanks.

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