A New Form of Civil Society

In response to discussion of this post on the subject of nuclear targeting Richard Fernandez of The Belmont Club is explaining why he is “cautiously optimistic that the War on Terror can be won without recourse to large-scale bloodshed.”

On September 12 we were probably not very much weaker in a purely kinetic sense than we are today. But we were far poorer in information. The enemy was a mystery to most Americans. Today the level of discussion in a public blog of moderate quality would probably exceed the sophistication of graduate seminars on the subject in 2000. This is increase in knowledge is even more marked among those who have served multiple tours of duty in contact with the enemy or have worked as contractors in some related field. Experience and knowledge is our most precious resource. That experience now makes us an order of magnitude more effective and paradoxically far less randomly deadly then back then.

Entirely apart from the War on Terror his observation is a daring one about the impact of the Internet. My questions are:

  • Has the quality of public discussion in various areas improved?
  • Has the amount of high quality information increased?

I think so, but that is a huge discussion beyond the scope of this preliminary post. More narrowly speaking, I can’t attest to the relative level of the discussion on terrorism in graduate seminars in 2000, but I can speak with some knowledge about my own specialty, media studies. The current al Durrah trial in Paris is the natural example.

Today was a significant day in media studies because of the screening of controversial footage in a Paris courtroom involving the charge that faked footage of the death of a Palestinian boy – Mohammad al Durrah – had been presented as real in 2000. The footage had enormous impact – inflaming the second intifada and permanently damaging the reputation of Israel. The court demanded the 27 minutes of original footage from which the final story had been edited to see if there was any evidence of staging. Here is an account from The Better Part of Valour:

Charles Enderlin submitted 18 minutes of footage. The judge, without any prompting from Philippe’s lawyers, asked what happened to the 27 minutes. Enderlin said on record in court that he had to manipulate some footage that was not relevant to that day. He said he transferred the footage onto DVD for the court. That was amazing.

So she asked if anyone in attendance had seen the full footage. Luc Rosenzweig was there, stood up , and said he saw a tape that was more than 20 minutes long. Richard Landes also stood up. He saw the footage at Enderlin’s office. He said the timer he saw was at least 21 minutes long. The judge basically let that issue rest, but there was serious doubt hanging over the room that the footage was tampered or doctored.

As regular readers will recognize one of the people mentioned, Boston University professor Richard Landes, has analyzed the al Durrah incident in great detail on his blog The Augean Stables. He has also provided all the footage available from other news cameras that were recoding at the same time and location at The Second Draft. Here is Landes’s post about today’s dramatic events entitled Gambling with a lie: Enderlain pulls a Rosemary Woods.

But the thought I want to leave you with is simply this. Without persistent questioning of the story on the Internet it is unlikely that the issue would ever have been joined. Now it will be part of the history of media – perhaps a significant one. Here is Melanie Phillips from her Spectator Blog with the backstory:

After Philippe Karsenty, founder of the French online media watchdog, Media Ratings, accused France 2 of staging the al Durah ‘killing’ and called for the resignation of both Charles Enderlin and France 2′s News Director, Arlette Chabot, France 2 and Enderlin sued Karsenty for defamation, and won. In a disgraceful piece of judicial cronyism after the gratuitous intervention of the then French President Jacques Chirac, the court decided against Karsenty and in favour of France 2 and Enderlin. Karsenty appealed; the judge ordered France 2 to produce the unscreened footage of this incident; today it did so.

Karsenty clearly raised the issue in France, but not being a denizen of the French blogosphere I don’t know to what extent it has become an object of academic interest in France. Richard Landes, as many academics before him, came across something significant in the course of his research when he viewed the original footage. He took the story to the media and they were not interested. (They are still not covering it much.) In the past he might have written a paper for a journal or perhaps a book. Instead he put his work on the web. What is new is that there is now a small worldwide community of people interested in the media who know about and are discussing his analysis of the incident. I think it fair to say that this phenomena is a new form of civil society that simply did not exist in the past. As a media studies teacher In the 70s I assigned my students to create fake footage to inoculate them against being too credulous of TV. Thirty years on I can attest that Messieurs Karsenty and Landes have used the Internet to raise both the level of information and public discussion.

Crossposted at Newmediatheory 


4 Responses to “A New Form of Civil Society”  

  1. 1 Rob

    Hey, Yankee Wombat,

    Did you post this at PJM?

    Yes, it a public secret. That’s why as a media studies teacher in the 70s I required my students to use a video editor to create fake footage – to inoculate them against TV as anything other than carefully crafted drama. What has happened here is that another culture has weaponized TV and that weapon has entered our own media along the vector of the public secret – the insatiable commercial appetite for dramatic footage. Thats the secret – news camera operators and their editors are a team that creates dramatically satisfying footage. Action news.

    I thought it was one of the most incisive comments I’ve seen anywhere on the blogosphere.

  2. 2 admin

    Thanks Rob. I thought your observation that the ordinary media activity at Netzaram Junction that day was the collection of archive footage with little or no risk was also exceptionally incisive. Did you get my separate email?

  3. 3 Rob

    YW,yes, I got your email. Thanks for that.

  1. 1 Tel-Chai Nation


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