Media on Middle East

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(HOST) There are many aspects of the latest Middle East war that make it different from previous such wars. This morning, commentator Barrie Dunsmore tells us about one difference that could have a bearing on the outcome.

(DUNSMORE) On the fifth day of the 1967 Middle East War, the Israeli Army reached the Suez Canal. That day, I was with a small group of American and European reporters covering the mop-up of the retreating Egyptian Army as Israel took control of the canal’s entire east bank.

My report on this historic event would not be seen on American television for two more days because the nearest satellite station was in Europe. By that time, a cease-fire had gone into effect and the war was over. But if my report was late, my ABC colleague’s coverage on the Egyptian side was non-existent. He and nearly all the journalists trying to cover the war from Egypt had been rounded up and put on a ship to Italy.

During the 1973 Middle-East war, a new satellite in Tel Aviv made it possible to broadcast same-day reports from Israel’s fronts with Syria and Egypt. Again, my fellow VPR commentator Bill Seamans and I were part of the ABC team reporting from Israel. And, again, our colleagues on the Arab sides were prevented from getting anywhere near the front lines. In both wars, Israel completely won the propaganda battle – in part because the Arabs weren’t even in the game.

It was only after the ’73 war that the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to recognize that the international news media, including the American networks, were important assets in shaping world public opinion. He used the media effectively to enhance his status as a statesman – which in turn helped give him the stature to be the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel.

These days the lesson that public opinion truly matters has been driven home by a new phenomenon: the huge success of the independent Arab television network Al Jazeera. It has spawned dozens of copy-cat operations in the Arab world – some independent – some tied to governments – some to sectarian militias. Hezbollah – the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite terrorist movement – has its own television network.

The other significant factor in the changing dynamics of the propaganda wars is technology. Small cameras and portable satellites have made it possible to transmit live broadcasts from anywhere. These days, droves of Arab television reporters arrive at the scenes of tragedies such as last weekend’s Istraeli air strike that killed dozens of Lebanese women and children. They make no pretext of objectivity, and no image is too gruesome to show. One result is that Hezbollah’s popularity in the entire region continues to soar – while condemnation of Israel and the United States is intensified.

What this means is that whatever justification Israel has for striking back – and however much success it may be having in destroying Hezbollah’s military capabilites – this new Mid-East crisis is shaping up as a classic example of how one side can win most of the military battles and still quite possibly lose the war.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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