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Bias and Distorted Media Coverage

CNN's Lebanon Problem

Eric Boehlert: A senior fellow at Media Matters for America, and a former senior writer for Salon, Boehlert's first book, "Lapdogs: How The Press Rolled Over for Bush," was published in May. He can be reached at eboehlert@aol.com

Eric Boehlert
The Huffington Post
July 14, 2006

I was surprised yesterday afternoon when a Reuters article popped onto my computer screen reporting that 53 Lebanese civilians had been killed by Israeli forces, part of the suddenly chaotic two-front battle Israel's military is fighting in the Middle East. Surprised, because I had been monitoring the day's events on CNN and hadn't heard much about that kind of swelling Lebanese death toll.

Thanks to CNN, I'd learned that Israeli forces had bombed Beirut International Airport and a blockade was in place to cut off Lebanon's ports, that president Bush announced Israel had the right to defend herself, that Hezbollah had fired missiles into the seaside city of Haifa, and that an Israeli woman in Nahariya had been killed amidst the cross-border violence. But I hadn't learned many details about the more than four dozen civilians in Lebanon being killed, a fact that struck me as central to the unfolding story.

Baffled, I made a point of watching CNN's afternoon "Situation Room" with the network's high-profile anchor Wolf Blitzer, who gravely intoned about the "fear of all-out war" in the Middle East. ("Mideast: Brink of War?" read the on-screen graphic.) Indeed, "The Situation Room" chewed on Middle East story almost without interruption. I watched a CNN reporter from Israel file a dispatch, and then a reporter traveling with the president, a reporter from the United Nations, a reporter from Lebanon, an in-studio discussion with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and then an interview with Republican Sen. Bill Frist. Yet during the first 40 minutes of "The Situation Room," which devoted itself almost exclusively to the escalating Mideast chaos, there was no reference to the fact the Israeli military had killed more than 50 Lebanese civilians. (It wasn't until halfway through the second hour of "The Situation Room" that Blitzer finally clued viewers in.)

Later, I went back and checked CNN's reporting, via TVeyes.com, and discovered that throughout the day CNN repeatedly reported on the lone Israeli civilian causality without making any mention of the more than 50 Lebanese civilian casualties. To be exact, CNN did that at 10:31 a.m., 11:02, 12:09 p.m., 12:19, 1:00, 1:30, 1:52, 2:00, 2:17, 2:30, 2:50, and 4:04.

Note that at 12:05 p.m. CNN did report that "at least 45 Lebanese civilians have been killed in this offensive," but that's because the news channel was airing a feed from CNN International, which seemed to understand one of its fundamental responsibilities in covering bloody, revenge-driven political conflicts was to report civilian deaths suffered on both sides. In fact, a check of CNN Europe's reporting yesterday afternoon showed CNN Europe routinely reported on the death of the Israeli woman and as well as death of nearly 50 Lebanese civilian. CNN's U.S.-based anchors and reporters though, seemed mostly unable or unwilling to do the same.

Has CNN gotten to the point where it won't report pertinent facts that are essential to putting a story in context? Facts that certainly would have helped viewers understand some of the international criticism Israel was coming under for what the European Union called a "disproportionate" military response to the conflict at hand.

At this point I don't think it's even controversial to suggest the Arab-Israeli conflict is told in the United States mostly through the eyes of Israelis, and that's especially true on cable news channels. American news organizations have more resources in Israel, better sources within the Israeli government and most American viewers likely consider the Israeli's more like 'us.' And if you don't think there's a difference on how the U.S. media cover the warring sides, then try to imagine what the press coverage would have looked like yesterday if 50 Israeli citizens had been killed by the missiles that hit Haifa.

I doubt Wolf Blitzer would have reported on that story for a solid hour and forgotten to give viewers the civilian death toll.

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