- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

Two terrorist bombs

Two terrorist bombs wreak mayhem on a single day in the Middle East. Each kills about 20 people and injures about 100. Both occur in countries where vital American interests are at stake. Why is one of these a bigger story than the other?

The blast at the U.N. headquarters in Iraq was given top billing on the front page of this and every other newspaper I saw Wednesday, with the bus bomb that claimed several children among its victims in Jerusalem relegated to second place.

The evening news on all the major television networks — and those of several foreign countries’ that I saw — played it the same way. Clearly, in the eyes of news editors everywhere outside the countries concerned, the Iraq bomb was more of a story than the one in Israel.

Dramatic events are sometimes relegated to the back pages because they take place in countries that Americans care little about; an explosion in Afghanistan on Tuesday went virtually unreported.

But that was not the case with the bus attack in Jerusalem; Israel is watched more closely by the American media than any other foreign country except when U.S. troops are engaged in combat or something like it abroad.

Timing had something to do with it. The Iraq bomb struck early in the day for American papers, giving us lots of time to line up coverage, prepare sidebars and put the events into some kind of political context.

By the time the Jerusalem bomb went off early in the afternoon, many editors had gotten it set in their minds that the Iraq bomb was the big story of the day. It was evening in Israel, leaving reporters there little time to examine the implications. Most could do little more than count the dead and injured, and describe the carnage.

The timing tends to work the other way for the 24-hour news networks; for them the latest sensation generally trumps whatever happened earlier simply because of the need to present viewers with something fresh.

But even CNN, after a few hours of fixating on the grisly footage from the streets of Jerusalem, went back to playing the Iraq blast at the top of its newscasts.

Something new

Editors favor stories that have greater long-term significance, or that are likely to have an effect on U.S. policy, but it’s tough to say which of these two explosions will prove more important.

The Iraq blast was a setback to the Bush administration’s most important overseas project, the attempt to rebuild Iraq into a modern democratic nation.

But the Israeli bomb has at least temporarily derailed another closely related and vital administration effort, to end the violence between Israel and the Palestinians and establish a Palestinian state.

A more significant factor in pushing the Iraq story to the top of the front page was the novelty factor. That sounds incredibly insensitive, given the subject matter, but the business is called “news” for a reason: To be news, an event must have something new about it.

The Iraq bomb clearly met that criterion. This was the biggest and most devastating attack on American forces or their allies since coalition troops marched into Baghdad last spring.

The Jerusalem story, on the other hand, was all too sickeningly familiar. It was important politically because it made a mockery of the unilateral cease-fire declared by Palestinian groups, but the scenes of weeping Israelis carrying their dead and wounded from the blackened skeleton of a bus left a sense of deja vu.

One other factor pushed the Iraq bomb ahead of the one in Jerusalem: the death in Baghdad of U.N. official Sergio Vieira de Mello after an hours-long rescue effort.

One person’s life should be as important as any other’s, of course, but the fact is that people are more interested in an event when it involves someone they know, or know something about. Mr. Vieira de Mello’s was hardly a household name, but certainly among Washington policy-makers he was well-known and respected.

The victims of the Jerusalem blast, in contrast, were generally faceless and anonymous to American readers, however much they were loved by family and friends.

Had, for example, Arnold Schwarzenegger been on that bus in Jerusalem, the Iraq blast might have been pushed off the front page completely.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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