Wednesday, August 9, 2006

We hope doubters of media bias are paying attention to the photojournalism follies in Lebanon this week. It started with a Reuters freelance photographer’s doctoring of images to exaggerate plumes of smoke and Israeli-wrought destruction in Beirut. The photographer was fired, which would have ended the matter, except that fresh irregularities at the New York Times, the Associated Press and U.S. News & World Report are emerging. As we said about the Reuters incident, media bias is a consensus, not a conspiracy. Consensus is what this apparent rash of unprofessional photography appears to be, which should remind U.S. policy-makers that active public diplomacy is indispensable as long as there are journalists who find war stories too good to check.

These new instances appear to be shoddy journalism, not propagandizing, and so their bias is inadvertent but nevertheless revealing. For instance, it turns out that a riveting New York Times photo of a Lebanese man being rescued from the rubble of a destroyed building in Tyre wasn’t what it appeared to be. The original caption: “The mayor of Tyre said that in the worst-hit areas, bodies were still buried under the rubble, and he appealed to the Israelis to allow government authorities time to pull them out.” So, presumably the photograph depicts the rescue of one victim.

But bloggers noticed that the would-be rescuee — body dust-free, hat tucked under his arm — had been photographed walking around unharmed, after the bombing, in other photos. The New York Times correction yesterday: “The man pictured, who had been seen in previous images appearing to assist with the rescue effort, was injured during that rescue effort, not during the initial attack, and was not killed.”

For its part, the Associated Press appears to have been duped by a double-talker. As the Israeli news outlet Ynetnews reported, the BBC removed AP images from its Web site yesterday after bloggers pointed out that a suburban Beirut woman in an AP photo claiming that Israeli bombs had destroyed her home there had told the same story to Reuters two weeks earlier, except in a different neighborhood.

Then there is U.S. News & World Report. The cover of its Lebanon and Middle East-themed July 31 edition depicts an armed man identified as a “Hezbollah fighter near Beirut” in front of ominous black smoke plumes. Close inspection of the site reveals it to be a trash dump. The source of the smoke: burning garbage. No fabrication there — just a failure to tell readers that the photo is staged.

All this raises a policy issue, not just for Israelis but for the U.S. government, which should be well familiar with these issues by now. The terrorist enemy plays up civilian casualties and fights a considerable number of its battles in the Western media. Meanwhile, in that environment, the media frequently fails its own standards. To the extent that the U.S. public-diplomacy and international-communications apparatus stands by as the enemy manipulates the media, we are more vulnerable for it. Once the facts emerge in such cases, the full weight of the government’s communications efforts should be made to ensure that the correct information is distributed broadly — both nationally and internationally — and is not limited largely to conservative publications and blogs, as it is now.

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