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May 22, 2013 9:36 am

The Al Durah Affair: What Makes Journalists Behave so Badly?

avatar by Richard Landes

On Feb. 19, 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulates Dr. Yehuda David upon his acquittal in France's highest court after he had been sued for libel by Jamal al-Dura for refuting claims that Jamal was injured in a 2000 shooting in the Gaza Strip. Israel was further vindicated in relation to the incident Sunday when a government report said the IDF was not responsible for the death of Jamal's son, Muhammad. Photo: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90.

The Israeli government finally came out with a report – thirteen years late – on the Muhammad al Durah affair. It’s thirteen years late. But not too late. It can never be too late to take on so nasty a tale, and particularly from the perspective of any journalists, this may be the biggest hoax in modern history – at once the longest and the most damaging to everyone but the war mongers.

The scandal today is not that the Palestinians faked it. We’ve seen them at work time and again, exploiting every occasion to paint the Israelis as child-killers, even when they themselves killed their children. The scandal today is, thirteen years later, the journalists themselves not only have not confronted this outrageous initial failure – dupes of a cheap fake – but their continued refusal to reconsider even as they continue to fall dupe to subsequent hoaxes. On the contrary, the go on practicing the kind of “lethal journalism” that the Al Durah affair epitomizes – injecting the information circulation system with malevolent lethal narratives designed to incite hatred, vengeance and war.

How many of the journalists who have written about this report have even seen the evidence? I’m betting, although I’d be glad to be proven wrong, that the Daily Telegraph Middle East correspondent, Robert Tait hasn’t even seen the evidence that the Israeli report analyzes. If so he’d be like so many of the journalists who signed the petition protecting Charles Enderlin from criticism from – horrors – non-journalists.

In part this is the Israeli government’s fault. They should have held a press conference and forced the journalists to look at the damning evidence. But anyone who wants to examine it can consult the best (only) compendium of the evidence at The Al Durah Project. Once they’ve viewed the evidence, they can move on to the analysis.

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Tait, however, prefers a different line, one taken by a number of journalists who do not want to confront the unhappy truth that the community of journalists – including many Israeli ones – has, willy nilly, carried on a devastatingly damaging fraud for over a decade, despite the overwhelming evidence that it’s not only staged, but very badly done.

On the contrary, to inform his readers what to think of this new report, he goes for Charles Enderlin’s “conspiracy theory.” And to do so, he interviews the director of one of the most far left media sites (the equivalent of FAIR or Media Matters in the USA), on whose board Charles Enderlin sits.

“I believe [italics mine] that what we saw on the France 2 news item was exactly what happened and the camera caught exactly what happened,” [Yizhar Be’er] told The Daily Telegraph. “It is mission impossible to fake such a huge event. Nobody, least of all the Palestinians, can create such a fabrication.”

Now despite Tait’s assuring his readers that Be’er and his organization “have extensively studied the case,” their site shows no evidence of such a study.

Be’er’s use of the word “believe” may give us a clue to his astonishing statement that the camera caught exactly what happened (by which presumably he means what Charles Enderlin says happened). As Jon Randall told Anne-Elisabeth Moutet:

Charles Enderlin is an excellent journalist! I don’t care if it’s the Virgin Birth affair, I would tend to believe him. Someone like Charles simply doesn’t make a story up.

Neither Randall, nor Be’er could have seen the evidence and made such professions of belief. Even if you don’t want to see it, even if you want to claim it’s not staged, it’s impossible to look at the footage Talal Abu Rahma shot and insist that it confirms Enderlin’s narrative, not the “targeted by fire from the Israeli position” nor the “the child is dead” when twenty seconds later he’s moving quite deliberately. Asked how he could proclaim the child dead two scenes earlier, Enderlin replies:

I’m very sorry, but the fact is the child died. Maybe not at the precise moment I showed. But this is the way I do a story. “The child is dead,” is a statement. What’s your problem with it?

Not looking at the evidence is bad enough. But using a conspiracy theory to excuse it just compounds the problem. Be’er’s comment illustrates exactly what’s wrong with the current media scene:

“It is mission impossible to fake such a huge event. Nobody, least of all the Palestinians, can create such a fabrication.”

Be’er (and Enderlin whom he’s channeling) assume that the Palestinians are too incompetent to fool them, and only a massive conspiracy – which they assume couldn’t happen – could have fooled them. Enderlin, confronted with the extensive staging visible in his own cameraman’s footage, responded, “Oh they do that all the time.” But dismissed the possibility they did it with Al Durah: “they’re not good enough” – a comment echoed in Be’er’s “least of all the Palestinians.”

The sad thing, the pathetic thing, is that it didn’t take much to fool them. If I were a professor of videography and a student came to me with this footage, I’d give him an F: get better focus, have the kid look wounded rather than stretched out, have him clutch his stomach rather than his eyes, give him some blood to spill, don’t break it up into short clips. It turns out it’s “mission easy” to put together a shoddy piece and, as long as it’s the kind of story for which too many Westerners and way too many journalists have an insatiable appetite – lethal narratives about Israel – they’ll bite at the poison meat no matter how rancid, no matter how ultimately self-destructive for their own profession and society that depends on them.

The conspiracy theory depends on the idea that the news media is full of sharp, skeptical professional journalists who can’t be fooled easily and it would take a massive and elaborate scheme to do so. The story, alas, is the opposite: no need for conspiracy, not even for high quality staging. Apparently the journalists, like Charles Enderlin, are so used to looking at this staged material that they no longer see it as anything but “reality.” As Enderlin put it to Esther Schapira of ARD:

This is not staging, it’s playing for the camera. When they threw stones and Molotov cocktails, it was in part for the camera. That doesn’t mean it’s not true. They wanted to be filmed throwing stones and being hit by rubber bullets. All of us — the ARD too — did reports on kids confronting the Israeli army, in order to be filmed in Ramallah, in Gaza. That’s not staging, that’s reality.

This comes from a man who’s “gone native.” Staging is reality in the Palestinian world, and apparently his too. Enderlin has the famous quote from Tom Friedman at the top of his blog: “In the Middle East, if you can’t explain something with a conspiracy theory, don’t bother.” For Charles, if your own incompetence has put you in a terribly embarrassing situation, cry conspiracy theory. And count on journalists like Jon Randall and Robert Tait, and all the people who work on blind faith, to give him support. And alas, just as the Palestinians are right that they can put anything (French: n’importe quoi) out and have the Western media snap it up, so Charles Enderlin can make the most outrageous comments (at least where professional journalism is concerned), and have his colleagues circle the wagons.

Alas for Western civilization. Democracy and a free and honest press were such a good idea.

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