Accuracy in Media

The dramatic events that have unfolded over the past two weeks in Lebanon following the assassination of the country’s former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, have culminated in the spectacle of tens of thousands of peaceful protestors in the streets and the unexpected February 28 resignation of Prime Minister Omar Karami, seen by many as a Syrian “puppet.” Many television news broadcasts discussed the relationship of the historic events to the Bush Doctrine of expanding freedom and democracy in the Arab/Muslim world, and what the Lebanon developments may mean for other Arab societies. But the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather took a different approach, emphasizing problems faced by the Bush administration in Iraq and Iran. 

These events in Lebanon did not merit even a “teaser,” as top stories do, in the lead-in to the CBS Evening News on February 28. The story on Lebanon followed reporting of that day’s suicide bombing in Iraq, which segued into coverage of Syria and its support of terrorism in Iraq. When Rather finally got to the Lebanon segment, his introduction seemed to downplay the significance of the events. “Despite the violence in Iraq, the White House did welcome today’s turn of events in Lebanon,” he intoned. Two short shots of crowds did nothing to convey the magnitude of the event.

Rather was soon using the segment to ask White House correspondent John Roberts whether Bush was likely to change his tough stance on Iran’s nuclear program, an issue totally unrelated to the Lebanese events. A better question would have been whether the Lebanese people had been influenced by the successful democratic elections in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The miserly coverage of the outpouring in Lebanon is ironic, given the release this week of CBS Senior Foreign Correspondent Tom Fenton’s new book, “Bad News,” about how the network gave short shrift to international news. The following night, CBS tried to play catch-up, showing a reporter in Lebanon who noted the “euphoria” in the streets and calls for an end of the “chokehold” of Syrian on Lebanon.

By contrast, NBC hailed events in Lebanon from the beginning as a possible “Revolution” and placed events in the political context of the Bush Doctrine. The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams is winning the ratings race involving the three network evening news programs. Rather still comes in last.

Fox News, with its one-hour evening newscast, highlighted events in Lebanon with stories and commentary. Reporter Jennifer Griffin offered detailed reporting, closing the first of several segments on Lebanon with the observation that many in the Middle East are watching and wondering whether such freedom of expression and regime change are possible in their own countries. It is a question being asked in many Arab newspapers.

The events also mark a sea change for media in Lebanon. Journalists there have long been subject to fines, beatings and intimidation for trying to do their jobs. The BBC reported that the front pages of Lebanon’s papers are a “colorful sea” of triumphant protesters holding aloft the Lebanese flag. “People power brings down Karami’s cabinet,” read the headline in the Daily Star: “The paper’s editorial speaks of the electric atmosphere on Lebanon’s streets and says the events of the past two weeks should herald a new beginning for the country.” The BBC noted that “Most Lebanese papers marvel at the unprecedented sight of different generations of Lebanese of various political and religious persuasions all uniting in a common purpose. They agree that it is the first time that a Lebanese government has bowed to the genuine, popular will.”

The story got front-page play in The New York Times, Washington Post and the Washington Times. Some however, faulted Western broadcast media for not sending more camera crews to Lebanon.

Joshua Livestro, writing on TechCentralStation, compared the events to 1989, when the “eyes of the West were firmly fixed on events in Eastern Europe” and Soviet-style communism fell. By comparison, Livestro says the Western media now seem reluctant to get too involved in the dramatic changes that seem to be occurring in the Arab/Muslim world.

He said, “In Lebanon, there are far fewer camera crews, and news coverage in the mainstream media is sparse. Whereas coverage of events in 1989, as well as those in Kiev last year was more or less continuous, with broadcasting corporations throughout the world chipping in, events in Lebanon have been covered by just a few camera crews, with most Western news broadcasts devoting only a few minutes at most to the historic developments there.” Livestro points out that the recent protests which forced Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to turn to multiparty elections, got “no MSM [mainstream media] coverage whatsoever,” and the mere presence of cameras could boost nascent pushes for democracy.

Before Dan Rather prepares to vacate his anchor chair on March 9, perhaps he should take a trip to Lebanon and become an eyewitness to the “revolution” there. For the anchor who touts his history as a tireless “shoe-leather reporter,” such an historic opportunity should be irresistible.

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