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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Coverage of Mideast Conflict
Aired July 23, 2006 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The media and the Mideast. As the death toll rises in Israel and Lebanon, are journalists being fair to both sides? How do they verify Hezbollah's claims that civilians are being indiscriminately killed? With missiles raining from the sky, what about the risks to western reporters? And is Israel's military censorship having an impact on the coverage?
Cultural divide. Why the fighting looks so different to Arab and Israeli journalists.
Plus, blogging the war.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where for the next hour we'll turn our critical lens on coverage of the two-front war in the Middle East, and we'll hear from reporters on the front lines this morning. I'm Howard Kurtz.
It's been a dangerous week for journalists covering the conflict on all sides. Just today, Lebanese female photojournalist Layal Nejib, killed in South Lebanon during an Israeli bombardment. And yesterday, an employee for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation was killed in an Israeli air strike on a transmission tower northeast of Beirut.
As the big name U.S. anchors flew to Israel this past week, ABC's Charlie Gibson, NBC's Brian Williams, CNN's Anderson Cooper, FOX's Shepard Smith, the rockets continues to land in both Israel and Lebanon. There were some harrowing moments for network correspondents.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SHARON ALFONSI, CBS NEWS: As we were walking out of the shelter just now we heard a rocket explode very close to us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As we waited to file a report we heard an explosion.
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We've heard several loud explosions. Dull thuds. The ground hasn't shook, so it doesn't sound like they were that close. But we're just going to have to wait and see, as soon as the air raid siren stops. (END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Both sides in the 12-day-old conflict highlighted their civilian casualties. Many reporters went to the Israeli city of Haifa to interview relatives of bombing victims, while Hezbollah gave journalists tours of parts of Beirut where civilians were killed, though Israelis point out that the Lebanese guerillas deliberately hide their weapons in residential areas.
So how are news organizations faring in covering the battle between Israel and the Hezbollah fighters to the north? Joining us now in Northern Israel from an artillery battery just five kilometers from the Lebanese border is CNN's John Roberts.
John Roberts, I understand that we can't say and you can't say exactly where you are. Explain to our viewers why that is.
KURTZ: Yes. Good morning to you, Howard. It's sort of the same rules of engagement as we saw during the Iraq war when we were embedded with American forces. You can't give away exact locations.
The Israeli Defense Forces fully believe that Hezbollah on the other side of the border is watching all of the live broadcasts coming out of Israel, and if anybody gives away a position, they're afraid that Hezbollah could target that position with Katyusha rockets. So we're not allowed to say exactly where we are except to say that we are very close to the Lebanese border with this artillery unit.
One of the commanders here told me a story. He said the -- and I don't know if this is absolutely true or not, but he swore it was, that one of the Israeli generals was being interviewed live on television. He accidentally slipped and gave away his location, and about half an hour to an hour later a couple of Katyusha rockets came in on that position.
Now, it just might be coincidence, but certainly the IDF doesn't want to take any chances here.
KURTZ: I had thought those sensitive rules applied only to real- time television reports, but in this morning's "New York Times" articles said that the names of the Lebanese villages from which these rockets are being launched cannot be published...
ROBERTS: Howard, I'm sorry. If you can hear me, I've lost -- I've lost you in my interrupt. Let me try to dial this again. As you can imagine being up by the border it is somewhat problematic, and we're losing signal here.
I'm afraid I didn't even hear the question that you were asking me, Howard. So if we could give us a couple of minutes to try to get ourselves back up and operating here, and we'll get back to you if that's all right.
KURTZ: Let's see if we can go to Randi Kaye in Atlanta, while John is trying to get reconnected to us by telephone. RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hello, Howard. It's much easier to hear me and for me to hear you from here in Atlanta, apparently, than from...
KURTZ: You have been on the air -- you have been on the air day after day, monitoring Arab and other television station coverage and what's on the Internet. How do you sort through all of this incoming that -- and make it into a comprehensible narrative for CNN viewers?
KAYE: Well, if you take a look behind me, I do have the support of a very large and very talented and very supportive international desk here at CNN, but it's a matter of just -- we watch our own wires, the CNN wires, which is information that we've been able to confirm through our own sources.
We also watch about 10 or 12 different television networks coming in to us here at the international desk from the Middle East including Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, LBC, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation.
We also watch Reuters and the Associated Press and all the other wires, but many times we'll have to attribute to them before we can confirm the information on our own if we haven't already.
KAYE: So it is a lot of information to get through.
KURTZ: I'm told that CNN's John Roberts has reestablished contact with us.
KURTZ: I hope that's the case. Let's go back to Northern Israel.
John Roberts, yesterday you were in Haifa, which is the Israeli city that has been the -- borne the brunt of the rocket bombardment by Hezbollah. Basic human question: concerned about your safety? Does did it seem like a dangerous situation for journalists to you?
ROBERTS: I wasn't concerned about my safety yesterday, Howard, because typically the pattern has been that the Katyusha rockets fall silent when the sun goes down. The reason for that is that the Katyusha rockets, because they've got that solid rocket motor, is they would act like a flare. And if they were to fire -- Hezbollah were to fire those rockets in the dark, they could be tracked down immediately. And the Israelis could lay down counter fire on them.
But this morning we got a couple of hours' sleep after being up all night. The air raid sirens went up at about 11 a.m. Israeli time, and that was followed immediately by a barrage of nine Katyusha rockets that we counted coming in.
A couple of those came into neighborhoods. One made a direct hit on a house owned by a fellow named Zohar Bronstein (ph). We went and we saw him. Thankfully, he had heeded the warning of the air raid siren, gone downstairs into a safe room with his young son, and while the Katyusha came right through the top of his house, blew the top of his house apart, came down through a concrete second floor and right in front of the room that he was hiding in, he didn't suffer any injuries at all.
ROBERTS: Contrast that with another rocket that fell in the middle of a kibbutz out in the middle of nowhere. A fellow was driving along a road in the car, and the rocket landed right in front of his car and killed him.
So it is very dangerous, Howard. You just have to sort of gauge -- you can't really even gauge where you're going to go, because these are -- these are firing in random sequence. They're hitting random targets.
KURTZ: You and I...
ROBERTS: It is just a matter of luck. You try to keep yourself safe, but that's all you can do.
KURTZ: And we hope you continue to do that. You and I spoke on this program three years ago when you were in Iraq for CBS. Do you have the feeling that, because of the completely seemingly random nature of you don't know when the Katyusha rockets are going to land if you're in Northern Israel that this is as dangerous an assignment as it was when you were covering the Iraq war?
ROBERTS: I would hazard to guess, Howard, that this is probably more dangerous during the embeds during the Iraq war were. Other than action in Nasiriyah, the unit that I was with really didn't see a lot of resistance. And while Saddam Hussein's forces did fire a few SCUDs toward Kuwait, we didn't really see much incoming fire other than a couple of artillery -- artillery rounds.
So we were in an area where all of these Katyusha rockets were coming in and, of course, we're vulnerable being in this area, as well. So, yes, I would say that this is more dangerous than the initial invasion during the Iraq war.
KURTZ: I want to go to the question of how Hezbollah and the bombardment of Lebanon is being covered. I want to play some tape for our viewers about -- showing correspondents dealing with Hezbollah, which is trying to, obviously, make its own play for public sympathy on the airwaves. Let's take a look at that.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hezbollah gave us a tour of one of its shelters.
They are saying that no one else in the world has come to their help, and they're pledging their loyalty to Hassan Nasrallah.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This morning, Hezbollah showed journalists around the ruins of its former stronghold, but Hezbollah is also determined that outsiders will only see what it wants them to see.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What happened here?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is one of the bombs that fell, and look what happened to this building, which is all inhabited by innocent civilians living there. People were just working like everybody else. No military -- no military bases, nothing, no aircraft fire, just people living there.
KURTZ: John Roberts, is there a danger that journalists can be used by Hezbollah when they get these bomb damage assessment tours, when there's very little ability to get any independent reporting to find out, you know, how much Hezbollah activity there may be in this or that residential area?
ROBERTS: Absolutely, Howard. We have to do the same thing on the Israeli salt side. We take everything with a grain of salt. We -- you know, we hope that they're telling us the truth, but we always have to issue the caveat that this is what the Israeli Defense Forces say.
And it's the same thing with Hezbollah. They take you for a tour of their damaged areas. They could be engaging in some spin. So you always keep that in mind, that whatever you're being told on the ground, the situation in reality could actually be quite different.
KURTZ: And does it seem to you that, when we see these awful heartrending pictures of people who have been injured or killed by bombing attacks on both sides that there is -- to use the word spin that there is an effort by both sides to kind of play up their victims and get world sympathy because, after all, a lot of innocent civilians -- whoever is right and whoever is wrong, and who started it and so forth, a lot of innocent civilians are being killed on both sides.
ROBERTS: That's the thing with war. That's the horrible aspect of war. Is that so many innocent civilians do get caught in the crossfire, or they become victims of what's known in the military as collateral damage, and both sides try to play that up.
On the Israeli side, they say that Hezbollah is firing indiscriminately at civilian positions. That's all they're firing at is civilian positions. They're not trying to hit military positions.
And then at the same time, Hezbollah and the Lebanese government on the other side are saying that Israelis are bombing a lot of civilian targets, as well, and there's a lot of civilians who are being caught up in the bombings.
So yes, both sides do try to play that to their advantage. And right now, on the Israeli side, the latest count we have was 17 dead. On the Lebanese side it's a little more uncertain. It's anywhere between about 265 and 355, depending on whose count you go by.
KURTZ: And on that point about the importance of images in war and the battle for public opinion, Israel at first knocked out a Hezbollah television station. But over the weekend, Israel attacked two Lebanese television stations who were not believed at all to be allied with Hezbollah.
And so is this a strategy in your view of trying to -- Israel trying to limit the pictures available from the other side, because it knows those images can be damaging to its cause?
ROBERTS: Yes. Absolutely. They want to take away any opportunity for propaganda. And they know that Al Manar is funding for Hezbollah, even though Al Manar proclaims its innocence. It certainly gets all of its support from Hezbollah. They want to take that off the air as soon as possible, because that could definitely operate as a propaganda machine, but even the other Lebanese television stations, broadcasting pictures of the destruction there, could turn hearts and minds in that part of the country.
The United States really wants to drive home the point. President Bush says this at every opportunity, as does Condoleezza Rice, and all the other cabinet officials, that it was Hezbollah who started this war. That's the position that they are taking and they want the world to believe in, and they don't want anything to get in the way of that message.
KURTZ: All right. I want to go now to CNN's Nic Robertson, who joins us live from Beirut.
Nic Robertson, we were speaking a moment ago about the way journalists cover Hezbollah and some of these tours that Hezbollah officials have arranged of the bomb damage in the areas of Southern Lebanon. You, I believe, got one of those tours.
Isn't it difficult for you as a journalist to independently verify any claims made by Hezbollah, because you're not able to go into the buildings and see whether or not there is any military activity or any weapons being hidden there?
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Howard, there's no doubt about it: Hezbollah has a very, very sophisticated and slick media operations. In fact, beyond that, it has very, very good control over its areas in the south of Beirut. They deny journalists access into those areas. They can turn on and off access to hospitals in those areas. They have a lot of power and influence. You don't get in there without their permission.
And when I went we were given about 10 or 15 minutes, quite literally running through a number of neighborhoods that they directed and they took us to.
What I would say at that time was, it was very clear to me that the Hezbollah press official who took us on that guided tour -- and there were Hezbollah security officials around us at the time with walkie-talkie radios -- that he felt a great deal of anxiety about the situation. And they were telling him -- I just listened to an explosion going off there, coming from the southern suburbs. They were -- they were telling him -- a second explosion there. They were telling here -- rumbling on -- they were telling him get out of this area, and he was very, very anxious about it.
But there's no doubt about it. They had control of the situation. They designated the places that we went to, and we certainly didn't have time to go into the houses or lift up the rubble to see what was underneath.
So what we did see today in a similar excursion, and Hezbollah is now running a number of these every day, taking journalists into this area. They realize that this is a good way for them to get their message out, taking journalists on a regular basis. This particular press officer came across his press office today, what was left of it in the rubble. He pointed out business cards that he said were from his office that was a Hezbollah press office in that area.
So there's no doubt that the bombs there are hitting Hezbollah facilities. But from what we can see, there appear to be a lot of civilian damage, a lot of civilian properties. But again, as you say, we didn't have enough time to go in, root through those houses, see if perhaps there was somebody there who was, you know, taxi driver there...
KURTZ: So to -- so to what extent...
ROBERTSON: ... of access, Howard.
KURTZ: To what extent do you feel like you're being used to put up the pictures that they want -- obviously, it's terrible that so many civilians have been killed -- without any ability, as you just outlined, to verify, because -- to verify Hezbollah's role, because this is a fighting force that is known to blend in among the civilian population and keep some of its weapons there?
ROBERTSON: Absolutely. And I think as we try and do our job, which is go out and see what's happened to the best of our ability, clearly, in that environment, in the southern suburbs of Beirut that Hezbollah controls, the only way we can get into those areas is with a Hezbollah escort. And absolutely, when you hear their claims they have to come with -- with a -- more than a grain of salt, that you have to put in some journalistic integrity. That you have to point out to the audience and let them know that this was a guided tour by Hezbollah press officials along with security, that it was a very rushed affair.
ROBERTSON: That there wasn't time to go and look through those buildings. The audience has to know the conditions of that tour. But again, if we didn't get all -- or we could not get access to those areas without Hezbollah compliance, they control those areas.
ROBERTSON: And I think to bring the audience the full picture of what's happening in Beirut, you have to go into those southern suburbs.
KURTZ: All right.
ROBERTSON: Because that's where the vast majority of bombs were falling.
KURTZ: I understand.
ROBERTSON: Again, they come with a health warning that we cannot vouch for everything that Hezbollah is saying. And I think the audience is sophisticated enough to appreciate that, Howard.
KURTZ: All right. We've got to take a break here, Nic. We appreciate that perspective. CNN's Nic Robertson in Beirut; John Roberts in Northern Israel.
Coming up after the break, how is the Arab media covering the fighting in both Israel and Lebanon? We'll ask the Washington bureau chief of "Al Hayat", and we'll talk to Christopher Dickey of Newsweek in a moment.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
Joining us now, Salameh Nematt, Washington bureau chief of "Al Hayat", the international Arab newspaper; and in Rome, Christopher Dickey, Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor for "Newsweek" magazine. His "Shadowland" column about counterterrorism, espionage and the Middle East, appears weekly online at "Newsweek".
Christopher Dickey, we were speaking before the break when you couldn't hear us about -- to the extent to which this has become a war of images, in which both Israel and Lebanon trying to play out the fact that they have civilian casualties. Obviously, it is a battle here for public sympathy and world opinion. How do you see it?
CHRISTOPHER DICKEY, MIDDLE EAST REGIONAL EDITOR, "NEWSWEEK": Absolutely it's a war of images. It always has been recently in the Middle East, especially over the last 10 years or so, since there have been Arab television network -- satellite television networks that can take a whole different stream of information to the Arab and Muslim world than they would normally get over CNN or BBC or Sky News or some of the other English language or European satellite networks.
So as a result, you often have this huge difference in perceptions, and I think that's happening again, where the image that's coming out that's getting to most of the Arab and Muslim world is one of a terribly victimized population in Lebanon, and the coverage in Europe and the United States, being much more balanced, is much less emotive, if you will.
KURTZ: Salameh Nematt, would you agree that coverage in Arab media, both print and electronic, is of a victimized population, much more sympathetic to the fact that there have been so many casualties of Israeli bombs?
SALAMEH NEMATT, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "AL HAYAT": There's no question about it. I mean, after all, Israel is the enemy here, and as far as the Arab media is concerned, the mainstream media is run by governments. And it's not exactly independent in the sense that it is not going to seek to get a balanced coverage of both sides, because this is a matter of national and pan-Arab interest. And, of course, they have to cater for their own audiences and, as such, it has been influenced.
KURTZ: Isn't there -- isn't there a split of opinion? Are there not people in the Arab world who think that Hezbollah shouldn't have started this by kidnapping Israeli soldiers? Or are we getting pretty much a pro-Lebanon, pro-Hezbollah, anti-Israel view in places like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya?
NEMATT: Well, the mainstream is obviously anti-Israel, but there are people in the media who are questioning Hezbollah's actions in crossing the blue line and entering Israeli territory, provoking and instigating this -- this massive response from the Israelis.
There are people who are questioning Hezbollah's intentions, especially as Hezbollah is considered an arm of Iran and, as such, is acting independently of the Lebanese consensus.
So there is a criticism, especially in the Lebanese media, the newspapers that are independent of influence, whether by Iran or Syria or others, who are saying that Hezbollah brought this upon us.
It does not mean that they're less condemning of the Israeli actions targeting civilians, but they are also questioning Hezbollah's actions that provoked this whole conflict.
KURTZ: Chris Dickey in Rome, if the dominant view in the Arab media is that Lebanon is a victimized population and Israel is the aggressor and all of that, would you say that the -- the main picture provided by western media is, at the very least, much more sympathetic to Israel?
DICKEY: I think it's more sympathetic to Israel. I think there certainly is a lot of coverage that talks about the bombs and rockets falling on Haifa, falling on other cities in Northern Israel and says, look, this is random, terrorist rocket assault and offensive. And that's true. It's absolutely true.
But I do think the western -- western media have also done a pretty good job this time of showing the suffering that's going on in Lebanon, too.
I mean, let's not forget the difference in scale here. We're talking of hundreds of rockets dropping at random in Northern Israel. We're talking about 1,800 targets being hit by the Israeli air force and 3,600 bombing sorties, many with 500-pound bombs. Some with 5,000-pound bombs.
That's an enormous amount of firepower. It's a lot more accurate. These are smart munitions made by the United States of America in many cases.
DICKEY: And they do a good job of hitting exactly what they want to hit, but it's extremely destructive and a lot of people have died.
KURTZ: All right. I need to break away from our conversation for just a moment, breaking developments. Let's get caught up with CNN's Randi Kaye in Atlanta.
KAYE: Howard, we want to catch you up on what's happening right now in the area.
ANNOUNCER: CNN breaking news.
KAYE: In Tyre, Lebanon, right we want to bring you up-to-date, if we could take you there. We have new video of air strikes in the city of Tyre. This video is coming to us from LBC, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation.
This has been an area that has been hit very, very hard by Israeli air strikes. Tyre's been one of the hardest-hit areas since actually the Israeli air strikes began just 11 days ago. You're looking there at some of the video coming to us. New video to the CNN international desk from the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation.
So far, at least six Israeli bombs have fallen on the coastal city of Tyre. This is just across the border from the Israeli city of Haifa, and those bombs, those six bombs fell in just a 20-minute span.
We're hearing reports of two wounded children. We're getting that from CNN's Karl Penhaul, who was there; ages 9 and 8 months old were wounded when the rocket hit the family car.
Tyre is one of the hardest-hit areas of Israeli air strikes.
We also want to tell you that Al Jazeera is now reporting renewed bombing in Southern Lebanon south of Beirut. This has been an area that has also been very hard hit, the Bekaa Valley of Beirut. Air strikes there have been occurring throughout the night. Israel has been pounding Hezbollah strongholds in that area, trying to root them out, trying to get them out and targeting their pinpoints there.
Still working to get the numbers of casualties in that area.
Howard, that's the very latest.
KURTZ: All right. CNN's Randi Kaye, thank you for that update.
Salameh Nematt, I asked Chris Dickey about the U.S. media coverage of this conflict. You're in Washington. You're seeing it. You're reading it. Does it seem to you to be too sympathetic to Israel, a longtime U.S. ally?
NEMATT: I believe yes, that Israel -- that the coverage of the conflict is biased in favor of Israel. Naturally, it helped this time for the Israelis that Hezbollah started this attack. Now also, the association of Hezbollah and the sheikh very much resembling the ayatollahs of Iran has not helped the Lebanese case in terms of being the face of that confrontation...
NEMATT: ... with the Israelis.
KURTZ: Let me go back to Christopher Dickey for a final question. You've covered a lot of wars over the last few decades. Given the -- all of the aspects here, Hezbollah being part of the Lebanese government, but an independent fighting force, the role of Iran, the role of Syria, is this a particularly tricky military conflict for journalists to cover?
DICKEY: Well, I think it is. It becomes harder and harder to figure where the front lines are and where the safe areas are.
Remember, Hezbollah has a long record of kidnapping journalists when they get desperate. They certainly did a lot of that in the 1980s, held people for years. I think that's got to be a concern.
And of course, the danger of the Israeli bombs falling intentionally or by accident on the place where you are when you're covering this conflict, is going to be very much on everyone's minds who's on the ground.
KURTZ: All right. It's a treacherous war, indeed, for journalists and, of course, the people caught in the crossfire. Christopher Dickey, Salameh Nematt, thank you for joining us.
Just ahead, how does a reporter get to Beirut in the first place? We'll take a look at Sanjay Gupta's reporter's notebook.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Sometimes just getting to the story in a war zone can be quite a production. CNN's Sanjay Gupta traveled to Lebanon this week, and he filed this notebook.
SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: How much stuff have you got, Jeremy?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've got 11 cases. That's really light, actually.
GUPTA: We've got to travel light on these trips. This is all I'm taking, one bag for books and stuff like that and computers. But we're going to need to be pretty nimble in case we're on boats or helicopters, because we don't know how we're getting from point A to point B. Right, Alan (ph)?
We're going to Athens, to Larnaca and then to Beirut, most likely.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
GUPTA: Nobody here has an idea even of what's going to happen, but as we get closer to Larnaca and obviously to Beirut things are going to change in a major way. We'll keep you posted on that.
We don't know what we're doing right now. We're trying to get on a helicopter with the Marines and go to Beirut out of Larnaca.
All right, we're in Athens, Greece, heading towards Larnaca, Cyprus. We have a decision to make, the best way to get into Beirut and we're not sure if we made the best decision now. But it was either going into Larnaca. We could possibly have flown into Jordan and then crossed over, or into Syria and crossed over.
Going into Israel would have almost made it impossible then to go into Lebanon, because you can't cross the border there. You would have had to leave Israel to go somewhere else and then go into Lebanon.
We're hearing that the Marines are now controlling this, taking helicopters back and forth for evacuations, and hopefully we'll catch one of those helicopters empty to take us straight into Beirut.
We have finally made it to Larnaca. I think we'll stay right here at the airport. We'll probably get on a helicopter and go straight into Beirut. I've never been one to turn down a nice place like Cyprus, but in this case, time is of the essence.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The fun part. All right. We have 11 cases of gear from D.C. to New York to Athens to Larnaca, Cyprus, and we still have a ways to go. We still need to get to Beirut, which will probably be the toughest leg of the trip.
GUPTA: How are you planning on getting there?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know. How are you getting us there?
GUPTA: The way that think I'm going to get us there is by chopper.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Chopper?
GUPTA: The State Department to actually see if they can fly us in some way.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hopefully, it's a big chopper. We've got a lot of gear.
GUPTA: A lot of gear.
All right. We've made our way into an MH-53. It's an Air Force helicopter. Again, all of our gear. These gentlemen were very nice to help us out with all our stuff.
This is a helicopter. It is hot. It is very humid on here, as well. We'll be flying on this helicopter for about an hour and a half. It's going to take us from where we are now, Larnaca, straight to the United States embassy in Beirut. From there, we're going to try and Make our way into the city and into the hospitals (UNINTELLIGIBLE) as well. (UNINTELLIGIBLE). We need to carry this.
KURTZ: CNN's Sanjay Gupta.
More RELIABLE SOURCES ahead. After the break we'll go to the CNN Center in Atlanta for a check of the hour's top stories.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES, as we keep a close eye on the media coverage of the Middle East crisis.
Joining us now, Yaron Deckel, Washington bureau chief of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for "An-Nahar", a Lebanese newspaper and the host of the program "Across the Ocean" on the Arab satellite network, Al Arabiya.
Yaron Deckel, has the Arab -- have the Israeli media at all questioned this policy of pretty heavy retaliation against Lebanon as this conflict has unfolded? Has there been any dissent or has there been a closing of the ranks?
YARON DECKEL, ISRAEL BROADCASTING AUTHORITY: There is -- there is -- you can find some questions starting at that point, but I must say that at that point there is a consensus in Israel, and you can see it reflected in the media, that this time Israel was attacked in a sovereign land of Israel by Hezbollah, a terrorist organization. And Israel is in a war. So Israel has to defend itself, and that's the cause.
We know that Hezbollah hides in the civilian neighborhoods in Beirut and in the villages in southern Lebanon. We know that was the aim to be there, and we know there are casualties. Israel regrets the casualties, but you can find the beginning of the question, how long will it take and what's the goal at the end of day?
KURTZ: Hisham Melhem, same question to you. Have the Lebanese media closed ranks issue behind your countrymen and behind Hezbollah, which of course, has been controversial in Lebanese politics for a long time?
HISHAM MELHEM, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "AN-NAHAR": In general the Lebanese media sees the Israeli onslaught as an attack on Lebanon, on Lebanese society, Lebanese infrastructure. And they see also the onslaught directed against the Lebanese media as we've seen recently in the bombing of the -- of reputable and independent outlets like LBC and Al-Rusatba (ph) television. KURTZ: These are not pro-Hezbollah?
MELHEM: Yes. I mean, the Israelis attacked Al Manar, which represents, as well as an extension of Hezbollah's propaganda arm, if you will.
KURTZ: What do you make of Israel bombing two independent television stations in Lebanon? Why that was done?
MELHEM: All I can tell you is that the Lebanese see it again as an attempt to keep them in the dark, to keep the Lebanese people in the dark, maybe to keep the Hezbollah leadership in the dark. That could be one of the crazy reasons why the Israelis attack these reputable independent media. So in essence, they are mobilizing the whole Lebanese population against them.
But to go back to the original question, early on in the first few days after the Israeli attack, there were voices in the print media, in my paper and others, by columnists criticizing Hezbollah and taking Nasrallah to task. What gives you the right to drag the country into the abyss without consulting anybody, probably with the exception of your friends in Tehran and Damascus?
KURTZ: He is the leader, of course, of Hezbollah.
MELHEM: He is the leader of Hezbollah. Now, with the intensification of the Israeli bombardment, when someone is hitting you on your head with a hammer, you are not going criticize Hezbollah at this stage.
But in fairness, also, there are other voices in other newspapers and other outlets that are very supportive -- supporters -- supportive of Hezbollah and focusing only on the Israeli brutality against the Lebanese people.
KURTZ: What is your take on the bombing of the Lebanese television stations? That doesn't seem to be an action aimed particularly at Hezbollah?
DECKEL: Yes. But if the Hezbollah could be on air on that, or serving them in an indirect way and giving their input, this could be a target.
Not that -- well, a war is not a pleasant thing. Look what happened when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. We saw a lot of the U.S. Army. And we haven't seen a lot of the other side, and there were many casualties, both from the Afghanistan people and the Iraqi.
As I said, Israel -- and you know, now in Israeli hospitals they do take care of Lebanese people from Southern Lebanon to treat them in the medical center in Northern Israel. Israel doesn't want that, but...
KURTZ: You made the comparison to Iraq, but even during the Iraq war and certainly afterwards as that war has dragged on, there has been a lot of criticism of the Bush administration and dissent within the American media, but...
DECKEL: I don't remember...
KURTZ: I don't sense from your answer that there's a lot of criticism or dissent right now in the Israeli media.
DECKEL: First of all -- first of all, there is a first time for a long year -- long time that Israel is -- there is a war and the territory is not under dispute. It's not that Israel occupies Lebanon. Israel pulled out six years ago.
Look at what happened in the Middle East. Israel pulled out from Lebanon. We got the Hezbollah rockets. Israel pulled out from Gaza. We got the Hamas rockets. Something is wrong here.
Now when you talk about Iraq and the American press, I don't remember that before the war or during the beginning of the war there were many questions. I remember the U.N. envoy, Mr. Blix, being on page No. 18 of the "Washington Post" and then the apology a few months later of both the "Washington Post" or the "New York Times" for the coverage before the war.
KURTZ: There were most questions; most journalists would tell you not enough.
Hisham Melhem, what about the fact that Lebanon, a lot of people in the Arab media seem to see Lebanon kind of as an innocent bystander here? Hezbollah attacks some Israeli soldiers, and suddenly the country is being bombarded, a lot of civilian casualties.
But isn't Hezbollah also -- have a couple of ministries in the Lebanese cabinet?
KURTZ: Hasn't Lebanon really tolerated the activities of what the U.S. government, at least, regards as a terrorist group?
MELHEM: Just briefly, not a rebuttal. The Israelis attacked Al Rusatba (ph) and LBC television stations, independent television stations, editorially, sometimes and violently disagreed with Hezbollah and with Al Manar and Hezbollah's policies.
So the -- it's very difficult to understand why the Israelis are targeting the media, but then again they are targeting the whole country.
Now, as far as Hezbollah's representation of the government, I think it was a mistake for the government to accept Hezbollah's representation in the government without getting concession from Hezbollah to allow the army to be deployed in the south.
You have to keep in mind that this is a fragile government. This is a fragile political order in Lebanon, just barely out of 30 years domination by the Syrians. So we are going through a transitional period. This is a government where you have a decent, moderate, modern man, Fouad Siniora, trying to convince Hezbollah to allow the government to exert control over the Lebanese territories by avoiding civil war, by avoiding taking on Hezbollah in a frontal attack that could split the army along sectarian lines. It's a very delicate situation.
What the Israelis are doing right now, attacking Hezbollah, but in the end they are unraveling the very political structure in Lebanon that they claim they need so that Lebanon can become healthy.
KURTZ: We'll leave that debate for another day.
Since you're both here in Washington, I want to ask you about the American media coverage. Does it seem to you, Yaron Deckel, that the coverage has been fair or, in all honesty, Israel, a long-time U.S. ally, has the coverage been much more sympathetic to the plight of Israel than to the destruction being visited upon Lebanon?
DECKEL: I think we see both sides. You talked to two -- a few reporters, both in Lebanon and Northern Israel. We can see both sides. But I do believe that the American people could understand the Israeli side.
I -- may I quote Senator John McCain, whom I interviewed this week when he met the Israeli ambassador? And he said, "What would we do, Americans, if Arizona was attacked?" And let me elaborate what would have happened if two U.S. Border Patrol, instead of looking for immigrants, were abducted by Mexico, or San Diego being hit by rockets from Tijuana? What would be the cause? How would the U.S. defend itself when it was attacked? We all remember, there is no need for that.
Now I think most of the people, he understands that Israel didn't provoke this time.
KURTZ: Right. But there is clearly a question about whether there's been a disproportionate response.
DECKEL: What is a proportionate response? Abducting two Hezbollah people? That would be a proportional response?
MELHEM: This whole comparison between Canada and Mexico and America doesn't hold water; it's silly. There is a situation of peace between Canada and Mexico and America. There's a situation of conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis.
People think that this began only a few weeks ago. It's more complex than that.
MELHEM: The American media is supportive of Israel in general, especially on television. Now in print, the reporters who are working on the field, especially in print, are doing a very good job. Nobody can come close to Anthony Shadid in the "Washington Post". He's a brilliant guy who really gives you the whole tragic situation in Lebanon. KURTZ: From Lebanon.
MELHEM: From Lebanon, yes. Editorially, of course, they were critical of Hezbollah, and I can understand. But even in the "New York Times", criticized Hezbollah, was asking the Israelis not to engage in disproportionate -- so it's a complex coverage.
KURTZ: All right. This is a conversation that will continue. We appreciate your being here this morning. Yaron Deckel, Hisham Melhem, thanks very much for joining us.
And coming up next, the blogosphere changing the way we learn about life in a war zone. We'll talk about that next.
KURTZ: Some breaking news now in the Middle East front. Let's go to CNN's Randi Kaye in Atlanta.
KAYE: Howard, I want to tell you about some renewed air strikes in the Beirut area. This is a Hezbollah stronghold. This is southern suburbs of Beirut in the Daki (ph) area. This is -- air strikes in that area, renewed air strikes in the Bekaa valley. They've been going on through the night, Israel pounding Hezbollah and its strongholds there.
Still working to get any number that we can on some casualties, but you can see there how severe some of these air strikes have been.
What's happening here is they are looking to isolate Hezbollah. If they don't destroy them with the bombings, they're hoping then to alienate them, which would mean that they couldn't get any food, couldn't get any supplies.
Al Jazeera has been reporting here, as we monitor all the feeds coming to us from the international desk, that there have been renewed bombings, renewed air strikes in Southern Lebanon, and that is what you are looking at.
We also want to tell you about some new information coming out of Haifa. Associated Press is reporting and we are trying to independently confirm at this hour that two more Hezbollah rockets have struck Haifa, hitting a house and wounding at least five people.
Haifa has also been a major target. Haifa is just across the boarder from the Lebanon -- Lebanese city of Tyre. Tyre has been a target as well. There have been a barrage of rockets landing in that area in the Israeli port city of Haifa, killing at least two people and wounding 11 earlier today.
Explosions have been heard there. Air raid sirens have been sounded. CNN's John Roberts is there. John Vause is there. Israeli police spokesman are saying that the two people were killed, including a person in a woodworking factory.
Rockets hitting Haifa are believed to be coming from Tyre, Lebanon. That is why Israeli forces are targeting Tyre, that port city, because they believe that that's where they are launching the rockets from, these Katyusha rockets that have been raining down on Haifa.
So more air raid sirens and apparently more rockets. Now we're getting that latest word that two more rockets hitting Haifa, wounding at least five people when it hit a house -- Howard.
KURTZ: All right. Thanks very much for that update. CNN's Randi Kaye.
We want to go now to Tel Aviv and talk to a woman who has been blogging about this war. Lisa Goldman who writes at "On the Face" is the name of her blog.
Lisa Goldman, thank you very much for joining us. You have written about previously having kind of a bond between Israeli bloggers and Lebanese bloggers that has been -- forgive the expression -- blown up by this war. Talk a little about that, if you would.
LISA GOLDMAN, BLOGGER: It hasn't been blown up. We're still in contact and we're still commenting on one of those blogs. And I think that that's actually one of the most unusual and ground breaking phenomenons (sic) of this war, that we're still in contact with each other. And there's still conciliatory talks, not between all of us, but amongst many. And we're reading the reports; we're commenting on one of his blogs. We're linking to each other's posts. And there is an ongoing dialogue despite all the destruction and tragedy.
KURTZ: But aren't there some bloggers in Lebanon who, perhaps understandably, as bombs rain down on their country, have really turned against Israel and have gotten very harsh in what they say online?
GOLDMAN: Sure. Some bloggers have. Many bloggers have. There's a lot of anger, and I certainly understand them. But the fact is that there is still a link.
Some bloggers have just said, "Look, I don't hate you as an individual, but I can't talk to you right now, while your army is destroying my city or your air force is destroying my country."
KURTZ: What can you do -- we're a little short on time, so...
GOLDMAN: That's not the case for a lot.
KURTZ: What can you do to -- that a newspaper or that a television station can't do in terms of capturing the mood of this conflict?
GOLDMAN: Everything. We have a direct human connection. I was sitting in my apartment in Tel Aviv, having an instant message chat with a guy in Beirut while the Israeli air force was bombarding his city. He was sitting on roof of his building, watching the missile -- the bombs fall, and we were carrying on an ongoing conversation. He was describing what was going to me in his city, and it was really an amazing experience.
KURTZ: All right. We...
GOLDMAN: And we're still in contact. He's in -- he's...
KURTZ: All right. We've got about...
GOLDMAN: He's left the city. He's now in Damascus.
KURTZ: We've got about half a minute. How do you feel about the outside media coverage of this Middle East war? Has it been fair? Has it bothered you?
GOLDMAN: It bothers me. But there's a really big problem with television as a medium in general. There's just not enough time to get any depth. You can answer, who, what, where and when, but why is impossible. And that's where the media is really, really failing.
KURTZ: All right. Well, it's -- it's another dimension to the coverage of this conflict, the world's most -- blog wars at this point. Lisa Goldman, thank you very much for joining us from Tel Aviv.
We'll be right back with a final word about covering the war and other subjects.
KURTZ: Hundreds of innocent people killed by bombs in an awful war with huge civilian casualties. No, I'm not talking about Lebanon.
The carnage in Iraq continues day after day, but that conflict has largely been blown off television and newspaper front pages by a newer story, the fighting in the Middle East. The media seemed unable to handle two wars at the same time.
And Iraq isn't the only story to be overshadowed by Israel and Lebanon. President Bush issued the first veto of his tenure this week, rejecting legislation, backed by some in his own party, to expand federal funding for stem cell research. That became a secondary story.
Also for the first time in his presidency, Bush spoke to the NAACP after blowing off previous invitations and said it was a tragedy that the Republican Party had lost the confidence of African- Americans.
Both stories would have been huge, if not for the Middle East.
I'm all for blanket coverage of this bloody conflict that could erupt into an even wider war, but journalists, all of us, need to be more careful about not giving short shrift to other important events here and around the world.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 10 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
"LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.
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