The Press Blackout on Sabra and Shatila
Between August 27 and September 10, 2002, the Los Angeles Times ran a well-written series of articles on the anniversary of the 1972 Munich Olympics. Entitled "Munich Olympics: Thirty Years Later," the series contained twenty articles totaling over 18,000 words, the equivalent of almost 500 column inches, or 41 column feet of text. At least eight articles dealt specifically with the event for which the 1972 Games are most remembered, the brutal kidnapping and murder of eleven Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists.
On the anniversary of the attacks, September 5, a 6352-word article appeared. Titled "Black September; Long Before The Twin Towers Fell, Dream Of Security At Games Toppled When Arabs Murdered 11 Israelis," the article was accompanied by a gruesome photograph of Yoseph Gutfreund, the Israeli wrestling referee, sitting in the helicopter seat at the airport where he was murdered by the terrorists. The image of Gutfreund’s slumped, manacled, and lifeless body is juxtaposed with a current photo of his two daughters, each standing with one of their daughters, the granddaughters that Gutfreund never knew. The article described at length the sorrow experienced by the Gutfreunds, and their struggle to carry on after their father’s ghastly murder.
To its credit the LA Times gave an account of the Israeli reaction to the terrorist attack, however brief. A 543-word article on September 6 described the tragedy of Mossad agents hunting down and executing the wrong man. Ahmed Bouchiki was gunned down on the street in Lillehammer, Norway on July 21, 1973 while waiting for a bus with his pregnant wife. The Israeli agents had mistaken him for one of the Munich terrorists.
Given this exhaustive (and entirely proper) coverage of the thirtieth anniversary of the terrorist crimes in Munich in 1972, a fair-minded observer would expect the anniversary of a terrorist crime with perhaps a hundredfold (if not more) of the deaths at the Olympics to receive at least equal coverage. Referred to here are not the horrific crimes of September 11, 2001; an enormous amount of (again, entirely proper) coverage of the first anniversary of those atrocities was featured in the Los Angeles Times. It is the twentieth anniversary of the terrorist killings at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps that one would think worthy of at least equal, if not significantly greater, coverage in the LA Times. The details of these attacks are easily available.
In a fair media culture, one would expect to see:Lengthy and detailed descriptions of the events of September 16-18, 1982, including the tacit (or even overt) permission given by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to the Christian Phalange and Haddad militia to move into the camps. Statements that the Haddad militia (followers of a defector from the Lebanese Army who was set up as a puppet in the southern area of Lebanon occupied by Israel) was essentially an arm of the IDF. Reports of IDF flares lighting the camps on the night of the 16th, to help the militia complete its "mopping up" of "terrorist nests," as then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon described their mission. Accounts of the brutal slaughter continuing until the 18th, with Israeli forces watching the carnage from a promontory that provided a clear view inside the camps. Interviews with the survivors of the horrible acts of September 16-18, 1982. Pictures showing the slaughtered corpses of the victims of these terrorist attacks, including photos of the living descendants of these victims, as well as an accompanying article talking of the emotional suffering of these descendants. Given that the current leader of Israel was one of the principal actors in this pogrom, a detailed account of the Kahan Commission investigation, wherein the Israeli government declared then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon indirectly guilty of war crimes for the deaths of anywhere between several hundred to several thousand Palestinian men, women, and children.
Yes, one would expect. But what is found when we search the Los Angeles Times for the days surrounding the twentieth anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres?
A deafening silence.
Indeed, a researcher has to go back to June 27 of this year to find the most recent reference to the attacks on Sabra and Shatila in the LA Times, and then it is a report about a Belgian court dismissing a war crimes case against Ariel Sharon. The court argued that since Sharon was not physically in Belgium, he could not be prosecuted for war crimes in connection with the Sabra and Shatila massacres. A recent Belgian law allowed for the prosecution of any person for war crimes, regardless of the nationality of the accused or the place of the alleged crime. Thus, the only reference to the Sabra and Shatila massacre in the Los Angeles Times over the last three months has been a story describing how Ariel Sharon will escape prosecution.
Lest anyone believe the lack of coverage in the LA Times an anomaly, there was practically no coverage of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in any mainstream American press. Aside from an account on the Associated Press and UPI wires of Palestinian marking the anniversaries (rather than these media outlets providing detailed retrospectives on the crimes), the only mention of the anniversary in the mainstream press was put at the end of a September 18 article in The New York Times which first discussed the bombing of a Palestinian school by Israeli settlers (occupiers), and then the fact that, "For the Israelis, it was the 29th anniversary of the 1973 Middle East war, also known as the Yom Kippur war, in which Israel came under surprise attack from Egypt and Syria, assisted by other Arab nations." Mention of atrocities against Palestinians, assuming they are mentioned at all, must always be prefaced with an allegation of Arab treachery, namely a "surprise attack" in 1973.
Why this disparity in coverage? The answer is all-too simple. The crimes of Palestinian terrorists committed against Israelis will always be portrayed as more egregious than anything of which Israel may be guilty, even if those Israeli crimes result in a body count that is one hundred times greater.
What would be surprising is if the US media gave anything approaching equal coverage of the 1982 massacre. If the "propaganda model" (see Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent) of the media is accurate, this disparity in coverage is wholly predictable. A reader would not expect the US media, if it were a propaganda device of the government and elite interests, to show a balance. An observer should not expect the media to argue that the conduct of the very political and corporate interests they serve (and in many cases the media and these elite interests are one and the same), is in any way comparable to the comparatively minor actions of official enemies. People, whether at the individual or corporate and state level, are always more willing to point fingers at an agreed-upon "evildoer" than to look in the mirror. Hypocrisy is perhaps the most devious human vice.
In an open society such as the US, the propaganda function of the media serves a dual purpose; not only are the atrocities committed by official allies not deemed newsworthy, but the media is also characterized as a "free press." Therefore, it seems illogical for someone to point out that the media might be biased in its coverage of official allies versus that of official enemies. The discussion of press bias in a case such as that of Munich versus Sabra a Shatila cannot even begin because people are indoctrinated from a very early age to believe that the ideal of a free press espoused by their leaders, parents, and other authority figures reflects reality.
Unfortunately for the victims and survivors of Sabra and Shatila, there is no such reality.
(Many thanks to Ed Herman for the thesis of this essay).
TOM GORMAN lives in Pasadena, California. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org