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U.S. news media: A security zone for Israel

By Norman Solomon, May 25, 2000


One phrase -- "security zone" -- sums up an entire era of media spin about Israel's 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

When Israel completed its pullout in late May, most U.S. news outlets remained in sync with the kind of coverage that they've provided for more than two decades. In March 1978, the U.N. Security Council demanded unconditional Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Ever since, the flagrantly illegal -- and brutal -- military occupation has been shrouded by a thick media haze in the United States.

All through history, of course, occupiers have come up with benign-sounding buzzwords to put a lofty gloss on their iron boots. But journalists aren't supposed to adopt the lexicon of propaganda as their own.

Unfortunately, dozens of major American newspapers and networks have continued to matter-of-factly use the preferred Israeli fog words -- "security zone," "buffer zone" and "buffer strip" -- to identify the area in Lebanon long occupied by Israel.

"The center of Israel's buffer zone in southern Lebanon has abruptly collapsed," a front-page story in The New York Times began on May 23. Meanwhile, USA Today utilized a murky passive voice while referring to Israel's imminent "pullout from its 10-mile wide 'security zone' that had been set up as a buffer between Lebanon and northern Israeli towns."

The next day, The Chicago Tribune was reporting on events in "Israel's former Lebanon 'security zone.'" The first sentence of The Boston Globe's page-one article put it this way: "Blowing up five military outposts before dawn today, including a Crusades-era castle that served as a command center, Israeli troops completed their pullout from Israel's crumbling southern Lebanon 'security zone,' leaving the land to their Shiite Muslim guerrilla enemies."

And so it went -- as it has gone for decades -- with journalistic language routinely draped over the Israeli line. Consider these front-page headlines. The San Francisco Chronicle: "Israel Losing Control Over South Lebanon Security Zone." The Chicago Tribune: "Israel Reels As Buffer Collapses." The New York Times: "Israel's Buffer Strip in South Lebanon Collapsing."

Major TV networks were in step. On "NBC Nightly News," Tom Brokaw started his report this way: "The Middle East peace process is in chaos again tonight as Israel withdraws from the security zones it's occupied in southern Lebanon for 22 years." On ABC's "World News This Morning," the anchor explained that Israel "hopes to end two decades of bloody confrontations over territory it has occupied as a security zone."

CBS reported: "Troops are headed back to their homeland, leaving what was Israel's security zone to Lebanese guerrillas. The zone was established in 1985." There's that handy passive voice again, dodging the matter of who "established" the zone on Lebanese territory.

You might expect something better from National Public Radio. If so, you're sadly mistaken.

NPR's newscasts repeatedly used the "security zone" mantra as though it were a journalistic term. On the night of May 23, for instance, the top-of-the-hour news announcer referred to the area "that Israel has occupied as a security zone." The next morning, the NPR News verbiage was in the same groove, again flatly reporting on Israel's "security zone."

I asked NPR officials for an explanation.

The network's ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, responded promptly. And defensively. "The aim of NPR's reporting is clarity, and the use of the term 'security zone' is understood broadly," he replied.

In contrast, NPR foreign news editor Loren Jenkins said: "I basically don't think that we should be talking about a 'security zone.'" But he added that his foreign-desk post does not have oversight of newscasts.

Perhaps the most light on the "security zone" tic came from Greg Peppers, the supervising senior producer of NPR's newscast unit. "We were rewriting the wire copy from Associated Press and Reuters," he told me. "That's probably where it came from." In other words: Other news outlets do it. So, we do it, too.

The dismal American news coverage of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon is an apt metaphor for the overall reporting on conflicts that involve Israel. Harmonizing with the tenor of Washington's official policies toward the Middle East, the U.S. press corps winks and nods as Israel -- annually receiving a few billion dollars in aid from Uncle Sam -- continues to suppress the human rights of Palestinians.

On some issues, it is possible to argue for wider debate in America's mainstream news media. But on the subject of Israel, how does one widen a debate that doesn't really even exist?

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.


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