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Jewish World Review Oct. 8, 2001 / 21 Tishrei, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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War's First Casualty --- Truth

Glamour-girl newsies fall prey to Arab lies -- FOR those who were watching the MSNBC cable station one night last week, there was one moment when even the most dedicated news junky might have questioned the value of time devoted to absorbing the plethora of broadcast news options.

That was the moment when Ashleigh Banfield, MSNBC's correspondent in Pakistan, interviewed the mufti of Islamabad. Kneeling in front of the cleric, the network's Christianne Amanpour wannabe asked him what he thought about the fact that many people in his city believed that it was Israel, and not Islamic fundamentalist terrorists under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Without missing a beat, the mufti took this a cue to not only repeat this slanderous rumor but to amplify it. Saying he had heard this "on the news," he claimed that thousands of Jews had been warned by the Mossad, Israel's secret service, not to show up for work that day.

Humorously, he also added that since the attacks were so sophisticated and well-planned, it must have been the work of Israel, since Muslims could never have managed it!

Though I think we should all report this respected religious leader to the Anti-Defamation League for his slurs on the competence of Arab and Islamic terrorists, these absurd remarks were not the most noteworthy part of the interview.

It was that Banfield failed to follow up on any of these monstrous comments and let them go uncontradicted. Nor was her mistake correct by MSNBC editors or anchorpersons. The lengthy and outrageously false attack on Israel and the Jewish people went on the air without context or correction.

In this routine and otherwise unremarkable piece of reporting came an outrageous and barefaced lie, invented in the gutter press of the Arab world and spread to even wider audience.

While a great deal of the wall-to-wall television coverage of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks has done honor to the profession of journalism, this incident shows how easily the media can be manipulated. In this case, a global news network working with the latest technology was suckered into allowing their air to be the venue for a blood libel against Jews.

In Banfield's defense, it is likely that she was too intimidated by her surroundings to speak up and slam the mufti the way many of her colleagues are wont to do when interviewing someone with whom they disagree. She may even have had reason to fear for her safety. But her superiors in here in the United States had no such excuse.

Fear, bias and lazy journalism are bad enough in normal times, but in this post Sept. 11 wartime atmosphere, the combination can be lethal.

Whereas wartime rumors used to take weeks, months and even years to get out during World War II, today all it takes is a few strokes on a computer keyboard for a complete fabrication to be sent on its way to virtually every home in the wired world.

Take the hoax perpetrated last month by a Brazilian student who managed to put out a story that television footage of Palestinians celebrating the terror attacks on the United States was actually recycled from similar Arab festivities in 1991, when SCUD missiles landed in Tel Aviv.

Using an e-mail list run by a University of Pennsylvania professor, the hoaxer managed to get this lie into the public forum, where Arab propagandists and anti-Semites seized upon it. Later, even after the Brazilian admitted he had made it all up, another version of the same message was put out under the forged signature of a BBC official. The hoax was so successful that it even merited a New York Times story on Sept. 24, which related its mendacious journey from the Brazilian's imagination onto the world's news pages.

And like most lies, it is difficult to kill. When I referred a crackpot reader who forwarded the original hoax e-mail to me to the Times story, he dismissed the debunking of his message as the work of a "pro-Israel" newspaper that cannot be trusted!

But the nuts on the Internet aren't the only ones responsible for putting out lies. NBC's "Today Show" hostess, America's sweetheart Katie Couric, conducted an interview with the Queen of Jordan last week that probably reached more people than the Internet hoax. When asked by Couric about the images of Palestini

ans cheering the mass murder of Americans, the Jordanian told her that the pictures were misleading. Repeating a similar canard put forward by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the monarch claimed that "only a few children" celebrated the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Had this been someone like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, with whom Couric famously disagrees (and who deserved censure in his own right for ridiculous comments saying the terror attacks were divine retribution against a sinning America), you can be sure this malarkey would have been stuffed down the speaker's throat.

But in this case, Couric said nothing, and as with Banfield, let the lie go uncontradicted.

Ironically, this came during a month when the media was presented with golden opportunities to tell the story about the attitudes of the Palestinian Authority toward terrorism.

Few journalists - and no one on "The Today Show" - exhibited any interest in the fact that the P.A. had actually arrested and threatened journalists who had taken pictures of the widespread Palestinian happiness with the terror attacks.

Nor were many journalists interested in visiting the city of Nablus, where the largest Palestinian university hosted a student art project that glorified the August suicide bombing at a Sbarro's pizza parlor in Jerusalem that took the lives of Israeli mothers and children.

The disgusting exhibit, put together by the Hamas student auxiliary, replete with fake dismembered Jewish bodies, got little prime-time coverage in the United States, and certainly not as much exposure as Yasser Arafat's staged donation of blood to the wounded of New York City. (The New York Post deserves credit for spoofing this farce by conducting a spontaneous poll asking New Yorkers whether they would take the aging terrorist's blood.) The point about all of this is that in a world where hard-news reporting coexists with bold-faced lies in respectable, even honored news media, then why are we surprised when anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel are nurtured by the fallout from the terror attacks.

Fortunately, most Americans have enough common sense not to rely on the likes of either Katie Couric or Ashleigh Banfield for news. Despite the increasing volume of sloppy journalism being practiced on the networks and in daily newspapers, the lies defaming Israel and exculpating the Palestinians aren't gaining much traction.

But journalists, be they glamour-girl TV personalities or ink-stained wretches laboring in newsrooms, must remember that they bear a special responsibility to those who read or watch their work.

All too many of my colleagues in the media have become so jaded to the massive disinformation campaigns arrayed against Israel that they have become accessories after the fact to this mangling of the truth. If, as it is said, truth is always the first casualty in war, then the war on terrorism that has been proclaimed has already seen more than its share of journalistic wounded.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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