05 January 2009

05 January 2009 - Is Israel winning the media war?

Pesach Benson of MediaBackspin has asked me and several other bloggers to answer the following two questions:

1) Is Israel winning the media war?

2) What more could Israel be doing on the media front?

My answers:

1) What is the objective of the “media war”? If the point is to affect public opinion, then Israel is losing. As it must: there are billions of people whose only sources of media are state-produced or state-censored--and whose only alternatives offer radical, not liberal, critiques. And the free media of the democratic world offer, at best, “balanced” coverage that gives both sides equal weight--if Israel’s lucky.

If the objective of the “media war” is to affect elite opinion in the democratic world, Israel is faring even worse this time than last, because what’s important to mainstream journalists and pundits is not truth or right, but power. And many sense--or hope--that the incoming Obama administration is going to change U.S. policy towards Israel, so they are emphasizing anti-Israel attitudes in anticipation.

But if the goal of the “media war” is to provide the political cover Israel needs to achieve its military goals, it is indeed winning. The point is not only to win debates but to give those already inclined to support you good reasons for doing so. That means not only the U.S. government but also anti-jihad Arabs, Iranian dissidents, etc. In that regard, Israel’s performance is an improvement over the last war.

On a personal level, I believe “winning” the media war means standing up for objective truth, especially the truth of words. When Israel’s enemies distort words like “proportionate” and “militant,” they create a propaganda world that frustrates dialogue and peace. I want to see a two-state solution emerge, which means setting boundaries around violence--violence against people and violence against language.

2) The most important thing Israel can do on the media front is to achieve its military goals. Again, the world respects power above all. So Israel must defeat Hamas thoroughly and humble it if possible. Minimizing civilian casualties is important for its own sake, and also for PR purposes, but the best media victory is one in which--Saddam-style--the fanatical enemy is seen to give up without a fight.

Israel must continue to explore the possibilities of new media. The use of YouTube by the IDF has made a real impact, especially the videos of secondary explosions and humanitarian aid. New videos of how Hamas treats Palestinian civilians have started to emerge and they are also important. In addition, Israeli consulates have started using Twitter to great effect, as have Israeli bloggers. This must continue.

Israel's supporters should not simply use new media to win public debates (though it helps), but also to connect like-minded people to one another, so they can share information and quickly translate it into action (protests, lobbying, fundraising etc.). Meanwhile, the best media warriors remain the men and women of the IDF. Only victory with honor can change the terms of the debate, where there is one.

I should add that the true tests of Israel's media effectiveness are yet to come. The first will be when an Israeli strike causes (or Hamas stages) large numbers of civilian casualties. The second will be when Barack Obama takes office on January 20. Regardless of where the Gaza War is by then, Israel is going to have to develop new media strategies to deal with a new and challenging American political reality.


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