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If It Doesn’t Bleed, It Doesn’t Lead


This calm sidewalk scene in Haifa, taken on Sept. 28, is not unlike what Glenn Witmer says he saw when he toured Haifa during the peak of Hezbollah rocket fire into Haifa.

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September 29, 2006
-by Glenn Edward Witmer

Jerusalem — Israeli TV showed an interview with the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert soon after the rockets began flying across the Israeli-Lebanese border.

He was speaking in English so I knew he was targeting a foreign audience. He told how terrible things are, how terrorists made life hell for Israelis and were destroying cities like Haifa and Nahariya.

“All those rockets on Haifa created such destruction…you would not recognize our city,” he said. “And in Nahariya [near the Lebanese border] they have sent in so many rockets, you would not recognize that city.” He clearly needed to justify the issue of “disproportionate use of force,” which hurt the Israeli government image badly.

Well, Mr. Prime Minister, I’ve caught you! I was in Haifa myself two nights before that interview, having dinner on the sidewalk downtown, overlooking the famous Baha’i shrine in one direction and the Mediterranean waterfront in the other. After dinner I drove around town, wanting to see the war ruins for myself—but not sure where to find them. I knew from reports that there had been rockets fired near the oil storage areas, etc. But in all of my driving around, I was not able to find any damage.

Now, I’m sure that wherever the rockets did land, there is a destroyed building which I didn’t see. And large potholes which haven’t been filled in yet on the streets where incoming rockets landed would have shown me real war damage. Yes, people were killed and property was destroyed. It was dreadful. But to paint a scene so completely false, so exaggerated, does not honour the leader of a country.

Olmert is not guilty alone. TV coverage, newspaper and magazine stories—and even the newsletters from NGOs and church-based organizations—have fallen into the trap: how to get the attention of their audience? An old story says that TV producers planning their lead story for the evening news remind each other, “If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead!”

Far too much reporting—accurate though it may be for what is actually being covered—remains distorted from the whole view. If the rest of the story were told, it would be less interesting. Who really needed to know that the largest part of Israel was not affected militarily at all, and that people went about their normal routines, including watching TV news coverage that focused exclusively on the narrow version of what was happening?

No wonder most tour and study groups panicked and cancelled their trips. Those who came couldn’t believe that it wasn’t the way they expected. Let me be very clear: terrible things happened to many people, houses and businesses were destroyed, and lives were lost. But my point is that, by telling only one part of the story, the rest of the world was painted a scene that was false by its incompleteness.

Once again, truth was a victim of a war.

Glenn Edward Witmer is a Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker in Jerusalem. This story first appeared in his monthly MennoLetter from Jerusalem.