Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Counterfeit news

David Frum, National Post:
Perhaps you saw the images in your newspaper or on television:

"A Lebanese man counts U.S dollar bills received from Hizbollah members in a school in Bourj el-Barajneh, a southern suburb of Beirut, August 19, 2006. Hizbollah handed out bundles of cash on Friday to people whose homes were wrecked by Israeli bombing, consolidating the Iranian-backed group's support among Lebanon's Shiites and embarrassing the Beirut government. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard (LEBANON)"

This scene and dozens more like it flashed around the planet. Only one thing was missing--the thin wire security strip that runs from top to bottom of a genuine US$100 bill. The money Hezbollah was passing was counterfeit, as should have been evident to anybody who studied the photographs with due care.

Care was due because of Hezbollah's history of counterfeiting: In June, 2004, the U.S. Department of the Treasury publicly cited Hezbollah as one of the planet's leading forgers of U.S. currency.

But this knowledge was disregarded by the news organizations who queued up to publicize Hezbollah's pseudo-philanthropy. The passing of counterfeit bills was detected not by the reporters and photographers on the spot, but by bloggers thousands of miles away: SnappedShots.com, MyPetJawa and Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs. These sites magnified photographs and showed them to currency experts and detected irregularity after irregularity in the bills. (Links to all the sites mentioned here can be found at frum.nationalreview.com) READ MORE

Maybe it's too much to expect journalists to be currency experts. But one does expect them to be able to detect a manipulated photograph, especially a crudely manipulated one. Yet it was again Charles Johnson--who is a professional musician by the way--and not a news editor, who caught Reuters distributing faked photographs by its now infamous Lebanese staff photographer, Adnan Hajj.

Hajj used Photoshop software to make fires in Lebanese cities look larger than they were and to transform photos of Israeli signal flares into apparent images of missiles in full flight. For this and other faked pictures, Hajj was fired and Reuters removed almost a thousand of his photographs from its archive.

But the scandal of Lebanese war coverage only begins with Hajj; it does not end there--nowhere close.

In July, respected news organizations like AP, the BBC, Time Magazine, ITN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and thousands of others broadcast the shocking news that Israeli forces had fired missiles at two clearly marked Red Cross ambulances, igniting intense fires that injured their passengers. Accompanying photographs and then later footage taken by somebody described as a "local cameraman" showed a badly damaged ambulance with a hole in the dead centre of the roof.

Yet as the blogger Zombietime.com has demonstrated, the whole story is a crude hoax. Photographs of the ambulances in question show no signs of blast or burn. Nor was there any damage to the floor of the ambulance--as one would expect if a missile had smashed through the roof. The badly "wounded" and heavily bandaged ambulance driver who appeared in the stories resurfaced in other news footage six days later without so much as a scratch upon him. The hole in the roof was not only perfectly round, but it matched exactly the size and placement of the ambulance's missing siren. The siren must have been removed some time before, because the edge of the hole was corroded by rust.

Although journalists were not allowed to inspect the ambulances themselves--and had to rely on images supplied by Hezbollah--and although the ambulance drivers' stories changed and changed again, becoming more dramatic with each retelling, every single Western reporter who covered the story accepted it as unquestioned fact.

So are reporters just gullible? The most troubling of all the blog reports, this posted at EUReferendum.com, strongly suggests a more disturbing explanation.

The authors of the EUReferendum blog painstakingly studied all the available photographic evidence of the damage done by the Israeli bombing of a Hezbollah compound near the village of Qana on July 30. According to many press reports, the Israeli bombs struck a three-storey building, trapping civilians and childrens in the rubble. The toll was estimated at some 60 people, later reduced to 28. The photographs and television footage from this sad scene became some of the most famous footage of the whole Lebanon war.

At the EUReferendum site, you can see over many Web pages a compilation of evidence that proves beyond all reasonable doubt that the images from Qana were not merely staged--but staged with the active knowledge and complicity of the Western journalists on the scene.

Scenes were enacted and re-enacted; dead bodies were carried from point to point and then back again; Hezbollah spokesmen chatted on cellphones when they believed the cameras were turned away from them--and then erupted in tears and anguish when they believed the cameras had turned on again.

How to account for this massive distortion? Yesterday, Annia Ciezadlo detailed in these pages Hezbollah's attempts to deceive the press. But why is the press so horribly susceptible to manipulation? Anti-Israel ideology plays its part. So too must competitive zeal. Photo-journalists want to win prizes--and news organizations want scoops: If that means hiring local Hezbollah sympathizers to carry cameras where more objective journalists are forbidden to go, that is a price that news organizations will too often pay.

Finally, let's not underestimate the power of fear: Hezbollah is the terrorist organization that held the AP reporter Terry Anderson hostage in Lebanon for six years. As the stories of Jill Caroll of the Christian Science Monitor, Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig of Fox News, and of course Daniel Pearl remind us, Middle Eastern terrorist groups do not scruple to seize and murder journalists.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.