CRITIQUE: A critique of a television documentary, "From Beirut to Bosnia," by Joseph Unger and an exchange of letters between PRIMER and The Discovery Channel.
June 16, 1994
Mr. John S. Hendriks, Chairman of the Board
Discovery Communications Inc.
7700 Wisconsin Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814-3522
Dear Mr. Hendriks:
In a democratic society, the media, an agency of mass communication, becomes the prime carrier of information, public enlightenment, and truth.
The media, therefore, carries the mandate and responsibility to perform with objectivity, accuracy, and fairness.
By airing "From Beirut to Bosnia," The Discovery Channel has provided the purveyors of insidious propaganda an opportunity to spread their venom into the living rooms of America.
Enclosed is a PRIMER critique of the documentary.
Sidney Laibson, President
PRIMER - Connecticut
by Joseph I. Ungar - Vice President
PRIMER - (Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting)
With the program, From Beirut to Bosnia, aired in late April, 1994, The Discovery Channel entered a dangerous new era of Middle East reporting. The first two installments, ostensibly a documentary, are astounding in their distortions and frightening in their precedent. They have advanced far beyond our previous experience with media-bias. Indeed, they surpass simple bias by several light-years.
In passages resembling legitimate newsreels, the viewer is bombarded by a spectrum of repetitious scenes, images, and narrative.
A review of the salient feature:
Israel is depicted as the home of those who constantly commit egregious crimes. We see and hear, in lurid detail, how Israelis kill Muslims "in the thousands" -- men, women, children and babies. They use "rockets," "phosphorus-shells" and "long range artillery," and even pursue and bomb the cars of innocent civilians.
Israel "confiscates,1' "occupies" and "builds huge Jewish settlements on Arab land." It holds and tortures hostages in a little known prison deep in the "Occupation Zone" of Lebanon. It forces "300,000" Lebanese civilians "onto the roads as refugees." It seals borders making travel difficult for reporters. It methodically and wantonly destroys dwellings with anti-tank missiles, making hundreds of people homeless overnight.
Israeli soldiers place their hands over camera lenses to prevent reporters from filming. They also lie, and impose curfews which obstruct the transportation to hospitals of pregnant Arab women. Israel "illegally" annexes Jerusalem and mercilessly bulldozes the dwellings of Arab landowners.
The allegations are relentless. Israel is subject to a blanket indictment with no extenuating circumstances -- guilty beyond hope.
History is tailored, twisted, and selectively excised to support this condemnation of Israel. We see, for example, whole neighborhoods of destroyed buildings in Lebanon, and Robert Fisk, the narrator, states "IT all started with Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982." There is no mention of the lengthy civil war between Muslims and Maronite Christians which decimated the countryside. No mention of the Syrian invasion. No mention of the PLO infiltration in 1969 which gradually overcame the Lebanese army and by 1975 had established "Fatahland," a de facto state extending from West Beirut to the Israeli border. Lebanon had been raped and battered from within.
Fisk also fails to tell the viewer that the PLO had converted Lebanon into a viper's den for the promotion of terror. He ignores the repeated attacks across the border --always on Israeli civilians -- including the massacre at Ma'alot in 1974 of twenty-one school children. From the early 1970's until Israel ousted it in 1982, the PLO had transformed Lebanon into a training ground for terrorist groups the world over. PLO bases welcomed any and all, including The Italian Red Brigades, The German Baader-Meinhaf gang, the IRA, the Japanese Red Army, the French Action Directe, the Turkish Liberation Army, the Armenian Asala group, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, the Montoneros of Argentina, the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, The Carlos Network of Venezuela, and many others including neo-Nazi groups. In one year alone, between 1980-81, 2300 terrorists from 28 countries were trained in Lebanon.
Robert Fisk, billed as "the only Western journalist to continuously live in the Middle East for the last 18 years" was present during this period. Yet he ignores it --totally. Lebanon, in his eyes, has been plundered by Israel.
Likewise, we hear a reiteration of the number of Palestinians forced out of their homeland. "The land these Palestinians own is now in Israel," says Fisk from Lebanon.
John Palmer, who introduces the program, puts their number at 700,000. To the informed, these contentions become frustrating.
On April 3, 1949, the Near East Broadcasting Station on Cyprus, said, "It must not be forgotten that the Arab Higher Committee encouraged the refugee's flight from their homes. . . "
On February 19, 1949, the Jordanian newspaper, Filastin, admitted, "The Arab states encouraged the Palestinian Arabs to leave their homes temporarily in order to be out of the way of the Arab invasion armies."
Furthermore, in 1948, the U.N. Mediator on Palestine determined that the number leaving their homes was 472,000, a figure differing considerably from that of Palmer.
While this program explores in detail the history of one Arab who abandoned his house in Acre, the history of Modern Israel is omitted. Hence, every Arab allegation about expulsion remains unopposed. "Israel is built on land owned by other people and taken from them by force," states a leader of Hezbollah with conviction and apparent authority. Fisk makes no comment.
Hezbollah is portrayed as a religious guerilla organization conducting a "war of resistance against Israel." "It is our duty to fight against Israel," says a handsome young man in a wooded area. "We must defend our honor and our rights, our land and our people. Hezbollah is a revolution. It's a movement. It is only open to true believers. It is based on faith and religious doctrine (places a hand over his heart) in which I truly believe." "We are defending ourselves against the Zionist enemy," says his friend.
Fisk takes us into Beirut's southern suburbs -- a scene of decaying buildings, unpaved streets, and huge posters of Khomeni. "The Hezbollah lives here -- their militiamen, their supporters, their wives," he states with a vague hint of admiration. He introduces Hassan Nazrahla, "the man who runs Hezbollah, who directs their war against Israel." "If the whole world were to recognize Israel, we never would says Nazrahla.
Later, Fisk watches a Hezbollah rally and parade in Nabatea. Flags and frenzied dancers in black shirts and headbands lead Fisk to comment about "a drumbeat of passion." "The word G-d is on all their banners," he says.
Hezbollah is Iran's terrorist subsidiary, established about 12 years ago in the Bekaa Valley. According to a U.S. State Department publication in March, 1989, the Hezbollah was dedicated to the creation of an Iranian-style Islamic Republic in Lebanon. Its activities at that time involved several U.S. terrorist attacks, including the suicide truck bombing on the barracks in Beirut in October, 1983, resulting in the death of 241 marines. Fisk's comment on this savagery: "The most powerful army in the world had been struck down by a country without an army."
Hezbollah also attacked the U.S. Embassy annex in September, 1984, and was responsible for the kidnapping and detention of most, if not all, U.S. and other Western hostages. One of the Hostages, Lieut. Col. William Higgins of the Marines was killed in late 1989; Hezbollah released gruesome tape of his hanging corpse.
Hezbollah blew up the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires March, 1992. More recently it fires Katyusha rockets into South Lebanon and the upper Gallilee without respite.
While its headquarters may be in the slums, Hezbollah well-endowed, both by Iran and by its active participation the Syrian-controlled drug trade in Lebanon.
Hamas, like Hezbollah, is also pictured as a religiously-inspired body, determined, according to a spokesman, "to liberate Palestine and establish an Islamic State rather than a secular state."
After several atrocities, culminating in the stabbing and strangling murder of Border Police officer Nissim Toledano in December, 1992, Israel rounded up and deported 400 hard-core Hamas members to southern Lebanon. To Fisk, they are another group of Palestinians forced "into Lebanese exile, this time from the occupied West Bank and Gaza." He shows us their tents scattered across the hillside. "They formed a small Islamic Republic here in the mountains," he says. Referring to them as "refugees," he ignores their violent activities and terrorist goals. He blithely states that their "exile" meant "a chance to plan the religious Islamic nation they want to create when they go back home."
Later, at a site where Israeli soldiers killed a Hamas "gunman," Fisk shows us that "pages of the Koran have been left at the scene."
Another interview -- a tough-looking Hamas member with a striped shirt and a scruffy beard:
"Our struggle is one of faith, our cause is an Islamic cause. It's not a matter of nations or land. It's about Islam. Religion versus religion. Koran versus Torah. This is a holy land, an Islamic land, a promised land, the land of Islam and not the land of the Jews." Recent "Leaflet No. 65 of Hamas" calls Jews "the blood suckers of humanity, who sow the seeds of dissension and evil in all periods." This is hardly a reflection of any intellectual or theologic dispute about the truths of "Koran versus Torah."
Fisk never presents hard facts. He does not mention that in October, 1991, the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Gaza Military Court for ordering the murder of Palestinian collaborators with Israel. Since March of 1989, at least 165 "collaborators" had been killed, often with hatchets, axes, and butcher knives. "You are called upon to tear the flesh of Collaborators to shreds," warned a mural along the road leading to Rafah in Gaza.
Hamas calls for violent attacks on Israelis everywhere, not just in Judea and Samaria. Specializing for many years in stabbings and hit-and-run vehicle attacks, it has lately turned to larger targets, blowing up loaded buses in Afula and Hadera.
In Afula, seven Israelis were killed and close to 50 severely injured. Hamas activities in Gaza boasted over mosque loudspeakers, declaring: "We claim responsibility for the heroic suicide operation in Afula."
None of this impresses Robert Fisk. Speaking to an Israeli, he states, "There are Palestinian Arabs who are becoming more and more religious. They're turning to G-d rather than to the PLO -- I'm thinking of Hamas in particular."
* * *
The technical skills exhibited in the production of "From Beirut to Bosnia" are formidable. It is easy to imagine how one unversed in Middle East realities could consider this program educational. Furthermore, the same person might find it entertaining. With its travelogue format, short interviews, and promise of conflict, it provides the type of effortless viewing so popular today.
In addition, there is high drama: a blue camera lens casts a mystical aura on the raised fists and shouts of the marchers at the funeral of an Hamas gunman; an elderly Arab kneels to pray on the sloping fragment of a bombed-out building; a low camera angle captures the rhythmic dance of a burly member of Hezbollah and he becomes bigger than life --indomitable.
Far and away, however, the central pivot of the whole production, the man who guides and orchestrates all moves, is the narrator, Robert Fisk.
With his distinguished upright posture, impeccable English diction, easy manner, and air of sincerity, Fisk projects the essence of refinement and objectivity. He inspires both confidence and credibility. Besides, he seems so human and likeable -- we see him joking on the phone, taking his dried shirts in from the balcony, and talking about the need to feed his cat. We even see a shot of the cat. He could easily play the stage role of Henry Higgins. But he would be a Higgins with fangs.
Fisk credentials himself as an authority beyond reproach. "Journalists are witness to history and I watched it all." So self-assured is he, that every opinion seems to emerge as simple fact. He does not comment or elucidate; he declares. The scenes are viewed through Fisk's carefully crafted "lens." Opinions and impressions, no matter if they are misleading or based on unsubstantiated allegations, often coax the viewer into a visceral response.
Fisk shows us an armed man in subdued lighting slinking through some shrubbery. "Hezbollah have never before allowed their fighters to appear on Western television," he says,
in a tone so grave that he seems awestruck by an event of cosmic proportions. The viewer is
stirred -- secret fighters, how noble!
Fisk, strolling with a companion through Sabra and Shatilla, speaks calmly and rapidly about the massacre. As an apparent afterthought, and with a flick of the wrist, he refers to "the Christian gunmen that the Israelis sent in." The implication that Israelis sent Christian gunman to massacre refugees is an egregious falsehood.
Fisk stands in Nabatea at the fringe of a frenzied Hezbollah rally replete with symbols of the Islamic faith. He seems impressed with the spirit and vigor. Suddenly we hear jets, and a view of the sky reveals vapor trails. "The Israelis, flying high, watch them from the skies," he states. "Theology versus technology -- who will win?"
Fisk portrays the Israelis as "flying high," and infers that the Hezbollah, far below, are nevertheless determined to succeed because of their religion. "Who will win?" he asks, knowing how the viewer traditionally favors the perceived underdog.
Fisk drives into Gaza and confronts an Israeli officer who objects to his camera crew. They exchange words. "You'll close the area if I keep filming?" asks Fisk. The officer says, "Yes." "If I keep filming you'll close the area?" Fisk goads, carefully rearranging his words. Again, the officer concurs. Although we do not see what was being filmed, it most likely involved an area or operation related to security. Through the Fisk "lens," Israel, a democracy, exercises indiscriminate news censorship.
Fisk transmits a news report by phone. He describes the death in a Gaza hospital of an Arab "shot down" by the Israelis. The circumstances surrounding the shooting go unreported. Was the Arab a terrorist? Did he kill an Israeli or a Palestinian? Instead we hear a graphic eulogy. "He died in front of us last night, shot in the head by Israeli troops, until the heartbeat on the screen above his bed registered a thin green line." Despite, or perhaps because of, the strained syntax, the viewer registers a subliminal image of Israeli brutality.
We are told that an Arab woman who is pregnant and in labor cannot be taken to the hospital because of an Israeli curfew. Numerous curfews had been instituted by Israel as a deterrent against violence and terrorism in the territory during the past 27 years. Undoubtedly medical and personal emergencies occurred during that time. It is inconceivable that Israel, a democracy, would not allow emergencies to override a curfew. If denial had occurred, assuredly it would have been a major media event.
There was no substantiation that the woman was pregnant; or that there was curfew; or that the Israelis refused to allow the woman in labor proper medical attention.
At the very end of the program Fisk confronts the Holocaust. He journeys to the house in Acre which had been evacuated 45 years earlier by an Arab now living in Beirut. Fisk reminds us that the Arab had "fled from the home to which he cannot return." The home is now occupied by a Holocaust survivor who migrated from Poland. Sympathetically, so it seems, Fisk elicits the survivor's story.
The Nazis had invaded his town of Trzebinia. They broke into his home. "Out, out," they shouted, "Everybody out." The father and brother died in a labor camp. The mother died at Treblinka. The survivor eventually made it to Acre. "Another refugee," says Fisk.
Then Fisk travels to Trzebinia. He finds the old neighborhood, and interviews an old man who had witnessed the evacuation of the Jews. He inquires about the memories within such observers. The old man responds, "Man tends to forget . . . it's such a long time ago and you just forget things".
Fisk has, in reality, fashioned an allegory. He had expropriated the Holocaust and used it as a metaphor. Coming, as it does, at the end of the program, this segment is a startling summation. The unwary viewer, with all the depictions of Israel's malfeasance fresh in his mind, is led to conclude that the crimes of the Nazis against the Jews are now the crimes of the Jews against the Arabs. What the old man in Trzebinia is really saying is, "We tend to forget . . . the Palestinians. We need Robert Fisk to help us remember."
From beginning to end, the artful maneuvers of Fisk are diabolically clever. He even weaves a secondary target into the fabric of the show -- the alleged Western Conspiracy against the Arab Nations. Fisk, and those he interviews, fulminate against the west, often with clenched teeth. Unlike modern Arab writers who have grown uncomfortable with their tradition of blaming every failure, every mishap, every setback, on an outside force, this program specifies and denounces that force.
It supports the fundamentalist belief that the Arab world has been victimized. The Arabs face no challenge due to lack of democracy or intolerance of minorities, no crisis with internal terrorism, no obstacle posed by internecine rivalries. None of this ever surfaces. There is only the plot in the night engineered by the Western-Zionist entity.
Fisk questions a member of Hezbollah. "In Lebanon and the Middle East as a whole who do you hold responsible for the events that are taking place here?"
"The truth -- as told by the blessed Iman Khomeni is that all our calamities come from America."
Fisk tells us about the Muslims killed by Israelis with "weaponry which was in the most part made in America."
He states "American firepower was directed at Muslim militias . . . "
We hear that the "French, English, and Americans" are implicated in the "activity of Israel against our people."
A Lebanese civilian refers to "Israeli jets with the most advanced American technology."
Fisk asserts that ". . . the Muslims of South Lebanon can't rely on the U.N. to protect them." He speaks of the "fury'1 and "frustrations of ordinary men and women who have come to see themselves as perpetual victims of the West."
Fisk asks a member of the International Red Cross why there is no concern for alleged Muslim hostages in Khiam Prison. "What do you expect from the International Community," he responds.
Finally, in one of the most telling interviews of the program, Fisk asks a member of Hamas, "Do you really think you can win against the Israelis?"
The man smiles, "Yes, I'm sure."
"But," says Fisk, in a hushed and sober tone, "Israel has America on its side."
And so it goes. This program does not stretch our credibility; it bypasses it.
It focuses not on reason but on emotion and gut-reaction. In a fusillade of soft-sell phrases and carefully spliced vignettes, it insists, among other things, that Israelis are evil and Muslim terrorists are properly motivated.
Often, like stage props, it flashes generic images as a backdrop, instead of a source for commentary. As a documentary, it totally negates the accented tradition of honor, responsibility, fairness, objectivity and truth.
* * *
In its distortions and illusions, "From Beirut to Bosnia" is an insidious example of disguised propaganda.
One can assume that Robert Fisk and his camera crew did not encounter the disapproval of Hamas and Hezbollah leaders. Is it conceivable that a westerner, the sworn "satan," who in the past has been terrorized and taken hostage, stands in the heart of their territory doing a documentary without some prior understanding? Hamas and Hezbollah probably felt secure with the message, since it was really their message. One can also assume that they reviewed and applauded the documentary, prior to its release.
"From Beruit to Bosnia" is filled with dark echoes, the kind that hover in alleyways and hidden corridors. Its accent may be English, but its dialect, pure and simple, is militant Islamic fundamentalism. This program, so negative in content and destructive in spirit, should never been aired by The Discovery Channel.
Mr. Sidney Laibson
PRIMER - Connecticut
P.O. Box 7~94
Bloomfield, CT 06002
Dear Mr. Laibson:
Thank you for writing me about the three-part series, "From Beirut to Bosnia." I read your letter and believe you will be pleased with the steps we have taken to address the issues you and many other viewers raised.
First, I regret that we did not better alert our viewers to Mr. Fisk's unique perspective on the Middle East and explain that these documentaries constituted "personal essays," where the voice of the author represents a specific point-of-view. We had the opportunity to make these points clearly in the presentation of the series and failed to do so.
As you know, Discovery is committed to both diverse views from around the world and balance in the selection of our programming. The response to this series, measured in both volume of phone calls and intensity of letters, has been unprecedented. We are already searching for additional documentaries which show a different view of the Middle East and will get them into our schedule quickly.
Finally, we are now preparing a one-hour, prime-time "Discovery Journal Forum" which will allow panelists representing diverse points-of-view and differing historical perspectives to comment on the issues in a lively, spirited debate. We have already contacted a number of organizations to solicit ideas and potential panelists for this special presentation. We're working overtime to get this on the air as soon as possible.
Again, I appreciate you taking time to write me. Your views matter to us, and I hope you will agree that Discovery has acted responsibly in this matter.
Ruth L. Otte
President, Discovery Communications, Inc.
August 9, 1994
Ms. Ruth L. Otte, President
Discovery Communications Inc.
7700 Wisconsin Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814-3522
Dear Ms. Otte:
Thank you for your response to my letter and ten-page essay of June 16, 1994.
We are pleased to learn of Discovery's planned programs which will represent differing views of the Middle East.
The problems of airing "From Beirut to Bosnia" would not have been neutralized by simply alerting the "viewers to Mr. Fisk's unique prospective ... and explain that these documentaries constituted personal essays ...."
Media opinion should not only be identified as such, but must be based on a foundation of truth. The fundamental flaws of the Fisk documentary are the egregious inaccuracies and distortion -- the tools of a propagandist.
Opinion that does not pass the criteria of truth and accuracy should not be accepted for airing or publishing by reputable and responsible agencies of mass communication.
Sidney Laibson, President
PRIMER - Connecticut