This is Part 3 of a Three Part Series. Read Part 1 and Part 2. It has also been published at Israel Insider.
Billboard in Lebanon, photographed on October 14, 2000, in which the ploy of Palestinian TV to insert the picture of an Israeli firing into the footage of al Durah has become a montage.
Charles Enderlin didn’t simply lay the blame on Israel because of his personal misreading of the situation. Nor can it be that his trusted Palestinian cameraman merely led him astray. There must be another dynamic at play here, because what’s most disturbing is not what Enderlin didn’t know, but what he did know — and what he felt comfortable doing.
Three years after the Al Dura incident, Charles Enderlin was reviewing the raw footage taken by Talal Abu Rahma, on the day of the alleged shooting, with historian Richard Landes. Enderlin responded to his guest’s exclamation at how much of the material was obviously (even ludicrously) staged, ‘action footage’ with a nonchalant, “Oh, they do that all the time. It’s their cultural style. They exaggerate.”
Enderlin knew of this cultural phenomenon in the Arab world. He knew that it was a prevalent tendency among the actors, players and photographers in the field; and if he did not realize how much his very own Palestinian cameraman, Talal, engaged in such practices, it would constitute terminal naïveté and gross negligence.
Yet he didn’t see fit to question the Al Dura footage or even the most dangerous, least substantiated, and least likely claim — that the Israelis did it on purpose. But he did find it good and proper to present the public with his cameraman’s version of the story and then freely distribute the key footage to other stations as a scene of the Israelis shooting Al Durah.
A world where no boundary exists between ‘artistic’ film-making and journalistic news reporting, was apparently terribly familiar to Enderlin. So much so that he didn’t think it significant when trusted photographer Talal explained that he ‘knew’ the Israelis had killed the boy because his long experience, in addition to “logic and nature “… proved that “the child was intentionally and in cold blood shot dead and his father injured by the Israeli army.” Both Talal and Enderlin apparently embrace the concept that an allegorical truth is proof enough for a reporter. Intuition trumped evidence.
PA Television, moreover, saw nothing wrong with inserting into the Al Dura footage a clip of an Israeli soldier firing his weapon, although that soldier was actually firing rubber bullets at Arabs in Nazareth who rioted at the sight of the al Durah footage. Explaining how, as a journalist, he could do such a thing, the PATV official explained, “These are forms of artistic expression, but all of this serves to convey the truth… We never forget our higher journalistic principles to which we are committed of relating the truth and nothing but the truth.”
The remark encapsulates a Middle Eastern brand of journalism, where people think they¹re asserting a ‘higher truth’ by doctoring footage to accuse neighbors of heinous crimes and to incite warfare. Had Enderlin adopted it as well?
Was it negligence, malevolence, ambition, or some bizarre mix? Could it be that Enderlin himself has lost the ability to discern truth from fiction, and news from creative expression; in a place where territorial incursions, the blurring of lines, and the breaking down of figurative and literal borders is de rigeur?
Maybe he had joined the ranks with others who freely mix artistic expression with blatant ideological agendas — and pass it off as news.
To try and understand the method behind this madness, let’s examine the following quote:
If the fatal shot was fired by an Israeli soldier, the image of Mohammed al-Dura is both historically true and artistically true. If it was not, if Fallows and the revisionists are right, the image of Mohammed al-Dura is nonetheless, to borrow Picasso’s characterization of all art, a lie that can make us realize the truth.
Adam Rose, founder and director of “Support Sanity” (I kid you not) wrote the above in response to an article by acclaimed journalist and author James Fallows, which had appeared in the June 2003 issue of Atlantic Monthly. In that article, Fallows concludes that “Whatever happened to him [Al-Dura], he was not shot by the Israeli soldiers who were known to be involved in the day’s fighting….”
In addition to using Picasso in his rebuttal to Fallows, Rose draws upon Aristotle, Shakespeare, and throws in a picture of Michelangelo’s Pieta for good measure. He reiterates:
…the critical question in an examination of the dynamics of Mohammed al-Dura’s “martyrdom ” is not whether the singular “Story of Mohammed al-Dura” is true, but whether the “universal Mohammed al-Dura Story| is true.
Ok. Stop right there. Put Picasso back on the museum walls and Macbeth behind the curtain. A news item — especially one dealing with an explosive issue — is not an item up for artistic invention. Everyone knows that Picasso was an artist, and that his art is art. But Enderlin is a journalist, and he deceived the public by passing questionable footage and his personal interpretation of the situation off as a factual news report.
The kind of corrupted thinking we see in Rose’s rebuttal to Fallows can only sustain itself if we allow Talal Abu Rahma’s cinematography, and Charles Enderlin’s personal rendering of the situation, to go unchallenged.
Rose clearly wants us to answer his question, “Yes, the ‘universal’ Muhammad al Durah story is true.” But one can, in playing his game of higher truth, come out with a much different answer: “No, the ‘universal Muhammad story’ is not true. It is a blood libel which, like all previous ones, inverts reality and creates hatred. It drives the very people who believe that Jews kill children deliberately, to deliberately kill Jewish children. And the Western media’s role in this particularly catastrophic episode reveals the higher truth that our own media’s standards have fallen so low that they now transmit blood libels as news without realizing it.
Adam Rose is small fry, but Enderlin laid the groundwork for gross exploitation of the artistic license that is — in the appropriate situation — rightfully granted to talented and responsible writers and journalists. It’s what makes writing great and interesting.
Eloquent testimony to Enderlin’s blunder can be seen in the following excerpt of a report, filed four days after the Al Dura incident, by Guardian correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg.
For all of the claims … that their soldiers only fire to protect Israeli lives, Mohammed’s death seems an irrefutable reply.
Israel stands accused of deliberate murder. Goldenberg goes on to tell us that evidence points to the “chilling conclusion” that “the 12-year-old boy and his father were deliberately targeted by Israeli soldiers.”
Now we never get to the evidence in that report (and the evidence suggests that the bullets were fired from a Palestinian position after Talal had filmed the incident), but if highly acclaimed journalist Charles Enderlin can say it, and award-winning cameraman Talal Abu Rahma can claim it, then award-wining correspondent Suzanne figured she had carte blanche to champion the libel — and then some.
Time to take those illustrious professionals back to Journalism 101. News needs to present accurate information, not “higher truths” that have gratifying symbolic significance whether they’re staged or not. And although, in a competitive market, the presentation needs to be engaging, any distortion, diminishing, or embellishment of such accuracy is unethical, irresponsible and simple wrong.
And when you’re in as deep as Enderlin, you end up lying to cover up. “I cut some footage of the boy in his death throes,” Enderlin admitted to Telerama, offering a half-truth that’s worth a terrible lie. He did cut a scene, but it was not of death throes, but the last scene, after Enderlin has already pronounced him dead, where the boy lifts up his elbow and looks around.
None of this appears to bother Enderlin or France 2. They’ve dismissed those who question their version of events as conspiricists, and show no signs of regret for the repercussions of their reckless handling of the story.
They appear so concerned with denying any culpability, and saving their reputations, that they have brought defamation suits against French citizens who dared to question the veracity of the France 2′s report. The International Herald Tribune sums up Charles Enderlin’s position as follows:
We have been insulted. We have been called liars. We have filed lawsuits against people who are really insulting us, and maybe this will stop people from sending thousands and thousands of e- mails. We want at some point to have this story be less hysterical.
Given the circumstances, I can think of few other stories in recent media history that demand our absolute attention, warrant healthy hysteria, and call for tens of thousands of emails. But first and foremost, this case begs for some honesty, critical intelligence, and justice. And that’s not just for the sake of Israel — the libeled — but for the credulous victims of this libel the world over — Muslims, Christians and Jews — all of whom have suffered from those who intone: “Muhammad al Durah’s blood calls us to Jihad!”