Michael Young has a terrific article in Reason magazine about the collateral damage (as he put it) in think tanks, academia, and the media after the assassination of Hezbollah Commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. He zeroes in on leftist icons Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein for their full-throated support for the Syrian- and Iranian-backed terrorist militia. (Be sure to watch Finkelstein’s performance on Lebanon’s Future TV here, and note how exasperated his interviewer Najat Sharafeddine is with his views.) The absurd alliance of violent Islamists and leftists has been covered elsewhere at length. At least Finkelstein and Chomsky are honest with their audience about what they believe and where they’re coming from.
Young also points out what may be a more serious problem, one much harder for most observers to see. Certain things are expected of those who want to maintain access to groups like Hezbollah. As Young points out,
Hezbollah is adept at turning contacts with the party into valuable favors . . . Writers and scholars, particularly Westerners, who lay claim to Hezbollah sources, are regarded as special for penetrating so closed a society. That’s why their writing is often edited with minimal rigor. Hezbollah always denied everything that was said about Mughniyeh, and few authors (or editors) showed the curiosity to push further than that. The mere fact of getting such a denial was considered an achievement in itself, a sign of rare access, and no one was about to jeopardize that access by calling Hezbollah liars.
Young is correct. And I’ll add that is there is nothing “special” or difficult about getting a quote from Hezbollah. I’ve done it. All I had to do was call their press office and take a taxi down to their headquarters. Every journalist in Lebanon has the phone number. What’s difficult is preserving access to Hezbollah. Doing so is not necessarily impressive, however. It took me five minutes and a press pass to gain access, but it lasted less than a week. I was threatened for writing this blog post, and I was blacklisted for publishing this article in the LA Weekly.
My experience isn’t unusual.
A journalist friend–whom I’ll keep anonymous because his comment to me was not on the record–was severely upbraided by Hezbollah’s “media relations” liaison for a neutral and entirely innocuous article he wrote for a left-wing American magazine I’m sure you’ve heard of or read. It wasn’t enough for them that his article wasn’t anti-Hezbollah. It also was not pro-Hezbollah. The party line was not toed.
During the July 2006 war in Northern Israel and South Lebanon, Beirut-based Time magazine reporter Chris Allbritton wrote the following on his blog: “To the south, along the curve of the coast, Hezbollah is launching Katyushas, but I’m loath to say too much about them. The Party of God has a copy of every journalist’s passport, and they’ve already hassled a number of us and threatened one.”
Reporter Charles Levinson wasn’t particularly impressed with them last August. “My experience with Hezbollah this week has left an unpleasant taste in my mouth,” he wrote on his blog Conflict Blotter. “I had heard this from other journalist friends who have recently returned from Lebanon, but discovered it for myself this week: their interaction with the press borders on fascist.”
You’ll notice that Allbritton and Levinson are speaking both for themselves and other journalists. Hezbollah didn’t single me out. Nor did Hezbollah single out Allbritton and Levinson. Despite their reputation for being media-savvy, the obstruction, harassment, and bullying of journalists is Hezbollah policy. Access is a meager carrot next to all that.
Some of us resist. Many do not. Some, like Chomsky and Finkelstein, don’t even have to. Michael Young is right to draw attention to those with access who will not call Hezbollah liars when they clearly are lying. It doesn’t matter if they do it to get a bite at the carrot or in fear of the stick.