Commentary Magazine

Israel, the Hostages, and the Networks

The deterioration in U.S.-Israel relations in the year following the June 1982 invasion of Lebanon was among the steepest ever. It reached its nadir when a U.S. Marine waving a pistol at an Israeli tank was commended for “heroism” by the Pentagon, as if he had repulsed the armor of a hostile army.

Such attitudes in high places did not come out of nowhere. The extent to which television coverage conduced to them, for example, came to light in December 1984, when a prominent Senator confessed to a Jewish group that the reason he had recommended sanctions against Israel in 1982 was that television had convinced him Israel was perpetrating a holocaust in Lebanon.

But toward the end of 1983 the mood seemed to change. The bloody, hopelessly unresolvable sectarian conflicts in areas of Lebanon evacuated by Israel, the bombing of the American embassy and Marine barracks by suicidal Shiite fanatics, the Lebanese abrogation (under Syrian pressure) of the American-sponsored agreement with Israel, and the refusal of Syria to honor its pledge to withdraw from Lebanon—all these Arab enormities served to create a more benevolent attitude toward Israel in Washington.

Not, however, in the media, and especially not among television reporters in the field. Whenever gorier than usual massacres occurred, reporters would surround the survivors to cajole, solicit, or prod anti-Israel statements from them. There was an almost symbiotic reciprocity in the transaction: the traumatized, homeless, and bereft, peering into the camera, would blame Israel's 1982 invasion for all the evil in Lebanon (a far safer exercise than blaming a rival sect), and the journalists for their part would discreetly refrain from questions about the twelve years of atrocities and blood-baths which had preceded the invasion.

A particularly inflammatory flurry of media activity occurred just before Israel's final withdrawal. In response to sniping, car-bombing, and suicide attacks by the Shiite militias seeking credit for “forcing” Israel out of Lebanon, Israel implemented a “strong-hand” policy. The measures included the arrest of men caught carrying weapons and the blowing-up of houses in which arms caches had been found. These proved highly effective; but in a replay of their coverage of the 1982 invasion, the media depicted Israel's actions as indiscriminate attacks on civilians (none of the guerrillas wore uniforms), and they mistranslated the name of the operation as “iron fist,” presumably in order to convey the idea of a brutal, ruthless repression.

Then came the accusation that two Lebanese cameramen serving as CBS stringers had been deliberately murdered by an Israeli tank crew. This was later retracted, without apology, when it became obvious that the Israeli troops had mistaken the cameramen for combatants. But the hyperbolic tone of the accusation, the rush to judgment on threadbare evidence, the repetition of a patently preposterous story, and the ill-concealed rage of virtually the entire industry were symptomatic. Characteristically, only one major newspaper in the whole country—the Boston Globe—published a photograph provided by the wire services showing that even from a distance of ten feet it was difficult to discern the difference between a TV camera and a shoulder-held anti-tank weapon used by the guerrillas. As was later proved, the Israeli tank was 1,000 yards away.

After Israel's withdrawal from the area south of Beirut, the Shiite Amal militia, in an attempt to establish hegemony over the area, attacked the Palestinian “camps” (really suburbs) of Sabra and Shatila. Children were shot dead point blank; men and women were dragged out of hospital beds and ambulances and killed; the sick and injured were left to die in the streets while Red Cross convoys were kept out of the area; huddling families in shelters were slaughtered in their sleep. Hundreds died, thousands were maimed and injured. But in the media these atrocities were underplayed and understated, in striking contrast to the coverage of the 1982 massacre in the same “camps,” when Christian Arabs allied with Israel killed 450 men of military age and 35 women and children. The latter had probably received more air time and more inches of print in the American media than all the atrocities and massacres throughout the world since World War II combined.

Still, it was difficult to sustain the notion that this time the blame could be laid at Israel's doorstep. As the host of one of the talk shows put it, there was a growing feeling that the Arabs in Lebanon were “into killing.”


All this changed overnight with the hijacking of TWA Flight 847. From the very beginning, the networks pounced on one of the hijackers' demands—the release of over 700 Lebanese detainees in Israel—to the exclusion of all of the others. Ignored was the demand for the release of 17 Shiite prisoners held in Kuwait, even though Kuwait's refusal to release them the preceding December had caused the murder of two American passengers by Shiite terrorists on a Kuwaiti plane hijacked to Teheran. Ignored was the fact that the release of these Shiite prisoners in Kuwait was also the stated purpose of kidnapping seven Americans in Beirut over the preceding sixteen months. Ignored, indeed, was the fact that this was the only demand which made sense, since the detainees in Israel were in the process of being released anyway.

Ignored, too, were the hijackers other demands: the release of their cohort held by Greece; the release of two Shiite terrorists held by Spain; the reversal of America's policies in the Middle East; the ending of aid to Israel; and the overthrow of President Mubarak of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan. When Israel's Ambassador to the UN, on the ABC Evening News, pointed to these demands as a clear indication of the theatrical nature and propagandistic purposes of the hijacking, anchorman Peter Jennings cut him short and demanded to know if Israel would release the Shiite prisoners to save the hostages. Clearly, the only “viable” demand, so far as the media were concerned, was the release of the detainees.

The hijackers and their supporters, whose sensitivity to media techniques and moods has been a source of wonder to communication experts, were quick to recognize a public-relations bonanza when they saw it. By sticking to this one demand alone, they had television networks throughout the West acting as their mouthpiece, and at their disposal the 'round-the-clock services of the world's most influential opinion-molders. Like the media, they themselves quickly dropped all their other demands and concentrated on Israel.

So the familiar scene was set: on one side persecuted Arabs, “understandably enraged” by horrible injustices, making “reasonable” demands—after all, they were entitled to the release of those prisoners, said American arbitration experts paraded before the cameras—and on the other side intransigent Israelis cold-bloodedly disregarding the fate of innocent people. (Israel, acting on the assumption that the President of the United States rather than the terrorists or their media mouthpieces represented American wishes, had taken its cue from official pronouncements and announced that it would not release the detainees under terrorist threats.)

Over and over again, television commentators, anchormen, and reporters, alternating hints with accusations, and assuming the roles of negotiators, arbiters, and moralizers, portrayed Israel as an ungrateful ally which had freed 1,150 convicted murderers in return for three Israeli soldiers, but would not free over 700 innocent Lebanese (“not charged with any crime”) to save the lives of 39 American tourists. Thus, Bryant Gumbel of NBC's Today show, in a June 27 interview with Georgetown University Fellow Geoffrey Kemp, asked, “Will Israel compromise on the TWA hostages, or play fast and loose with American lives?” and “Is Israeli international politics going to take precedence over the well-being of the hostages?”

To buttress this campaign, a “split” was invented between the American and Israeli governments. On June 17, three days after the hijacking, the CBS Evening News reported a “diplomatic standoff” between the two countries. On the same evening, NBC reported that the U.S. was “frustrated” with Israel and that Secretary of State George P. Shultz was “annoyed.” On June 21, CBS asserted that “Israel is trying to ease tensions with Washington,” and ABC's Nightline reported that Israel was trying to smooth over “ruffled feathers.” On July 1, Ted Koppel on Nightline wondered aloud if the U.S. “will begin to move away from Israel as a result of the hostage crisis.”

All this time, such Israeli officials as Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Itzhak Rabin, Cabinet Minister Moshe Arens, Ambassador to the UN Benjamin Netanyahu, and Member of Parliament Ehud Olmert were flatly denying any differences between the two countries on the subject of the hostages. Nevertheless the networks persisted, oblivious to the fact that by pressuring Israel to release the Shiites they were also asking it to contravene the publicly and privately stated wishes of the American President, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Adviser.

Ironically, journalists who for years had criticized Israel for refusing to talk with the PLO suddenly discovered that Israel's long negotiations with a PLO faction, which had produced the exchange of 1,150 terrorists for three Israeli soldiers, were the root of all subsequent acts of terrorism not only in Lebanon but throughout the world. Blithely disregarding the endemic nature of terrorism in the Middle East, the anti-American thrust of world terrorism, and the eight hijackings in the months preceding the TWA incident—all perpetrated by Shiites and none connected to the detainees in Israel—Robert Novak, the syndicated columnist, averred on Crossfire on the Cable News Network (CNN) that the killing of six Americans in El Salvador, the blowing-up of the Air India flight over the Atlantic, and the explosions at the Frankfurt and Tokyo airports had all been triggered by Israel's release of the 1,150 PLO terrorists.


Throughout the seventeen-day ordeal, hardly a mention was made by TV newsmen of another possible explanation: that, as William Safire put it in his New York Times column, America's “fist-shaking warnings and tiptoeing backdowns after embassy bombings and the massacre of the Marines” might have encouraged terrorists to believe that they could hijack an American plane with impunity. On the contrary, when journalists were not blaming Israel for the hijacking, they were parroting the Shiite line that retribution for the murdered Marines had been exacted when the American battleship New Jersey shelled “Shiite villages,” and that the “indiscriminate slaughter” caused by the shelling had in turn created bitter anti-American feelings which begat the hijacking. Yet as every newsman should have known, the New Jersey shelling had in fact been directed not at the Shiites but at the Druse militia and its allies advancing on the presidential palace in East Beirut and threatening to overthrow the legitimate government of Lebanon.

This was not the only Shiite interpretation of events adopted by newsmen. Shiite spokesmen contended that the TWA plane had been hijacked by men desperate to free “their relatives” held hostage in Israel, thus creating a parallel with the families of the American hostages who wanted the freedom of their relatives. Allyn Conwell, the hostages' spokesman, said: “If my wife and children were abducted and taken illegally across the border, I guess I, too, would have resorted to anything at all to free them.”

Not a single reporter in Lebanon questioned these absurd statements, although surely even the most ignorant among them knew that there were no “wives and children” in Israeli custody but only young men of military age, all caught in actions against Israeli troops during the last phases of withdrawal from Lebanon. Even the inference, often made on television, that they had been taken as “insurance” against further attacks, was absurd. Had the Israelis wanted such “insurance,” they would have arrested village elders, religious leaders, and sheiks. But except for Ted Koppel and George Will on ABC, and perhaps one or two others, no one protested this spurious parallel.

It should come as no surprise that the scenario of hostages on one side of the border and hostages on the other, conjuring a moral symmetry between the Arab hijackers and the Israeli army, proved irresistible. It was, after all, a pattern similar to that invoked by the media in speaking of the United States and the Soviet Union, both of whom are often portrayed as committing parallel crimes in comparable pursuits of hegemony. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan; we invaded Grenada. They shot down KAL Flight 007; we support atrocities by the contras in Nicaragua. Etc. In line with such false and pernicious symmetries was the use of the word hostage, typically applied to kidnapped innocents whose lives are threatened, to describe detainees who were neither innocent nor threatened.

Similarly, much was made by the media of the “illegality” of Israel's holding of the prisoners, and its equivalence to the “illegality” of the hijacking. Both were said to be “violations of international law.” Whether or not transferring the detainees to Israel actually constituted, as the U.S. State Department maintained, a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention—and leading experts in international law adamantly insist it did not—to compare this kind of infraction (if such it was) to the TWA hijacking was like comparing a traffic violation to murder. None of the media analysts bothered to make the distinction. Nor did anyone seem to note that the Israeli rescue of hostages at Entebbe, the international pursuit of Mengele, and virtually all the proposed retaliatory measures against the hijackers (blockading the Beirut airport, apprehending the hijackers and bringing them to justice in America) were and are, strictly speaking, violations of international law.


During the entire crisis, the networks faithfully adhered to another bit of Shiite fiction: that the only “bad guys” were the first two hijackers who killed Navy diver Robert Stethem, that the dozen reinforcements who took over on the second Beirut stop were much more moderate and civilized, and that the Amal militiamen who removed the hostages from the plane and guarded them until their release were kind, gentle, and considerate saviors. It was one thing to hear such naive nonsense from the hostages, who, after witnessing a murder and expecting to be murdered themselves, would naturally consider anyone who did not kill them a savior; it was another thing to hear it from presumably impartial and free agents.

For here again the facts were not secret: the reinforcements, who were invited to the plane by the original two, knew those two by name, gave them orders upon boarding, and worked in smooth collaboration with them through the next trip to Algiers and back to Beirut. Together they stripped the passengers of all their valuables; together they randomly beat them; and together they ordered the “selection” of those with Jewish-sounding names. The militiamen who transferred the hostages to “safe houses” in Beirut also acted with the full cooperation of the original hijackers. There was no altercation, not a harsh word, not the slightest disagreement. During the hostages' incarceration, the original hijackers, including the owner of the silver pistol who killed Stethem, were very much in evidence among the “good” militiamen, some of whom amused themselves by playing Russian roulette on the hostages. Finally, after the release, the two original hijackers appeared hooded at a press conference under Amal auspices.

Yet almost no one, in either the print or the electronic media, seemed to recognize this pattern, so similar to that followed in the Teheran hostage crisis of 1979. A lonely exception was the novelist, Mark Helprin, in the Wall Street Journal of July 1:

As in Iran, we have seen in the latest hostage drama the game of “hard cop/soft cop,” in which the U.S. is put off balance by the alleged differences between a set of good guys and a set of bad guys. In Iran it was Bani-Sadr and Ghotbzadeh as opposed to Khomeini and the “students.” In Lebanon, it was Messrs. Berri and Assad as opposed to the “hijackers” and the Hezbollah. Both crimes were adjuncts to local power struggles, but if what was true in Iran was true also in Lebanon, only one set of actors was in control, and the other was merely being used. In this context, it is interesting that the hijackers of TWA 847, supposedly uncompromising Islamic militants from whom Mr. Berri and Mr. Assad were to protect us, are reported to have consumed all the liquor on the plane and badly mistreated the women. Islamic militants certainly have their faults, but they rather studiously avoid such things. If the reports are true, who hijacked the plane in the first place? The operation was a lot more secular and political than some might think and was probably planned not in a mosque but in a ministry.

A few of the hostages were astute enough to recognize what the journalists ignored. Peter Hill insisted, after the release, that all the various groups had been in cahoots and there was no difference between them. For this, hostage-spokesman Allyn Conwell called him emotionally unstable and a racist. Hill and the other real heroes of the saga—the hostages who had refused to play talking puppets in the terrorist theater and who had presented a sullen and defiant visage to their captors' cameras—were practically ignored by the media after the release. Conwell, by contrast, became an overnight superstar, holding nationally televised press conferences, interviewed on national news programs, appearing alone on hour-long talk shows, and even endorsing Jimmy Carter's book on the Middle East, The Blood of Abraham. As the media critic Tom Shales observed (in the Washington Post, July 1): “The TV networks afforded Conwell the totally undeserved status of foreign-relations expert. When network anchors weren't playing diplomat themselves, they were putting Conwell on the air to play diplomat from his own wildly distorted vantage point.”

The networks justified the numerous interviews with Conwell, before and after the release, by insisting that the American public had a right to know the viewpoint of the hostages' spokesman. They did not, however, insist on the viewers' right to know that Conwell ostentatiously carried Muslim prayer beads and the Koran throughout his captivity, and that he was a ten-year resident of an Arab country, Oman, where he represented an American company and to which he intended to return. Interestingly, when asked about his background, Conwell sometimes referred to “working overseas” in the last ten years, without mentioning Oman.

In portraying Amal chief Nabih Berri, the media again accepted the Shiite script, depicting him as a moderate negotiator, an impartial go-between trying his best to save both the Arab “hostages” in Israel and the American hostages in Beirut. What the networks did not deem worthy of telling their viewers was that Berri had been responsible for eight hijackings before the TWA incident; that he had called for suicide attacks on the withdrawing Israeli army; that he personally commanded the Amal militia, which had mercilessly slaughtered Palestinian women and children in Sabra and Shatila; that during the hostage crisis his militiamen killed two Palestinian nurses who had stumbled on the hostages' hiding place; and that neither Amal nor any other armed group could make a major move in Lebanon without Syrian approval.


One of the most revealing incidents during the crisis, which inadvertently exposed the inner workings of the media's bias, occurred on CNN. In the words of Tom Shales:

CNN showed its taped pictures from Beirut Saturday as an “unedited satellite feed,” meaning no producers or editors had gone through the footage before it aired. Viewers may have been confused, or infuriated, at the zeal with which CNN reporter Jim Clancy baited hostages to condemn or at least implicate Israel in the crisis. He badgered the hostages on this point; he wouldn't give up until they agreed with his thesis that Israel was not justified in detaining its 735 Lebanese captives.

When asked about this episode, CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw said, “It was a mistake to show unedited material.” Indeed it was, for it revealed the process by which propaganda is made to masquerade as news. An edited version would very likely have shown hostages “spontaneously” spouting anti-Israel statements, without any help from the friendly, objective, even-handed correspondent.

The correspondents were by no means the only players in this drama. Anchormen and talk-show hosts served the hijackers even better. One of the primary purposes of terrorist acts is to draw world attention to their “cause.” Mindlessly serving this purpose, every network invited the most virulent anti-Israel spokesman available to “explain” the hijackers' grievances. The list reads like a Who's Who of the Arab lobby—James Abourezk, Jesse Jackson, Michael Hudson, Walid Khalidi, Clovis Maksoud, Hisham Sharabi, David Sadd, James Zogby, et al., not to mention the obligatory appearance on practically every major program of Said Rajaie-Khorassani, the Iranian Ambassador to the UN. Not surprisingly, all advocated yielding to the hijackers' demands—not, of course, because they approved of the act, but because one had to understand the grievances behind it. All agreed that terrorism could not be stopped until those grievances were eliminated, and all agreed that the only way to eliminate them was to cease supporting Israel. Only once did a television host, Ted Koppel, ask a guest, former Senator James Abourezk, if he thought it proper to discuss American foreign policy at such a time.

After the hostages' release, some anchormen and talk-show hosts were asked why so much air time had been given to the hijackers and their apologists. The reply was that the American public needed the education, and that it was fair to give the hijackers' point of view a hearing. On July 10, Tom Wicker of the New York Times, echoing this view, wrote in his column: “Was television ‘used’ by Amal? Of course, just as it is being used all the time by the Reagan administration for its own purposes.” Here we have the ultimate even-handedness: a “godfather” of cutthroats, kidnappers, and assassins linked with the democratically elected President of the U.S. One wonders how Wicker would have responded to a question asked of ABC anchorman Peter Jennings by Larry King, host of a CNN talk show: “Would you have let Hitler come on the tube in September 1939 to explain the reasons for the Nazi invasion of Poland?” Jennings adroitly evaded the question. (King's burst of common sense was unfortunately shortlived; two days later he had Allyn Conwell on his show for a whole hour, and treated him with perfect sycophancy.)

Perhaps the weirdest spectacle of all was the round of self-gratulation on a post-hijack program on Nightline, in which all the senior ABC correspondents in Beirut participated. Not only had they done no wrong, they smugly agreed among themselves, they had probably advanced the cause of peace and justice in the Middle East by exposing the defects of American policy there. The climax came when Charles Glass, a journalist whose good relations with the Shiites had enabled him to score several scoops during the crisis, said, “This ordeal is not over until the last Shiite prisoner in Israel is freed.” Host Ted Koppel, with obvious embarrassment, hurriedly added, “and of course the seven American hostages still in captivity in Lebanon.”


One irony of this entire story is that the Lebanese Shiites do indeed have legitimate grievances, grievances that have nothing to do with Israel or the U.S. They have been savaged, raped, and murdered by the PLO (the erstwhile darling of the media), exploited by Sunni Muslims, patronized by Christian Arabs, and oppressed by Syrians. Since they are the largest sect in Lebanon, it would have worked in their favor had they chosen to associate themselves with the democratic West. But instead, they have aligned with the fundamentalist Khomeini and the radical Assad. Perhaps their perception that the West is in decline has had something to do with this choice; if so, the media's glamorization of their anti-Western, terroristic behavior can only reinforce their contempt for us.

It is difficult to fathom why journalists side with fanatics and terrorists. Partly, perhaps, the reason may be sheer, abysmal ignorance: ABC-TV correspondent Michael Lee, reporting from Israel, once said, “I am standing here in what used to be independent Palestine.” Then there is the palpable ideological bias among many journalists who grew up in the 60's and who still believe that every self-styled “liberation movement,” especially if it is anti-American, must be good, no matter how fascistically it may behave. Too, there is probably some truth in what Jody Powell, once President Carter's press secretary, has written: “The mistakes and excesses of journalists are not primarily a product of ideological or partisan bias . . . the root of the evil is the love of money which translates into competition for ratings.” In this particular hostage crisis, the “Stockholm syndrome”—the feeling, common among hostages, of gratitude and sympathy to their captors for not committing worse atrocities—seems to have affected newsmen in Beirut and New York as well.

Perhaps the special situation in Beirut provides still another explanation. Two weeks before the hijacking David Blundy, correspondent for the London Sunday Times, described the atmosphere of fear and intimidation in Beirut: “Many reporters have been withdrawn because of the risk of being kidnapped or killed. Those who remain find it increasingly difficult and dangerous to work.” Another reporter told Blundy, “If we print atrocity stories, we will get a bomb through our window.”


But whatever the reason or reasons for the conduct of the media in the hostage crisis of 1985, there is no doubt that it was they who were responsible for propagating and legitimizing the Orwellian idea that the real blame for the hijacking and the kidnapping lay less with the terrorists who committed these crimes than with the United States for supporting Israel—and most of all with Israel itself.


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.