All decent people are deeply shaken by images of the death of innocents, especially children. Abstract discussions of responsibility can’t match the emotional power of a close-up of a wounded child’s face.
The 24 hour news networks on cable are hungry for those images because viewers want emotional experiences. Some of the correspondents have political views and slant the news they cover to express those views subtly or more overtly. Some of the correspondents don’t want to be accused of bias, and so they equally thank a representative of Prime Minister Netanyahu and a representative of Hamas for appearing. This equality, of course, confuses the intense moral difference between the sides.
As I watched the coverage, I began to wonder what World War II might have been like if the news networks had been around then to cover the fight. They would have talked to a representative of Prime Minister Churchill and one of Hitler as though the two were morally equivalent. They would have offered the Nazi claims: the Jews started the war, the Nazis were provoked into attacking Poland, Germany just wants peace.
Imagine, for example, how the networks would have covered Dresden. Between February 13th and 15th 1945, the Royal Air Force from Great Britain sent 772 heavy bombers and the United States Army Air Force sent 527 bombers to the city of Dresden, the capital of Saxony. Dresden had 110 factories supporting the German military efforts. Together, the two Allied air forces dropped 3,900 tons of both bombs and incendiary devices. Estimates vary, but about 25,000 people died.
The news networks would have had correspondents on the ground wincing at the sounds of the explosions, talking to grieving parents, frantically directing their camera operators to shoot the bloodiest bodies, desperately seeking interviews with anyone in Hitler’s bunker for response. There would have been Nazi officials denouncing the attacks calling the Allies butchers of children, mass murderers. The Nazis would have been screaming about war crimes. Indeed, the Nazis would have been delighted, for the dead would in their eyes offer evidence that their own killing was the same as what the Allies were doing. (In fact, a month later, in March, the Nazi press, under orders from the government, published a false number of casualties, claiming 200,000 had been killed.)
The networks would have had many horrific pictures to show. Celebrities would have appeared to express their horror at the dead civilians. There would have been calls for the Americans, British, and Russians to withdraw from Germany and reach a peace deal with Hitler, leaving him and the Nazis in place.
It turns out, for all our sakes, that despite the terrible carnage at Dresden it is a very good thing that there were no cable news shows in 1945, no suggestion that the Nazis and the Americans were morally equal.
The Israelis, unlike the Americans and British, don’t just bomb. They call ahead to warn people. They go out of their way not to target civilians. But that doesn’t matter. Hamas leaders surely took degrees in media manipulation. They know dead children are their best weapon. And what do they care about their own children? 160 Palestinian children died helping to build the tunnels to attack Israel. Alive the children just get in the way. Dead, they’re martyrs, and in Hamas’ eyes they’re the source of politically useful tears shed by the weak Americans who don’t understand what it means to fight.
The effect of the news networks is to confuse the good and the bad, to be valuable in providing news and dangerous in distorting it.
The news networks have changed the world. And not always for the better.