The Dreyfus Affair 2.0

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POLITICS JULY 15, 2008

The Dreyfus Affair 2.0

On May 21, 2008, a French court of appeals in Paris came to a remarkable verdict. Reversing an earlier decision by the (in)famous “Chambre 17,” which specializes in defamation, the judges exonerated Philippe Karsenty, an online media critic, of libeling the public television France2 and its star Middle East correspondent, Charles Enderlin. There was no question that Karsenty’s accusations did indeed strike at the “honor and reputation” of France2 (the charge). After all, he bluntly accused them of running staged footage as real news in their explosive broadcast eight years ago about the killing of a 12-year-old Palestinian refugee, Mohammad Al Durah.

When France2 first broadcast the footage of Mohammad’s death in September 2000, the worldwide reaction was immediate, and seismic. Among Palestinians he became the icon of the Intifada, justifying apocalyptic hate-speech and suicide terror. Osama bin Laden’s used him to call for global Jihad. Daniel Pearl’s Pakistani executioners had Mohammad’s image behind him in their execution video. The story was headline material in the West: Mohammad was one of Time magazine’s “People of the Year” in 2000. In Europe “le petit Mohammad” provided a “get-out-of-Holocaust-guilt-free” card. “The death of Mohammad cancels out, erases that of the Jewish child, his hands in the air from the SS in the Warsaw Ghetto,” intoned a respected French anchorwoman. His image justified silence on the explosion of the “new anti-Semitism” among Europe’s Muslim minority: “One shouldn’t necessarily be surprised,” commented Hubert Védrine, the Foreign Minister, “that young French people from immigrant families feel compassion for the Palestinians and get agitated when they see what is happening.”

Back in November of 2004, Karsenty wrote that Enderlin had “been duped and duped us,” by running what he deemed was staged footage of the boy and by repeating the narrative of his Palestinian cameraman, Talal Abu Rahmah, in which the defenseless boy and his father, Jamal, were “the target of fire coming from the Israeli position.” Karsenty used words like “hoax,” “deception,” and “lies” to refer to both Talal’s footage and France2’s handling of subsequent criticism. Given the ease with which defamation can be proved in French law, and the tendencies of the courts to defend the interests of a public institution like France2 (amply displayed in the previous decision against Karsenty), hopes for acquittal were not high. And yet, this time the court ruled that Karsenty had every right to use his lively language given both the importance of the incident, and the nature of the evidence.

This does not mean that the court ruled the footage and the accompanying voice-over was a hoax. But in their decision, the judges hit on a number of points that indicated just how unhappy they had become with the plaintiffs’ case.

  • They emphasized the impression that the raw footage contains a high proportion of staged scenes. (It was seeing these rushes back in 2003 that had inspired me to coin the term Pallywood for this veritable cinematic industry.)
  • They twice mentioned Enderlin’s statement that he had “edited out the child's agony. It was unbearable” when, in fact, his footage contained no such scene.
  • They pointed out that Enderlin had no evidence that the fire came from the Israeli position, much less that it was aimed at the unfortunate pair.
  • They noted that although a television news reporter has the right to narrate something he has not witnessed, he should make that clear to his viewers, which, in this case, Enderlin did not do.
  • They considered inappropriate his defense that his broadcast “corresponded to the reality of the situation, not only in Gaza, but also in Trans-Jordan” since the definition of a report is supposed to be “the testimony of what the journalist heard or saw.”
  • They found the counter-evidence provided by France2 without credibility.

In a journalistic world where the very mention of staging brought on cries of right-wing conspiracy--France2’s lawyer accused Karsenty of being a bitter combination of Meyssan (a 9/11 truther) and Faurisson (Holocaust denier)--it was stunning just to have the court grant Karsenty’s claim plausibility.

Of course, those not following closely would barely know anything had happened. Outside the French and Israeli press, and with the exception of The Wall Street Journal Europe, the rest of the Western media was relatively quiet. The only place to get reliable information was online, at blogs and news portals like Pajamas Media, Guysen, and MENA. Scarcely a ripple passed through the rest of the Western media that had played the original story so prominently.

 

The shocking media scandal in this story, however, is not that this kind of manipulation is business as usual among Palestinian “journalists,” nor that Talal Abu Rahmah was fighting for his people with his camera (as he said when he received an award in Morocco in 2001). It’s not even that Abu Rahmah’s tape was doctored in Palestine so that their viewers saw an Israeli soldier from a different location aiming at and shooting the boy. “These are forms of artistic presentation,” intoned one PA official, “We never forget our higher journalistic principle to which we are committed of relating the truth and nothing but the truth.”

The real scandal lies elsewhere: How could the Western media have been so gullible initially and so apathetic subsequently, despite the massive inconsistencies between (lethal) narrative and hard evidence? And, despite this court decision, present coverage indicates that the apathy persists.

Nevertheless, the relative silence of the media was not enough for the losers. Within a week of the decision, the Nouvel Observateur , one of France’s principal weekly news magazines, came out with a letter in support of Enderlin that sheds a stunning light on why this case has remained in the shadows so long. Chiding the court for giving as much weight to the opinion of the upstart Karsenty as to the veteran reporter Charles Enderlin, the authors of the letter claimed that the court’s decision made journalists a target of degrading criticism from mere citizens. This infringed on their freedom of speech, thereby endangering democracy.

At no point did the letter mention the evidence, which most, if not all, of the composers and signatories have never seen. Signatories included major figures like Védrine and journalist and human-rights activist Robert Ménard, head of the NGO Reporters Without Borders, who one might be surprised to see on the side of a journalistically-stifling defamation suit. Former Washington Post foreign correspondent, Jon Randal, slightly confused about who was the defendant, bemoaned the pressure from these “vindictive” and “paranoid” groups: “Charles Enderlin is an excellent journalist! I don't care if it's the Virgin Birth affair, I would tend to believe him. Someone like Charles simply doesn't make a story up.”

The letter is so revealing of the journalists’ guild mentality that it belongs in a category along with a letter written by Ricardo Christiano to the Palestinian Authority in 2000. On October 12, 2000, enraged Palestinian crowds

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shouting “Revenge for the blood of Mohammad Al Durah,” savagely beat to death and dismembered two Israeli reservists. Although Palestinians smashed cameras and beat reporters to keep the images from getting out, one Italian crew smuggled out footage. The next day, Christiano, the PA representative of RAI, the major Italian news organization, wrote a letter to Arafat explaining that another Italian station did this, that his organization “will always respect the journalistic procedures with the Palestinian Authority for work in Palestine.” The PA, much to Christiano’s embarrassment, published the sycophantic letter in Al Hayyat Al Jedida , thereby exposing the “rules of engagement” for the systematically intimidated Western press corps reporting on the Israeli conflict.

In 2000, with Al Durah’s image a daily feature of the European news, the story of the Christiano letter made scarcely a ripple. Now, eight sad years later, during which suicide bombing has become the bane of the new century, the balance of forces may be tipping. While journalists in France rallied to support their colleague, their audience revolted. Overwhelmingly, online comments at the Nouvel Observateur ’s site attacked the letter as a shocking betrayal of the basic principles of a free press.

As with the Dan Rather controversy in 2004, journalists ran into a readership better informed than they were on a particular subject. And the readership was better informed because, rather than rely on the MSM alone, they had viewed the evidence and analysis available online. The flood of negativity became so great that the Nouvel Observateur began blocking hostile comments and posting the favorable ones, a procedure that reflects their willingness to stack the deck, as well as their lack of familiarity with the built-in transparencies of the online world.

The good news is that, even in France, the entire elite did not line up behind Enderlin and his crowd. On the contrary, key figures who had long held their silence, like philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, columnist Ivan Rioufol, and Israeli professor of French history Elie Barnavi spoke about how much the evidence undermined Enderlin. Even some of Enderlin’s friends admitted publicly their doubts. And now, one of the main figures in the letter of support, Jean Daniel, editor in chief of the Nouvel Observateur, has joined a growing chorus calling for a commission of inquiry. On July 1, Richard Prasquier, the president of France's most important Jewish organization, the CRIF, also called for a commission of investigation into the Al Durah affair.

The tale begins to take on the proportions of the Dreyfus Affair, only this time it’s an international scandal in which, rather than the “honor” of the French army and church at stake, it’s that of the Palestinians and the Western media, and it's a Jew who played a key role in the dissemination of the false accusation. With any luck, like the Dreyfus affair, it will become a passageway to self-critical modernity, both for a Palestinian media that deliberately substitute propaganda for news in the cause of their “higher truth,” and for the French and Western media (including Israeli) that apparently need a sharp and public reminder of values that their predecessors embraced in 1789.

Richard Landes is a Professor of History at Boston University. His site The Second Draft contains the only systematic archive of material in the Al Durah case. He also blogs at The Augean Stables.

By Richard Landes

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