Sunday, December 10, 2006

Watching a watchdog: HonestReporting veers off course

On 8 December, media watchdog HonestReporting came out with a special report on the new – and already discredited – United Nations Human Rights Council. The report is worth a read, although there’s not much there to surprise anyone who follows the United Nations and its relationship with Israel.

As I dutifully read through the report, slightly bored and mildly depressed, if not astonished, by the hypocrisy of the U.N.’s supposed human-rights establishment, I came across the following sentence:

On November 15, 19 Palestinian civilians were killed when an Israeli artillery shell veered off course, missing its intended military target.

Alarm bells began to ring. My boredom vanished. I suddenly felt that old familiar tingle in my typing fingers (all ten of them). Wasn’t HonestReporting going a bit beyond the facts here?

I very recently wrote about the Beit Hanoun tragedy, although in writing that essay I didn’t investigate the details of how Israeli artillery managed to be off-target by several hundred meters. (I was more interested in the applicability of “international law” to the incident, rather than the technical aspect of what went wrong.) Still, I remembered enough about the incident to be suspicious: HonestReporting’s description didn’t ring quite true.

The first problem here was the word “veered”. (The immediate picture that came to my mind when reading that “an Israeli artillery shell veered off course” was an ancient cartoon sequence of some guy firing off a rocket, which then, predictably, did a loop-the-loop and hit him in the butt.) If the tragedy happened because a shell “veered off course”, we are meant to assume that it had been aimed correctly and somehow took a wrong turn in mid-flight. Now this might indeed happen with a primitive rocket, and it nearly always happens when I hit a golf ball; but it doesn’t generally happen with artillery shells.

And indeed, some very quick research revealed that it didn’t happen. According to the IDF itself as well as to other reports, the shells flew straight enough, but were aimed inaccurately because of a malfunction in one circuit card of the artillery battery’s “Shilem” targeting system. The “Shilem” apparatus for this battery had been replaced five days before the Beit Hanoun tragedy; and according to at least one report, it had not been given a live-fire test before being used in the Beit Hanoun bombardment. The final report of the IDF investigation into the incident has not been released, so we don’t yet know why this particular device malfunctioned; the “Shilem” system has been in use for about 30 years and has an excellent record for reliability, which may have (perversely) contributed to the tragedy by allowing the system to be deployed with minimal post-installation testing before real-world use.

According to both the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, seven shells were fired off-target, not just one. So even though a hardware failure was responsible for the death of nineteen innocent civilians, the operational procedures in use that day failed to correct the problem in an appropriately timely manner. (Apparently, part of the problem was that the same system that had made the mistake in the first place was also in charge of tracking where the shells hit – and it thought it was doing just fine.)

So: It was seven shells, not one. The shells didn’t change their minds in midair; they were aimed wrong by a defective system, under circumstances that remain unclear. And what about the “intended military target” of the shelling?

Here I was on firmer ground, since I had already written about the targeting of the Beit Hanoun bombardment. The actual target of the shelling was an open area that had been used on the previous day for launching Kassam rockets at Israel. Without repeating a long discussion of the targeting issue, I will only say that blithely referring to an open field as a “military target” is, at best, something of an exaggeration. The impression conveyed by the phrase “military target” is of something substantial – a weapons factory, a troop formation, or the like – rather than an open field that had been used for a military purpose on the previous day but might well be hosting a soccer game today. Even if the IDF had a more or less valid military intention in firing these shells at Beit Hanoun, the target was hardly an impressively military one.

*                       *                        *

All of this may seem like a lot of bother about one sentence in an otherwise unobjectionable report written by an organization of whose goals I approve. But I think that this sentence highlights an important problem with many of the individuals and organizations that support Israel in the public sphere: the tendency to be just a little bit too convinced of Israeli righteousness, to be too fast to gloss over our own side’s transgressions, and thus to lose the trust of a skeptical world.

Organizations like HonestReporting bill themselves as guardians of the truth – in HonestReporting’s own words, “Promoting fairness. Ensuring accuracy. Effecting change.” If these organizations want to achieve anything, they need to be seen as more than just pro-Israel propaganda mouthpieces. It’s fine to be pro-Israel – many people, myself included, are immediately suspicious of anyone who claims complete neutrality – but if you’re billing yourself as a guardian of accuracy and an opponent of media bias, you need to be scrupulously accurate yourself and try hard not to be swayed by your own biases.

On this occasion – and, I’m afraid, on many others – HonestReporting has let its sympathy for Israel overrule its professed dedication to accuracy, and thus has damaged its own effectiveness.

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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At Mon Dec 11, 10:09:00 AM GMT+2, Anonymous Yarden Frankl said...


The main points of both the HonestReporting report and the section dealing with the Beit Hanoun tragedy are not dependent on the source of the Israeli problem. The bottom line is that the UNHRC, which ignores human rights abuses around the world, chose to focus all its energy on Israel for an act that was the result of a terrible error. There is a huge difference between rockets fired with the intent of harming civilians and those which do so inadvertently.

Still, your comments about the actual technical problem are correct and in our goal for accuracy, we have changed the story on our website. We appreciate your bringing this to our attention.

Yarden Frankl
Senior Editor

At Tue Dec 19, 04:15:00 PM GMT+2, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, congratulations are coming your way, Don. It is one of a very few times I see a prompt response *and* a correction.

Personally I tend to blame the author of the article only in using too flowery language where accuracy was required. I am not at all sure that the sentence you have questioned (rightly) was intended to mislead.

Anyway, knowing that you are around and watching I will be much more careful now ;-)


At Tue Dec 19, 06:30:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Hi Snoop!

I'm quite sure that HonestReporting had no intention to mislead; however, I do suspect that the original author of the piece was unconsciously influenced to write an inaccurate description of what went wrong in the Beit Hanoun disaster by the understandable desire to see Israel portrayed in the best possible light.

The problem wasn't that HR intended to deceive, but rather that by publishing a report with such an obviously biased description of the Beit Hanoun fuck-up, they drastically reduced their own effectiveness. Any time we write stuff that looks like we're not living on the same planet as our intended audience (who are, by definition, those who are not already on our side), we lose our chance to convince them of anything.

I must say that HonestReporting passed the how-to-respond-to-a-correction test with flying colors.

At Fri Dec 22, 07:26:00 AM GMT+2, Anonymous richard landes said...

your very description of being awakened from boredom by this sentence suggests that finding the slightest "veering off course" in israeli advocacy gets your juices running. palestinian material must send you into hyper-overload... unlesss, of course, you don't apply the same standards to their material. if you did, your mental equipment would short-circuit.

At Fri Dec 22, 12:35:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Richard, you're missing the point - and, given what you've written elsewhere, I'm afraid I have to add "as usual" to that. Palestinian propaganda is, at base, their problem, not ours; and to the extent that the Palestinians (or at least their leaders) want to pollute their own brains with garbage, that's their choice and their tragedy.

Israeli hasbara is our problem, and it's one that I've taken on board as something to which I want to contribute, despite the fact that it's one of the more annoying and frustrating hobbies I could choose to fill my nearly nonexistent free time. When I see an otherwise meritorious effort spoiled by the impulse to go overboard - as I did in this case - I try to do what I can to fix the problem. The people running HonestReporting evidently saw it my way as well; and their piece after this small fix is much more compelling, I believe, than it was beforehand.

If you're ever going to understand hasbara properly, you need to free yourself from your obsession with our adversaries and their problems. You're locked in competition with them; and so, you're so obsessed with their evils that you're not in touch either with reality on the ground or with the problems in our own thinking and communicating.

At Fri Dec 22, 12:59:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

An addendum:

The point of my criticizing the HonestReporting piece was that as it was originally written, any reader who wasn't already a dedicated Israeli partisan was going to tune out when s/he encountered the sentence about a shell veering off course; that one sentence changed the whole article (in the mind of the targeted reader) from a serious expose' of bias into an example of bias.

That's exactly what I'm trying to teach you about effective hasbara: If you're going to reach the people who need reaching - people who aren't already committed to one side's viewpoint or the others' - you can't appear to be so much married to one side's beliefs, interpretations, and "special facts" (or, to be more brutal, myths) that you are no longer dealing with the same universe of more-or-less consensual facts as the typical uncommitted reader.

This is why you need to free yourself of concepts like "the IDF is the most moral army in the world" (implying that it's moral in anything more than a relative sense), and "Israel doesn't kill innocent civilians intentionally" (implying that killing them en masse out of indifferent negligence is any better). Our audience doesn't hold these beliefs and will not take us seriously if we espouse these beliefs, because they are so contrary to the facts as they understand them and as they are.

I still believe that Israel makes a sincere attempt to be as moral as possible in the fact of extreme provocation. I still believe that Israel is morally superior to Hamas and Hezbollah. I still believe that nothing we do is as depraved as suicide bombings in buses and cafes. But if I want to be able to communicate all this to anyone else, I need to do so based on the realization that despite Israel's relative moral advantages, we have done - and continue to do - a lot of stuff that is not moral according to the standards of a typical inhabitant of the West.

By starting from a moral viewpoint similar to that of my reader - who is surely as uncomfortable with the many deaths of essentially innocent Palestinians as I am - I may make my task as a hasbarologist more complex, since I must tell a much less simplistic and Manichaean story; but the story I tell has, at least, some chance of being believed.

At Wed Dec 27, 03:32:00 PM GMT+2, Anonymous Rob said...

"Palestinian propaganda is, at base, their problem, not ours; and to the extent that the Palestinians (or at least their leaders) want to pollute their own brains with garbage, that's their choice and their tragedy."

This seems a strange comment, given it is Palestinian propaganda, regurgitated in the western MSM, that is cruelling Israel in the court of international public opinion and eroding the legitimacy of your state.

How many times have you tried to correct the BBC or CNN, and have they responded as generously as HonestReporting?

At Wed Dec 27, 03:44:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Rob, I'm afraid you misunderstood the exchange between Richard and me. The "Palestinian propaganda" Richard Landes and I were talking about here isn't the stuff purveyed to the outside world in English; it's the internal stuff in Arabic: the incitement to terror, incitement to "suicide propaganda", and similar nasty stuff. That's why I referred to the Palestinians' filling their own heads with garbage - I was talking about the stuff they indoctrinate themselves with.

The comments between Richard and me here are only a small part of a much longer debate we've been conducting on another blog; see the thread on Something Something.

At Wed Dec 27, 05:01:00 PM GMT+2, Anonymous Rob said...

Fair enough, Don. But I'd have thought that the point at which the garbage inspires them to fire rockets into your towns and detonate suicide belts in your discos is kind of the moment when it does become your business.

I got lost in the nuances of the something something thread, I will admit.

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