Inside Hezbollah's Media Spin Machine

Hezbollah, like most of our enemies in the war on terror, has a very sophisticated spin machine presenting the media with exactly the story they want told. Yesterday Kim had a piece on CNN’s Nic Robertson being played for a fool by Hezbollah spin merchants.

What’s telling, if you watch the video and read the transcript, is how often the “guide” tells the cameraman exactly what he should be shooting. Even calling “shoot me” when he was making a point about civilian deaths.

Perhaps Anderson Cooper learned from his colleague’s mistake, but last night on 360 he took his viewers inside Hezbollah controlled territory and the report was very different from Robertson’s. Combined -or should I say contrasted- with the Robertson report, it gives us a good look inside Hezbollah’s well controlled media sphere. I’m looking for a video but I clipped the relevant part of the the transcript.

There are 2 important things worth noting. Cooper ran this piece right after he welcomes CNN international viewers, so it appears this was intentionally meant for international distribution. Second, much of the video is shot at the same locations as the Nic Robertson piece but the reporting is very different. Anderson Cooper had a stunning narration.

The piece opens with Cooper in van driving thru the Hezbollah controlled area of Lebanon.

COOPER (voice-over): Drive into southern Beirut, and you quickly discover another city entirely. A heavily bombed state within a state, beyond the control of the Lebanese government.

This is Hezbollah territory. Along the road posted like billboards, pictures of so-called martyrs, Hezbollah fighters who died battling Israel.

(on camera) You can drive around. It doesn’t seem like there’s anybody around. All of a sudden your eyes, it’s almost like adjusting to the darkness. Suddenly, you realize there are people who are watching you and guys on motorcycles talking on cell phones who pass you by, watching very closely what you’re doing.

(voice-over) Tension in this neighborhood is high. Many here are convinced Israel is sending in agents to help guide their aerial attacks.

(on camera) Not allowed to enter Hezbollah territory really without their permission. They control this whole area, even after the sustained Israeli bombing campaign. We’ve arranged with a Hezbollah representative to get permission to come here. We’ve been told to pull over to the side of the road and just wait.

(voice-over) We’d come to get a look at the damage and had hoped to talk with a Hezbollah representative. Instead, we found ourselves with other foreign reporters taken on a guided tour by Hezbollah. Young men on motor scooters followed our every movement.

They only allowed us to videotape certain streets, certain buildings. Once, when they thought we’d videotaped them, they asked us to erase the tape. These men are called al-Shabab, Hezbollah volunteers who are the organization’s eyes and ears.

(on camera) You see their CD’s on the wall still. [same building as Robertson report -ed]

Hezbollah representatives are with us now but don’t want to be photographed. They’ll point to something like that and they’ll say, “Well, look, this is a store.” The civilians lived in this building. This is a residential complex.

And while that may be true, what the Israelis will say is that Hezbollah has their offices, their leadership has offices and bunkers even in residential neighborhoods. And if you’re trying to knock out the Hezbollah leadership with air strikes, it’s very difficult to do that without killing civilians.

As bad as this damage is, it certainly could have been much worse in terms of civilian casualties. Before they started heavily bombing this area, Israeli warplanes did drop leaflets in this area, telling people to get out.

The civilian death toll, though, has angered many Lebanese. Even those who do not support Hezbollah are outraged by the pictures they’ve seen on television of civilian casualties.

(voice-over) Civilian casualties are clearly what Hezbollah wants foreign reporters to focus on. It keeps the attention off them. And questions about why Hezbollah should still be allowed to have weapons when all the other militias in Lebanon have already disarmed.

After letting us take pictures of a few damaged buildings, they take us to another location, where there are ambulances waiting.

(on camera) This is a heavily orchestrated Hezbollah media event. When we got here, all the ambulances were lined up. We were allowed a few minutes to talk to the ambulance drivers. Then one by one, they’ve been told to turn on their sirens and zoom off so that all the photographers here can get shots of ambulances rushing off to treat civilians. That’s the story — that’s the story that Hezbollah wants people to know about. [As he is giving this narration the video is of foreign media all shooting the ambulances speeding off. -ed]

(voice-over) These ambulances aren’t responding to any new bombings. The sirens are strictly for effect.

When a man in a nearby building is prompted to play Hezbollah resistance songs on his stereo, we decide it’s time to go. [His voice was getting to be dripping with distain at this point -ed]

Hezbollah may not be terribly subtle about spinning a story, but it is telling perhaps that they try. Even after all this bombing, Hezbollah is still organized enough to have a public relations strategy, still in control enough to try and get its message out.

Whether he is trying to do a “make good” for the Robertson debacle or if this pure Cooper we don’t know. I do know that that this is the type of reporting we expect but rarely get. I don’t mind American reporters being led on media events, I just want them labeled as such. For all the big media claiming they give us “context” they rarely do.

Whatever his motivations, Cooper should get the kudos he deserves for this report. It gives us a fascinating look inside the Hezbollah spin machine and it also reminds us what much of the foreign media, especially the Arab media, is reporting.

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