Saturday, January 13, 2007

A million points of death

When does a war end? When does it begin? In September 2006, a San Francisco-based videographer went to Beirut and south Lebanon, and shot some footage. He interviewed various Lebanese who had lived through the 33-day shitstorm of July; he visited rubble in the south where families had lived for generations. He's putting together a video that offers unaccustomed access - for most USians, anyway - to the aftermath of that conflict, seen mainly through the eyes of Lebanese citizens - a teacher, a businessman, a newly married couple, children.

The video moves from the personal accounts of people living through the war to footage of UN forces scouring bombed-out towns for undetonated cluster bombs, to a rally in the streets of Beirut that makes it clear that what happened in July opened a vein in Lebanon.

It's that moment after a conflict when the wounds are fresh, the feelings are volatile, the pain is ever-present, when the loss of a 15-year-old boy can inflame those who loved him with alembic power. Before July, Israel might have been a problematic neighbor; for these people, it's now a curse.

A clip from the video and some background material can be found on its website, No One Ever Wins. The producer and cameraman is Krisztian Orban from San Francisco, the editor/designer is Tony Urgo. I've known Tony for years as a co-worker and friend, and it's through him that I know about the project.

I've seen the rough cut. It is a view inside Lebanon seen without the standard filter of US mainstream media. You know, that balancing view that offers "both sides." To understand what this might mean, consider this NPR story about the cluster bombs that were left behind when Israel vacated South Lebanon at the "end" of the 33-day conflict. No Lebanese resident is in evidence. We hear from Anthony Shadid, a reporter for the Washington Post of Lebanese background, who quotes Israeli officials to the effect that the "bomblets" are not banned under international law. We hear that one million or more of these bombs, which can kill at a range of 20-25 yards, were deposited in the towns of south Lebanon in the last three days of the conflict.

Can a conflict be considered over when the departing force leaves behind one million potential acts of war? One million opportunities to take civilian lives?

No One Ever Wins offers the Lebanese without the filter. It will be seen as unbalanced, as not providing the Israeli view. Sort of like this site, which only shows destruction in Lebanon. Biased, one will hear. Unjournalistic.

On the weekend of the National Conference for Media Reform in Memphis -- a gathering which is already receiving criticism for not being open or revolutionary enough:
Again, I note contradiction between the reform/policy approach to
challenging big rich media, as against the reality of grassroots, local, pirate, tactical web-based interventions. THERE IS NOT ENOUGH ATTENTION TO what I call DIGITAL DISSENT in these analyses of media reform. And what about revolution anyway? And histories of pirate media? The conception of democracy seems official and narrow...
- Megan Boler, writing to the General IDC mailing list.
The Conference is seeking to keep the Net itself open. Can media reform be open to independents like Orban and Urgo, whose unprogrammed interventions fall outside certain conventions of US media practice and control?

No One Ever Wins does not pretend to being a definitive look at -- or statement about -- anything. It's a guy with a camera, about whom we know very little, talking to seemingly normal residents of a war-torn nation. What moves him? Who funds him? Why did he choose the approach he did?

But these are the same questions that need to be asked of any such representations of Lebanon-Israel, Hezbollah, the Middle East. Where are they asked? Why do we implicitly put more faith in the institutional/corporate entities that make the images we see than in this one unknown (and potentially unknowable) guy?

In a way it's the same challenge blogging has posed to traditional journalism. But in reforming that journalism, we need to begin farther back. The unreflected premises of Journalism itself require scrutiny. Mr. Shadid, a gifted writer and Pulitzer winner, needed very few words to diminish the impact of a million bombs:
They're actually remarkably small. They're probably the size of a cell phone, maybe a little bit wider. And they have a white ribbon that comes off the end of them that are used to help their descent. And their color is usually greenish brown. . ..I think you're seeing is a certain paralysis of life down there...

Mr. Shadid's pedigree should not blind us to the possibility that we -- and he -- know as little about Mr. Shadid and his institutional persona as we know about Mr. Orban.

The point is not that we should trust mavericks like Orban more, but rather that we should trust the intimately familiarized reporters and anchors of standard media less. The presence of institutional canons of credibility should be a red flag. (*)

Whatever the finer points of international law might suggest, wars perpetrated robotically are still feral, still lethal, still going. They just might be harder for reporters fluttering on the shaky pinions of balance to see.


Blogger Frank said...

Here I am at the National Conference on Media Reform and I am sure that it is not revolutionary enough for the revolutionaries. Beyond that, there is something to criticize at every turn. I just heard Helen Thomas... what a cliche spouter! On the other hand there is something iconic about her presence. Danny Glover, Jesse Jackson, tomorrow Queen Jane herself for god's sake. The conference is terribly mainstream. Dan Gillmor is here and he is just as annoying here as he is anywhere else. What a re-tread.

But I'm enjoying the community... there are about three thousand people from print, broadcast and digital media here to share a common concern regarding corporations squeezing out people, neocons starving the press the way they've attempted to starve out effective government.

So the fact that it's not revolutionary underscores its billing as a non-partisan event. But I don't see Hugh Hewitt or Glenn Reynolds, or Rupert Murdoch here, no Howell Raines or Bill Keller in the house. No, so it may be non-partisan but it is anti fascist, anti corporate, and not all that inclusive. Herr Goebels would feel less welcome here than he would at -- oh, say the White House.

1/13/2007 7:43 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

Would the conference make more headway in the matter of critical approaches to telling the truth if it sheathed itself in revolutionary rhetoric? It sounds fun - wish I were there. And Murdoch too. Frank, I don't watch television for some sorts of reason. I'll read your reports with interest.

1/14/2007 12:55 AM  
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1/14/2007 1:39 AM  
Anonymous Tutor said...

"The presence of institutional canons of credibility should be a red flag." - I read the same way. How are these news creators hired, trained, paid, managed, incentivized, edited, embedded in what hegemonic structures? And how can that be thematized, dramatized, and disrupted?

1/17/2007 8:43 AM  
Anonymous tom said...

Tutor, I suspect there's a self-selection process, in part. But in many respects it's the same mystery as found in other corporate environments - certain features, ethnic mixes, backgrounds, mentors cause certain people to rise to positions of secret power.

It's not the people, tho', it's the corporativeness - the features of the money gathering machine - that sets the tone. There is no place for uniqueness or originality in the corporate bod. So nothing of substance occurs.

How can a profit-driven autotelic enterprise be disrupted? It might be difficult from the outside, because, as you know, in Wealth Bondage there is no outside. And it might be difficult from within, because disruptors tend to get fired, or worse.

As with citizens attempting to disrupt the war (as I tried to say here) the difficulty is with the organization of money - how to direct random wallets to withhold or withdraw all in sync.

1/18/2007 8:29 PM  
Anonymous tom said...

That last response to you, Tutor, sort of self-published before its time.

I remember applying to the Miami Herald, years ago. A big long idiotic personality test - can't recall the name, but a well known one, with hundreds of questions, many asking the same thing with slight variations in inflection. Many had to do with petty acts of venal behaviour - office theft, e.g.

It was never clear whether they were seeking an operant who believed implicitly in the goodytwoshoes morality of newspaper pretend-ethics, or whether they sought an operator who clearly saw through same, and knew how to use it.

Either way, the exam was probing, seeking a module compatible with its operating system. In corporate journalism, there is something to this - a system of selection at work that is never articulated - it operates by pheromones, or something. But it is pretty sure of itself. And the pheromones include aspects of race, class, money, morality, manipulability, cool aid, loyalty-capacity, doggedness, willingness to think inside the box, etc. Self starters lacking only a self to start. You know. It's like some MLM system just for bustling hives.

1/18/2007 8:57 PM  
Blogger Jon Husband said...

Tom and Tutor .. I hate to be so trite, but notwihstanding any self-selection of personnel into the media business, check out the HR department at NYT or Fox News or MSNBX or the WaPo, and the policies underneath any personality that may be walking around.

What you will find is very very likely to resemble any other XYZ Corp.

1/23/2007 1:50 AM  

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