Anyone trying to follow the news out of Lebanon ought to read this segment of an interview on CNN between media reporter Howard Kurtz and CNN correspondent Nic Robertson, who is remarkably forthright about Hezbollah’s restrictions on media coverage in the country. I hope none of this comes as a surprise to anybody.
It would be nice if journalists in Lebanon pointed out these things more often. It would be nice too if readers, listeners and viewers treated reports produced under these conditions with the skepticism they deserve:
KURTZ: All right. I want to go now to CNN’s Nic Robertson, who joins us live from Beirut.
Nic Robertson, we were speaking a moment ago about the way journalists cover Hezbollah and some of these tours that Hezbollah officials have arranged of the bomb damage in the areas of Southern Lebanon. You, I believe, got one of those tours.
Isn’t it difficult for you as a journalist to independently verify any claims made by Hezbollah, because you’re not able to go into the buildings and see whether or not there is any military activity or any weapons being hidden there?
ROBERTSON: Well, Howard, there’s no doubt about it: Hezbollah has a very, very sophisticated and slick media operations. In fact, beyond that, it has very, very good control over its areas in the south of Beirut. They deny journalists access into those areas. They can turn on and off access to hospitals in those areas. They have a lot of power and influence. You don’t get in there without their permission.
And when I went we were given about 10 or 15 minutes, quite literally running through a number of neighborhoods that they directed and they took us to.
What I would say at that time was, it was very clear to me that the Hezbollah press official who took us on that guided tour — and there were Hezbollah security officials around us at the time with walkie-talkie radios — that he felt a great deal of anxiety about the situation. And they were telling him — I just listened to an explosion going off there, coming from the southern suburbs. They were — they were telling him — a second explosion there. They were telling here — rumbling on — they were telling him get out of this area, and he was very, very anxious about it.
But there’s no doubt about it. They had control of the situation. They designated the places that we went to, and we certainly didn’t have time to go into the houses or lift up the rubble to see what was underneath.
So what we did see today in a similar excursion, and Hezbollah is now running a number of these every day, taking journalists into this area. They realize that this is a good way for them to get their message out, taking journalists on a regular basis. This particular press officer came across his press office today, what was left of it in the rubble. He pointed out business cards that he said were from his office that was a Hezbollah press office in that area.
So there’s no doubt that the bombs there are hitting Hezbollah facilities. But from what we can see, there appear to be a lot of civilian damage, a lot of civilian properties. But again, as you say, we didn’t have enough time to go in, root through those houses, see if perhaps there was somebody there who was, you know, taxi driver there…
KURTZ: So to — so to what extent…
ROBERTSON: … of access, Howard.
KURTZ: To what extent do you feel like you’re being used to put up the pictures that they want — obviously, it’s terrible that so many civilians have been killed — without any ability, as you just outlined, to verify, because — to verify Hezbollah’s role, because this is a fighting force that is known to blend in among the civilian population and keep some of its weapons there?
ROBERTSON: Absolutely. And I think as we try and do our job, which is go out and see what’s happened to the best of our ability, clearly, in that environment, in the southern suburbs of Beirut that Hezbollah controls, the only way we can get into those areas is with a Hezbollah escort. And absolutely, when you hear their claims they have to come with — with a — more than a grain of salt, that you have to put in some journalistic integrity. That you have to point out to the audience and let them know that this was a guided tour by Hezbollah press officials along with security, that it was a very rushed affair.
ROBERTSON: That there wasn’t time to go and look through those buildings. The audience has to know the conditions of that tour. But again, if we didn’t get all — or we could not get access to those areas without Hezbollah compliance, they control those areas.
ROBERTSON: And I think to bring the audience the full picture of what’s happening in Beirut, you have to go into those southern suburbs.
KURTZ: All right.
ROBERTSON: Because that’s where the vast majority of bombs were falling.
KURTZ: I understand.
ROBERTSON: Again, they come with a health warning that we cannot vouch for everything that Hezbollah is saying. And I think the audience is sophisticated enough to appreciate that, Howard.
I wonder if some of our persistent commenters are that sophisticated.
And yes, I know the Israeli authorities limit media access in war zones too. But as far as I know they don’t limit journalists’ access to the rocket-damaged areas of northern Israel.
Update: More from CNN on Hezbollah’s dog-and-pony show for journalists. (Hat tip: Robins in the comments.)