Second draft and the al Durah case: evidence vs. advocacy
A while back, I wrote about the important job I thought Second Draft was doing in presenting facts and original material about controversial news coverage--and perhaps misrepresentations--of certain events in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Recently, Second Draft has taken on the Mohammed al Durah story.
If you go to the site, be prepared to stay a while. There are many links and a lot of material. I haven't yet looked at the new piece on al Durah in its entirety, although I plan to. But from what I've read so far (and I've read a good deal of it), it's absolutely riveting. And I say this as someone who was already quite familiar with much of the al Durah material.
Second Draft's Richard Landes has done an extraordinary job of assembling and presenting the evidence in an organized and thorough fashion. It reads like a court case--and, in a way, it is: the proverbial court of public opinion. Of course, that court has already been meeting for quite a long time, and the evidence from one side (the Palestinian side) has been given star billing so far.
As Second Draft's Richard Landes writes:
People who followed Middle East news in 2000 cannot forget the image of Muhamed al Durah, gunned down in a hail of Israeli bullets at the very beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada. The impact of this dramatic footage on global culture is close to incalculable. Its prominence goes far beyond any other image from this terrible conflict and its impact goes far beyond any of its other images, one of “the most powerful images of the past 50 years,” one of the shaping images of this young 21st century. One extreme claims that it reveals Israeli malevolence and wanton violence, deliberately targeting a defenseless child and killing him in cold blood. “In killing this boy the Israelis killed every child in the world” (Osama bin Laden). The other side claims that it was either staged or a snuff film that reveals the ruthless and paranoid nature of PA media culture… the first blood libel of the 21st century. Even-handedness – Who knows who did it? It’s a tragedy – doesn’t work here. If we hope to learn anything from this terrible event, it will come from examination. We put the evidence before you and the five possible scenarios with arguments for and against. Judge for yourself.
Second Draft's al Durah material has drawn fire from blogger Israpundit, who has criticized Second Draft for not having enough of an agenda; for not being enough of an advocate:
Second Draft should make the charge first to provoke maximum interest and then go on to prove it. It should not ask a question. It should start with an assertion it wants everyone to accept. "The French colluded with the PA to produce the biggest blood lible of the tenty first century with disasterous effect." Instead, you end it with "Judge for yourself". Right away you are showing your evenhandedness to allow for a difference of opinion. The story is not about the boy that became an icon but the lie and collusion that sunk "a thousnd ships" Don't waste this wonderful opportunity to make a point. Instead you ask a question.
Wretchard of Belmont Club has also offered some thoughts on the matter.
Here are mine:
There are thousands of sites for pure advocacy, but usually those end up preaching only to the choir. What Landes is trying to do here is far more valuable: he's trying to present a fair case, and let the reader be the judge and/or jury. A fair trial presents the evidence on both sides, and then a verdict is rendered. Fairness does not preclude judgment--on the contrary, judgment requires fairness.
There's no need to be afraid of this process, if one believes that truth is based on a critical evaluation of evidence. Perhaps, though, Israpundit may not have a great deal of faith in the public's critical thinking skills.
I have long thought that critical thinking should be taught far more; it's one of the most important--perhaps the single most important--skill to learn. But, just as I have faith in the jury system (however imperfect), I have a basic faith in people's ability to judge critically and well, if the evidence is clearly presented.
Perhaps the problem is patience; it takes a lot of time to look at the evidence, study it, evaluate it, and come to a conclusion. That's actually the basic process I followed myself in my post-9/11 learning (as my next "change" post will describe, whenever I manage to get it finished).
It's one of the most powerful processes on earth, especially when the evidence is so overwhelming that one ends up changing one's mind. Take it from me; I know.
But back to al Durah. In fact, Landes does come to some conclusions, here:
When all the anomalies in the evidence are considered, the odds that it was staged seem high. By contrast, any explanation that real injuries were recorded bogs down in so many contradictions that one must resort repeatedly to elaborate and unlikely explanations (e.g., all three cameramen ran out of batteries at 3 pm in the afternoon of a day where, till that point nothing had happened). The odds of such explanations are so low that only a true believer can, without hesitation, assert that things happened exactly as they were reported.
And then Landes offers some guesses as to why this news hasn't been widely broadcast:
Why if it's so obvious, haven't the media covered this alleged staged scene?
There is no simple answer. Partly it's the pack mentality. No one wants to break ranks, fearing ostracism by colleagues for contradicting the overwhelming consensus; and those who do break ranks, largely because they have re-examined the data, do get ostracized, even lose their access the public sphere (articles not published, exclusion from talk shows). Partly it's related to the media's intimidation by Palestinian and Arab political groups. Partly it's the power of suggestion so that even when people read articles claiming that it's staged, they still think in terms of the boy being shot. But at another level, as one of my students put it, "I'm afraid that if I admit that this is a fake, I'll be taking sides with the Israelis…" a sentiment that can move both someone committed to "even-handed level playing field" and a partisan for the other side. In the end, this case will remain one of the great mysteries - and hopefully one of the great shames -- of modern journalism. That it took five years, and recourse to the web to finally bring it to the attention of the public, that public which is committed to civil societies around world and who have and continue to suffer from the story's poison, represents one of the great failures of our time.
I certainly wouldn't be one to underestimate the power of reluctance to break ranks and leave the pleasant circle dance. But sometimes it just needs to be done.