How Israel sets the TV agenda

This morning was a powerful example how a well-organized press strategy, combined with hasbara, can drive the media agenda. As the story of the flotilla unfolded, I was zapping between BBC World, CNN, Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Arabic and BBC Arabic. The Arabic channels I'll discount, they were mostly reporting from Gaza or featuring well-known commentators like Abdel Bari Atwan (which, mind you, I don't find particularly useful.) Most of the English channels were struggling to respond to the crisis. CNN was late to the story and featured analysis from the talented Ben Wedeman in Cairo, which suggests it did not have someone ready in Israel or Palestine. With all due respect to Ben, an excellent correspondent, CNN was just not on top of the story. BBC World wasn't either — it's been clear for years the channel is chronically underfunded.

Al Jazeera English had multiple correspondents available reporting live, as well as people in-studio. It covered the issue non-stop for much of the morning. But TV is highly demanding medium, it needs new content all the time — and not just information, but video and sound. For a couple of hours this morning AJE was going from one Israeli official or commentator for another, the IDF has scheduled several press conferences, as did the Prime Minister's office and the Foreign Ministry. They controlled the news cycle by having their message dominate the airwaves in those early hours, the TV stations — starved for content since there was a communications blackout from the flotilla ships and Israel's military censor was no doubt squashing other aspects of the story — were running the Israeli viewpoint non-stop.

AJE compounded that by having its correspondents (one of them in particular not very quick-witted) constantly repeat what the Israelis were saying, and being ineffective in taking Israeli officials to task. And the Free Gaza flotilla organizers did not plan ahead — they did not have representatives who could be easily available in Israel/Palestine near where TV cameras were, few on the boats to talk by telephone, or others elsewhere who could go to studios. This oversight really impacted the early TV version of the crisis, allowing the other side's message to dominate.

Just in terms of international law, it might be noted that the blockade is illegal, as is piracy — which is what seizing control of a boat flying a non-enemy flag in international waters is. The focus should be on that the boat was full of unarmed activists, that the Israelis fired on the ship before boarding, as well as the wider issue of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. We need reporters that raise these issues and don't just respond to unsubstantiated claims by officials.