From Behind the Humanitarian Mask: The Nordic Countries, Israel, and the Jews , 2008
On Friday night, 29 September 2000, this author was watching the evening news on Norway’s most important TV news program, the NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Authority) channel’s Dagsrevyen. The Second Intifada was just breaking out. In Israel it was the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Before the violence erupted, the Arabs of Jerusalem held Friday prayer services in the Temple Mount Mosque. Many Israelis had been praying at the Western Wall before sundown.
The anchor announced: “Violent clashes in Jerusalem and Bethlehem between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli soldiers” (hasty images of Arab teenagers throwing stones, Israeli soldiers shooting). “Riots started after Ariel Sharon yesterday visited a place in Jerusalem that is holy to both Palestinians and Jews.” A report by Middle East correspondent Lars Sigurd Sunnanaa is aired. Again there are images of Palestinian boys and teenagers throwing stones; Israeli soldiers taking cover behind military vehicles, aiming, and firing; Palestinians carrying wounded children to ambulances; Palestinian doctors in hospitals; clips from Ariel Sharon’s walk on the Temple Mount. Sunnanaa’s voice seems to suppress anger as he describes how the Palestinian “children” only demonstrated whereas the Israeli soldiers fired.
The next evening, Rosh Hashanah in Israel, the anchor introduces the news: “The new unrest in the Middle East is putting the peace process in danger.” Sunnanaa reports on “clashes between Palestinian youngsters and Israeli soldiers.” Images: Arab youngsters throwing stones, Israeli soldiers shooting. Throughout his lengthy report Sunnanaa calls the Arabs “demonstrating youngsters.” “The Palestinians are throwing tons of stones. Israeli soldiers respond with tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets.”
On the third evening, the second day of Rosh Hashanah in Israel, the news begins with the announcement: “Shooting in the Middle East.” Sunnanaa intones that there are “clashes between demonstrators and soldiers” in Israel. “But strong emotions erupt after an Israeli rainstorm of bullets killed a twelve-year-old in Gaza.” This is the first showing on this news program (out of several) of the Muhammad al-Dura clip. “Sharon,” says Sunnanaa, “started the conflict with his provocative visit to the Holiest of Holy for both Jews and Arabs.” Sunnanaa describes “the Koran story” about Muhammad and his spiritual visit to Jerusalem. This is “one of the most important stories in the Koran.” The Palestinians are once again only youthful “demonstrators”; Israeli soldiers are shooting at them.
Such reporting continued every evening for weeks. On 2 October, Dagsrevyen announced “a situation of war in the Middle East” and gave a second showing of the Muhammad al-Dura clip (this time he was thirteen years old). The next day the show announced that Nazareth had become a ghost town because Israelis were shooting at Arabs there. The following day Israeli soldiers were said to have shot at a ten-year-old boy who had only been demonstrating. On 5 October the focus was on a wounded Palestinian teenager, with Palestinians the underdog against “Israeli battle helicopters, rockets, heavy guns, and other advanced war equipment.” But “wave after wave of unarmed Palestinian youngsters continue to demonstrate.”
On 6 October the situation in the Middle East “worsens dramatically” with an Arab Day of Rage and “ten thousand demonstrators in Nablus.” It was not until 20 October that the news did not include an intifada report. But, if not as intensively as in the first three weeks, the loaded and selective reporting continued in the weeks to follow.1
This author is editor in chief of a Christian daily newspaper, Dagen. It is published in Bergen and has about ten thousand subscribers throughout Norway. Most subscribers presumably share the Evangelical Protestant faith, belonging either to the Lutheran (state) Church of Norway or to smaller Protestant churches. One of Dagen’s priorities has always been to present alternative Middle East news.
On 29 September 2000, the frustration was double. Since it was Friday evening, there would not be a new edition of Dagen to compete with the TV news before Monday. And since it was the start of the High Holiday season in Israel, during most weeks for more than a month there would be several consecutive days without Israeli newspapers to supply alternative versions of events.
The next week Dagen reported the story of Tuvia Grossman, an American Jewish yeshiva student in Israel who was almost lynched in Jerusalem by an Arab mob on 29 September.2 Thus Dagen readers were given a first alternative impression of the nature of the intifada. But as the biased TV news continued, Dagen readers demanded further alternative information. So one day a decision was reached: this author’s colleagues at Dagen would take over his usual responsibilities for a few weeks so he could work on a more in-depth report on the “Media War against Israel.”
It had been done once before in Norway. In 1982-1983, Carl Chr. Hauge produced a TV video on Dagsrevyen’s news coverage of the First Lebanon War.3 This effort prompted a more official investigation by a Middle East scholar, which was heavily critical.4 But both these reports were buried and forgotten as quickly as possible by those responsible within NRK.
This author decided on a different method. I spent a week in the studio of a media watch organization, Kristelig Kringkastingslag (Christian Media Watch),5 working my way through their complete video recordings of Dagsrevyen during the eight weeks from 27 September to 21 November 2000. I made extensive notes of everything verbal in the news reports and supplemented them with descriptions of the images shown. All these notes were organized chronologically according to the TV reports.
I then worked my way through the same eight weeks, date by date, in all the Israeli and international news sources available in Dagen. From Israel this included Yediot Aharonot, Maariv, Hatsofeh, IBA (Israel Broadcasting Authority) 7 a.m. radio news, Israel Military Radio 10 a.m. news,6 as well as the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Israel National News, the Jerusalem Report, and David Dolan’s Internet-distributed “Crisis Update” from CFI (Christian Friends of Israel).7 Also surveyed were international sources such as USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, the Telegraph, and so on. From all these sources, day-by-day comparisons yielded a “Normal News Picture” for each particular date.8
Finally, a day-by-day comparison between “The Middle East News According to NRK Dagsrevyen” and “The Middle East News According to the Normal Daily News Picture” demonstrated a strong and systematic trend of biased news reporting by Dagsrevyen throughout the selected eight weeks.
A Pattern of Falsehood
During those weeks Dagsrevyen gave a total of twenty-nine reports from the Middle East, lasting from ninety seconds to fifteen minutes. Most of these were by Middle East correspondent Lars Sigurd Sunnanaa; a few were by other correspondents. Some of the videos seem to have been filmed exclusively for NRK but most were probably bought from Reuters TV News or AP TV News.
The most striking finding was a pattern of constantly repeating a particular sentence with only minor variations in wording. An example is “Israel has been shooting today at Palestinian children and teenagers who demonstrated and threw stones.” In the twenty-nine news reports, this sentence was repeated without images forty-seven times, and augmented with images another thirty-three times, for a total of eighty instances. The sentence occurred, then, an average of 2.8 times per news story.
When watching TV news, one receives information and forms an ethical judgment based on preexisting norms. This is a rapid, implicit process. But if, in the first step, one has been falsely informed, the ethical judgment also is likely to be false.
Dagsrevyen’s repeated sentence, sometimes accompanied by images, basically contains two pieces of information (version a+b):
- Israel has been shooting today at Palestinian children and
- Palestinian children and teenagers have been demonstrating and throwing stones
Out of all the information available each day, Dagsrevyen decided to choose these two bits and give them a sort of monopoly with 2.8 iterations per news story.
The falsity of this account is one of omission. During the period of the study, an alternative, daily pattern of information emerged (version a+b+c):
- Palestinian children and teenagers have been demonstrating and throwing stones today at seventy-two locations (the daily average) in Israel and the
- At twenty-four of these locations (the daily average) they also threw Molotov cocktails and/or were supported by Tanzim terrorists firing at Israeli soldiers from within the midst of the
- Israeli soldiers were ordered to return fire at most of these twenty- four locations, sometimes unintentionally hitting the teenagers and 9
The main difference between version a+b and version a+b+c is the additional information in the latter. Throughout the first eight weeks of the intifada in 2000, this additional information never found its way into the Dagsrevyen reports.
If one is informed only by version a+b, one’s ethical judgment is to condemn Israel: “They are shooting children and teenagers for no good reason!” Version a+b+c, however, leads to an opposite judgment: “The Israeli soldiers are defending themselves in an ethically just way.”10
Dagsrevyen’s main method of biasing the TV news, then, was a systematic falsification of information via omission.
Response and Nonresponse
The study was completed early in March 2001 and was published, in feature- journalism style, in the magazine section of Dagen on 8 and 9 March. It went to all ten thousand subscribers, reaching an average of three readers per copy. The bulk of the study was the day-to-day comparison between Dagsrevyen and the Normal News Picture, printed in a continuous margin column.
In addition, different observations and special findings were presented in separate articles: “The Omission Method,” “The Tuvia Grossmann Example,” “The Doubts about Muhammad al-Dura,” “The Ramallah Lynch Omissions,” “The Never-Filmed Palestinian Shooting,” “The Riccardo Christiano Scandal,” and so on. In total the study filled nineteen newspaper pages (tabloid size).
Before printing, the whole study was sent to Sunnanaa in Amman for comment. His answer after two days: “No comment.” It was then sent to his boss, Catherine Loechstoer; her reply after another two days: “No comment.” The study was then sent to the director of NRK, who never responded at all. So the study was published, including the “No comment” replies and mention of the nonreply.
Readers responded with a flood of requests for additional copies. The usual supply of about a thousand extra copies proved inadequate, and an extra ten thousand copies were printed in a separate twenty-page magazine. This was advertised so that congregations and other groups could make their own local distributions. After several weeks all the copies were gone, and another eight thousand were reprinted. The pro-Israeli organization MIFF then requested, and was granted, permission to print their own ten thousand copies and include them in their newsletter.11
A total of thirty-eight thousand copies of the study, then, were distributed, almost four times the normal circulation figure for Dagen.
Lynching the Truth
Another striking example of Norwegian TV’s reporting on the Middle East occurred on 12 October 2000, the day two off-duty Israeli reserve soldiers were lynched in Ramallah.
Dagsrevyen’s report began with the studio headline: “Harsh Israeli attacks on the Palestinians…. Israeli revenge following the killing of two Israeli soldiers today.” Sunnanaa then stated: “After the killing of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah this morning, Israel attacked the home of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat in Gaza, hit the Palestinian radio station, and perpetrated five rocket attacks against targets in Ramallah.”
The TV film of the lynch, however, was not shown.
Sunnanaa reported: “The four [sic] Israeli soldiers are said to have taken a wrong turn and ended up in the center of Ramallah. Furious youngsters set fire to their car. Palestinian police rescued them by taking them into the police station. But youngsters gathered outside, and the police were unable to keep the mob away. The furious gangs entered, lynched the two soldiers, and left the fate of the remaining two soldiers unclear.”
Most of this is erroneous. There were only two soldiers; they were beaten by the police upon their arrest; and the killers were the policemen themselves.
According to Sunnanaa: “When the two lynched soldiers were thrown out of the window, Ramallah residents knew what would ensue. In the Middle East the rule is ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ and Ramallah turned into a ghost town. People sought shelter in their homes, waiting for the Israeli revenge.”
There was nothing here about the hate-filled chants of the Arab mobs, or the mutilation and subsequent burning of the bodies. Instead there was the repeated focus on “Israeli revenge,” including the traditional distorted version of Leviticus 24:20.
Sunnanaa stated: “It was just an error that brought the soldiers into Ramallah. They took a wrong turn. Palestinian soldiers tried in vain to save them. But the Palestinian people got a new reminder of the Israeli power-lust.”
This sort of biased, pro-Arab coverage is often the normal state of affairs in Norwegian Middle East news reporting.12
- The Norwegian originals for all quotations in this section may be found under each date in the appendix of Odd Sverre Hove, Mediekampen om Israel (The Media War on Israel) (Bergen: Sambaandet forlag, 2002), 178-94. [Norwegian]
- On 29 September 2000, an Arab mob attempted to lynch Tuvia Grossmann but he managed to run He was saved by an approaching Israeli policeman. On 30 September, however, the New York Times printed a photo of his bleeding face and the policeman with a text describing him as a Palestinian victim of Israeli police violence.
- Carl Hauge, Mediamakt, a video documentation of Dagsrevyen’s biased reporting during the First Lebanon War in 1982. For a report on the controversy that then erupted in Norway, see Odd Sverre Hove, “Criticizing TV” and “Norwegian TV Reporting,” in Julian J. Landau, ed., The Media: Freedom or Responsibility? The War in Lebanon 1982, A Case Study (Jerusalem: B.A.L. Mass Communications, 1984) (author’s contributions were originally published in the Jerusalem Post).
- Daniel Heradstveit, Mediakrigen i Libanon: Var NRK balansert? (The Media War in Lebanon: Was the NRK Balanced?) (Oslo: NUPI, 1983) [Norwegian]. See also Hove, “Norwegian TV ”
- Kristelig Krignkastingslag later changed its name to Familie and Medier and moved its headquarters from Oslo to It is a membership-based media-watch think tank.
- All these Hebrew sources are available to Internet subscribers in English every morning from Israel News Today (a newspaper-translation service located at Beit Agron, Jerusalem).
- CFI is a small Jerusalem-based evangelical information service, and David Dolan is a Jerusalem-based former CBS
- Norwegian newspaper journalism begins every day with a survey of available news stories called the “morning news ” This does not refer to a totality of news stories but to what is practical and relevant for each day’s work.
- The statistics of version a+b+c were later slightly modified by the Mitchell Commission, but the main picture was confi
- The justum bellum (just-war) doctrine is found in mainstream Jewish and Christian
- MIFF also made the whole study available at their website, miff.no.
- On Dagsrevyen, 18 November 2007, current NRK Middle East correspondent Sidsel Wold took viewers to Hebron to meet “the ” She did not say a word about the Arab massacre and eviction of all Jews from Hebron in 1929 but eagerly focused on the grave of Baruch Goldstein.