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Behind the Headlines Games the News Media Play

There is an illusion extant that Israeli and Egyptian leaders are conducting peace negotiations and that plans each side is proposing to the other are in fact real. There is a further illusion that Premier Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt are actually talking to each other as self-structured flesh and bone human beings.

The reality is quite the opposite. The real negotiations are being carried on by the general news media. The basic peace plans are being formulated by reporters and columnists. And the real protagonists are the headline writers who try to out scoop each other. The fact is that Sadat and Begin are not acting as heads of their respective states but as instruments of various news mediums, that they are really media-produced clones–if one is to believe the front page meanderings of the daily press and television and radio reports.

On any given day, especially in recent weeks, there are scenarios replete with plots, counterplots and subplots, dialogues and monologues and complete stage settings for the latest chapter in the Middle East drama carefully devised and directed by reporters, columnists and editorial writers.

And if, heavens forebode, the real Mideast protagonists should stray from these carefully prepared scripts and improvise on their own, the same reporters and columnists will, on the day following, act as critics–either decrying the real events as having fallen far short of what the script had indicated would happen or expressing surprise that the events had taken an unexpected good turn for which the scripts had not provided.

THE GUESSING GAME ENSUES

This tragi-comic situation reached its apex two weeks ago when Begin was in Washington having talks with President Carter and other key Administration officials. Begin had announced in advance that he wanted Carter to review Israel’s peace plan that he would present to Sadat. But the Israeli Premier promised that he would not publicly disclose the plan prior to meeting with Sadat. Begin kept his promise but the media immediately embarked on its own version of “Truth or Consequences.

Some Israeli papers “leaked” what they claimed was the substance of the peace plan. Major dailies in this country followed with reams of copy about the plan as learned from “Israeli sources” (the newspapers). The Israeli press, not to be outdone nor outflanked, reacted swiftly to “American sources” (press reports). Depending on their editorial bias, they either denounced Begin for giving away too much or too little.

The American press then focused on what it claimed was an “Israeli consensus” and speculated or reported on the basis of “sources” that Begin was either in trouble at home with his own “rejectionist front” for being too generous to the Egyptians or a hero to Israeli doves who were sighting peace in the jump column of the lead news story.

In fact, the activity of the Israeli and American press that weekend in reacting to each other’s stories, rather than to real events, was so frenetic in trying to “reveal” and “disclose” what plan Begin had brought with him to Washington that when he finally offered some elements in that plan Dec. 18 on CBS-TV “Face the Nation,” some papers gave it short shrift.

The New York Times, for example, having exhausted its pages with “disclosures” and “revelations” prior to the television show in frantic guesswork about the plan, did not deem it necessary to highlight Begin’s interview on CBS. After all with all due regard for speculation–Begin’s public announcement was so much less dramatic than its own ruminations.

DIPLOMACY-BY-MEDIA

The same tragi-comedy occurred last weekend when Israeli and Western media reports had it that Sadat and Begin would sign an agreement “in principle” on the framework of a peace treaty. When this failed to happen in the real context of events the media had a field day intoning that the Christmas Day talks between the two leaders in Ismailia had been far from successful, even, possibly, a failure. But if it was a failure, and if the public in Israel, the U.S. and other countries felt a let down, it was only in terms of the preordained media script.

Diplomacy-by-media is not new. And reporters, being what they are, must file stories every day to justify their own existence and importance as well as that of their newspapers, television or radio stations. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with reporters and columnists trying to chart the general course of events on the basis of objectively verifiable trends, statements by heads of state or their own insights into ongoing developments. But the practice of writing scripts in their city rooms or foreign news bureaus and then judging real events by their own imaginings is a dangerous game.

In the specific context of the Israeli-Egyptian talks, the leaders of both countries have had to react and respond almost as frequently to media reports about their talks as they have had to react to the talks actually taking place between themselves. They have been placed in the ironic position of having to explain what did or did not happen, and the significance of either, more in terms of what the media claims happened or should have happened than in terms of the genuine developments or shortcomings in terms of realpolitik.

Fortunately, both Sadat and Begin are realistic and astute enough political leaders to avoid the pitfall of becoming prisoners of the media. Unfortunately, however, the public is not in the same position since it can only rely on media reports to shape its view of the future. If peace does come to the Mideast it will not be the result of what the media propounded but because of what the real protagonists expounded.

The point is that the media, in the final analysis, can only serve as a conduit for reporting real events if, that is, it is doing the job it is supposed to do. Its only vested interest in that history is to publicize it and to dramatize it by highlighting reality. It cannot make history. History is being made, at this moment at least, by two men who have the courage and vision to break the links in a 30-year chain of hostility, animosity and suspicion and find some way to reforge Mideast reality. For them and the people they represent, the vested interest is life or death.

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