The confrontation between the Israel Defense Forces and a ship of activists bringing supplies to Gaza left nine civilians dead. Each side is accusing the other of having started it and each has video to bolster their claims. New York Times digital media reporter Brian Stelter says that in this case, videotape is just making a murky situation murkier.
BOB GARFIELD: As of Friday, all eyes were on an Irish aid ship heading toward the Gaza Strip. This comes after a confrontation on Monday in which the Israeli Defense Forces boarded a ship sponsored by a Turkish Islamic aid organization carrying hundreds of activists, an incident that left nine activists dead and proved to be a PR disaster for Israel, despite its efforts at damage control. The activists ensured the clash would get press attention by webcasting live video from the boat soon after the Israeli soldiers boarded. Afterwards, the IDF released its own clips. Their tape included images of activists wielding chairs against the soldiers. The cameras panned over clubs, knives and slingshots the IDF claimed to have found on board. Without unedited tape from an impartial source, it’s hard to tell what happened, but the ready availability of the video kept the story in the news cycle, as both cable and broadcast news ran the images again and again. Brian Stelter covers television and digital media for The New York Times. He says that while the video is confusing, one thing we can say for sure is that both sides display a keen awareness of their audience.
BRIAN STELTER: The flotilla of activists had constructed this media campaign in advance, where they had basically created a webcast network of live pictures from multiple cameras on the boats, beamed up to the satellite live on the Internet to any TV network wants it. So they were heading out onto the open sea with a media strategy, you know, from the beginning.
BOB GARFIELD: And presumably they didn't have these cameras set up just to film their voyage, because who cares about the voyage.
BRIAN STELTER: [LAUGHS] Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Right?
BRIAN STELTER: Right. `
BOB GARFIELD: So it’s in anticipation of some sort of confrontation -
BRIAN STELTER: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - we can assume, can we not?
BRIAN STELTER: The degree to which they produced this event is notable. Also having spokespeople in other countries, not on the boats, able to be reached by the media at all times, certainly had an impact. On the other side of this, the Israel Defense Forces have many cameras of their own, cameras on their helicopters, cameras with the soldiers, so they could present their side of the confrontation. Both sides pointed to video clips to try to prove that the other side was the aggressor. I think in this case, it ended up just making everything more murky.
BOB GARFIELD: The video is kind of inconclusive because it doesn't really give you context.
BRIAN STELTER: Yeah, if, if we were able to see unedited videos from each of these angles maybe, and just maybe, we'd have a better sense of what happened and who was the aggressor. And, by the way, it only gets worse when they add captions. At one point in the Israeli military videos they add yellow circles around the weapons that they want you to see.
BOB GARFIELD: Some corroborating evidence or illuminating evidence should come from the journalists -
BRIAN STELTER: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - who were aboard the ship, but they were, uh taken into custody.
BRIAN STELTER: Right. Al-Jazeera had about seven people in this flotilla covering this story, producers, reporters and cameramen. One was able to be released almost immediately. The others were held for a longer period of time. Well, there were also members of the press from Australia, from Bulgaria, from Turkey. Very little eyewitness reporting got out though before the Israeli military moved in and really put a blackout on information here. But one of the sole eyewitness accounts that actually came out, one that was able to be broadcast live, was from an Al-Jazeera reporter, who was saying that the white flag was being raised by the boat, and so there was live fire going on.
AL-JAZEERA REPORTER: Tens of people, civilians, have been injured. There are still sounds of live fire, despite the white flag being raised.
BRIAN STELTER: But even that clip was seized upon by people on the Web, some bloggers who were trying to suggest that that clip, that one moment in time, that it means that the Israelis were the ones that attacked first, and there was no evidence of that in the actual video.
BOB GARFIELD: Isn't it just a Rorschach test for where you stand on Israel, vis-a-vis the Palestinians?
BRIAN STELTER: I think even when we do have these eyewitness accounts they get, they get twisted into different forms by the people on all sides of this anyway.
BOB GARFIELD: So if this is really about litigating in the court of public opinion, do you think the response to all of the inconclusiveness of the existing images will be for there to be fewer guys with guns and more guys with cameras? I mean, is this going to turn into some sort of Paddy Chayefsky mode of war
[STELTER LAUGHS] - where there are more videographers than soldiers?
BRIAN STELTER: Well, I think we're going to see a gradual increase in the video cameras in these conflicts, no doubt. But I remember an image that really struck me last year during the protests in Iran, uh when we had people with camera phones posting onto YouTube through intermediaries. There was an image of – it may have been Neda, it may have one of the other activists that was killed, I can't remember, to be honest, but –
BOB GARFIELD: Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman who was shot in the head?
BRIAN STELTER: I remember seeing someone laying on the ground, either wounded or killed, and no less than five or six camera phones out, circling this person. It certainly humanizes what’s happening in a way that still photographs or eyewitness accounts can never do. And I have to think that that has an impact on the public’s perception of these conflicts. The danger, obviously, is that if we see these dramatic, almost painful images over and over and again, we get numb to them.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm curious, based on what you've seen so far of the video from both sides, do you have any confidence that you know what happened?
BRIAN STELTER: I have much less confidence than I did when I first read about it.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Brian. Thank you so much.
BRIAN STELTER: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Brian Stelter covers television and digital media for The New York Times.