In a surreal-sounding story from Lebanon on Friday's Today, NBC reporter Stephanie Gosk calmly publicized a new theme park – operated by the terrorist group Hezbollah. As bizarre as it sounds, NBC and Gosk offered a one-sided Hezbollah press release: they couldn't manage to find an Israeli or anti-terrorist expert to say anything critical of it. Two weeks earlier, NBC's Gosk reported on Pope Benedict's “controversial” trip to London – which was loaded with critics. Lauer could only call Hezbollah's park “unlikely":
MATT LAUER: Now to an unlikely theme park opened by an even more unlikely group - Hezbollah. NBC's Stephanie Gosk is in Beirut, Lebanon with details on this. Stephanie, good morning to you.
STEPHANIE GOSK, Good morning, Matt. Well you know Lebanon is a beautiful place. You have the Mediterranean Sea, the mountains, a great climate, but we found an altogether different kind of tourist attraction. It's called The Landmark for the Resistance and it's an open air theme park dedicated to military victories against Israel. Three decades of destroyed Israeli tanks, guns and spent mortar rounds, carefully manicured and on permanent display for the first time.
Isa Farook's family came for the day. His youngest son could barely contain his excitement. The $4 million complex complete with triumphant music and life-size statues of guerrilla fighters was designed and built by Hezbollah - Lebanon's most dominant military force and political party, and according to the U.S. State Department, a terrorist organization largely funded by Iran. Charges our tour guide, Rami Hassan, a self-described Hezbollah supporter, denies.
RAMI HASSAN: Right here we defended our land, we defended our people. We sacrificed ourselves.
GOSK: American journalist Thanassis Cambanis, just published a book on Hezbollah. He says the park is a mix of both fact and propaganda.
THANASSIS CAMBANIS, journalist: They work very hard to convince the visitors that what they do is right and the fight they have against Israel is justified.
GOSK: Since the park opened in May, 500,000 tourists have poured in. For the Farooks a photo on the tank, a quick turn on the machine guns and of course, hats and T-shirts to take home. Hezbollah says they will soon expand, including a restaurant, a hotel and a cable car. It's an unlikely success. Most other tourist attractions in this country have suffered because of the near constant threat of armed conflict. Lebanon was home to some of the world's earliest civilizations. These ruins are thousands of years old but the country is now more defined by its modern wars, than its ancient history. Navigating through what used to be one of Hezbollah's hidden bunkers, Rami told me five of his friends had been killed in recent conflicts.
GOSK: Rami, how many wars have you lived through?
HASSAN: I've lived through the three main wars in-
GOSK: What years?
HASSAN: In 1993, in 1996 and 2006. We know that there's gonna be a war which is going to be more severe than the last one.
GOSK: A theme park built on hatred of Israel and on decades of war, teaching children that the fighting goes on. Since the last war between Lebanon and Israel ended in 2006, the United States has been aiding the Lebanese military, to try to curb Hezbollah's influence, particularly in the south. But the people that are visiting this theme park told us, that should another war break out, they believe that Hezbollah is still going to be their best protection. Matt?
So the only discordant notes on NBC were the State Department's “terrorist” designation, the idea of a park “built on hatred of Israel” and the graphic on screen that read "Terrorist Theme Park? Hezbollah Celebrates Deadly Struggle With Israel." Gosk couldn't even note the military reality that Hezbollah has hardly achieved the “military victories” it seeks – the absolute destruction of the Jewish state.
The piece also never mentions Islam, although a story in the London Sunday Times explained one park scene:
On the floor of a rocky alcove rests a prayer mat and an open copy of the Koran beside an old AK47 rifle. It was the favourite place of prayer for Sheikh Abbas Mussawi, a Hezbollah leader killed by Israel in 1992. A recording of Mussawi’s gravelly voice murmuring prayers wafts through the trees.
Gosk referred briefly to “teaching children that the fighting goes on.” The park is designed to encourage children to take up the terrorist struggle. It's a terrorist (or “resistance”) recruiting tool.
The goal is not limited to celebrating past battlefield exploits, but also to encourage young Lebanese Shia to embrace the continuing struggle against Israel.
“As the main centre of the resistance from the 1980s, this place talks to the souls of the visitors,” Sheikh Ali Daher, the head of Hezbollah’s publicity department, said. “The whole project is to tell the story of resistance to the new generation.”
By contrast, here's a fraction of the critical segment of Gosk's September 16 report on the Pope's arrival in London:
GOSK: But not everyone is welcoming. Some are getting ready for a confrontation.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We are urging the Pope to open the Vatican's secret sex files.
GOSK: As elsewhere in the Catholic world, there is anger about the lingering sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Church for nearly a decade.
UNIDENTIFIED CLERGYMAN: The Church has made a mess of its response to incidences of child abuse.
GOSK: There is resentment of the Pope's inflexibility on the issue of women priests.
ARCHBISHOP VINCENT NICHOLS: Well there's always controversy about papal visits and then when he arrives, the sun comes out, and those clouds disperse and people really take to him.
If NBC can find opponents and offer them air time on the Pope, certainly they could find and offer the same resistance to the terrorist "resistance" of Hezbollah.