January 23, 2006

How ‘Public’ is the Public Broadcasting

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:34 pm by yisraelmedad

In December 1972, T. Clay Whitehead, then head of  White House Office of Telecommunications Policy, appeared before the Indianapolis chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.  Even against the backdrop of the tension between the anti-administration liberal media, the “eastern establishment elite”, and the Nixon Oval Office, Whitehead’s remarks are essential to any deliberation of the pervasive influence of the media.  Media managers and owners, Whitehead maintained, “cannot abdicate responsibility for news judgments…men also stress or suppress information in accordance with their beliefs.  Will…action [be taken] against this ideological plugola?”.

The tug-of-war between CBS, the Washington Post and the Nixon administration is a casebook chapter for any student of media relations with government and the role of a free press.  That battle, however, was fought between private and commercial media outlets in a country whose constitution prohibits the making of any law which abridges the freedom of the press.  Is there a comparable or different situation in Israel, where the electronic broadcasting media is, for all intents and purposes, public?

For example, few know that it was only last year that it became legal for any other radio station except Kol Yisrael and Galei Tzahal, the Army radio (Galatz), to broadcast news of national content rather than local news.  The over a dozen regional radio stations affiliated with the Second Radio and Television Authority (SRATA) were not allowed to broadcast news except relating to their particular area.  How does this reflect on Israel’s pluralistic and democratic character?

The monies for Kol Yisrael and Galatz come out of the pockets of the public, either through the Agra, the television and radio ownership tax (not a license fee as mistakenly thought), or directly from the Defense Ministry budget.  Thus, they are state-sponsored and publicly funded.  Are they, though, “public” in their programming scheduling, show content and adequate balance in their news commentary?  Or is the public supplied with a cultural agenda and news commentary bias from an entrenched media clique that, in the name of press freedom prefer to inculcate rather than perform in a professional ethical manner?  Where is the public in public broadcasting?

Israel’s Media Watch (IMW) reviewed the guest list of a popular radio interview program broadcast over Kol Yisrael.  Hosted by Dalia Ya’iri, the “Another Matter” show is heard five days each week between 8 and 10 AM on the Second Station bandwidth.  Sandwiched between the two hour morning news roundup and a second two hour news interview show hosted by Shelly Yechimovicz, Ya’iri’s program deals regurgitatively with issues that are repeated throughout the day by the Kol Yisrael news department.  IMW focused on the Syrian-Israel negotiations and the question of a possible withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

In the two-month period between December 9, 1999, the day following American President Clinton’s announcement that direct Syrian-Israel talks would reconvene and February 7, 2000, Ya’iri had invited 40 politicians and public figures to air their views on the issue.  Fully three-quarters of those privileged to let the Israeli public know what they thought happened to be persons who supported the Barak government line.  Only 27.5% of those offered an open mike held opinions in opposition to the government’s position.

In a further category, background commentators and experts, those who supposedly provide objective and academic analysis, of the 17 allowed to express their opinions, none could be overtly identified as opposing government policy.  They were either neutral or supported Barak’s moves.  Previous studies of IMW which monitored Ms. Ya’iri’s track record of guests in 1995 and 1998 indicate a constant and clear preference for persons who push left-wing viewpoints.  Beyond the scope of this article is her manner of interviewing and questioning those who are in opposition to her personal opinions.

This form of media presentation is not only an ethics problem, it is inimical to the very essence of a free press.  This is not a concern of fairness but of a situation in which a press corps, funded by the public and, as state employees, protected from normal hiring and firing practices in the private sector, presume to manipulate the equipment and status provided them to act in a biased manner. 

As US Supreme Court Justice William Black pronounced in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971, “the press [is] to serve the governed, not the governors…only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government”.  When a media person exploits the editorial discretion allowed him or her to violate professional media ethics codes as well as the law, the public has a right and even duty to seek to protect and defend itself.  In Israel, that defense may even be a matter of survival.

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