August 30, 2006

And How Did The Media Perform?

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:50 pm by yisraelmedad

[this is my originally submitted text of an op-ed published by the Jerusalem Post on August 29, 2006 here

“News,” Bill Moyers once remarked, “is what people want to keep hidden; everything else is publicity.”  And I would assert that what Israel’s media provided us for four weeks this summer was more publicity and spin than news. True, during the military campaign against the Hizbullah in
Lebanon, Israel’s electronic media consumers did not lack for news.   Channel One morphed into a CNN-like station and Channels Two and Ten also went into overdrive.  Studios were filled with commentators, politicians and reports from the field.  Reporters (many female) went north to face the missiles (and who can forget Yoav Limor dodging an incoming Katyusha in Safed) and some, notably Itai Engel, Mukki Hadar and Amir Bar-Chen accompanied front-line troops into battle to return with outstanding footage.  The radio stations, constantly being interrupted by calls for people to enter the shelters, brought us opinions and updates.

Nevertheless, recriminations and a feeling of underlying unease marked the media’s performance.  Media critics constantly sniped at what they perceived as shortcomings.  The public, in many “letters to the editor”, opinied that much was amiss.  The criticism eventually became “news” itself for it was unstoppable.   Colleagues called each other “defeatists” on the one hand and “mobilized supper-patriots” on the other.  In any case, professional behavior standards became sloppy. In a war situation, the media is not only needed as an objective service provider but too many would like to see it also as part and parcel of the war effort.  That, I would maintain, is unfair.  The media’s role is to be inquisitive, to seek the tale behind the story, the “why” of how things happen.  The media is an instrument of democracy and civil responsibility.  And, in fact, while some media personnel refused that role, many more took advantage of the opportunity to advance a personal agenda.  And there’s the rub, for in those broadcasts, reporters, their editors, the presenters and the interviewers attempted to make their dreams come true. 

What I see as indisputable is that there was a lack of investigative reportage, both prior and during the four weeks of battle, on the central issues that were highlighted by the political, diplomatic and security failures.  Why should we now, ex post facto, be demanding a commission of inquiry?  Where was the press these past half-dozen years?  Could it be that they, too, were smitten by the mirage of a quiet northern border?  Did they adopt Amnon Avramovitz’s “ethrog” paradigm of swathing favorite politicians with fawning protection?  Or did politicos, and the public as well, ignore press alarums? And why, of all spinmeisters, did the IDF spokeswoman Miri Regev receive advice from Reuven Adler, Eyal Arad and Leor Chorev, the triumvirate that guided Arik Sharon and, later, Kadima into office?  Was there a partisan political agenda afoot?  Was the IDF, media-wise, an agency of one political party or of the government of the state of Israel?

One outstanding example of media hubris was that of Aluf Benn who, just a week before the war, published in HaAretz that Hassan Nasrallah behaves responsibly and a stable balance of deterrence has been created on both sides of the border. “Hezbollah is preserving quiet in the Galilee better than did the pro-Israeli South Lebanese Army,” he wrote and on July 20, he admitted that “the mistake in my assessment stemmed, as always, from the idee fixe that what was is what will be.”That, however, is fatuous.  There was, certainly, an idee fixe, but it was the ideological mindset of the branja, Israel’s liberal, progressive media elite.  They hadn’t stopped applauding Ehud Barak’s ‘run-in-the-night’ from Lebanon and were not about ready to admit the error in his move or that of Sharon’s trading land-for-nothing. 

Asked, in a Ynet interview, if he felt frustrated that his pre-war calls about the rocket threat facing Israel were ignored, Dr. Uzi Landau responded, “I was made to look delusional, because part and parcel of the [media’s] campaign against the disengagement opposition was a nonsensical discourse. They said I was a war monger.” The pre-war media failed to discharge its professional duty and could not but collapse in disarray when the truth was out.  The first fortnight was spent warning the government and the IDF ‘don’t you dare send ground troops into Lebanon’.  They let the entire world and the Hezbollah know in real-time broadcasting exactly where the rockets were falling and the unit numbers of all the battalions and divisions crossing the border.  They also covered up for the lapses of Olmert and Peretz whose war aims were mostly bluster and after three weeks, were still far from being achievable. 

Exceptions included Ari Shavit who was devastating: “political correctness and the illusion-of-normalcy spread first and foremost among the Israeli elites… the media…have blinded Israel and deprived it of its spirit…Instead of being constructive elites, [they] have become dismantling elites.  Yair Lapid admitted the media was ireresponsible, unrestrained, unfair and it confused opinions with fact.  Professor Gabriel Ben-Simchon, of Tel Aviv University’s Cinema Department, accused Haaretz staright out of being a “newspaper in Hezbollah’s service” in an August 24 op-ed. 
Vis a vis the international press, the performance was abysmal. The mendaciousness of AP, Reuters and other outlets was revealed and trumpeted not by Israel but by non-Jewish bloggers abroad such as Little Green Footballs, Eureferendum and Powlerline.
 The media has much to make up for and one step in the right direction would be a distancing of editors and media stars from too close a relationship with the politicians and generals they cover.  The public needs a free press in every sense of the word.