February 18, 2007

The Ben Caspit Show

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:55 am by yisraelmedad

Jerusalem Post, February 18, 2007 

Israel’s media has come under bombardment of late. The attacks, however, are not from what might be the presumed foci of resentment: right-wing activists, Orthodox extremists or anti-establishment types. I am not even including President Moshe Katsav’s thundering condemnation, although I await the eventual court case for proof of media malpractice.

No, the harsh criticism has come from a fellow member of Israel’s elite: the courts.

Former justice minister Haim Ramon not only found himself tongue-tried and declared guilty, but his trio of judges delivered their opinion that “red lines had been crossed” via the media: The newspapers had been involved in “testimony contamination” by conducting polygraph tests on witnesses, and there had been a “trial by the press.”

In a second trial, that of attorney Avigdor Klagsbald in a case of negligent manslaughter in a traffic accident, Judge Yehudit Shevach opined that the media should have displayed greater responsibility and been less engaged in “fanning the flames of sensationalism.” She wondered whether the trial’s outcome had, in fact, been tainted by the media.

Political communications lecturer Orit Galili-Tzuker, a former journalist herself, adopts a “who cares?” attitude. There’s no point in asking whether the media behaved properly in their coverage of these two affairs; that’s just how things are. Ratings is the name of the game, and the media have to earn profits for their proprietors. No longer can they be considered the “watchdogs of democracy.”

Oddly enough, the January 2007 Peace Index of Tel Aviv university’s Steinmetz Peace Research Center found that 59 percent of those questioned think the media, in the context of the struggle against corruption, “plays its role moderately well or very well,” as opposed to 32% saying it does so poorly.

Maybe, but in areas where the media isn’t fighting corruption, it’s doing a pretty poor job of providing desperately needed diversity.

THREE RECENT examples come to mind:

Exhibit 1 is the ubiquitous Ben Caspit, mercurial correspondent and analyst for Ma’ariv. He also appears as a regular on Immanuel Rosen’s new Channel 2 interview program and on Rafi Reshef’s popular morning Army Radio program, as well as on Channel 1’s Press Conference show. He is seen on Politika (Channel 1) and on Mishal Ham (Channel 2), and he was a regular last year for months on Channel 1’s pre-news news show.

Caspit’s hop-skip-and-jump performances are not unique; other stars flit from channel to channel, although journalists from other newspapers – for example, The Jerusalem Post, Makor Rishon and Hatzofeh – are seldom seen on TV or heard on radio (though Post writers and editors do get exposure on Israel’s English-language TV and radio, as well as on foreign channels).

Clearly, Caspit is all-too-present, preventing the appearances of other personalities with other opinions.

Exhibit 2 is Channel 1’s Documentary Unit. The fare presented by state-sponsored public television under its new director-general, Motti Shaklar, is one-sided.

In the past half-year we have seen the pro-anarchist movie The Fencetwice; a pro-communist reminiscence by Jewish Palestinian volunteers in Spain’s International Brigade in 1937, including Communist MK Dov Henin’s participation in the post-screening discussion; and, most recently, a heartstring-pulling presentation of the difficulties hard-core Arab security prisoners – terrorists who have murdered scores of innocents – experience in spending quality time with their families.

Granted there is a place for such programming – but maybe not for so much of it. Shaklar, incidentally, lives in Ofra, Samaria, and is the former head of the Ma’aleh Communications School. He has the talent, ability and agenda to provide Channel 1 viewers with a much broader tapestry of scenes from Israeli life.

I just hope he’s not bending over backwards to prove his bipartisanship, because the net effect is that he’s giving the “progressive” message unfair advantage.

Exhibit 3 is the roadblock story. Mukki Hadar recently broadcast a 10-minute piece on Channel 1’s Friday night weekly roundup program focusing on Ehud Olmert’s alleged failure to actually implement a commitment he made to reduce or remove a large number of roadblocks and checkpoints in Yesha in order to improve Palestinian Arab quality of life. Interviewees included three staffers from B’Tselem, one lady from Machsom Watch and two Arab drivers. Although Jewish “settlers” and “settlements” were maligned, no settlers was given an opportunity to explain the security consequences of removing the disputed checkpoints.

LET’S ADMIT that there is an ideological bias that reflects a news outlet’s desire to influence the consumer’s outlook and direct it to adopt a political position. Secondly, there is the desire to create a memorable story. That may mean accuracy is impaired for the sake of the narrative.

When our “news” comes from the same old sources reiterating the same old political messages, that can’t be good for the political system. And in this sense, competition among television channels and radio stations for ratings is doing little to increase diversity of news and opinion. We’re getting the same personalities and the same bias – recycled.

We cannot afford to lose the struggle for an ethical media. Democracy, the marketplace of ideas, and free expression are not just fancy words. We must continue to be vigilant.

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