February 18, 2007

The Modulations of A Meddling Media

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:59 am by yisraelmedad

(this is the full, pre-edited version of my op-ed that appeared as “The Ben Caspit Show” in the Jerusalem Post on February 18, 2007)



Israel’s media has been under a bombardment of late.  The attacks, however, are not from what would be the presumed foci of resentment: right-wing activists, religious extremists or anti-establishment.  I am not even including President Moshe Katzav’s thundering condemnation although I await the eventual court case for proof of media mishappence.  No, the harsh criticism has come from a fellow member of
Israel’s elite: the courts.

Haim Ramon not only found himself tongue-tried and then guilty but his trio of judges delivered their opinion that “red lines had been crossed” by 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 Avigdor Klagsbald in a case of negligent manslaughter by 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 or not the trial’s outcome was in fact tainted by the media. 

Political communications lecturer , Orit Galili-Tzuker, a former journalist herself, adopted a “who cares?” attitude, saying there was no point in asking whether the media had behaved properly in their coverage of the two affairs as that is how matters are.  Ratings are the game and as a result, the media have become money-making institutions.  No longer can they be considered the “watchdogs of democracy” she concluded.  But where is the consolation for we the media consumers? 

As for what passes as the public, oddly enough, the January 2007 Peace Index of Tel Aviv university’s Steinmetz Peace Research Center found that  59% 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.  However, what is the media performance in areas besides regime degeneracy? 

LET US take but three examples. 

Exhibit 1:  The ubiquitous Ben Caspit.  The mercurial Caspit is a correspondent and analyst for Maariv newspaper.  He also appears as a regular on Immanuel Rosen’s new Channel 2 interview program, Rafi Reshef’s Galei Tzahal radio program as well as Channel One’s “Press Party” show.  He is seen on “Politika” (Channel One), “Mishal Cham” (Two) and was a regular last year for months on Channel One’s pre-news news show. 

Caspit’s hop-skip-and-jump performances are not unique and other stars flit about from channel to channel although certain newspaper employees, for example, the Jerusalem Post, Makor Rishon and Hatzofe never seem to be seen on TV or heard on radio.  The question, though, is not whether his ubiquitousness is based on a low-paying employment situation but if this is the proper way to provide pluralism of views and opinions in the media. 
Israel’s media is known in Yiddish slang as the branja.  It shouldn’t be a mafia.

Exhibit 2: Channel One TV’s Documentary Unit.  The fare presented to the state-sponsored public television under the new director-general Motti Shaklar seems overly one-sided.  In the past half year, we have seen the pro-anarchists movie “The Fence” twice, a pro-communist reminisce of Jewish Palestinian volunteers in Spain’s International Brigade in 1937, including Communist MK Dov Chankin’s participation in the post-screening discussion and most recently a heartstring-pulling presentation of hardcore Arab security prisoners, the terrorist who have murdered scores of innocents, and their problems getting to see their families. 

There is a place for such themes and I am not suggesting censorship or turning an eye.  Nevertheless, while Shaklar, a resident of Ofra, and former head of the Maaleh Communications School, has the talent, ability and agenda to provide us with a more broad tapestry of scenes from Israeli life, it seems he may that his kippa is acting as a lid.  He is, perhaps, allowing his own self-definition getting in the way of public television consumers while letting a liberal progressive message gain an unfair advantage. 

Exhibit 3: The Roadblock Story.  Mukki Hadar broadcast recently a 10 minute photo-story over Channel One TV’s Friday night week roundup show on Ehud Olmert’s non-implemented decision to remove
Yesha roadblocks as per the request of the
US administration.  The list of those interviewed for a balanced and multi-perspective insight of the matter included three employees of Betselem, one lady from MachsomWatch, and two Arab drivers. 

Although the Jewish residents and communities were constantly attacked and maligned by those interviewed, no representative of theirs was heard.  Hadar also repeated, as if fact, various suppositions he heard from this balanced array of political outlook. 

RECENT ACADEMIC research has been quite forthright in its analysis of the media.  Repeated surveys indicate that the media is widely viewed as biased and that that bias is two-fold.  Firstly, 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 a bias which is ‘spin’ which is the outlet’s attempt to create a memorable story.  At the very least, accuracy is impaired and that leads to a danger to democracy for then citizens become skeptical of news they presume to be biased and cease to rely on what should be a better news gathering operation than their own limited capabilities.  Decision-making becomes flawed. 

So, while the fireworks over media performance have provided entertainment and even some snickering at their expense, it is we, the media consumer and citizen who suffer.  Will we box ourselves off, acquiring our news solely from sources which will most likely confirm our prior beliefs?  If so, will be ever be able to change our minds?  Will the media cater its reporting to the demands of its consumers, resulting in another form of slanted reporting?  Could it be that competition between media outlets may even increase bias rather than providing pluralism? 

ISRAEL’S MEDIA is not immune to the ills that afflict the world’s press.  And yet, our criticism need be harsh because we should know better and we need better.  For over a decade, ongoing monitoring of the media by
Israel’s Media Watch has highlighted the errors of their ways as have other advocacy groups. The media powers-that-be tried to ignore and then make light of such.  They appointed ombudsmen but gave them no real oversight authority to punish.

The struggle for a fair, ethical and professional media performance, though, must continue.  Democracy, the marketplace of ideas and free expression are not fancy expressions that are empty of meaningful intentions.  We do need watchdogs. But they must be pedigrees. 

Yisrael Medad comments on political, cultural and media affairs and blogs at www.myrightword.blogspot.com

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