October 6, 2011

September’s Soothsayers

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:34 pm by yisraelmedad

The soothsayers of September

(JPost published version here)

Caeser: Ha! who calls?… Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music…
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

— Shakespeare, Julius Caeser, Act 1, Scene II, lines 97-103

Media studies have identified an ominous development which we could term predictive reporting. No more is attention drawn to actual events that have occurred or to quantitative facts from which conclusions can be drawn. If, at election time, polls have come to dominate the frame of the news, increasingly media consumers are being fed unsubstantiated opinions leaving them to wait expectantly for something to happen, if at all. And if not, very few media personnel assume any sense of responsibility for what hasn’t happened.

Already in 1996, James Fallows, in his “How the Media Undermine American Democracy”, wrote about this development that: “It builds the impression that journalism is about spectacles and diversions…this useless distraction has become a speciality of the political press. Predictions are easy to produce, they allow the reporters to act as if they possess special inside knowledge, and there is no consequence for being wrong.” Indeed, this is the modern echo of that shrill tongue Julius Caeser heard as he walked by.

They promised us a tsunami

After months of media-driven dire predictions, it fell to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to wax poetic and sum up the events of the almost-hoped-for “tsunami” disaster expected for Israel at the UN in September which was to deliberate a request for statehood recognition by the Palestinian Authority. He was quoted saying, “There is no diplomatic tsunami or even rain on a cloudy day. I remember all the predictions of doom and all the people who said there would be a catastrophe. They should read the statements of the US State Department, Obama’s speech and the document of the Quartet. I have reservations about the Quartet’s decision, but the fact that it calls for negotiations without preconditions is a great achievement for Israel.”

The observer of media behavior can but only ask, among many, these questions: What was the purpose of this behavior? To sell more papers? Undermine the government’s position? Confuse the public? Embarrass Israel? Provide succor for the enemy?

To be fair, one of the first statements to employ in a high profile fashion that specific ‘tsunami’ metaphor was Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. In remarks addressed to the participants of the Research Division of the Institute for National Security Studies on March 13 this year, Barak, referring to the natural disaster in Japan the previous week, said, “We stand to face a diplomatic tsunami that the majority of the public is unaware of.” He also added what was perceived to be an indirect criticism of the diplomatic policy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he continued “for the last two years we haven’t tried to put the core issues on the [negotiations’] table.”
Israel’s media, quite understandably, jumped on the imagery. In May, in this paper’s Weekend Magazine, David Harris-Gershon noted, with a bit of hyberbole, a “crippling fear of September’s UNGA” and predicted “that, with help from the PM, Barak’s self-fulfilling ‘diplomatic tsunami’ prophecy may actually come true.” He was not alone and in effect, the framing of the story became mired in media mud.

But more than just the frame, for a half year the media would not permit the public to consider the issue except in that imagery. Headlines, questions from interviewers, panel discussions and op-eds all were linked to the upcoming September tsunami. No matter which channel or which page, the media consumer found him/herself all but consumed by the media wave. On May 8th, one headline referred to a “legal tsunami”. Inexorably, a form of a panic was being generated. Fears of Arab-initiated violence and Israel’s failure were heightened. Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon tried to stem the bias surge in a Ynet interview in a July 11 interview, saying “…there is a series of scare tactics being used from within the coalition” but was a lone voice.

On September 11, Ma’ariv’s Ben Caspit had his readers focused on this scenario: “It’s happening now: the start of the tsunami. It’s difficult to find a leader who didn’t warn Netanyahu and his ministers of the coming tsunami, to no benefit. Now that it’s coming – it’s too late”. Ari Shavit, in Haaretz on Sept. 1, declared, “in a few weeks, Netanyahu will pay the price…the Palestinian state will be established with a large majority…the spring is over; the storm will hit in the fall.”

Lacking value-added media status

True, there were voices of those that analyzed the situation differently but they were overwhelmed in that they never reached the “value-added” media status that accrues the “stars” who not only are provided a home platform but are invited to other media outlets, notably the radio and television, and thereby gain extra empowerment. For example, Ari Shavit is a permanent member of the experts’ panel on Channel One TV’s Friday night weekly diary roundup with no opposing representative. The dominance of the ‘tsunami’ was also afforded a basic monopoly throughout the various media outlets.

And what, in the end, was the public’s opinion after the supposed tsunami receded? A DAHAF poll that appeared in Yedioth Ahronot on Sept. 30 registered 66% as believing there will never be peace with the Palestinians and 76% considered Netanyahu’s speech as good with less than 10% holding a negative view. A Dialogue poll for Haaretz had 41% satisfied versus 45% unsatisfied with PM Netanyahu’s performance at the UN. Asked how they felt watching Netanyahu’s UN address, 40% expressed pride, 21% hope, 13% frustration and 12% waste. It would be hard to dispute Moshe Arens’ point: “It turns out that the tsunami predicted to hit Israel in the month of September went the way of so many other predictions that have been made about the Middle East in recent years.”

So, was the media tsunami campaign less-than-successful? Or did it influence more the observers from abroad who, it might seem, believe the Israel media reporting more than the local media consumer?

Whatever the result of this or that poll, the point that needs reinforcing is that Israel’s media professional ethics standards are questionable which cause in its own ‘wave’.

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