July 25, 2012

MEDIA COMMENT: Ariel – the media misses out again

Posted in Media at 11:31 pm by yisraelmedad

Media Comment: Ariel – the media misses out again


The real fear of Israel’s universities is that the university in Ariel spells the beginning of the end of their hegemony on social thought, culture and humanistic studies.

The decision to turn the Ariel University Center into the eighth university in Israel has raised a storm in our local media, within Israeli academic circles and the foreign media.

That the local media was to a large extent unhappy with the decision goes almost without saying. After all, Ariel is in the so-called occupied territories.

Ynet, for example, in a subtitle had it: “As thousands wait for housing,” implying that the decision regarding Ariel would harm the social fabric of Israel. The outrage against this yellow journalism was so strong that the subtitle was later removed.

In a scathing piece in Ma’ariv this past weekend, Kalman Liebskind lashed out at what he considered illegitimate behavior by certain journalists “whose political views they find difficult to hide, [who] will accept every little thing someone throws against Ariel and gallop forward, no questions asked.”

Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, chairman of the Council of Higher Education’s planning and budgeting committee, was portrayed as an objective voice whereas Professor Israel Aumann, Nobel Laureate, was treated as a “fool who knows nothing… because there’s a kippa on his head.”

Yet one of us (EP) heard Professor Trachtenberg proclaim loudly and clearly already last November that he would do all he could to prevent the accreditation of an eighth university – even before he received the report of the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria (CHEJS). This is an example of the intellectual honesty of those who led the campaign against Ariel.

THE HEBREW University provided fodder for the media via a paper presented by Dr. Zeev Rotem and put on the desk of the other university heads. His conclusions were such as to instill fear in any freedom-loving academic. As reported on the NRG website, he warned that turning Ariel into a university would lead to the transfer of 3,000 students from other colleges to Ariel, with Bar-Ilan University and Ruppin college being the biggest losers.

It would supposedly create havoc with the research budgets of the universities and would create further competition in recruiting new faculty members.

Interestingly, not a word was said about Dr. Rotem’s political views – that is, until Mr. Liebskind did his homework. He found that Rotem was a signatory to Yesh Gvul petitions containing statements such as: “we declare that we do not take part in the continued oppression of the Palestinians in the occupied territories,” and “we express our willingness to help as best we can students who, as a result of their refusal to serve in the territories, will encounter difficulties.”

A typical reaction from within academia came from Prof. Akiva Cohen of the Communications Department of Tel Aviv University. Cohen, who is supposed to teach his students how to become fair-minded and ethical journalists, sets a rather sorry example of professionalism.

Writing on the Social Sciences email inter-university list, he claims that the document presented by the CHEJS was “shallow” and that not a single department in any university would have been accredited based on the CHEJS recommendations – this without having read the CHEJS report; no detailed account of its deliberations has been published.

Yael Dan anchors the Army Radio station’s noon news program. Her questions in response to correspondent Ya’ara Barak are perhaps representative of the politicized antipathy of our media: Barak: “This is the big day of the Ariel University Center.”

Dan: “This means what?” Barak: “An increase in budgets, in research and the development of the city of Ariel.”

Dan: “Mostly increasing the budgets at the expense of the other institutions.

Barak: “Yes…,” Dayan: “At their expense – they [the other universities] are angry since it will be at their expense.”

Later on Dan had this to say: “It is quite absurd that the CHEJS will decide, since they will make a decision on their own destiny.

Dan obviously has no idea what she’s talking about. The CHEJS is appointed by the head of the IDF Central Command and was formed because Israel’s Left, among others, insists that Israeli law does not apply in Judea and Samaria. Israel’s CHE has no jurisdiction in the “occupied territories.”

But there’s more. Consider the “financial argument.” Prof. Trachtenberg is responsible for a budget of NIS 7.5 billion – of which today only 1.3 percent goes to the Ariel University Center. Yet 10% percent of it – more than the total sum reserved for research – goes to pay the pension funds of the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and the Technion.

These institutions provide their professors with what is known as a budgetary pension – that is, the university guarantees the pensions of its staff. As also delineated in scathing reports by the State Comptroller, these universities, over a period of many years, did not set aside sufficient funds to assure the financial health of their pension funds. As a result, we all have to foot the bill.

Reportedly, the pension rate at Hebrew University is 120 percent.

Imagine if the Finance Minister were to force the Universities to lower their pension expenses by 10 percent.

This alone would more than cover the amount allocated today to Ariel. Yet our reporters swallow the dire warnings of financial meltdown.

THE STORY is actually much deeper than the question of money, students or research. The Ariel University Center is the only institute of higher education in this country which dares to say proudly: “We are Zionists.” It is the only university which has an annual conference dedicated to research about Judea and Samaria. It was the venue for the Annual David Bar-Ilan Media Conference, in which serious media criticism and issues were raised. All Ariel students must take a course in Zionist- Jewish studies. Ariel University’s Social Sciences faculty do not toe the Israel-bashing line of many of their colleagues in the other universities.

In fact, the real – and justified – fear of Israel’s universities is that the university in Ariel spells the beginning of the end of their hegemony on social thought, culture and humanistic studies. Israeli students will have the option to learn something about Israeli history from teachers who do not fully agree with Professors Neve Gordon or Oren Yiftachel of Ben- Gurion University. They might even learn that Israel’s existence as a Jewish state has some moral and legal basis. Ariel has a large Communications Department, whose students might understand that the media in a democratic country must be accountable.

It is these factors that create real fear among those who have been used to dominating the academic scene. Yet this aspect was hardly mentioned in the discussion – for obvious reasons.


July 19, 2012

MEDIA COMMENT: Media suicide

Posted in Media at 7:04 am by yisraelmedad

Media comment: Media suicide


Silman is described by many as being successful businessman for a time, who became bankrupt due to cruelty of bureaucrats.

Moshe Silman is a tragic figure. He is described by many as being a successful businessman for a time, who became bankrupt due to the cruelty of bureaucrats. His personal and business assets were all lost to his debtors. He claimed that the National Insurance Institute caused his financial downfall and he did not have enough money to demand what he felt was his in court. His repeated requests for help, whether they involved a waiver of court fees, an increase of his national insurance benefits due to illness or a request for housing aid, went unheeded by the various agencies.

Every story has two sides and when one delves deeper, it appears that a State Comptroller’s Office document does not justify Silman’s claims against the National Insurance Institute. But whatever his mistakes may have been, and there seem to have been many, this was a man in anguish who with forethought decided upon a radical step – to immolate himself in public in an apparent attempt to commit suicide. It appears he understood that such an act would provide ample ammunition for his friends who were attempting to demonstrate for social justice, and indeed this was the case. His self-destructive and thus immoral act was political.

The letter he wrote prior to his suicide attempt left no doubt as to his motivation.

He pointed a finger specifically at the prime minister and the finance minister, hurling at them the Hebrew epithet “nevelot” – despicable scoundrels.

In the days following his act, the papers and broadcast media had a ball, all on account of Mr. Silman. Instead of discussing the weather and the expected electricity stoppages, they had a real issue on their hands. The headlines were huge. “The tragedy” blared Israel HaYom. The Ma’ariv webpage had a special “Moshe Silman” entry, which guided the user directly to all of the latest “hot stories” about the man and his issues. Kol Yisrael’s Reshet Bet anchor Arieh Golan used Silman’s tragedy to pitch in his two cents of criticism on Israeli society.

Rabbis for Human Rights activist Rabbi Idit Lev became a media star, recounting Silman’s tragic affairs and how she tried in vain to help him over the past few years.

The media also made sure everyone knew that in the ensuing, rather small demonstrations, one of the chants was “We are all Moshe Silman.” One of the harshest criticisms of the Left – and the media – against nationalist camp protests during the intifada was that “settlers are dancing on spilled blood,” by which they meant that the terror victims’ deaths were being cynically exploited to further political aims. And now? They have been dancing on Silman’s blood with tragic consequences.

Four additional people have already attempted to emulate him. We needed a courageous politician – who also worked as a journalist in the past – opposition leader Shelly Yechimovich, to remind us all that “suicide is an extreme and terrible act and should not serve as an example and inspiration to young people and adults alike, and must not be regarded as the symbol of social protest.” In fact, the journalists’ ethics code instructs us that care and sensitivity are needed when reporting on a suicide and that one should not publicize the method used.

The media is not always so diligent in reporting on politically motivated suicide.

On Sunday, Israel HaYom said Silman’s case was “an unprecedented act.” However, the paper’s own reporter, Emily Amrousi, took pains the next day to remind us that this was certainly not unprecedented in Israel. Yelena Bosinova, for one, also committed suicide for political reasons. She thought that this was the appropriate expression of her deep dissatisfaction with the uprooting of the Jewish presence in the Gaza strip and the northern Shomron during the disengagement of 2005. Amrousi noted that Bosinova’s act had no impact whatsoever, yet at the same time, Silman was already being compared in the press with Mohamed Bouazizi, who ignited the Arab Spring by setting himself alight in Tunisia. Yet even Amrousi seems to have forgotten that another person, Baruch Ben- Menachem, committed the same suicidal act a short time after the expulsion from Gaza –also to no avail and without serious media attention. It is then not surprising that Natan Zehavi of FM 103 radio did not even know about these two suicides.

Why the difference in relating to the two sets of suicidal acts? Why is Silman’s suicide considered by many in the media as heroic while that of Bosinova and Ben-Menachem are nonexistent? The Israel Broadcasting Authority’s Oren Nahari, who did note on Channel 1 that the Gush Katif suicide by fire drew far less attention from the media, suggested that the reason was the political purpose of the act. But is he right? Is it only due to the identification of the media with Silman’s cause and their well-documented antipathy to settlers and their supporters that underlies the different coverage? The media is not the sole actor in the public opinion square. One can assume that the many organizations who have gotten behind the demonstrators, such as Rabbis for Human Rights and others supported by the New Israel Fund, were active in providing the journalists with lead stories, background color and so on. Although they too paid lip service to the Jewish ethics that abhor suicide, it would seem they did make good use of the case to further their cause.

This was not the situation with Bosinova and Ben-Menachem. The religious Zionist community has been taught that the end does not justify the means. Its moral makeup forbids it to use the tragedy of others to further its own causes, no matter how just that cause may be. There were no settler organizations or other right-wing organizations that attempted to use these tragic acts to further their cause.

At the end of the day, suicide is suicide is suicide. Too many within the media aided and abetted Silman, albeit after the act.

They are responsible for the fact that others are trying to follow in his footsteps. But the media’s gurus, such as former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, who presides over the Israeli Press Council, did not take the moral high road. Dorner did not call for an urgent meeting of her council to discuss the media ethics in this case and provide moral and ethical guidelines to prevent such coverage in the future. As we have stressed in this column time and again, accountability is a foreign word when it comes to the media.


July 12, 2012

MEDIA COMMENT: Wanted – Public editor

Posted in Media tagged , at 8:48 am by yisraelmedad

Media Comment: Wanted – Public editor


Will Markowitz have the inner strength and moral fortitude needed to deal with some of the pressing ethical issues facing the IBA?

The New York Times is searching for a new public editor, what used to be called an ombudsman.

Dan Gilmour of The Guardian had been asked to be considered and he has published what his ideas were for the job. He is no longer on the short list. He termed his suggestions a “manifesto in the social media era.”

As he noted, the paper’s first public editor, itself a title that sought to distance the paper from the concept of criticism and errors, was to “work outside of the reporting and editing structure of the Times and receive and answer questions or comments from readers and the public.” He was also expected to publish “periodic commentaries in the paper about the Times’s journalistic practices and current journalistic issues in general.”

That was how things were viewed in 2003.

In an piece he wrote earlier this year, Gilmour presented a new approach, predicated on the idea that news organizations should not be afraid of their own shadows and should demonstrate that criticism is welcomed rather than dreading it.

This approach is based on the simple but undeniable fact that today, in the Internet world, with bloggers and online commentators ever present and ever publishing, “the best media criticism of every news organization is being done outside its walls.”

Gilmour’s nigh-revolutionary program includes having the public editor aggregate what he calls “every responsible critique” of the news outlet to be found; thank those who are right and show when critics are wrong; cross-post the best criticism and encourage newsroom staff to participate in debates.

THIS WHOLE discussion was generated by the Arthur Brisbane imbroglio this past January. Brisbane, the Times’ public editor at the time, had asked in a column “whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

Jill Abramson, the paper’s executive editor, was forced to admit that “some facts are legitimately in dispute, and many assertions, especially in the political arena, are open to debate. We have to be careful that fact-checking is fair and impartial, and doesn’t veer into tendentiousness.”

To be fair, the Times, on page two of every day’s edition, carries a correction column, and its online edition constantly appends all corrections to the relevant stories. Nevertheless, as Gilmour observes, the paper buries Brisbane’s work on its website and the reality is that “the editorial staffers wish ombudsmen would just go away.”

His goal, though, is to “be a host and moderator of a civil conversation,” for after all, the media consumers are and actually should be the most important critics.

In Israel, we are light years away from such thinking.

Let us recall that the first ombudsman of the Israel Broadcasting Authority was the late Victor Grayevsky. He was appointed in 1995 but at the time his job had not yet been fully defined nor was his authority clarified. The new ombudsman regulations of the IBA specified that the exact operating procedures were to be formulated by the executive board of the IBA and submitted for ratification to the Knesset Education Committee, which at the time was the overseer of the IBA.

And it is now time to reveal a secret.

In 1996, after the elections, the two of us were invited to a meeting with Grayevsky which he termed completely “off the record.” He handed over to us the draft of the principles formulated by the IBA executive, which were catastrophic.

Essentially, they limited the public’s access to the ombudsman only to those cases in which the complainant felt that the IBA personally acted against her or him. This formulation stood in stark contrast to the principles guiding the work of the ombudsman of the Second Authority for Television and Radio (SATR) where any person could put in a complaint to the ombudsman on any issue.

At SATR, which oversees the commercial radio stations, the public was given the authority to provide some checks and balances to the vast powers of the media. It was unthinkable that at the public broadcasting authority, the public would be so restricted.

When the issue came up for deliberation in the Education Committee, we demanded that the suggested principles be thoroughly changed, making them roughly equal to those of the SATR. Remarkably, and to our pleasant surprise, Prof. Rina Shapira, who at the time was the chairman of the IBA, agreed to these demands and the necessary changes were introduced and adopted.

INDEED, SINCE then, the law, which is still valid today, provides the IBA ombudsman with the power to deal with any complaint, as she or he sees fit. As a result, the IBA truly became a media consumer-oriented organ and the beginnings of a dialogue with the public developed.

With this power, the second ombudsman, Amos Goren, was able, on the basis of the complaints he received, to issue annual reports in which he provided examples of complaints.

He also publicized decisions he took to either dismiss or, in a growing number of cases, to justify complaints.

Due to his criticism, two “stars” of the IBA, Amnon Abramovitch and Gabi Gazit, were, for all intents and purposes, forced to leave the IBA.

Elisha Shpiegelman followed, but no major advances or improvements were recorded. That all three were former employees of the IBA, with friends in the system as well as a pension fund, certainly inhibits the full independence an ombudsman should possess.

The IBA Public Executive Committee has also been lax in refusing to create a scale of punishment, from reprimand to suspension, for example, and has not provided for even a weekly program that would increase the public’s knowledge of the ombudsman’s work. The IBA did not take the necessary steps to invest the ombudsman with a standing with which he could “take on” the high and mighty.

Since last month, the IBA now has a new, fourth ombudsman – Deddi Markowitz, 39. He has a MA in Communications Studies, was a reporter at Ma’ariv for 14 years and moved up to an editor’s position at their local editions’ network.

But he has already been criticized, in leaks to media correspondents, as not having enough television experience – the unfortunate traditional attempts to stifle him by subversive forces from within the IBA.

Will Markowitz have the inner strength and moral fortitude needed to deal with some of the pressing ethical issues facing the IBA? Will he do something about Moshe Negbi’s exclusive role as the IBA’s legal commentator? Will he assure that Geula Even’s personal opinion columns at her new HaMussaf program will be balanced by other, dissenting opinion? Will he attempt to control the unprofessional interviewing habits of Even as well as Oded Shachar, who barely permit their interviewees to finish a sentence? Most important, too, is how will he fare in comparison with the advances being achieved in other countries?

The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).

July 4, 2012

Media Comment: Swiss media ethics

Posted in Media at 10:54 pm by yisraelmedad

Media comment: Swiss Media Ethics


The right of response is arguably one of the most important elements in journalism codes worldwide.

The Swiss Neue Zueriche Zeitung (NZZ) is a major media player in that country and even considered as the “local New York Times.” And it might very well be that it shares much with not only the Times, but with Israel’s Ha’aretz, as well.

A few months ago, the NZZ sent a new correspondent to Israel, Monika Bolliger, and gives her reports ample space. On June 21, she published two articles, one about the Battir village which was hoping for UNESCO status and the second titled “Entrance fees for access to the synagogue.” The subtitle was: “The Palestinian village Susya will shortly be sacrificed to the bulldozers. The residents built their domiciles without a license, this after they were expelled from their original homes.”

Bolliger then proceeds to describe the tragic history of this poor village: “The village is in reality a collection of tents. …At least seventy percent of these will be torn down, among these a tent which serves as a clinic, a small village business center, a kindergarten as well as solar panels – the only source of electricity for the village. In 1986 the villagers of Susya were expelled from their center, this shortly after the [Jewish] settlement of Suseya was established close by. …The residents were expelled from their domiciles without receiving reparations. Having no other place to go to they moved to live on their agricultural areas. Today the synagogue stands as part of a well-kept archeological park, which is accessible only by payment of entrance fees.”

“Susya is in the so-called C-area which is under Israeli military rule. Building licenses must be obtained from the Israeli authorities and are almost always refused. …In 2001 the army destroyed tents, caves, cisterns and fields and killed animals. At the same time, the settlers built outposts. In 2011, around 70 constructs [of the Arabs] were destroyed. The actual implementation of the latest evacuation order was temporarily prevented by the actions of a lawyer employed by the Israeli NGO Rabbis for Human Rights.”

Bolliger contends that “the settlers threaten the security of the Palestinians.” She cites the testimony of a local Arab resident, Samih Nawaja, who claims that shepherds are routinely attacked by settlers while the army stands by and does nothing.

One of us (EP) wrote a letter to Mr. Markus Spillmann, chief editor of the NZZ, pointing out that the article does not give any right of response to anyone on the Israeli side that is attacked in the article.

The testimony of one “Samih Nawaja” is described in detail, but his accusations both against Israeli citizens and the IDF remain unanswered.

The right of response is arguably one of the most important elements in journalism codes worldwide.

The editor was requested to provide a further report which would include the “other side” in this story.

An answer came, quickly enough.

Mr. Martin Woker ably defended the NZZ by pointing out that an Israeli documentary film was cited as a source and that, in any case, there were no “accusations” included, only “facts” which all could be verified and, after all, he claimed the same correspondent also covered the Ulpana neighborhood evacuation with balance.

Notwithstanding his protestations, the story does have another narrative.

Susiya’s struggles with its Arab neighbors have been reported fairly extensively in the Israeli press and should have been available to Bolliger.

The Jewish residents have complained about a campaign of provocation led by various leftist organizations who are particularly active on the Shabbat. Last December, in response, Susiya residents obtained rabbinic permission to video film on Shabbat activity they feel is an immediate security threat.

In an interview last year, at Israel National News, Ofir Avidan, who manages the Jewish community’s agricultural services, claimed that the activists empty the ancient water cisterns in the surrounding fields from which the shepherds of Susiya water their flocks of sheep as part of a deliberate, planned attempt to cause damage. He is quoted saying, “They come with tanks, and pump out the water to the last drop.”

He added, “We had discussions and agreements with the Arabs.

There was co-existence and dialogue, but since the leftist activists entered the picture, everything has changed.” He asserted that aerial photographs from 30 and 40 years ago show that the Susya area was arid desert, in contradiction to Bolliger’s claim that the Arab residents tilled the fields for hundreds of years.

Earlier this month, with the approval of the Israeli Supreme Court, which is highly respected internationally, the Civil Administration handed out demolition orders against 52 buildings. This order resulted from a petition filed by Regavim, an NGO watchdog group for Jewish national property rights, against the massive illegal Arab construction taking place in Susya.

Regavim’s attorney, Amir Fisher, claimed that, as reported by INN, “Palestinians everywhere are building freely without obtaining building permits and yet the Civil Administration ignores this,” and that it was only due to his group’s initiative that lands are being protected.

He added: “They built near Susya, on state land. Not only did the Civil Administration not remove them, they ordered local Jewish farmers to leave the area so as to prevent friction.”

None of this appears in Bolliger’s narrative.

Bolliger writes that “it is told that the husband of the radical leader of the settlers was killed by a terrorist.”

Indeed, Jewish shepherd and farmer Yair Har Sinai was murdered by local Arabs in 2001. As explained below, the murderer’s family returned to the region and, the settlers claim, poses a threat.

As reported in Arutz 7, in April 2011 the commanding officer in the region imposed a closure order around the entire area, allowing Jews to walk about freely only in Susiya proper, thus threatening to turn it into a ghetto. In a confrontation between Brig.-Gen. Hazut and residents of Susya on Shabbat, the commander was accused of failing to relay to his superiors the security implication of the decision. The murderers have become sufficiently emboldened to threaten Susya residents with “another Itamar.”

Rabbi Eliezer Altshuler, the community’s spiritual head, explained that “The murderer’s family had abandoned the area after the murder and this accounted for the relative quiet. The Arab family has a notorious reputation among those who deal with security in the region. Now the IDF hierarchy is letting them return to the places they abandoned. The Jewish community plans to thwart this. These are lands that have not been registered and therefore the Arabs cannot claim title. The Army wants quiet and they don’t care about the Har Sinai family and its rehabilitation.

Little was done when a flock of sheep was recently stolen by the Arabs.”

And so, yes, there are at least two sides to this story, and to many other stories which are poorly handled by the media, such as the Battir village story published in The New York Times last week when Isabel Kershner adopted in toto the Arab narrative with no investigative reporting and regurgitated in the NZZ also by Bolliger.

We would strongly urge all those who are approached by Bolliger and others in the future to be very careful in what they say to her and at the very least provide responses only after obtaining assurances of fair play. The NZZ reading public deserves balanced reports.