October 25, 2012

MEDIA COMMENT: God in the newsroom

Posted in Media at 1:24 pm by yisraelmedad

God in the newsroom


There still remain too many impediments for an ethical and fair representation of religious issues in the media

One of the most contentious issues in Israel’s public arena, perhaps one of the most divisive as well, is the role religion plays in the country’s political, social, cultural and economic life. The methods the media acts as an agent for news about people who are religiously observant, who are adamantly secular or who find personal comfort in a relaxed middle-of-the-way reality are varied.

The most important positive development in this sphere has been the increasing presence of religiously observant journalists in the mainstream media outlets with the parallel increase of the willingness of central media icons to acknowledge the value of religious social, economic and political contributions.

On the downside, there still remain too many impediments for an ethical and fair representation of religious issues. A major stumbling block is that secularists view religious people not only as a simple “other” but as a personal and collective threat to their way of life. In stark contrast, starving or “below-the-poverty-line” children, Holocaust survivors’ economic plight or health-related themes are dealt with factually since they usually don’t personally affect the media personnel.

It is true that former icons of secularism including performers, singers and just plain sons and daughters of famous secularists, for example Didi Manusi’s son or Channel 2’s Noa Yaron-Dayan, who have become “returnees” to Judaism are relatively tolerated and even admired. However, this is not true regarding religion itself. Nor in regard to religious parties or religious deferments from military service. Breslav is the preferred hassidic sect, not Chabad. And Shas is the media-advantaged religious party, not United Torah Judaism.

A recently published academic book takes on the task of investigating, researching and discussing this topic. Dr. Yoel Cohen, a faculty member and former chair of the Communications Department at Ariel University Center and previously of the Lipschitz and Netanya Academic Colleges, comes well prepared to dissect this crucial media issue. He has previously published Media Diplomacy – The Foreign Office in the Mass Communications Age as well as Whistle-blowers and the Bomb: Vanunu, Israel and Nuclear Secrecy. His new book, Routledge’s God, Jews and the Media: Religion and Israel’s Media, deals with many of the topics that cause trepidation and anxiety in the media world.

The book deals with some heavy questions: Is there a different set of media values for religious issues? How much ideology and personal prejudice is permitted in the news room and editorial offices? Does covering religious news demand expertise in the subject matter? The deep ignorance displayed by major news purveyors is exemplified by something noticed by Gonen Ginat, currently at Israel HaYom and formerly the editor of HaTzofe and a Ma’ariv news editor. In a lecture on the media’s difficulty in dealing with religious news, he retells the story of how one year Yediot Aharonot, on the eve of the first day of Succot, ran a large picture of Bnei Brak residents walking through the streets carrying their lulavs and etrogs. It just so happened that that year the first day of Succot was on Shabbat, when the waving of the lulav is prohibited. Evidently, the photo editor had used a picture from the previous year to illustrate the story without paying any attention. Close, but no cigar, one could say.

Cohen does not shy away from themes of kosher advertising, the marketing of the rabbi and the news-based dependency between Israel and the Diaspora. He describes the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) struggles with the Internet and modern digital technologies. The separation of the ultra-Orthodox community from wider society is also reflected in its own media. Notably, the media presence of women is at best constrained, or more likely not there at all.

In this column, we have highlighted the special instance of a state-sponsored radio station, Kol B’Rama, which, for example, did broadcast cooking recipes, but denied women the right to be interviewed even on the subjects for which they were the news.

In haredi newspapers and magazines, women can be Photoshopped out of pictures, such as happened to Hillary Clinton. Female editorial staff will only have the first letter of their names appear.

Cohen, an observant Jew, notes that communication is a central aspect of Judaism. God talking, announcing, instructing whether in his own voice or through prophets (the ancient form of the broadcaster, perhaps) runs throughout the Bible.

The prohibition of libel or, more properly, scandal-mongering, literally “evil speech,” is well treated in rabbinic literature. Theoretically, there exists an ethics code for Jewish media, but has the religious leadership succeeded in adapting those paradigms to modern needs? Even more pertinent, and even disappointing, are the less-than-ethical media wars within the religious camps, from the pashkevilim, or wall posters, to pamphlets and newspapers.

ONE THEME which we found to be lacking in his treatise is reference to religious media review organizations that provide an address for complaints or review of media ethical failures. For example, the Manof group was formed and acted successfully for quite some years in its campaigns to decry the blatant and often cruel discrimination against the haredi population. Unfortunately, it is no longer active.

The Tadmit Center for Strengthening Democracy in the Israeli Media also is a significant religiously-oriented critic, whose work is well worth analyzing. The Arutz 7 news organization is a very successful religious media-oriented group which has played a significant role in establishing the media’s attitude toward the religious population.

Senior members of Israel’s Media Watch have broadcasted a weekly media critique program for over six years at the station.

The University of Colorado’s Center for Media, Religion and Culture notes that “Religion is a dominant force in the 21st century. It is no longer only a private matter, or only about institutions and doctrines. It is changing in ways that have implications for politics, the economy, and for social and cultural life, nationally and globally. Understanding of religion among various ‘publics’ has lagged behind.”

Just over a decade ago a volume of essays by such influential thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Talal Asad and James Siegel addressed the complex relationship between religion and media. It included case studies on Indonesia, India, Japan, South Africa, Venezuela, Iran, Poland, Turkey, Germany, and Australia, but not Israel. Cohen’s book is a welcome contribution to our understanding of the subject in our own country.


October 18, 2012

MEDIA COMMENT: The media’s role during elections

Posted in Media at 12:24 pm by yisraelmedad

Media Comment: The media’s role during elections


A system is not in place that would properly protect the media consumer from the persuasive potency of the media’s power.

‘The public’s trust in government… is broken down by the media itself and the… people [are] clearly seeing a left-of-center bias in the media and an inability to relate to or seem to even care about the concerns of people…. The press, for once, has to do its job, but even now seemingly wishes to drag its feet. ‘We can get him after he wins,’ many of them seem to be muttering.”

No, that was not the opinion of an Israeli media critic reflecting on the way Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been treated by the press. Those were the words of American conservative blogger, Erick Erickson, at the Red State site this past week, analyzing the preferential treatment President Barack Obama benefits from over his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.

Erickson’s conclusion is that “the public does not trust what the media reports. The public does not trust that the media relates to them or their values. The public does not trust that the press is not a collaborator with the political class… but the political press would rather ridicule the skeptical news consumers than explain what’s going on.”

Elections are now upon us in Israel, scheduled for late January. Is there anything else we here can learn or be alert to from the debates over media objectivity and fairness in America? On September 21, at the American Accuracy in the Media conference, Pat Caddell, a former Democratic pollster, said, “We’re at the most dangerous time in our political history in terms of the balance of power in the role that the media plays in whether or not we maintain a free democracy.”

He also referred to the recent murder of four Americans including an ambassador, and the media portrayal of the tragic event.

Initially, the US administration would not admit that this was a “successful” terrorist attack. Caddell severely criticized the media, saying, “It is another thing to specifically decide that you will not tell the American people information they have a right to know…. The press’s job is to stand on the ramparts and protect the liberty and freedom of all of us from a government and from organized governmental power.

When they desert [and] decide that they will now become active participants… this is the danger… they have, then, made themselves a fundamental threat to the democracy.”

As for this country’s performance on issues that are important rather than just entertaining, “Israel’s media watchdog is snoring” claims Haaretz’s Guy Rolnik, who further notes that “journalists are great at pointing out what everyone else should repent for. The truth is we journalists should spend the entire year repenting for our shoddy content, which is never thorough or gripping enough.”

Has rot set in? We don’t think so. But we are very anxious that a system is not in place that would properly protect the media consumer from the persuasive potency of the media’s power, especially during the critical period of elections.

Moreover, our experience with the various laws that in the past governed media coverage during elections has been that they have been eroded under the pressure of a press that claims they are professional and do not need the heavy hand of the law to supervise them during the election campaign.

The irresponsible approach of near-total freedom from any laws and regulations has as of now the upper hand. In the past, our reports, based on meticulous and comprehensive review, including radio and television and selected newspapers, have shown that media personnel on multiple levels practiced stage management rather than news reporting or analysis.

Already, we are beginning to see and hear the first signs of this unethical behavior.

Studies have identified three major forms of media bias that can uniquely affect election news stories. The first is “gatekeeping,” whereby editors select the stories that favor their preferred candidate or party. Coverage bias is the second type. This is mainly quantitative, i.e., how much air time or how many newspaper column inches are devoted to this or that party. The third and rather pernicious form, favored in Israel, is statement bias, namely interviewers or presenters interjecting their own opinions.

To make matters even worse, the ethics committee of the Israel Broadcasting Authority has just this week publicized their suggestion for even deeper liberties for the public media, including the voicing of personal opinion not only within the context of commentary but even within the context of hard news reports.

The committee, chaired by Dr. Bilha Cahana, did not see fit to warn the IBA employees that especially during election time, they should not make their personal opinions known. The IBA, being the lead public broadcaster thus sets a bad example for the others – the army radio station, educational TV and Channel 2 and Channel 10 news.

In fact, the onset of elections should have led the leadership of the public broadcasters and authorities to band together and publicize a paper calling upon all media organizations to limit their involvement and ensure that the elections are perceived by the public to be fair.

Charles Simic, a Serbian-American poet, concerned with what he perceived as the phenomenon of mass ignorance in the 21st century, observed that “an educated, wellinformed population, the kind that a functioning democracy requires, would be difficult to lie to, and could not be led by the nose…. It took years of indifference and stupidity to make us as ignorant as we are today…

[But], there’s another more pernicious kind of ignorance we confront today. It is the product of years of ideological and political polarization and the deliberate effort by the most fanatical and intolerant parties in that conflict to manufacture more ignorance by lying about many aspects of our history and even our recent past.”

We in Israel have also witnessed this development over the past two decades in our own society and educational and cultural institutions. In order to maintain true democracy, our minds must be fed by news, analysis and public, free discussion. Without this, democracy is threatened and a culprit in this crime against democracy is an unethical and biased media.

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


October 10, 2012

MEDIA COMMENT: Ups, downs of Temple Mount reporting

Posted in Media at 11:40 pm by yisraelmedad

Media comment: Ups, downs of Temple Mount reporting


When events, especially violent ones, transpire, the press should be there.

When events, especially violent ones, transpire, the press should be there. All the more so when the site where these events happen is a known flashpoint affecting Israel-Arab peace. What happened, how it happened and why are of sufficient importance to necessitate that media consumers be informed. In-depth articles and interviews are to be expected. Coverage should be appropriate to the importance of the event and, of course, the possible ramifications of the story on each the society’s political, economic or cultural life should be discussed.

During this past Succot, Jews were arrested or detained, as were Arabs. The Jews were detained for either praying, attempting to pray or being presumed guilty of praying on the Temple Mount. The Arabs were arrested for trying to prevent those Jews from doing so. And last Friday, police entered the Temple Mount compound to forcefully disperse rioting, rock-throwing Arabs.

Following up on our previous observations on media behavior regarding the Temple Mount in these pages on August 16, one may ask: has the media’s performance in this regard improved, deteriorated or remained the same (i.e. apathetic and disinterested)? The week’s events could have been straightforwardly reported as Jews being prevented from exercising their human rights as legally sanctioned by the Law of the Protection of Holy Places, 1967, which reads: “Whosoever desecrates or otherwise violates a Holy Place shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of seven years; Whosoever does anything likely to violate the freedom of access of the members of the different religions to the places sacred to them or their feelings with regard to those places shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of five years.”

According to the law, in this case the Arab rioters should receive stiff jail sentences, while the police’s job was to ensure that the rights of Jews to visit and pray on the Mount were protected.

A New York Times report provides a basis for comparison with the Israeli media – as well as insight into media bias.

They published a story on October 6 entitled, “New Clashes at Site in Jerusalem Holy to Both Muslims and Jews.” While the arrest of Jews, among them politician Moshe Feiglin, is duly noted, a most interesting item is missing, namely that Judge Malka Aviv expressed her personal opinion regarding prayer on and access to the Temple Mount, writing, “There is room to allow for Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount,” adding that “the [police] explanation that Muslims don’t approve of Jews praying on the Temple Mount cannot, in and of itself, prevent Jews from fulfilling their religious obligations and praying on the Temple Mount.”

Interesting? How about remarkable and very newsworthy.

Their long-term significance could be extremely great. But they were not reported. The Israeli media, on the other hand, did provide its consumers with the content of Judge Aviv’s decision.

The New York Times did, however, include two elements that jarred. According to its story, “religious Jews revere the site.” Is the implication here that secular Jews do not revere it? Do any Jews deny that the two Temples ever existed? Secondly, the story asserts that “the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, was set off in 2000 by a visit to the site by Ariel Sharon,” thus repeating a stock calumny. Not only was the first Israeli casualty of the intifada, 19-yearold Sgt. David Biri, killed in a bombing near Netzarim the previous day, but it is well documented that the violence was Arab-initiated, the visit but an excuse.

The Temple Mount story as reported in the Israeli media, for the most part, was lacking in perspective. Why were there no reports on the increasing level of Muslim fabrications concerning the Jewish presence on the Mount? These have included chemical attacks on al- Aqsa’s foundations, underground excavations, falling trees due to Jews, incitement and threats of violence. The Palestinian Temple Denial campaign is in full swing.

Yet the campaign of incitement intended to deny Jews rights while mobilizing violence is somehow “understood” and “accepted” by the press. Israeli Arab leaders were not called upon to condemn the Arab violence.

The leaders of B’tselem, the citizen rights movement, and the Israeli Democracy Institute were not asked what their position is on this fundamental violation of Jewish human rights.

On the other hand, a demonstration of less than 30 people and the exhortations of extremist Meretz MK Nitzan Horovitz against the date of change of daylight savings time received major headlines, opened the radio news the following morning and led to long discussions on talk shows.

What is more important, DST or the implications of Jewish-Arab confrontation and violations of human rights on the Temple Mount? But the picture is not all bleak. Weeks of preparation led to the publication in Haaretz of a profile on Jews who ascend to the Temple Mount. Shany Litman’s magazinelength story, “mounting tension,” was fair. It followed those who actively seek the rebuilding of the Temple, with a special angle on women, even secular women, who are involved. They were given a voice without heavy editorial intercession.

The readers could judge for themselves whether these activists were extremists or no worse – or perhaps even better than – other groups of social activists. The story provided its readers with new insight, which is, after all, what a newspaper or other news outlet is supposed to do. It even led to an interview of Litman on Channel 2’s morning television program, in which she recounted her experiences with the group, which mostly were positive.

Due credit should be given in this case to Haaretz, which made the effort and sent their correspondent to the scene to gain first-hand knowledge of what is really happening on the Temple Mount.

In comparison, the Galatz army radio station mostly mouthed the press releases of the police, without publicizing at the same time the press releases of the Jews wanting to enter the Mount.

Another piece, by Kalman Liebskind in Ma’ariv, “The Temple Mount in Their Hands,” based on documentary research, revealed the apparently negligent aspect of police behavior in the courtrooms. According to Liebskind, police prosecutors regularly rely on a government decision, No. 761 from 1967, when informing judges that prayer is not permitted. However, government minutes indicate that this was a one-time decision, directed at the intention of the late IDF chief rabbi Shlomo Goren to conduct services with a proper quorum on Tisha Be’av that summer, with ministers explicitly saying at the time it should not be considered a permanent condition.

In addition to these we note that the right-wing media, such as Israel National News (also known as Arutz 7), the daily Makor Rishon, the News 1 website and the Galei Yisrael radio station did give the Temple Mount issue ample space and in-depth coverage.

The bottom line then is that yes, the coverage has somewhat improved. However, it has not reached the attention level of other issues whose import is certainly not greater, such as disgusting “price tag” graffiti on churches and mosques.

The true missing element is, as usual, in-depth attempts to cover the events, rather than just repeating police statements. Haaretz understood how important it is to send a reporter to check events on the spot. Channel 2 provided a one-on-one interview. One would hope that the issue of Jews on the Temple Mount calms down, but if not, the least the media should do is be there on the spot to know what is really happening and provide the public with the in-depth coverage it needs and deserves.