'One thing I can't stand is the whininess of the Right," says Makor Rishon writer and radio host Erel Segal to explain his own very different style of self-expression.
Segal, 39, best known on the local scene for his weekly columns in Ma'ariv that ran for nearly a decade, is now adding acting to his other accomplishments, among them sports writing and bass playing in a rock band whose members are all journalists. The setting for his thespian pursuits is not a stage, however, but rather a makeshift studio. And his performances, which involve not Shakespeare or Spielberg, but rather political satire, can be viewed on the Internet. Nothing groundbreaking in that these days, of course. But "Latma" (latma.co.il) is a novelty nevertheless.
This is because the new Hebrew Web site, created by Jerusalem Post senior contributing editor and columnist Caroline Glick to counter what she considers the "egregious leftist slant of news coverage in this country," provides a right-wing critique of the media through the use of comedy. The project was established through funding by the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, where Glick serves as senior fellow for Middle Eastern affairs - from contributions by a number of American philanthropists.
Glick, famous for her hard-hitting, pull-no-punches punditry, hired the more irreverent Segal (who describes himself as "moderate right-wing, religious, secular, then religious again") to translate their shared worldview into satire. She also employed Segal's cousin, Asher (Ushi) Derman, formerly a writer for the popular Channel 2 political satire program Eretz Nehederet, as her own chief writer.
"THE MEDIA here are homogeneous and leave no room for dissent," says Segal. "They are leftist, Ashkenazi, secular, Tel Aviv-centric, who all believe that the sun rises from their backsides, and who all tan themselves in its rays."
Humor, he asserts, "is our weapon" in the culture war. "It's about time the Right stopped recoiling on the one hand, and taking itself and everybody else too seriously, on the other."
Still, he adds, "we are learning to do this as we go along. The real test is whether we're funny enough to make you think or not."
Why the name "Latma"?
Latma means "hit" or "blow" in Arabic. It's catchy and has a nice ring to it.
What's the metaphor?
Like a blow to the head that we're dealing to the media, on the one hand, and on the other hand, we are giving a wake-up slap to the public. And we're doing it through satire.
To what end?
To alter the swing of the pendulum, as a way of balancing out the media, all of which march to the beat of the same leftist drummer. We want people to think critically about the quality of the information they receive. We believe that once that begins to happen, we'll be able to build a new national conversation in this country that is more relevant to what is actually happening here, in the region and throughout the world. And we believe that the best way to get people to think is to first make them laugh.
Normally, satire in this country comes from the Left. There have been very few attempts from the Right. It's time for something new - something that we hope will pave the way for others to follow suit.
You claim that the media here are all enlisted on the Left. Yet, they were made fun of on Eretz Nehederet, for being uniformly enlisted on the side of the government during Operation Cast Lead. How do you explain this?
All that shows is how leftist our satire - as reflected in shows like Eretz Nehederet - is. After all, what were they complaining about? That most of the media sided with Israel in our war against Hamas. Being on your own country's side in time of war - particularly when the war is being waged by a leftist government on the eve of elections - does not exactly make a person a right winger.
Do you think that if Binyamin Netanyahu had been prime minister during the war in Gaza, the media would have behaved differently?
No question about it. A right-wing government would have found it very difficult to conduct that operation with media backing.
What difference does that make? What effect does it really have on the public?
Perception creates reality.
How is it possible, then, that Netanyahu is about to become prime minister? Wouldn't that indicate that the media's influence is actually minor?
No. It is true that the public here is and always has been mainly right wing. But what the public believes and what it feels safe saying are two different things. This is because of where power in this country is concentrated today. When Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977, power was concentrated in the hands of the government. After his election, power shifted to academia and the media. Not recognizing the transition, Begin did not clean out the stables. He left his political opponents in charge of the state-owned media and, hence, in control of the information the public received. All of this is what we are trying to portray and tackle through our Web site. Unfortunately, we live in an age in which people don't have the patience to read lengthy pieces. Everything today is in sound bites. And though this is a shame, it is a situation that could work to our advantage.
Is this why you are doing it on the Web, rather than on TV?
Of course, a TV show would be preferable. But can you envision a situation in which a commercial network would allow for a right-wing satire program? Well, it wouldn't, and not because it's not good enough, though no one would ever admit this.
When I was ousted from Ma'ariv, I wasn't told that it was because I was too right wing. I was told I wasn't good enough. It's a simple system. Still, though the Internet is second best, many great things have begun on the Web.
Aren't you exaggerating about the media's having a uniform, left-leaning agenda? Today, every channel has a religious reporter, and there is always at least one religious/right-wing commentator participating on political panels.
Who are these reporters? Do you hear them express their views? Are they on the level of [Channel 2's] Amnon Abramovitch? No. They are more like tokens, and they are neither as important as the others, nor earn as much money. They hold the status of Jewish court jester. This paradigm was changed in America, with the emergence of talk radio, FOXNews and the conservative blogosphere, which all gave legitimacy to more conservative opinions. Here, there is no such thing.
Not even on the radio where, after all, you host a broadcast?
There is certainly no pluralism on Israel Radio or Army Radio. In local radio, there might be a bit more, but only slightly, and it's not connected to ideology, but rather to commercial concerns.
How does the content of your Web site counter this? How, what and whom do you select to single out for satire?
For example, if [Channel 2 political correspondent] Rina Matzliah starts talking about Bibi's perspiration, we feel that her bodily functions are fair game for farce.
On the site, there is a satirical segment poking fun at Assi Dayan's B'Tipul (In Treatment), in which you play a patient with Tourette's syndrome. What is the point of that item?
To expose the hypocrisy of the Left. The character here repeats all the politically correct mantras, until the Tourette's takes over, and then his real truth emerges in the subtext. This magnifies the attitude of the Left, which is characterized by self-righteousness. They always talk about making peace with everybody, while at the same time, they're not at peace with anybody, least of all themselves.
Who, then, is your target audience?
In principle, everyone, not just residents of, say, outposts. The humor we use is not in the language of rabbis, to put it mildly.
Is it language that might be offensive to the religious public?
I think we keep it within reasonable limits. It's certainly no racier than what's written in the Song of Songs. It's possible that because the Right tends to be conservative, it's harder for it to be irreverent. But for humor, you have to be willing to slaughter sacred cows.
What kind of journalistic sacred cows do you thing need slaughtering?
Army Radio, for example. Why does it still exist? I mean, what's up with that? By the same token, why not have an IDF catering company competing with civilian caterers? It's ridiculous. Why is it the role of the IDF to train journalists? Then there's Israel Radio. It's about time that the Nakdi document, which says there has to be balance between Left and Right, is implemented. [Published as the Guidelines for Coverage of News and Current Affairs in 1995, the doctrine was first introduced in 1972 by the Israel Broadcasting Authority. It is named for its original author, Nakdimon Rogel.]
There's the language, as well, that the media use to describe reality. For instance, terrorists are "activists," and so are Jews who don't want to be thrown out of their homes. There is an equalization of guilty and innocent, in language whose clear purpose is to make it difficult for the public to understand which end is up.
Finally, there are all the pompous media celebrities who believe that just because they have good hair, the public should care what they have to say. We intend to bring them down several dozen notches.
Are all three TV stations equally guilty of the same sort of slant you see?
No. Today, I think that the news on Channel 1 is more professional, more balanced and has a higher standard than that of Channels 2 and 10.
Is that because it is a state-run channel, without the same kind of commercial considerations and competition for ratings that Channels 2 and 10 have to take into account?
I'm not convinced that the public is so left wing that those channels need to compete in that particular way. What is true is that Channel 2 provides a certain level of garbage which the public seems to want. And, if garbage is what the viewers want, that's what they get.
Speaking of which, there is a fight going on between the creators of original productions and the Second Authority for Television and Radio, with the former accusing the latter of not living up to its commitments. Which side of the struggle are you on?
On the one hand, I certainly think there should be original productions. And since there's regulation in this field, let's see it actually work in this case. On the other hand, I am against the current system, based on broadcasting concessions achieved through tenders. This gives the networks a monopoly. I would prefer a system of licensing, according to which you pay an annual license fee and broadcast what you want, within the limits of good taste.
As for creators of original productions, I agree with them in principle, because we absolutely have to have original productions in Hebrew, but here, too, you don't see anybody other than those on the Left making any headway. There are all kinds of talented people on the other side of the political spectrum, like the graduates of the Ma'aleh School of Film and Television, and they have an extremely hard time breaking through the left-wing cultural mind-set. And government funding that is supposed to be but isn't evenly distributed is a breach of my trust and my pocket. I am tired of my taxes going to pay for only far-left productions that tell us that our soldiers are both brutal and gay and that our society is evil. We actually did a gag about this in one of our "news updates" a couple of weeks ago, when they revved up their protests.
As a satirist, what is your view of Eretz Nehederet?
Its satire is high quality, with amazing comedians performing on it. But it's got a cadre of something like 15 writers, and a budget of more than $150,000 for each episode. We at Latma, on the other hand, are a staff of seven, who have to write and perform and research the shows, while scanning all the news outlets in the country and updating the site several times a day. It is a completely different situation.
Obviously, we make the best of what we have. And even without the luxury of being able to develop our talents with half a dozen pilots before we went on the air, we are constantly improving our product. Apparently, we're doing a good job, because we've had thousands of visitors to our site since we launched a month ago, and our viewing numbers are going up about 30 percent a week. All of this has happened through word of mouth. We don't even have an advertising budget.
I have no doubt that the better we get, the more hits we'll get. All of us are very excited about this enterprise. We really feel like guerrilla fighters, going out with just our packs on our backs to wage war against the media empire. It really is a good feeling to be building something new, no matter how modest our means.
And here, I'd like to make one crucial point. We know that we represent the silent majority of Israelis who turn the TV on every night only to find themselves yelling at the screen with annoyance at the nonsense being broadcast. We are here to serve the public, and we hope that now that we are up and running, instead of sitting around and complaining, people will come and visit our site and contribute their thoughts and efforts to make it the type of groundbreaking enterprise we believe it will become.