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The media and the election campaign
By YISRAEL MEDAD AND ELI POLLAK
01/30/2013
Now that the election is over, one can look back at what role the media played.
 
The recent elections have, once again, provided ample evidence that Israel’s media, much too often, slides into the role of managing rather than reporting the news.

On November 4, two-and-a half months before election day, an article was published which noted that the public opinion poll business was essentially an industry with “no trace of professional ethics, no standard for determining who can be included, [working in] wild competition, obedient to only the blind, hungry media.” The author further pointed out “that most journalists and commentators are aware of the limitations of surveys, their errors and failings, but ignore them.”

The author, Prof. Gaby Weimann from the department of communication at the University of Haifa, was even more critical of the journalists and editors who used the election polls to provide a sense of entertainment and sensationalism; they were just “wild speculation and false interpretations” and thus bordered on “toxic and dangerous,” he wrote.

A few days later, Israel HaYom conducted a roundtable discussion on the subject in its November 9 edition with Dr.

Mina Tzemach, Prof. Camil Fuchs, Prof. Gabriel Weimann, Prof. Yitzhak Katz and Prof. Avi Diskin. The theme was, “Do surveys only predict election results, or perhaps determine them by affecting the way we vote?” Weimann stated that “paradoxically, surveys change the reality they purport to reflect [and] often move voters from party to party.”

Katz, director of the Ma’agar Mohot Institute, was adamant that “there is a very high correlation between the responses of the public opinion polls and actual voting,” although he added that certain sectors, such as the ultra-Orthodox or Arabs, are more difficult to survey as they tend to vote en masse, or clannishly.

Polls, however, were but one media failing.

FIRST AND foremost the media should provide information.

Take, for example, Yossi Verter, writing in Haaretz: “Everyone who’s been living here in recent years knows Yediot Aharonot’s war against [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu is [owner Noni] Mozes’s war against billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his newspaper, the organ of the prime minister, Israel Today... I wonder Yediot graduate Yair Lapid’s...attitude will be when the bill to limit the activities of newspapers comes up during the 19th Knesset.”

This appeared three days after the elections. Why didn’t it appear before the elections? Shouldn’t the public be made aware in advance of the possible implications of their votes? Was it not the responsibility of the media to highlight the possible future conflict of interest? In The Marker, on January 24 – again, after the elections – Shuki Sadeh wrote a highly informative article about Yair Lapid and his connections. Billionaire Arnon Milchan, one of the owners of Channel 10, is one of his close friends and supporters. Lapid retained his ties with Udi Angel, a shareholder of one of Channel 2’s concessionaires, Reshet. Lapid’s political consultant is Uri Shani, formerly Ariel Sharon’s bureau chief. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert maintains warm ties with Lapid’s family to this day.

Lapid is also close to Yediot’s publisher/owner Mozes, who nearly three weeks prior to the elections held a sumptuous farewell party for Lapid at the Crowne Plaza hotel. Why wasn’t the public informed of this prior to Election Day? ANOTHER EXAMPLE of an “ordinary” omission was Rina Matzliah’s admission on Radio 103FM on January 24 that she refused to cover the New Land list of Eldad Yaniv. While we are not fans of Eldad Yaniv, it is still outrageous that a senior political correspondent and commentator uses her power to prevent a legitimate political party from presenting its agenda to the public.

On Aviad Kissos’ Radio 99 show that same day we heard a guest being allowed to say that incoming MK Orit Struck would “dip a rifle barrel cleaning cloth into Netanyahu’s blood and feed it to Palestinian children.”

While this happened after election day, it is illustrative of the level of prejudice the media elite can possess – and broadcast.

On January 9, during the election campaign, Channel 2 anchor Yonit Levy referred to the Strong Israel party list as “extremist.” Meretz and Balad are also extremist, but were not described as such by her. A report on Army Radio in December 28 also had the term “extremist” describing Strong Israel but not Balad, the party of MK Haneen Zoabi of Mavi Marmara fame.

This type of media bias was further exemplified by senior commentator Emmanuel Rosen, who on November 26 referred several times to the Likud “fascists” on the Economic Light Channel 10 show.

IN A piece for the Seventh Eye internet magazine published by the Israel Democracy Institute, Avmer Hofstein noted that Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister was remarkable for its almost total lack of regular ongoing press contacts.

Netanyahu did not have a “court journalist” following his actions. His press conferences prohibited questioning and the few to which he agreed were initiated by him for his own purposes. Did the media express its frustration? Hofstein said the bottom line was that the manipulation of the media by Netanyahu and the media’s willingness to accept this type of senior governmental media manipulation prevented the public from receiving the kind of informed information it would expect from a professionally motivated media. The media was blindsiding the public.

Hofstein suggested that journalists should be more mature, more respectful of the prime minister, criticizing in proportion and with a lot less sensationalism.

This way, he argued, the media might get more concrete information and reliable insight into the workings of the office of the prime minister, to the benefit of us all.

We respectfully disagree. The prime minister is a public servant, accountable to the public, and it is the media’s job to make sure that the public gets the relevant information in a timely manner. The media’s inaction during the election campaign, its inability to impose an election debate on the party leaders, demonstrates a profound failure.

The ongoing fight between Israel HaYom and Yediot Aharonot, with the former supporting the prime minister and the latter doing everything possible to prevent his reelection, even to the extent of aiding the Bayit Yehudi party, contributed very little to the quality of the election campaign.

Instead of providing facts, the media in its shallow ways concentrated on providing headlines, which were more often cheap than accurate.

But let us end with an optimistic note. When comparing the present election campaign to past ones, such as the 1996 runoff between Shimon Peres and Netanyahu, we can assuredly say that media pluralism has led to a campaign which was much more varied and fair.

Who knows, maybe next time the media will even contribute quality to our democratic process?

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