Writing in the November 7 Guardian, Dan Gillmor had this opinion of the recent
US presidential election: “America’s top journalists have pretty much gotten out
of [the] business [of holding candidates to account]... I’ve never seen a worse
performance in a major political campaign. On issue after issue – again, with
some important exceptions, many in the alternative or new media – the press
simply couldn’t be bothered to do its job.”
He was especially critical of
“Big Journalism’s tendency to suck up to power, not confront it.” His dislike
for Mitt Romney and the Republican Party was more than apparent, nevertheless,
he also noted that “Obama has largely been given a pass by news organizations on
his own worst deeds.”
For him, journalism’s “decline overall is simply
too stark to deny.”
Observers more attuned to foreign policy issues saw
the coverage of the Benghazi attack and Obama’s refusal to term it terror as an
instance, to quote one critic, when the media “suppressed evidence in order to
help a Democratic president. Simply shameful, as was the media’s disregard of
any scandal or story that could have jeopardized the Obama
An uncritical press combined with media personnel prejudiced
against one candidate can be deeply affect the chances of a candidate to get
elected. We only need recall Barack Obama, referring to the love the press
expressed for him, joking at the October 2009 White House correspondents’
dinner, “Most of you covered me. All of you voted for me.”
Israel, we have entered our own election period and already foibles and
insidious behavior are observed, a situation that demands close monitoring as
well as vigorous civic action to call this behavior to account and stop
There are academic papers claiming that voter decision-making during
election campaigns is not significantly affected by the media.
themselves on the assumption that especially during the campaign period,
information abounds. Voters are able to update their thinking sufficiently
frequently during the campaign period so as to make decisions which are largely
independent of one bias or another. But academia aside – and as we all know,
especially in the social sciences it is very difficult to “prove” such
assertions – the fact remains that every candidate is always interested in
favorable and broad media coverage.
There isn’t one media adviser who
suggests to his boss that the media may be ignored. We certainly know that the
media has the ability to set an agenda. This sets a baseline for the voter who
may then evaluate politicians based on how they dealt with the issue. The fact
that one day after the elections the agenda turns out to be meaningless is
irrelevant, setting the agenda has done its electoral job.
such situations from developing, reporters have a duty to be “careful not to get
co-opted,” as America’s National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor once
A clear example of agenda setting issues is polls. Professor
Amiram Goldblum, a radical left-wing activist, initiated a biased poll to show
that Israelis are proapartheid.
Haaretz and fellow extremist Gideon Levy
publicized this broadly. It was immediately picked up worldwide. The fact that a
few days later, all involved were forced to admit that the conclusions drawn
from the poll were in fact baseless and false could not undo the damage. Israel
was falsely colored as a racist, apartheid state, backed by supposed “evidence”
from an Israeli newspaper.
Perhaps with this in mind, public opinion
pollsters were warned by the Knesset’s Central Election Commission to follow
legislated guidelines or face punishment, in some cases of up to six months in
jail or a fine of up to NIS 29,000.
Poll results must be communicated to
the Committee with detailed information on who commissioned the poll, how it was
conducted and how the results were analyzed. Two days before election day,
public opinion polls are no longer allowed to be published at all. It is a fact,
that pollsters, like any normal human being, do not like to be the bearers of
A poll commissioned by Meretz to see whether it passes the
minimum quota needed to be elected might lead to conclusions which are quite
different from one commissioned by an extreme right-wing party. People
considering voting for small parties are affected by such results, as certainly
some of them do not want to see their vote wasted.
Not less important are
the various appearances and interviews given to candidates. For example, Eldad
Yaniv, who heads a new party called “A New Country,” was given a prime-time
seven-minute interview on Channel 2 News, on November 5.
Seven minutes on
TV is the length of time allotted by law by the Central Elections Committee to
any new party. The interview was not a “tough” one. Questions dealing with Mr.
Yaniv’s political failures in the past (he was a strong supporter of the
disengagement from Gaza) were just not tabled.
His not exactly successful
efforts to create a new national left-wing agenda, including the publication of
a radical manifesto with controversial and some would say defeatist content,
His financial links and related heavy involvement with the
recent social protest campaign were not investigated nor discussed.
was allowed to come across as a penitent or a Robin Hood, with interviewer Tzion
Nanus’s virtual wide-eyed identification.
One could characterize the
interview as flattering of, if not fawning on, Mr. Yaniv. No other politician,
so far, from across the spectrum, has received such gracious
As is obvious from the election campaign in the US, political
debates are not only captivating, but impress the voter. President Obama could
not afford to refuse presidential debates. Candidate Netanyahu, in the previous
election, did not enter any public debate. Will the press allow Netanyahu to get
away with this? Doesn’t the voter deserve to be able to judge directly the
values and performance of the various candidates from the candidates themselves
rather than being filtered through political commercials?
The Internet, the
truly free media communications network, plays an ever-increasing role in our
life and certainly when it comes to election campaigns. The social media
outlets, from Facebook to Twitter and beyond, are a whole new world. Yet the
mainstream media still dominates our sources of information. It is not enough to
say that the media should provide us with a fair campaign.
We, as citizens,
should do all that we can to impress upon the media that it must be fair and, if
not, that we will punish media outlets who do not obey the accepted ethical
guidelines. This is, at the end of the day, to assure not only their
accountability but more importantly, to protect our democratic
The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of
Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).