‘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.

Click for full JPost coverage

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).

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger