‘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
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
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
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
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
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).