Alain de Botton, a writer, television presenter and a Fellow of the British Royal Society of Literature and who also happens to be Jewish, has published The News: A User’s Manual. In it, he asserts that news has replaced religion as the prime source of influence on society. The public, he says, is expected to treat it deferentially and comply with its rules without question or hesitation. The media is in the “habit of randomly dipping readers into a brief moment in a lengthy narrative ... while failing to provide any explanation of the wider context,” he writes, – or in short, guilty of unethical manipulatory practices.
John Ryley, head of Sky News, was adamant in refuting these claims. This past week he said that news organizations do not “shape” people’s views, rather the people are being given “the most accurate information impartially, so that they can shape their own views. We are not doing what de Botton accuses us of – trying to ‘craft a new planet’ in the minds of the audience.”
But media consumers are very much the target of shaped news reporting. Since the 1960s, when “New Journalism” took root, the central idea has been that journalists influence readers through the language they employ and how they position themselves in the story. Journalists dramatize their interpretation of events, and drama, in turn, leads to an unequal test for the media consumer: choosing between the truth and the beauty of a narrative. The journalist, like a theater director, frames the presentation using parameters that he or she controls, rather than merely presenting the story as is.
This past week’s kidnapping sadly provided us with some examples of this type of “framing.”
On Friday night, Channel 2’s political correspondent, Rina Mazliach, hosting the weekly round-up program Ulpan Shishi, said, “Netanyahu decided to prefer the freeing of prisoners over a freeze of construction [in Judea and Samaria]. His critics, who don’t want as yet to say this in their own voices but perhaps may state it later, [believe] that if he hadn’t made this decision to free prisoners there wouldn’t have been any motivation to kidnap Israeli civilians to release more.”
Sitting across from her, the channel’s Arab affairs correspondent Ehud Ya’ari expressed amazement, saying, “Are you speaking seriously?” To this Mazliach responded, “I hope you pay serious attention to what I am saying; I demand it. I hope you realize I am quoting Netanyahu’s critics.”
Mazliach was hiding behind anonymous persons, using their supposed statements to literally accuse the prime minister of responsibility for the kidnapping. We, her audience, are kept in the dark. Who are these persons? Is she herself among them? Mazliach could have presented the issue quite differently.
She could have posed the question of whether Netanyahu’s decision to release prisoners instead of halting construction in Judea and Samaria communities could have motivated the kidnapping. That would have been fair.
Even better, she should have quoted the critics by name, giving them due credit but noting at the same time that Israelis have been kidnapped previously without any connection to either a prisoner release or to housing construction.
But no, Mazliach preferred to use anonymous sources to dramatize the issue and accuse the prime minister. Ethics be damned.
A second example of “the frame” was the loud media voices laying the blame for the kidnapping with the three kidnapped boys. Ra’anan Shaked of Yediot Aharonot wrote on his Facebook page that “the heart of every parent in Israel is telling all the same thing: ‘[expletive], those crazies take their children with them to live in the territories.’” To its credit, the mainstream media also attacked extremists who “blame the victim.” Voices were heard asking if these persons also think the way woman dresses can be blamed for her rape. An excellent item was featured on the Walla website. A youngster from Judea and Samaria was invited to explain his view on hitchhiking. He noted that when buses were bombed, murdering hundreds, people continued using them, blaming the terrorists for the carnage.
No one complained that people should either walk, bike or drive. In Judea and Samaria, hitchhiking is the equivalent of using public transportation. If a terrorist kidnapping occurs one should only blame the kidnappers for the atrocity, no one else.
In an op-ed published in Haaretz on June 15, Uri Misgav expressed dark forebodings. He wrote – dramatically – about the media and the left wing retreating into silence as the eighth anniversary of the Second Lebanon War drew near.
“The media,” he wrote, “is giving in to Bibi [Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu] by being his fawning lapdog, the Left is shutting up, the government is acting as its own publicist, insanely, so as to disguise its ministerial and strategic responsibility.”
Drama, did we say? This appears to be mere histrionics.
Ben Caspit, two days later in Ma’ariv, took it further, writing of Netanyahu’s “success in harnessing the kidnapping/ terror attack to detour the media’s attention from the unending scandals of his and his wife’s behavior, from the garden furniture removed from Jerusalem to Caesarea, etc.”
The two assumptions in that assertion, namely that the prime minister is actually cynically manipulating a tragic incident to his own personal ends, and that his and his wife’s actions – in this case a supposed theft of government property by Sarah Netanyahu – is a proven crime and not simply an accusation, are not only disconnected from the main story but lack all factual basis. Even opinion pieces should be based on fact.
Three youths have been taken from their families; their lives are in danger. We call upon the media to stop framing this story, and to just present the facts as they are. The families, who are suffering from the terrible uncertainty, need support, not “frames.”
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).