olmert at cabinet 298 Ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
In an interview two weeks ago with Yediot Aharonot's Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was asked about recent revelations of alleged corruption. "There was a report on me in Ha'aretz," answered Olmert, "I'll quote what one of the heads of the paper told me: 'The [Jerusalem weekly] Kol Ha'ir gang is riding again. For years they tried to eliminate me without success. Now they've returned to old copies of Kol Ha'ir and quoted themselves. It's beneath me to respond."
In this short response, Olmert encapsulated his attitude to the press. On the one hand, he's connected to senior newspaper people - and his saying so is aimed both at impressing us and at intimidating junior reporters. On the other hand, he delegitimizes journalists who write critically of him - referring to them as a "gang" and accusing them of trying to "eliminate" him - and diminishes their professionalism by painting a picture of a bunch of local reporters recycling press cuttings.
He proclaims that it's "beneath" him "to respond" to their claims, but clearly he's deeply disturbed by their existence. The fact that the author of the lengthy Ha'aretz feature had indeed been a reporter for Kol Ha'ir supplies him with ammunition.
For years, Olmert has dealt with the press by making close contact with a small group of writers and editors, some of whom become his friends. Then he supplies them with exclusive information, sometimes even making inquiries for them. What he received in return was the kind of coverage that propelled him onto center-stage, long before he was a minister or mayor of Jerusalem.
The most well-known among these friends is Ma'ariv columnist Dan Margalit, who describes in his autobiography how the young MK and the young reporter pursued corrupt politicians together.
The rest of the journalists - those who criticize or uncover embarrassing details - get the opposite treatment. Personal slurs against them like "vampires," "criminals" and, if on the Left, "anti-Zionists" and collaborators with terror organizations, have been the norm. As was taking them to court for libel when he thought he could win.
It would seem that Olmert's tactic has been a success. He's now acting prime minister and after Tuesday, it's probably going to be a permanent position. Yet his answer to Barnea and Shiffer proves that he's still convinced that within the media there is mafia intent on destroying him.
AT THIS point, I have to declare my personal interest in this subject. For six years I was a member of the Kol Ha'ir "gang."
During Olmert's two terms as mayor of Jerusalem, there was open warfare between him and the largest and most influential local paper. The root of it was ideological. Most of the writers and editors on the paper belonged to the secular Left and saw the alliance between the Likudnik Olmert and the haredi parties as a severe threat.
In addition, the paper had a professional outlook according to which journalism constitutes a relentless critique of the powers-that-be. Olmert returned fire with every possible means - vilification, libel suits, no cooperation from the City Hall spokesperson and, at one stage, an embargo on municipal advertising in the paper, a step that caused deep financial damage.
Our spearhead in the battle was municipal correspondent Eyal Hareuveni, who used his encyclopedic knowledge of City Hall's departments to reveal embarrassing information on the mayor and his associates. During Olmert's second term - when he took much less interest in the affairs of Jerusalem and much more in those of the Big Apple - Hareuveni began an "Olmert in the sky" column in which he kept the tally of days the mayor spent overseas. We knew this drove Olmert mad, because once his spokesman called to say we got the numbers wrong.
The battle very quickly became personal, and all the reporters on the paper took part in it, even those like me who had actually voted for him. My first front-page piece in the paper was on a crazy scheme by Olmert to raise billions in municipal bonds, with the help of a shady businessman, one of his donors. But what was unforgivable was the editorial I wrote in the special issue that we brought out following the Versailles banquet hall disaster in May 200, in which 23 guests were killed.
I wrote that the man at the head of the system charged with safety of buildings in the city should take responsibility and resign. Ever since then, every time he and I met, or whenever my name was even mentioned in his presence, Olmert blamed me for accusing him of murder.
When I began writing for The Jerusalem Post - by which time Olmert had become industry and trade minister - a critical piece appeared about him in the business pages. Olmert then phoned one of the editors to say, "I know why you ran the story. It's because Anshel Pfeffer works for you now."
In response, I had "emissaries" try and arrange a cease-fire between us. But Olmert's answer was, "That man accused me of murder; I won't ever forgive him."
LOOKING BACK at my days at Kol Ha'ir, despite not regretting anything I wrote or edited on Olmert, I think that as a paper we were swept - not only through our fault alone - into a personal crusade against the man that distracted attention from the real facts we uncovered.
I'm waxing nostalgic because over the last two and a half months Olmert has been our unexpected prime minister, and it seems that he's going to be just that for a few more years now. So it's important to understand not only his views on security and the economy, but also his attitude toward a free press.
During the first few weeks after Ariel Sharon's stroke, we seemed to be getting a glimpse of a new Olmert: a quiet, reserved, respectable one. Sharon's spin-doctors had tried to rebuild his image. Reuven Adler even said cynically, "This is the real Olmert."
At Olmert's first major appearance at the Herzliya Conference, one of his aides who had always cut off my telephone calls came up to me with a smile and asked me how I was. I didn't buy the smile, but I allowed myself to wonder whether the job would change the man, or at least his public behavior.
Now that part of the press has taken off the kid gloves, and the flames of criticism are a little higher, Olmert's reactions prove that he hasn't changed that much. In regard to the media, it's the same Olmert. In his five years in office, Sharon gave few interviews and conducted only a handful of short press conferences, preferring friendly briefings with select reporters. This was a great policy for Sharon, but less of one for the media.
Olmert tried to do the same for his first few weeks as acting prime minister, but he couldn't help himself. He has refused to debate his opponents, but he's giving interviews again, and his feisty appearances and arrogance toward the press is returning.
As a whole, the media has been sleepwalking through these elections. It's time for a wake-up call for journalists. Olmert is now the "mayor" of the whole country, and he would like to treat the national press the way he did the local papers in Jerusalem. It's up to us to decide what the tone of the coverage is going to be, and what kind of information the nation will be receiving over the next few years.